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19 Virginia Woolf, “A Room of One’s Own” (1928/1929)

A ROOM OF ONES OWN

[* This essay is based upon two papers read to the Arts Society at
Newnharn and the Odtaa at Girton in October 1928. The papers were too
long to be read in full, and have since been altered and expanded.]

 

ONE

 

But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction–what,
has that got to do with a room of one’s own? I will try to explain. When
you asked me to speak about women and fiction I sat down on the banks of
a river and began to wonder what the words meant. They might mean simply
a few remarks about Fanny Burney; a few more about Jane Austen; a
tribute to the Brontës and a sketch of Haworth Parsonage under snow;
some witticisms if possible about Miss Mitford; a respectful allusion to
George Eliot; a reference to Mrs Gaskell and one would have done. But at
second sight the words seemed not so simple. The title women and fiction
might mean, and you may have meant it to mean, women and what they are
like, or it might mean women and the fiction that they write; or it
might mean women and the fiction that is written about them, or it might
mean that somehow all three are inextricably mixed together and you want
me to consider them in that light. But when I began to consider the
subject in this last way, which seemed the most interesting, I soon saw
that it had one fatal drawback. I should never be able to come to a
conclusion. I should never be able to fulfil what is, I understand, the
first duty of a lecturer to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget
of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on
the mantelpiece for ever. All I could do was to offer you an opinion
upon one minor point–a woman must have money and a room of her own if
she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great
problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction
unsolved. I have shirked the duty of coming to a conclusion upon these
two questions–women and fiction remain, so far as I am concerned,
unsolved problems. But in order to make some amends I am going to do
what I can to show you how I arrived at this opinion about the room and
the money. I am going to develop in your presence as fully and freely as
I can the train of thought which led me to think this. Perhaps if I lay
bare the ideas, the prejudices, that lie behind this statement you will
find that they have some bearing upon women and some upon fiction. At
any rate, when a subject is highly controversial–and any question about
sex is that–one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how
one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold. One can only give one’s
audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the
limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker. Fiction
here is likely to contain more truth than fact. Therefore I propose,
making use of all the liberties and licences of a novelist, to tell you
the story of the two days that preceded my coming here–how, bowed down
by the weight of the subject which you have laid upon my shoulders, I
pondered it, and made it work in and out of my daily life. I need not
say that what I am about to describe has no existence; Oxbridge is an
invention; so is Fernham; ‘I’ is only a convenient term for somebody who
has no real being. Lies will flow from my lips, but there may perhaps be
some truth mixed up with them; it is for you to seek out this truth and
to decide whether any part of it is worth keeping. If not, you will of
course throw the whole of it into the waste-paper basket and forget all
about it.

Here then was I (call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by
any name you please–it is not a matter of any importance) sitting on
the banks of a river a week or two ago in fine October weather, lost in
thought. That collar I have spoken of, women and fiction, the need of
coming to some conclusion on a subject that raises all sorts of
prejudices and passions, bowed my head to the ground. To the right and
left bushes of some sort, golden and crimson, glowed with the colour,
even it seemed burnt with the heat, of fire. On the further bank the
willows wept in perpetual lamentation, their hair about their shoulders.
The river reflected whatever it chose of sky and bridge and burning
tree, and when the undergraduate had oared his boat through the
reflections they closed again, completely, as if he had never been.
There one might have sat the clock round lost in thought. Thought–to
call it by a prouder name than it deserved–had let its line down into
the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the
reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it
until–you know the little tug–the sudden conglomeration of an idea at
the end of one’s line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and the
careful laying of it out? Alas, laid on the grass how small, how
insignificant this thought of mine looked; the sort of fish that a good
fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one
day worth cooking and eating. I will not trouble you with that thought
now, though if you look carefully you may find it for yourselves in the
course of what I am going to say.

But however small it was, it had, nevertheless, the mysterious property
of its kind–put back into the mind, it became at once very exciting,
and important; and as it darted and sank, and flashed hither and
thither, set up such a wash and tumult of ideas that it was impossible
to sit still. It was thus that I found myself walking with extreme
rapidity across a grass plot. Instantly a man’s figure rose to intercept
me. Nor did I at first understand that the gesticulations of a
curious-looking object, in a cut-away coat and evening shirt, were aimed
at me. His face expressed horror and indignation. Instinct rather than
reason came to my help, he was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the
turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed
here; the gravel is the place for me. Such thoughts were the work of a
moment. As I regained the path the arms of the Beadle sank, his face
assumed its usual repose, and though turf is better walking than gravel,
no very great harm was done. The only charge I could bring against the
Fellows and Scholars of whatever the college might happen to be was that
in protection of their turf, which has been rolled for 300 years in
succession they had sent my little fish into hiding.

What idea it had been that had sent me so audaciously trespassing I
could not now remember. The spirit of peace descended like a cloud from
heaven, for if the spirit of peace dwells anywhere, it is in the courts
and quadrangles of Oxbridge on a fine October morning. Strolling through
those colleges past those ancient halls the roughness of the present
seemed smoothed away; the body seemed contained in a miraculous glass
cabinet through which no sound could penetrate, and the mind, freed from
any contact with facts (unless one trespassed on the turf again), was at
liberty to settle down upon whatever meditation was in harmony with the
moment. As chance would have it, some stray memory of some old essay
about revisiting Oxbridge in the long vacation brought Charles Lamb to
mind–Saint Charles, said Thackeray, putting a letter of Lamb’s to his
forehead. Indeed, among all the dead (I give you my thoughts as they
came to me), Lamb is one of the most congenial; one to whom one would
have liked to say, Tell me then how you wrote your essays? For his
essays are superior even to Max Beerbohm’s, I thought, with all their
perfection, because of that wild flash of imagination, that lightning
crack of genius in the middle of them which leaves them flawed and
imperfect, but starred with poetry. Lamb then came to Oxbridge perhaps a
hundred years ago. Certainly he wrote an essay–the name escapes
me–about the manuscript of one of Milton’s poems which he saw here. It
was LYCIDAS perhaps, and Lamb wrote how it shocked him to think it
possible that any word in LYCIDAS could have been different from what it
is. To think of Milton changing the words in that poem seemed to him a
sort of sacrilege. This led me to remember what I could of LYCIDAS and
to amuse myself with guessing which word it could have been that Milton
had altered, and why. It then occurred to me that the very manuscript
itself which Lamb had looked at was only a few hundred yards away, so
that one could follow Lamb’s footsteps across the quadrangle to that
famous library where the treasure is kept. Moreover, I recollected, as I
put this plan into execution, it is in this famous library that the
manuscript of Thackeray’s ESMOND is also preserved. The critics often
say that ESMOND is Thackeray’s most perfect novel. But the affectation
of the style, with its imitation of the eighteenth century, hampers one,
so far as I can remember; unless indeed the eighteenth-century style was
natural to Thackeray–a fact that one might prove by looking at the
manuscript and seeing whether the alterations were for the benefit of
the style or of the sense. But then one would have to decide what is
style and what is meaning, a question which–but here I was actually at
the door which leads into the library itself. I must have opened it, for
instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a
flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery,
kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that
ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of
the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.

That a famous library has been cursed by a woman is a matter of complete
indifference to a famous library. Venerable and calm, with all its
treasures safe locked within its breast, it sleeps complacently and
will, so far as I am concerned, so sleep for ever. Never will I wake
those echoes, never will I ask for that hospitality again, I vowed as I
descended the steps in anger. Still an hour remained before luncheon,
and what was one to do? Stroll on the meadows? sit by the river?
Certainly it was a lovely autumn morning; the leaves were fluttering red
to the ground; there was no great hardship in doing either. But the
sound of music reached my ear. Some service or celebration was going
forward. The organ complained magnificently as I passed the chapel door.
Even the sorrow of Christianity sounded in that serene air more like the
recollection of sorrow than sorrow itself; even the groanings of the
ancient organ seemed lapped in peace. I had no wish to enter had I the
right, and this time the verger might have stopped me, demanding perhaps
my baptismal certificate, or a letter of introduction from the Dean. But
the outside of these magnificent buildings is often as beautiful as the
inside. Moreover, it was amusing enough to watch the congregation
assembling, coming in and going out again, busying themselves at the
door of the chapel like bees at the mouth of a hive. Many were in cap
and gown; some had tufts of fur on their shoulders; others were wheeled
in bath-chairs; others, though not past middle age, seemed creased and
crushed into shapes so singular that one was reminded of those giant
crabs and crayfish who heave with difficulty across the sand of an
aquarium. As I leant against the wall the University indeed seemed a
sanctuary in which are preserved rare types which would soon be obsolete
if left to fight for existence on the pavement of the Strand. Old
stories of old deans and old dons came back to mind, but before I had
summoned up courage to whistle–it used to be said that at the sound of
a whistle old Professor —- instantly broke into a gallop–the venerable
congregation had gone inside. The outside of the chapel remained. As you
know, its high domes and pinnacles can be seen, like a sailing-ship
always voyaging never arriving, lit up at night and visible for miles,
far away across the hills. Once, presumably, this quadrangle with its
smooth lawns, its massive buildings and the chapel itself was marsh too,
where the grasses waved and the swine rootled. Teams of horses and oxen,
I thought, must have hauled the stone in wagons from far countries, and
then with infinite labour the grey blocks in whose shade I was now
standing were poised in order one on top of another and then the
painters brought their glass for the windows, and the masons were busy
for centuries up on that roof with putty and cement, spade and trowel.
Every Saturday somebody must have poured gold and silver out of a
leathern purse into their ancient fists, for they had their beer and
skittles presumably of an evening. An unending stream of gold and
silver, I thought, must have flowed into this court perpetually to keep
the stones coming and the masons working; to level, to ditch, to dig and
to drain. But it was then the age of faith, and money was poured
liberally to set these stones on a deep foundation, and when the stones
were raised, still more money was poured in from the coffers of kings
and queens and great nobles to ensure that hymns should be sung here and
scholars taught. Lands were granted; tithes were paid. And when the age
of faith was over and the age of reason had come, still the same flow of
gold and silver went on; fellowships were founded; lectureships endowed;
only the gold and silver flowed now, not from the coffers of the king.
but from the chests of merchants and manufacturers, from the purses of
men who had made, say, a fortune from industry, and returned, in their
wills, a bounteous share of it to endow more chairs, more lectureships,
more fellowships in the university where they had learnt their craft.
Hence the libraries and laboratories; the observatories; the splendid
equipment of costly and delicate instruments which now stands on glass
shelves, where centuries ago the grasses waved and the swine rootled.
Certainly, as I strolled round the court, the foundation of gold and
silver seemed deep enough; the pavement laid solidly over the wild
grasses. Men with trays on their heads went busily from staircase to
staircase. Gaudy blossoms flowered in window-boxes. The strains of the
gramophone blared out from the rooms within. It was impossible not to
reflect–the reflection whatever it may have been was cut short. The
clock struck; it was time to find one’s way to luncheon.

It is a curious fact that novelists have a way of making us believe that
luncheon parties are invariably memorable for something very witty that
was said, or for something very wise that was done. But they seldom
spare a word for what was eaten. It is part of the novelist’s convention
not to mention soup and salmon and ducklings, as if soup and salmon and
ducklings were of no importance whatsoever, as if nobody ever smoked a
cigar or drank a glass of wine. Here, however, I shall take the liberty
to defy that convention and to tell you that the lunch on this occasion
began with soles, sunk in a deep dish, over which the college cook had
spread a counterpane of the whitest cream, save that it was branded here
and there with brown spots like the spots on the flanks of a doe. After
that came the partridges, but if this suggests a couple of bald, brown
birds on a plate you are mistaken. The partridges, many and various,
came with all their retinue of sauces and salads, the sharp and the
sweet, each in its order; their potatoes, thin as coins but not so hard;
their sprouts, foliated as rosebuds but more succulent. And no sooner
had the roast and its retinue been done with than the silent servingman,
the Beadle himself perhaps in a milder manifestation, set before us,
wreathed in napkins, a confection which rose all sugar from the waves.
To call it pudding and so relate it to rice and tapioca would be an
insult. Meanwhile the wineglasses had flushed yellow and flushed
crimson; had been emptied; had been filled. And thus by degrees was lit,
half-way down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard
little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out
upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow which
is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse. No need to hurry. No
need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself. We are all going to
heaven and Vandyck is of the company–in other words, how good life
seemed, how sweet its rewards, how trivial this grudge or that
grievance, how admirable friendship and the society of one’s kind, as,
lighting a good cigarette, one sunk among the cushions in the
window-seat.

If by good luck there had been an ash-tray handy, if one had not knocked
the ash out of the window in default, if things had been a little
different from what they were, one would not have seen, presumably, a
cat without a tail. The sight of that abrupt and truncated animal
padding softly across the quadrangle changed by some fluke of the
subconscious intelligence the emotional light for me. It was as if
someone had let fall a shade. Perhaps the excellent hock was
relinquishing its hold. Certainly, as I watched the Manx cat pause in
the middle of the lawn as if it too questioned the universe, something
seemed lacking, something seemed different. But what was lacking, what
was different, I asked myself, listening to the talk? And to answer that
question I had to think myself out of the room, back into the past,
before the war indeed, and to set before my eyes the model of another
luncheon party held in rooms not very far distant from these; but
different. Everything was different. Meanwhile the talk went on among the
guests, who were many and young, some of this sex, some of that; it went
on swimmingly, it went on agreeably, freely, amusingly. And as it went on
I set it against the background of that other talk, and as I matched the
two together I had no doubt that one was the descendant, the legitimate
heir of the other. Nothing was changed; nothing was different save only
here I listened with all my ears not entirely to what was being said,
but to the murmur or current behind it. Yes, that was it–the change was
there. Before the war at a luncheon party like this people would have
said precisely the same things but they would have sounded different,
because in those days they were accompanied by a sort of humming noise,
not articulate, but musical, exciting, which changed the value of
the words themselves. Could one set that humming noise to words? Perhaps
with the help of the poets one could.. A book lay beside me and, opening
it, I turned casually enough to Tennyson. And here I found Tennyson was
singing:

 

There has fallen a splendid tear
From the passion-flower at the gate.
She is coming, my dove, my dear;
She is coming, my life, my fate;
The red rose cries, ‘She is near, she is near’;
And the white rose weeps, ‘She is late’;
The larkspur listens, ‘I hear, I hear’;
And the lily whispers, ‘I wait.’

 

Was that what men hummed at luncheon parties before the war? And the
women?

 

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple tree
Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit,
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me.

 

Was that what women hummed at luncheon parties before the war?

There was something so ludicrous in thinking of people humming such
things even under their breath at luncheon parties before the war that I
burst out laughing and had to explain my laughter by pointing at the
Manx cat, who did look a little absurd, poor beast, without a tail, in
the middle of the lawn. Was he really born so, or had he lost his tail
in an accident? The tailless cat, though some are said to exist in the
Isle of Man, is rarer than one thinks. It is a queer animal, quaint
rather than beautiful. It is strange what a difference a tail makes–you
know the sort of things one says as a lunch party breaks up and people
are finding their coats and hats.

This one, thanks to the hospitality of the host, had lasted far into the
afternoon. The beautiful October day was fading and the leaves were
falling from the trees in the avenue as I walked through it. Gate after
gate seemed to close with gentle finality behind me. Innumerable beadles
were fitting innumerable keys into well-oiled locks; the treasure-house
was being made secure for another night. After the avenue one comes out
upon a road–I forget its name–which leads you, if you take the right
turning, along to Fernham. But there was plenty of time. Dinner was not
till half-past seven. One could almost do without dinner after such a
luncheon. It is strange how a scrap of poetry works in the mind and
makes the legs move in time to it along the road. Those words—-

 

There has fallen a splendid tear
From the passion-flower at the gate.
She is coming, my dove, my dear—-

 

sang in my blood as I stepped quickly along towards Headingley. And
then, switching off into the other measure, I sang, where the waters are
churned up by the weir:

 

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple tree…

 

What poets, I cried aloud, as one does in the dusk, what poets they
were!

In a sort of jealousy, I suppose, for our own age, silly and absurd
though these comparisons are, I went on to wonder if honestly one could
name two living poets now as great as Tennyson and Christina Rossetti
were then. Obviously it is impossible, I thought, looking into those
foaming waters, to compare them. The very reason why that poetry excites
one to such abandonment, such rapture, is that it celebrates some
feeling that one used to have (at luncheon parties before the war
perhaps), so that one responds easily, familiarly, without troubling to
check the feeling, or to compare it with any that one has now. But the
living poets express a feeling that is actually being made and torn out
of us at the moment. One does not recognize it in the first place; often
for some reason one fears it; one watches it with keenness and compares
it jealously and suspiciously with the old feeling that one knew. Hence
the difficulty of modern poetry; and it is because of this difficulty
that one cannot remember more than two consecutive lines of any good
modern poet. For this reason–that my memory failed me–the argument
flagged for want of material. But why, I continued, moving on towards
Headingley, have we stopped humming under our breath at luncheon
parties? Why has Alfred ceased to sing

 

She is coming, my dove, my dear.

 

Why has Christina ceased to respond

 

My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me?

 

Shall we lay the blame on the war? When the guns fired in August 1914,
did the faces of men and women show so plain in each other’s eyes that
romance was killed? Certainly it was a shock (to women in particular
with their illusions about education, and so on) to see the faces of our
rulers in the light of the shell-fire. So ugly they looked–German,
English, French–so stupid. But lay the blame where one will, on whom
one will, the illusion which inspired Tennyson and Christina Rossetti to
sing so passionately about the coming of their loves is far rarer now
than then. One has only to read, to look, to listen, to remember. But
why say ‘blame’? Why, if it was an illusion, not praise the catastrophe,
whatever it was, that destroyed illusion and put truth in its place? For
truth…those dots mark the spot where, in search of truth, I missed
the turning up to Fernham. Yes indeed, which was truth and which was
illusion? I asked myself. What was the truth about these houses, for
example, dim and festive now with their red windows in the dusk, but raw
and red and squalid, with their sweets and their bootlaces, at nine
o’clock in the morning? And the willows and the river and the gardens
that run down to the river, vague now with the mist stealing over them,
but gold and red in the sunlight–which was the truth, which was the
illusion about them? I spare you the twists and turns of my cogitations,
for no conclusion was found on the road to Headingley, and I ask You to
suppose that I soon found out my mistake about the turning and retraced
my steps to Fernham.

As I have said already that it was an October day, I dare not forfeit
your respect and imperil the fair name of fiction by changing the season
and describing lilacs hanging over garden walls, crocuses, tulips and
other flowers of spring. Fiction must stick to facts, and the truer the
facts the better the fiction–so we are told. Therefore it was still
autumn and the leaves were still yellow and falling, if anything, a
little faster than before, because it was now evening (seven
twenty-three to be precise) and a breeze (from the south-west to be
exact) had risen. But for all that there was something odd at work:

 

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple tree
Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit–

 

perhaps the words of Christina Rossetti were partly responsible for the
folly of the fancy–it was nothing of course but a fancy–that the lilac
was shaking its flowers over the garden walls, and the brimstone
butterflies were scudding hither and thither, and the dust of the pollen
was in the air. A wind blew, from what quarter I know not, but it lifted
the half-grown leaves so that there was a flash of silver grey in the
air. It was the time between the lights when colours undergo their
intensification and purples and golds burn in window-panes like the beat
of an excitable heart; when for some reason the beauty of the world
revealed and yet soon to perish (here I pushed into the garden, for,
unwisely, the door was left open and no beadles seemed about), the
beauty of the world which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of
laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder. The gardens of
Fernham lay before me in the spring twilight, wild and open, and in the
long grass, sprinkled and carelessly flung, were daffodils and
bluebells, not orderly perhaps at the best of times, and now wind-blown
and waving as they tugged at their roots. The windows of the building,
curved like ships’ windows among generous waves of red brick, changed
from lemon to silver under the flight of the quick spring clouds.
Somebody was in a hammock, somebody, but in this light they were
phantoms only, half guessed, half seen, raced across the grass–would no
one stop her?–and then on the terrace, as if popping out to breathe the
air, to glance at the garden, came a bent figure, formidable yet humble,
with her great forehead and her shabby dress–could it be the famous
scholar, could it be J—- H—- herself? All was dim, yet intense too,
as if the scarf which the dusk had flung over the garden were torn
asunder by star or sword–the gash of some terrible reality leaping, as
its way is, out of the heart of the spring. For youth—-

Here was my soup. Dinner was being served in the great dining-hall. Far
from being spring it was in fact an evening in October. Everybody was
assembled in the big dining-room. Dinner was ready. Here was the soup. It
was a plain gravy soup. There was nothing to stir the fancy in that. One
could have seen through the transparent liquid any pattern that there
might have been on the plate itself. But there was no pattern. The plate
was plain. Next came beef with its attendant greens and potatoes–a
homely trinity, suggesting the rumps of cattle in a muddy market, and
sprouts curled and yellowed at the edge, and bargaining and cheapening
and women with string bags on Monday morning. There was no reason to
complain of human nature’s daily food, seeing that the supply was
sufficient and coal-miners doubtless were sitting down to less. Prunes
and custard followed. And if anyone complains that prunes, even when
mitigated by custard, are an uncharitable vegetable (fruit they are
not), stringy as a miser’s heart and exuding a fluid such as might run
in misers’ veins who have denied themselves wine and warmth for eighty
years and yet not given to the poor, he should reflect that there are
people whose charity embraces even the prune. Biscuits and cheese came
next, and here the water-jug was liberally passed round, for it is the
nature of biscuits to be dry, and these were biscuits to the core. That
was all. The meal was over. Everybody scraped their chairs back; the
swing-doors swung violently to and fro; soon the hall was emptied of
every sign of food and made ready no doubt for breakfast next morning.
Down corridors and up staircases the youth of England went banging and
singing. And was it for a guest, a stranger (for I had no more right
here in Fernham than in Trinity or Somerville or Girton or Newnham or
Christchurch), to say, ‘The dinner was not good,’ or to say (we were
now, Mary Seton and I, in her sitting-room), ‘Could we not have dined up
here alone?’ for if I had said anything of the kind I should have been
prying and searching into the secret economies of a house which to the
stranger wears so fine a front of gaiety and courage. No, one could say
nothing of the sort. Indeed, conversation for a moment flagged. The
human frame being what it is, heart, body and brain all mixed together,
and not contained in separate compartments as they will be no doubt in
another million years, a good dinner is of great importance to good
talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined
well. The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes. We are
all PROBABLY going to heaven, and Vandyck is, we HOPE, to meet us round
the next corner–that is the dubious and qualifying state of mind that
beef and prunes at the end of the day’s work breed between them. Happily
my friend, who taught science, had a cupboard where there was a squat
bottle and little glasses–(but there should have been sole and
partridge to begin with)–so that we were able to draw up to the fire
and repair some of the damages of the day’s living. In a minute or so we
were slipping freely in and out among all those objects of curiosity and
interest which form in the mind in the absence of a particular person,
and are naturally to be discussed on coming together again–how somebody
has married, another has not; one thinks this, another that; one has
improved out of all knowledge, the other most amazingly gone to the
bad–with all those speculations upon human nature and the character of
the amazing world we live in which spring naturally from such
beginnings. While these things were being said, however, I became
shamefacedly aware of a current setting in of its own accord and
carrying everything forward to an end of its own. One might be talking
of Spain or Portugal, of book or racehorse, but the real interest of
whatever was said was none of those things, but a scene of masons on a
high roof some five centuries ago. Kings and nobles brought treasure in
huge sacks and poured it under the earth. This scene was for ever coming
alive in my mind and placing itself by another of lean cows and a muddy
market and withered greens and the stringy hearts of old men–these two
pictures, disjointed and disconnected and nonsensical as they were, were
for ever coming together and combating each other and had me entirely
at their mercy. The best course, unless the whole talk was to be
distorted, was to expose what was in my mind to the air, when with good
luck it would fade and crumble like the head of the dead king when they
opened the coffin at Windsor. Briefly, then, I told Miss Seton about the
masons who had been all those years on the roof of the chapel, and about
the kings and queens and nobles bearing sacks of gold and silver on
their shoulders, which they shovelled into the earth; and then how the
great financial magnates of our own time came and laid cheques and
bonds, I suppose, where the others had laid ingots and rough lumps of
gold. All that lies beneath the colleges down there, I said; but this
college, where we are now sitting, what lies beneath its gallant red
brick and the wild unkempt grasses of the garden? What force is behind
that plain china off which we dined, and (here it popped out of my mouth
before I could stop it) the beef, the custard and the prunes?

Well, said Mary Seton, about the year 1860–Oh, but you know the story,
she said, bored, I suppose, by the recital. And she told me–rooms were
hired. Committees met. Envelopes were addressed. Circulars were drawn
up. Meetings were held; letters were read out; so-and-so has promised so
much; on the contrary, Mr —- won’t give a penny. The SATURDAY REVIEW
has been very rude. How can we raise a fund to pay for offices? Shall we
hold a bazaar? Can’t we find a pretty girl to sit in the front row? Let
us look up what John Stuart Mill said on the subject. Can anyone
persuade the editor of the —- to print a letter? Can we get Lady —- to
sign it? Lady —- is out of town. That was the way it was done,
presumably, sixty years ago, and it was a prodigious effort, and a great
deal of time was spent on it. And it was only after a long struggle and
with the utmost difficulty that they got thirty thousand pounds
together.

[* We are told that we ought to ask for £30,000 at least…It
is not a large sum, considering that there is to be but one college
of this sort for Great Britain, Ireland and the Colonies, and considering
how easy it is to raise immense sums for boys’ schools. But considering
how few people really wish women to be educated, it is a good
deal.’–LADY STEPHEN, EMILY DAVIES AND GIRTON COLLEGE.]

So obviously we cannot have wine and partridges and servants carrying tin
dishes on their heads, she said. We cannot have sofas and separate
rooms. ‘The amenities,’ she said, quoting from some book or other, ‘will
have to wait.’ [* Every penny which could be scraped together was set
aside for building, and the amenities had to be postponed.–R. STRACHEY,
THE CAUSE.]

At the thought of all those women working year after year and finding it
hard to get two thousand pounds together, and as much as they could do
to get thirty thousand pounds, we burst out in scorn at the
reprehensible poverty of our sex. What had our mothers been doing then
that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? Looking in
at shop windows? Flaunting in the sun at Monte Carlo? There were some
photographs on the mantelpiece. Mary’s mother–if that was her
picture–may have been a wastrel in her spare time (she had thirteen
children by a minister of the church), but if so her gay and dissipated
life had left too few traces of its pleasures on her face. She was a
homely body; an old lady in a plaid shawl which was fastened by a large
cameo; and she sat in a basket-chair, encouraging a spaniel to look at
the camera, with the amused, yet strained expression of one who is sure
that the dog will move directly the bulb is pressed. Now if she had gone
into business; had become a manufacturer of artificial silk or a magnate
on the Stock Exchange; if she had left two or three hundred thousand
pounds to Fernham, we could have been sitting at our ease to-night and
the subject of our talk might have been archaeology, botany,
anthropology, physics, the nature of the atom, mathematics, astronomy,
relativity, geography. If only Mrs Seton and her mother and her mother
before her had learnt the great art of making money and had left their
money, like their fathers and their grandfathers before them, to found
fellowships and lectureships and prizes and scholarships appropriated to
the use of their own sex, we might have dined very tolerably up here
alone off a bird and a bottle of wine; we might have looked forward
without undue confidence to a pleasant and honourable lifetime spent in
the shelter of one of the liberally endowed professions. We might have
been exploring or writing; mooning about the venerable places of the
earth; sitting contemplative on the steps of the Parthenon, or going at
ten to an office and coming home comfortably at half-past four to write
a little poetry. Only, if Mrs Seton and her like had gone into business
at the age of fifteen, there would have been–that was the snag in the
argument–no Mary. What, I asked, did Mary think of that? There between
the curtains was the October night, calm and lovely, with a star or two
caught in the yellowing trees. Was she ready to resign her share of it
and her memories (for they had been a happy family, though a large one)
of games and quarrels up in Scotland, which she is never tired of
praising for the fineness of its air and the quality of its cakes, in
order that Fernham might have been endowed with fifty thousand pounds or
so by a stroke of the pen? For, to endow a college would necessitate the
suppression of families altogether. Making a fortune and bearing
thirteen children–no human being could stand it. Consider the facts, we
said. First there are nine months before the baby is born. Then the baby
is born. Then there are three or four months spent in feeding the baby.
After the baby is fed there are certainly five years spent in playing
with the baby. You cannot, it seems, let children run about the streets.
People who have seen them running wild in Russia say that the sight is
not a pleasant one. People say, too, that human nature takes its shape
in the years between one and five. If Mrs Seton, I said, had been making
money, what sort of memories would you have had of games and quarrels?
What would you have known of Scotland, and its fine air and cakes and
all the rest of it? But it is useless to ask these questions, because
you would never have come into existence at all. Moreover, it is equally
useless to ask what might have happened if Mrs Seton and her mother and
her mother before her had amassed great wealth and laid it under the
foundations of college and library, because, in the first place, to earn
money was impossible for them, and in the second, had it been possible,
the law denied them the right to possess what money they earned. It is
only for the last forty-eight years that Mrs Seton has had a penny of
her own. For all the centuries before that it would have been her
husband’s property–a thought which, perhaps, may have had its share in
keeping Mrs Seton and her mothers off the Stock Exchange. Every penny I
earn, they may have said, will be taken from me and disposed of
according to my husband’s wisdom–perhaps to found a scholarship or to
endow a fellowship in Balliol or Kings, so that to earn money, even if I
could earn money, is not a matter that interests me very greatly. I had
better leave it to my husband.

At any rate, whether or not the blame rested on the old lady who was
looking at the spaniel, there could be no doubt that for some reason or
other our mothers had mismanaged their affairs very gravely. Not a penny
could be spared for ‘amenities’; for partridges and wine, beadles and
turf, books and cigars, libraries and leisure. To raise bare walls out
of bare earth was the utmost they could do.

So we talked standing at the window and looking, as so many thousands
look every night, down on the domes and towers of the famous city
beneath us. It was very beautiful, very mysterious in the autumn
moonlight. The old stone looked very white and venerable. One thought of
all the books that were assembled down there; of the pictures of old
prelates and worthies hanging in the panelled rooms; of the painted
windows that would be throwing strange globes and crescents on the
pavement; of the tablets and memorials and inscriptions; of the
fountains and the grass; of the quiet rooms looking across the quiet
quadrangles. And (pardon me the thought) I thought, too, of the
admirable smoke and drink and the deep armchairs and the pleasant
carpets: of the urbanity, the geniality, the dignity which are the
offspring of luxury and privacy and space. Certainly our mothers had not
provided us with any thing comparable to all this–our mothers who found
it difficult to scrape together thirty thousand pounds, our mothers who
bore thirteen children to ministers of religion at St Andrews.

So I went back to my inn, and as I walked through the dark streets I
pondered this and that, as one does at the end of the day’s work. I
pondered why it was that Mrs Seton had no money to leave us; and what
effect poverty has on the mind; and what effect wealth has on the mind;
and I thought of the queer old gentlemen I had seen that morning with
tufts of fur upon their shoulders; and I remembered how if one whistled
one of them ran; and I thought of the organ booming in the chapel and of
the shut doors of the library; and I thought how unpleasant it is to be
locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in; and,
thinking of the safety and prosperity of the one sex and of the poverty
and insecurity of the other and of the effect of tradition and of the
lack of tradition upon the mind of a writer, I thought at last that it
was time to roll up the crumpled skin of the day, with its arguments and
its impressions and its anger and its laughter, and cast it into the
hedge. A thousand stars were flashing across the blue wastes of the sky.
One seemed alone with an inscrutable society. All human beings were laid
asleep–prone, horizontal, dumb. Nobody seemed stirring in the streets
of Oxbridge. Even the door of the hotel sprang open at the touch of an
invisible hand–not a boots was sitting up to light me to bed, it was so
late.

 

TWO

 

The scene, if I may ask you to follow me, was now changed. The leaves
were still falling, but in London now, not Oxbridge; and I must ask you
to imagine a room, like many thousands, with a window looking across
people’s hats and vans and motor-cars to other windows, and on the table
inside the room a blank sheet of paper on which was written in large
letters WOMEN AND FICTION, but no more. The inevitable sequel to
lunching and dining at Oxbridge seemed, unfortunately, to be a visit to
the British Museum. One must strain off what was personal and accidental
in all these impressions and so reach the pure fluid, the essential oil
of truth. For that visit to Oxbridge and the luncheon and the dinner had
started a swarm of questions. Why did men drink wine and women water?
Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What effect has
poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of
works of art?–a thousand questions at once suggested themselves. But
one needed answers, not questions; and an answer was only to be had by
consulting the learned and the unprejudiced, who have removed themselves
above the strife of tongue and the confusion of body and issued the
result of their reasoning and research in books which are to be found
in the British Museum. If truth is not to be found on the shelves of
the British Museum, where, I asked myself, picking up a notebook and a
pencil, is truth?

Thus provided, thus confident and enquiring, I set out in the pursuit of
truth. The day, though not actually wet, was dismal, and the streets in
the neighbourhood of the Museum were full of open coal-holes, down which
sacks were showering; four-wheeled cabs were drawing up and depositing
on the pavement corded boxes containing, presumably, the entire wardrobe
of some Swiss or Italian family seeking fortune or refuge or some other
desirable commodity which is to be found in the boarding-houses of
Bloomsbury in the winter. The usual hoarse-voiced men paraded the
streets with plants on barrows. Some shouted; others sang. London was
like a workshop. London was like a machine. We were all being shot
backwards and forwards on this plain foundation to make some pattern.
The British Museum was another department of the factory. The
swing-doors swung open; and there one stood under the vast dome, as if
one were a thought in the huge bald forehead which is so splendidly
encircled by a band of famous names. One went to the counter; one took a
slip of paper; one opened a volume of the catalogue, and the five dots
here indicate five separate minutes of stupefaction, wonder and
bewilderment. Have you any notion of how many books are written about
women in the course of one year? Have you any notion how many are
written by men? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed
animal in the universe? Here had I come with a notebook and a pencil
proposing to spend a morning reading, supposing that at the end of the
morning I should have transferred the truth to my notebook. But I should
need to be a herd of elephants, I thought, and a wilderness of spiders,
desperately referring to the animals that are reputed longest lived and
most multitudinously eyed, to cope with all this. I should need claws of
steel and beak of brass even to penetrate the husk. How shall I ever
find the grains of truth embedded in all this mass of paper? I asked
myself, and in despair began running my eye up and down the long list of
titles. Even the names of the books gave me food for thought. Sex and
its nature might well attract doctors and biologists; but what was
surprising and difficult of explanation was the fact that sex–woman,
that is to say–also attracts agreeable essayists, light-fingered
novelists, young men who have taken the M.A. degree; men who have taken
no degree; men who have no apparent qualification save that they are not
women. Some of these books were, on the face of it, frivolous and
facetious; but many, on the other hand, were serious and prophetic,
moral and hortatory. Merely to read the titles suggested innumerable
schoolmasters, innumerable clergymen mounting their platforms and
pulpits and holding forth with loquacity which far exceeded the hour
usually alloted to such discourse on this one subject. It was a most
strange phenomenon; and apparently–here I consulted the letter M–one
confined to the male sex. Women do not write books about men–a fact
that I could not help welcoming with relief, for if I had first to read
all that men have written about women, then all that women have written
about men, the aloe that flowers once in a hundred years would flower
twice before I could set pen to paper. So, making a perfectly arbitrary
choice of a dozen volumes or so, I sent my slips of paper to lie in the
wire tray, and waited in my stall, among the other seekers for the
essential oil of truth.

What could be the reason, then, of this curious disparity, I wondered,
drawing cart-wheels on the slips of paper provided by the British
taxpayer for other purposes. Why are women, judging from this catalogue,
so much more interesting to men than men are to women? A very curious
fact it seemed, and my mind wandered to picture the lives of men who
spend their time in writing books about women; whether they were old or
young, married or unmarried, red-nosed or hump-backed–anyhow, it was
flattering, vaguely, to feel oneself the object of such attention
provided that it was not entirely bestowed by the crippled and the
infirm–so I pondered until all such frivolous thoughts were ended by an
avalanche of books sliding down on to the desk in front of me. Now the
trouble began. The student who has been trained in research at Oxbridge
has no doubt some method of shepherding his question past all
distractions till it runs into his answer as a sheep runs into its pen.
The student by my side, for instance, who was copying assiduously from a
scientific manual, was, I felt sure, extracting pure nuggets of the
essential ore every ten minutes or so. His little grunts of satisfaction
indicated so much. But if, unfortunately, one has had no training in a
university, the question far from being shepherded to its pen flies like
a frightened flock hither and thither, helter-skelter, pursued by a
whole pack of hounds. Professors, schoolmasters, sociologists,
clergymen, novelists, essayists, journalists, men who had no
qualification save that they were not women, chased my simple and single
question–Why are some women poor?–until it became fifty questions;
until the fifty questions leapt frantically into midstream and were
carried away. Every page in my notebook was scribbled over with notes.
To show the state of mind I was in, I will read you a few of them,
explaining that the page was headed quite simply, WOMEN AND POVERTY, in
block letters; but what followed was something like this:

 

Condition in Middle Ages of,
Habits in the Fiji Islands of,
Worshipped as goddesses by,
Weaker in moral sense than,
Idealism of,
Greater conscientiousness of,
South Sea Islanders, age of puberty among,
Attractiveness of,
Offered as sacrifice to,
Small size of brain of,
Profounder sub-consciousness of,
Less hair on the body of,
Mental, moral and physical inferiority of,
Love of children of,
Greater length of life of,
Weaker muscles of,
Strength of affections of,
Vanity of,
Higher education of,
Shakespeare’s opinion of,
Lord Birkenhead’s opinion of,
Dean Inge’s opinion of,
La Bruyere’s opinion of,
Dr Johnson’s opinion of,
Mr Oscar Browning’s opinion of…

 

Here I drew breath and added, indeed, in the margin, Why does Samuel
Butler say, ‘Wise men never say what they think of women’? Wise men
never say anything else apparently. But, I continued, leaning back in my
chair and looking at the vast dome in which I was a single but by now
somewhat harassed thought, what is so unfortunate is that wise men never
think the same thing about women. Here is Pope:

 

Most women have no character at all.

 

And here is La Bruyère:

 

Les femmes sont extrêmes, elles sont meilleures ou pires que les
hommes—-

 

a direct contradiction by keen observers who were contemporary. Are they
capable of education or incapable? Napoleon thought them incapable. Dr
Johnson thought the opposite. [* ‘”Men know that women are an overmatch
for them, and therefore they choose the weakest or the most ignorant. If
they did not think so, they never could be afraid of women knowing as
much as themselves.”…In justice to the sex, I think it but candid
to acknowledge that, in a subsequent conversation, he told me that he
was serious in what he said.’–BOSWELL, THE JOURNAL OF A TOUR TO THE
HEBRIDES.] Have they souls or have they not souls? Some savages say they
have none. Others, on the contrary, maintain that women are half divine
and worship them on that account. [* The ancient Germans believed that
there was something holy in women, and accordingly consulted them as
oracles.’–FRAZER, GOLDEN BOUGH.] Some sages hold that they are
shallower in the brain; others that they are deeper in the
consciousness. Goethe honoured them; Mussolini despises them. Wherever
one looked men thought about women and thought differently. It was
impossible to make head or tail of it all, I decided, glancing with envy
at the reader next door who was making the neatest abstracts, headed
often with an A or a B or a C, while my own notebook rioted with the
wildest scribble of contradictory jottings. It was distressing, it was
bewildering, it was humiliating. Truth had run through my fingers. Every
drop had escaped.

I could not possibly go home, I reflected, and add as a serious
contribution to the study of women and fiction that women have less hair
on their bodies than men, or that the age of puberty among the South Sea
Islanders is nine–or is it ninety?–even the handwriting had become in
its distraction indecipherable. It was disgraceful to have nothing more
weighty or respectable to show after a whole morning’s work. And if I
could not grasp the truth about W. (as for brevity’s sake I had come to
call her) in the past, why bother about W. in the future? It seemed pure
waste of time to consult all those gentlemen who specialize in woman and
her effect on whatever it may be–politics, children, wages,
morality–numerous and learned as they are. One might as well leave
their books unopened.

But while I pondered I had unconsciously, in my listlessness, in my
desperation, been drawing a picture where I should, like my neighbour,
have been writing a conclusion. I had been drawing a face, a figure. It
was the face and the figure of Professor von X engaged in writing his
monumental work entitled THE MENTAL, MORAL, AND PHYSICAL INFERIORITY OF
THE FEMALE SEX. He was not in my picture a man attractive to women. He
was heavily built; he had a great jowl; to balance that he had very
small eyes; he was very red in the face. His expression suggested that
he was labouring under some emotion that made him jab his pen on the
paper as if he were killing some noxious insect as he wrote, but even
when he had killed it that did not satisfy him; he must go on killing
it; and even so, some cause for anger and irritation remained. Could it
be his wife, I asked, looking at my picture? Was she in love with a
cavalry officer? Was the cavalry officer slim and elegant and dressed in
astrakhan? Had he been laughed at, to adopt the Freudian theory, in his
cradle by a pretty girl? For even in his cradle the professor, I
thought, could not have been an attractive child. Whatever the reason,
the professor was made to look very angry and very ugly in my sketch, as
he wrote his great book upon the mental, moral and physical inferiority
of women. Drawing pictures was an idle way of finishing an unprofitable
morning’s work. Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the
submerged truth sometimes comes to the top. A very elementary exercise
in psychology, not to be dignified by the name of psychoanalysis, showed
me, on looking at my notebook, that the sketch of the angry professor
had been made in anger. Anger had snatched my pencil while I dreamt. But
what was anger doing there? Interest, confusion, amusement, boredom–all
these emotions I could trace and name as they succeeded each other
throughout the morning. Had anger, the black snake, been lurking among
them? Yes, said the sketch, anger had. It referred me unmistakably to
the one book, to the one phrase, which had roused the demon; it was the
professor’s statement about the mental, moral and physical inferiority
of women. My heart had leapt. My cheeks had burnt. I had flushed with
anger. There was nothing specially remarkable, however foolish, in that.
One does not like to be told that one is naturally the inferior of a
little man–I looked at the student next me–who breathes hard, wears a
ready-made tie, and has not shaved this fortnight. One has certain
foolish vanities. It is only human nature, I reflected, and began
drawing cartwheels and circles over the angry professor’s face till he
looked like a burning bush or a flaming comet–anyhow, an apparition
without human semblance or significance. The professor was nothing now
but a faggot burning on the top of Hampstead Heath. Soon my own anger
was explained and done with; but curiosity remained. How explain the
anger of the professors? Why were they angry? For when it came to
analysing the impression left by these books there was always an element
of heat. This heat took many forms; it showed itself in satire, in
sentiment, in curiosity, in reprobation. But there was another element
which was often present and could not immediately be identified. Anger,
I called it. But it was anger that had gone underground and mixed itself
with all kinds of other emotions. To judge from its odd effects, it was
anger disguised and complex, not anger simple and open.

Whatever the reason, all these books, I thought, surveying the pile on
the desk, are worthless for my purposes. They were worthless
scientifically, that is to say, though humanly they were full of
instruction, interest, boredom, and very queer facts about the habits of
the Fiji Islanders. They had been written in the red light of emotion
and not in the white light of truth. Therefore they must be returned to
the central desk and restored each to his own cell in the enormous
honeycomb. All that I had retrieved from that morning’s work had been
the one fact of anger. The professors–I lumped them together thus–were
angry. But why, I asked myself, having returned the books, why, I
repeated, standing under the colonnade among the pigeons and the
prehistoric canoes, why are they angry? And, asking myself this
question, I strolled off to find a place for luncheon. What is the real
nature of what I call for the moment their anger? I asked. Here was a
puzzle that would last all the time that it takes to be served with food
in a small restaurant somewhere near the British Museum. Some previous
luncher had left the lunch edition of the evening paper on a chair, and,
waiting to be served, I began idly reading the headlines. A ribbon of
very large letters ran across the page. Somebody had made a big score in
South Africa. Lesser ribbons announced that Sir Austen Chamberlain was
at Geneva. A meat axe with human hair on it had been found in a cellar.
Mr justice —- commented in the Divorce Courts upon the Shamelessness
of Women. Sprinkled about the paper were other pieces of news. A film
actress had been lowered from a peak in California and hung suspended in
mid-air. The weather was going to be foggy. The most transient visitor
to this planet, I thought, who picked up this paper could not fail to be
aware, even from this scattered testimony, that England is under the
rule of a patriarchy. Nobody in their senses could fail to detect the
dominance of the professor. His was the power and the money and the
influence. He was the proprietor of the paper and its editor and
sub-editor. He was the Foreign Secretary and the judge. He was the
cricketer; he owned the racehorses and the yachts. He was the director
of the company that pays two hundred per cent to its shareholders. He
left millions to charities and colleges that were ruled by himself. He
suspended the film actress in mid-air. He will decide if the hair on the
meat axe is human; he it is who will acquit or convict the murderer, and
hang him, or let him go free. With the exception of the fog he seemed to
control everything. Yet he was angry. I knew that he was angry by this
token. When I read what he wrote about women–I thought, not of what he
was saying, but of himself. When an arguer argues dispassionately he
thinks only of the argument; and the reader cannot help thinking of the
argument too. If he had written dispassionately about women, had used
indisputable proofs to establish his argument and had shown no trace of
wishing that the result should be one thing rather than another, one
would not have been angry either. One would have accepted the fact, as
one accepts the fact that a pea is green or a canary yellow. So be it, I
should have said. But I had been angry because he was angry. Yet it
seemed absurd, I thought, turning over the evening paper, that a man
with all this power should be angry. Or is anger, I wondered, somehow,
the familiar, the attendant sprite on power? Rich people, for example,
are often angry because they suspect that the poor want to seize their
wealth. The professors, or patriarchs, as it might be more accurate to
call them, might be angry for that reason partly, but partly for one
that lies a little less obviously on the surface. Possibly they were not
‘angry’ at all; often, indeed, they were admiring, devoted, exemplary
in the relations of private life. Possibly when the professor insisted a
little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned
not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority. That was what
he was protecting rather hot-headedly and with too much emphasis,
because it was a jewel to him of the rarest price. Life for both
sexes–and I looked at them, shouldering their way along the
pavement–is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for
gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of
illusion as we are, it calls for confidence in oneself. Without
self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle. And how can we generate
this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly? By
thinking that other people are inferior to one self. By feeling that one
has some innate superiority–it may be wealth, or rank, a straight
nose, or the portrait of a grandfather by Romney–for there is no end to
the pathetic devices of the human imagination–over other people. Hence
the enormous importance to a patriarch who has to conquer, who has to
rule, of feeling that great numbers of people, half the human race
indeed, are by nature inferior to himself. It must indeed be one of the
chief sources of his power. But let me turn the light of this
observation on to real life, I thought. Does it help to explain some of
those psychological puzzles that one notes in the margin of daily life?
Does it explain my astonishment of the other day when Z, most humane,
most modest of men, taking up some book by Rebecca West and reading a
passage in it, exclaimed, ‘The arrant feminist! She says that men are
snobs!’ The exclamation, to me so surprising–for why was Miss West an
arrant feminist for making a possibly true if uncomplimentary statement
about the other sex?–was not merely the cry of wounded vanity; it was a
protest against some infringement of his power to believe in himself.
Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the
magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its
natural size. Without that power probably the earth would still be swamp
and jungle. The glories of all our wars would be unknown. We should
still be scratching the outlines of deer on the remains of mutton bones
and bartering flints for sheep skins or whatever simple ornament took
our unsophisticated taste. Supermen and Fingers of Destiny would never
have existed. The Czar and the Kaiser would never have worn crowns or
lost them. Whatever may be their use in civilized societies, mirrors are
essential to all violent and heroic action. That is why Napoleon and
Mussolini both insist so emphatically upon the inferiority of women, for
if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge. That serves to
explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. And it
serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism; how
impossible it is for her to say to them this book is bad, this picture
is feeble, or whatever it may be, without giving far more pain and
rousing far more anger than a man would do who gave the same criticism.
For if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass
shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished. How is he to go on giving
judgement, civilizing natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up
and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and
at dinner at least twice the size he really is? So I reflected,
crumbling my bread and stirring my coffee and now and again looking at
the people in the street. The looking-glass vision is of supreme
importance because it charges the vitality; it stimulates the nervous
system. Take it away and man may die, like the drug fiend deprived of
his cocaine. Under the spell of that illusion, I thought, looking out of
the window, half the people on the pavement are striding to work. They
put on their hats and coats in the morning under its agreeable rays.
They start the day confident, braced, believing themselves desired at
Miss Smith’s tea party; they say to themselves as they go into the room,
I am the superior of half the people here, and it is thus that they
speak with that self-confidence, that self-assurance, which have had such
profound consequences in public life and lead to such curious notes in
the margin of the private mind.

But these contributions to the dangerous and fascinating subject of the
psychology of the other sex–it is one, I hope, that you will
investigate when you have five hundred a year of your own–were
interrupted by the necessity of paying the bill. It came to five
shillings and ninepence. I gave the waiter a ten-shilling note and he
went to bring me change. There was another ten-shilling note in my
purse; I noticed it, because it is a fact that still takes my breath
away the power of my purse to breed ten-shilling notes automatically. I
open it and there they are. Society gives me chicken and coffee, bed and
lodging, in return for a certain number of pieces of paper which were
left me by an aunt, for no other reason than that I share her name.

My aunt, Mary Beton, I must tell you, died by a fall from her horse when
she was riding out to take the air in Bombay. The news of my legacy
reached me one night about the same time that the act was passed that
gave votes to women. A solicitor’s letter fell into the post-box and
when I opened it I found that she had left me five hundred pounds a year
for ever. Of the two–the vote and the money–the money, I own, seemed
infinitely the more important. Before that I had made my living by
cadging odd jobs from newspapers, by reporting a donkey show here or a
wedding there; I had earned a few pounds by addressing envelopes,
reading to old ladies, making artificial flowers, teaching the alphabet
to small children in a kindergarten. Such were the chief occupations
that were open to women before 1918. I need not, I am afraid, describe
in any detail the hardness of the work, for you know perhaps women who
have done it; nor the difficulty of living on the money when it was
earned, for you may have tried. But what still remains with me as a
worse infliction than either was the poison of fear and bitterness which
those days bred in me. To begin with, always to be doing work that one
did not wish to do, and to do it like a slave, flattering and fawning,
not always necessarily perhaps, but it seemed necessary and the stakes
were too great to run risks; and then the thought of that one gift which
it was death to hide–a small one but dear to the possessor–perishing
and with it my self, my soul,–all this became like a rust eating away
the bloom of the spring, destroying the tree at its heart. However, as I
say, my aunt died; and whenever I change a ten-shilling note a little of
that rust and corrosion is rubbed off, fear and bitterness go. Indeed, I
thought, slipping the silver into my purse, it is remarkable,
remembering the bitterness of those days, what a change of temper a
fixed income will bring about. No force in the world can take from me my
five hundred pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine forever.
Therefore not merely do effort and labour cease, but also hatred and
bitterness. I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not
flatter any man; he has nothing to give me. So imperceptibly I found
myself adopting a new attitude towards the other half of the human race.
It was absurd to blame any class or any sex, as a whole. Great bodies of
people are never responsible for what they do. They are driven by
instincts which are not within their control. They too, the patriarchs,
the professors, had endless difficulties, terrible drawbacks to contend
with. Their education had been in some ways as faulty as my own. It had
bred in them defects as great. True, they had money and power, but only
at the cost of harbouring in their breasts an eagle, a vulture, forever
tearing the liver out and plucking at the lungs–the instinct for
possession, the rage for acquisition which drives them to desire other
people’s fields and goods perpetually; to make frontiers and flags;
battleships and poison gas; to offer up their own lives and their
children’s lives. Walk through the Admiralty Arch (I had reached that
monument), or any other avenue given up to trophies and cannon, and
reflect upon the kind of glory celebrated there. Or watch in the spring
sunshine the stockbroker and the great barrister going indoors to make
money and more money and more money when it is a fact that five hundred
pounds a year will keep one alive in the sunshine. These are unpleasant
instincts to harbour, I reflected. They are bred of the conditions of
life; of the lack of civilization, I thought, looking at the statue of
the Duke of Cambridge, and in particular at the feathers in his cocked
hat, with a fixity that they have scarcely ever received before. And, as
I realized these drawbacks, by degrees fear and bitterness modified
themselves into pity and toleration; and then in a year or two, pity and
toleration went, and the greatest release of all came, which is freedom
to think of things in themselves. That building, for example, do I like
it or not? Is that picture beautiful or not? Is that in my opinion a
good book or a bad? Indeed my aunt’s legacy unveiled the sky to me, and
substituted for the large and imposing figure of a gentleman, which
Milton recommended for my perpetual adoration, a view of the open sky.

So thinking, so speculating I found my way back to my house by the
river. Lamps were being lit and an indescribable change had come over
London since the morning hour. It was as if the great machine after
labouring all day had made with our help a few yards of something very
exciting and beautiful–a fiery fabric flashing with red eyes, a tawny
monster roaring with hot breath. Even the wind seemed flung like a flag
as it lashed the houses and rattled the hoardings.

In my little street, however, domesticity prevailed. The house painter
was descending his ladder; the nursemaid was wheeling the perambulator
carefully in and out back to nursery tea; the coal-heaver was folding
his empty sacks on top of each other; the woman who keeps the green
grocer’s shop was adding up the day’s takings with her hands in red
mittens. But so engrossed was I with the problem you have laid upon my
shoulders that I could not see even these usual sights without referring
them to one centre. I thought how much harder it is now than it must
have been even a century ago to say which of these em ployments is the
higher, the more necessary. Is it better to be a coal-heaver or a
nursemaid; is the charwoman who has brought up eight children of less
value to the world than, the barrister who has made a hundred thousand
pounds? it is useless to ask such questions; for nobody can answer
them. Not only do the comparative values of charwomen and lawyers rise
and fall from decade to decade, but we have no rods with which to
measure them even as they are at the moment. I had been foolish to ask
my professor to furnish me with ‘indisputable proofs’ of this or that in
his argument about women. Even if one could state the value of any one
gift at the moment, those values will change; in a century’s time very
possibly they will have changed completely. Moreover, in a hundred
years, I thought, reaching my own doorstep, women will have ceased to be
the protected sex. Logically they will take part in all the activities
and exertions that were once denied them. The nursemaid will heave coal.
The shopwoman will drive an engine. All assumptions founded on the facts
observed when women were the protected sex will have disappeared–as,
for example (here a squad of soldiers marched down the street), that
women and clergymen and gardeners live longer than other people. Remove
that protection, expose them to the same exertions and activities, make
them soldiers and sailors and engine-drivers and dock labourers, and
will not women die off so much younger, so much quicker, than men that
one will say, ‘I saw a woman to-day’, as one used to say, ‘I saw an
aeroplane’. Anything may happen when womanhood has ceased to be a
protected occupation, I thought, opening the door. But what bearing has
all this upon the subject of my paper, Women and Fiction? I asked, going
indoors.

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Virginia Woolf, "A Room of One's Own" (1928/1929) Copyright © mea241. All Rights Reserved.

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