By Paromita Patranobish
Almost a century ago, Virginia Woolf authored a conditional sentence that would go on to form the scaffolding of an intergenerational edifice of feminist thinking and praxis. In October 1928, Woolf was invited by the Arts Society at Newnham College, and Girton College, women’s colleges in Cambridge, to lecture on broadly the topic of women and writing. These lectures were then condensed into an essay and published in Forum magazine the following year as “Women and Fiction” and went on to form the core of a work of non-fiction elaborating upon the idea of women in literature, as its subjects, but also its producers and consumers. Written as a lecture, A Room of One’s Own is an exercise in architectural thinking. A book organized around the central conceit of a private room is itself structured like an elaborate spatial complex. Its speculative stagings of scenarios of encounter serve as explorations of different varieties of inhabited space which in a manner rather different from the monadic logic of private enclosures flow into each other to create a mannerist interiority marked by intricate relations of spatial invaginations, tangents, and traversals, connected by the allegorized passages of a historical consciousness that then becomes the task of the feminist critic to excavate and map. The various spaces that populate Woolf’s text from open public libraries, closeted institutional archives, enclosed private turfs in posh universities, humble dining halls in underfunded women’s colleges, their spartan residential spaces where women socialize in segregation, laboratories shared by women scientists, a crowded parlour in which an author creates a fragile, often disrupted workspace, “a small restaurant somewhere near the British Museum” where the financially independent and educated woman can enjoy newfound access to material privileges, an attic which is the conflicted site of female imagination as well as an instrument of confinement and gendered violence, a phantom garden inhabited by the spectres of feminist forerunners, to name a few, function in a manner similar to Walter Benjamin’s use of the urban architecture of Parisian arcades, as at once a conceptual and a material formation.
A Room of One’s Own derives its central premise from Woolf’s aim of constructing a history of women and fiction, in ways that depart from standard, patriarchal conventions of representation. Instead of beginning with a linear historical narrative of women’s contribution to literature or a thematic account of how women have been represented in various literary texts across genres and periods, Woolf introduces a set of figures: constellated concepts that enable the narrator to examine the epistemological deep structure of cultural production that condition not only the literary field and its representational possibilities, but also determine and police the boundaries of social normativity, fixing codes of legibility and visibility that arbitrate women’s bodies, desires, and expressive limits. The material coordinates of a room and a steady source of income serve as sociological markers that chart the privileged terrain of literary production: who writes, what kind of writing gets generated, and which writing passes into various high and popular channels of circulation are phenomena largely governed by the economy of the writer’s situation in place, time, and ideological matrices. Thus, Woolf’s key assertion: “an opinion upon one minor point — a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (Woolf 1993 , 3). Yet in another vein, rooms and resources are simultaneously reincarnated as conceptual figures in Woolf’s text, mobilizing a rich architecture of alternative idioms with which to rethink questions of privacy, individual autonomy, marginal subjectivities, and the constitution of a female literary tradition.
The room’s role as a conceptual and aesthetic figure intended to intervene into habits of thinking and perception, has been overlooked in favour of a more literal interpretation that identifies rooms in Woolf’s texts as symbolic constructs of privacy. Feminist thought has found in the narrator’s assertion for the necessity for women’s ownership of spaces and the reappropriation of time and place from gendered economies of labour and reproduction by relocating and redeploying them as tools of creative and intellectual production in A Room of One’s Own, a horizon for its political goals. The ‘Room’ has passed into cultural knowledge as an oft-cited, much adapted, widely extrapolated metaphor for women’s right to self-determination and control over their own bodies, countercultural knowledges based in local, historically marginalised sites stemming out of specifically feminine experience, the revisionist force of minor thinking and forms of inquiry based in affect, emotion, caregiving, and domestic rituals. However, the room is more than a historical setting and horizon for a feminist utopia of private ownership of space and subjectivity. It is part of a cluster of material structures that function beyond simple analogy and posit instead a spatial epistemology, one in which diachronic literary history is rerouted through a synchronic continuum of habituses. The desired room in A Room is then not just a reference to conditions of isolation and solitude required for creative work, it is more importantly a meditation on the politics of inhabitation, coexistence, and collective occupation of human geographies as concerns at the heart of feminist epistemology.
Architectures of Privacy and Interrupted Thinking
The first instance of a room of one’s own in the text is not a personal space but an institutional one. Dramatising the very process of conducting research for her speech to the audience at Cambridge, Woolf’s narratorial alter ego, the ambiguously named Mary Seton, Beton or Carmichael, recalls her encounter with the firmly policed boundaries of cultural knowledge in the architectural figures of the turf and the library at a university. Mary is brusquely removed from both sites, encountering at their thresholds stern-faced embodiments of authority, a beadle and a warden who remind her of the gendered nature of prohibition and access. The quasi mystical custodians of masculine privilege compared in two corresponding passages to angels guarding the gates of heaven and dehumanised effigies, are not just objects of a woman’s vindictive sarcasm; their sartorially overdetermined bodies, mummified expressions, and frigid stances of ceremonious formality are extensions of the construct of a “glass cabinet through which no sound could penetrate” (6) in which the body of the (male) thinker is preserved within the space of the library. The library provides an insulated environment to distil one’s work from the material pressures and distractions of the real world. However, this desired privacy as a necessary precondition for creative and intellectual production is also an exclusionary one, its very structure of enabling privacy set in a series of hierarchical and unequal partitioning of common space, and by extension of positions of social and cultural power inscribed in and engendered by these stratified spaces. Privacy then in its very early assertion in the text is a double-edged sword: its status as a material atmosphere supporting the work of culture is intimately associated with the dangers of the private whether as a mode of social organization, an epistemic or philosophical concept, or a principle of political economy, becoming a form of aggrandizement, a conceptual and spatial extension of the centrifugal and anthropocentric ego, the mental variation of which is narcissism and the geopolitical culmination of which is reflected in fascism and the structure of private property.
What the shock of exclusion does to the narrator’s thinking however becomes equally symptomatic of the relationship between spatial modulation of power and certain ways of thinking and feeling. Faced with the beadle, the “little fish” (5) of the narrator’s thought, a lively but fragile and subterranean entity in comparison with the spectacular publicity and mechanical mien of the professors, goes into hiding, leaving behind a texture of interruption. Interruption becomes for Woolf, a key component of a new semiotics of expression that is both informed by history (the presence of interruption, digression, distraction and multitasking that constitute the temporality and sociology of women’s work) as well as marked by a departure from masculine models of expression. Interruption, as Woolf demonstrates, can be used to punctuate, rupture, and destabilise the flows and rhythms of patriarchal thought with the force of the gaps, abrasions, lacerations, and wounds that determine the psychic, bodily, and creative topographies of women’s lives.
The forced exit of the little fish is followed by another interruption, this time as a literalized articulation in the figure of a tail-less manx cat. The cat imposes itself on the narrator’s attention like a sudden apparition, a possible re-emergence, transmogrified by the contents of her unconscious, of the earlier fish, while she is in the midst of a lavish dinner inside the same men’s university. The manx cat’s interruption of the narrator’s immersion in the luxuries of the evening clears that space of dissonance in which a consciousness of the difference between the material experiences her own gender from the opulence on offer, provides a bridge into another history, that of female deprivation. Women’s communal meals are a humbler, drier affair conducted in the solemnity of repressed desire to the accompaniment of a subtle soundscape of deflected but angry discomfort finding vents in scraped chairs, suggestive coughs and a liberally passed water jug. The “secret economies” (16) of women’s houses are substantially less endowed than the custard and prune embellished halls of their male counterparts. A meditation on the destitution of women’s educational institutions leads the narrator to excavate the former’s close connection with a longer history of Englishwomen’s economic disenfranchisement. The sparsely furnished, inadequately stocked chambers of women’s colleges are part of a materialist genealogy connected with the crowded houses and sprawling families of a previous century, a detail that the narrator gleans from a Victorian photograph of her hostess’s mother.
The narrative construction of a possible female literary history then, the text argues, must at once be an archaeological gesture, uncovering not only the anonymous, unsung, erased literary voices of women writers and poets, but also the spaces and physical conditions, heavily coded with disparities of wealth, exposure, and access within which these voices were engendered, constrained, subversively and surreptitiously articulated, and which conditions lent to the specific textual tonality of these expressions their material trace. A history of women’s creativity is a situated history, its trajectory and junctures determined less by a sense of linear, teleological chronology and more by positions, relations, and stances that accrue from the particular gendered phenomenology of women’s occupation of socially overdetermined spaces. Thus, the motif of the room gathers in its scope both a range of historically shifting material circumstances within which women’s bodies and subjectivities are produced, as well as a corporeal and private microhistory of the modes of confinement, exclusion, marginality, and restraint that limit the existential horizons of these bodies and subjectivities. The rooms, buildings, and spaces that have normatively been designated as the purview of women’s lives, labour, influence, and action, archive the ways in which the substructure of material base informs and sustains particular cultural/immaterial superstructures, but more tellingly how spatially engendered possibilities, or in the case of women, impossibilities of conduct and comportment, are inscribed in textual practice as semantics of constraint and conflict, deflection and interruption, liminality and evasion. Woolf’s topological reading of literary history then pivots around this link she identifies between spatiality and writing, between spatial habitus and aesthetic style, between rooms and novelistic structure, architecture as an aspect of embodied experience and the architectonics of fictional form.
Collaborative Spaces and Shared Rooms
A Room of One’s Own’s reconstruction of a history of women’s writing begins as a collaborative, dialogic process in a space of an imaginary conversation between the text’s two narratorial selves. The historical gesture is initiated in a space of hospitality. Invited by Mary Seton into her sitting room after the meagre college dinner to share a glass of sherry, Woolf’s inquiry into the subject of women and fiction becomes like the jointly occupied narratorial space, a site for polyphony in which different perspectives, questions, and knowledges intersect. The attempt to produce a tentative corpus of women’s lives in the nineteenth century beyond publicly available facts leads to a juxtaposition of two spatial complexes. A speculative reimagining of the comparative architectural histories of the colleges for both genders provides to the empirically observable economic and social disparity a deep structural foundation in modes of ownership and exchange. Men’s colleges, Woolf imagines, are built on centuries of cumulative private wealth and intergenerational patrilineage, their infrastructure rooted in imperialist and military histories. Women’s higher education institutes on the other hand are testaments to a longue durée of material lack, downscaling and forced economizing. The opulence and plenitude of “the domes and towers of the famous city beneath us…the books that were assembled down there…the quiet rooms looking across the quiet quadrangles…the admirable smoke and drink and the deep arm-chairs and the pleasant carpets” as a masculine counterpart to the “bare walls out of the bare earth” (21) that create the material, cultural, and epistemic framework to women’s education also embody in Woolf’s assessment ideologies of social and economic organization, distribution, and application.
The tangible dimensions of cultural institutions and the intangible domain of beliefs, norms, and values that they reproduce are deeply enmeshed in structures of expropriation, exploitation and disenfranchisement – Woolf’s construction of a montage of images contrasting two kinds of architectures underscores how these are engendered in structural and systemic inequities based in the overarching institution of private capital – the “sole and partridge” (17) of one are acquired by keeping the other fed on a paltry diet of “plain gravy soup” (15). The “urbanity, the geniality, the dignity which are the offspring of luxury and privacy and space” (15) are also expressions of a historical narrative of gendered private aggrandizement in which space is both contested and partitioned in accordance with the logic of capital. The delineation of privacy as the desired condition for intellectual production must, in Woolf’s analysis, be accompanied by a critique of the use of the idiom and concept of the private as part of a dispositif of unequal modes of resource allocation and ownership. The same set of ideological forces at play in the engineering of radically disparate educational architectures for men and women inform the unequal laws that devalue women’s reproductive and domestic labour, while preventing them from earning incomes, inheriting assets, or staking a legitimate claim to their share of family wealth. Woolf’s imaginative restaging of the hardships and challenges accompanying the building of women’s colleges in England – collaborative activities of fundraising, crowdsourcing, petitioning, philanthropy, protest and persuasion not only serve to document alternative modes of political and economic mobilization employed by women to carve out zones of autonomy in male spaces, but also posit these as strategies for creating forms of cultural and educational commons, of reclaiming cultural resources for public use, and offering collectivist, subaltern alternatives to the privatization of property and culture.
The concept of space when seen in this light takes on a different set of connotations. Privatization of space acquires a political and conceptual ambivalence as a formation rooted in the inequalities and gendered oppressions of private ownership even as the cognitive and creative benefits of private space and an associated set of experiential conditions: interiority, sanctuary, autonomy, and independence are seen as necessary to the shaping of bodies and subjectivities capable of participating in liberal political and cultural processes including literary praxes. Attempting to construct a history of Renaissance and Elizabethan women writers, of genres of female authorship predating the 19th century novel’s marking of a paradigm shift in women’s entry into the literary marketplace as active stakeholders and producers, Woolf’s narrator soon realizes how such a possible history is marked by profound representational lacunae. Not only are there not enough literary works authored by women before the 19th Century, but there is also not enough information in official institutional archives and existing scholarship on real women, the material circumstances of their lives, the details of their quotidian activities. The historically denied private space is accompanied by another historical occlusion, that of women’s private lives from public memory and record. Not only were rooms of one’s own and financial independence unavailable to women before the twentieth century, there are no testimonies by women in the form of diaries or autobiographies that provide first person lived perspectives on what the shape of private life for women historically might have looked like, an absence that emphasizes the circuitous link between the missing rights to both (conditions enabling) self-articulation and the cultural tools: literacy, tradition, institutional and financial support required for the same. Both private rooms and private lives as historical phenomena are impossible to retrieve, embedded in a semantics of impossibility, invisibility, and negation.
However as that which is denied to women, existing in the narrative as a figure for the historically mediated matrix of denials and deprivations in which female subjectivity is engendered, a room of one’s own that is also an effective site of political emancipation and feminist revisioning of patriarchal principles needs to be infused with modalities of access, movement, occupation, and habitation that are different from those inscribing male spaces of privacy and private contemplation. It is a room then that is a space of cohabitation and coexistence, deconstructed by a logic of interruptions, its dimensions capable of sustaining historical shifts and modifications that render its position as a solid totality located firmly in time and place both tenuous and impossible, that serves as Woolf’s model for spaces of female creativity and work. An early example of this model of space is when the narrator returning to Fernham has a vision of the garden in which phantom figures of the colleges’ deceased alumni (including Woolf’s former tutor, the elliptically named classicist and teacher at Newnham college, Jane Harrison) are seen as enjoying a moment of leisure and companionship in its hammocks and pathways.
Reoccupying the Missing Rooms of One’s Own
A Room of One’s Own traces the circuitry between the lack of access to privacy as a material configuration and other kinds of social and economic deprivation through a set of imaginary rooms occupied by women, spaces that alongside analyses of existing literary works by women, participate in Woolf’s project of charting the contours of a possible history of women’s writing. The first of these is an apple loft where Shakespeare’s fictional sister “scribbled some pages…on the sly, but was careful to hide them or set fire to them” (43). Described as equally talented and passionate about theatre but without the privileges of education and exposure that her brother is allowed, Judith Shakespeare’s privacy is constantly thwarted, encroached upon, and violated by her parents: “She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers” (43). This ban against books and papers while lifted in the early 19th century still does not ensure the availability of a private room. For Jane Austen writing without a “separate study to repair to and most of the work…done in the general sitting room subject to all kinds of casual interruptions” (61) her “occupation” needs to be hidden with blotting paper from servants and visitors beyond her own family. This secret enterprise of writing fiction is itself inflected in Austen’s case by the social atmosphere, “the influences of the common sitting room” (61), by the crowded space in which such fiction takes shape. Yet in Woolf’s reading, Austen’s novels manage to transform this spatial constraint into a “sensibility” using the communal venue as a raw material for her own writerly pedagogy. The demonstration of personal feelings and personal relations that comprise the social landscape of early Victorian domesticity becomes Austen’s field of literary expertise. The impossibility of private withdrawal and solitude is translated in her case into her narratives’ vision of community and relational ethics. Finally, we are introduced into another room, this time a contemporary space, a laboratory shared by two women scientists in the twentieth century collaboratively researching a cure for pernicious anaemia. This shared space of work, creation, scientific productivity, and generation of new affects, including erotic affects, is found in a fictional book written by a proto-modernist fictional author who represents the Edwardian female novelist. In Mary Carmichael’s book, the space of partnership and co-creation, of cooperative and impersonal work with its paraphernalia of jointly owned resources is what emerges as a new alternative to both the solipsist private room of the male writer/student as well as the absent or impossible privacy that has been the historical domain of women’s labour subject to constant traversals and appropriations, and made synonymous with the domestic private sphere as an extension of the topography of private ownership, the bourgeois heteronormative family, and the modern liberal subject.
For Woolf, this new spatial paradigm is significant not only as an expression of resistance to patriarchal stratifications of space but also as marking a shift in the novel’s representational regime. The collaborative workspace as an alternative model of privacy allows for the liberation of certain affects and sensations, ways of perceiving and thinking, relational positions and aesthetic styles not available under existing rubrics of privacy. The new private as a room of our own allows women to interact with each other’s bodies and subjectivities and the tools of intellectual and creative expression as autonomous sites for invention and experimentation and not overdetermined carriers of patriarchal ideologies, particularly those that permeate and manipulate the field of women’s relations with each other. In Mary Carmichael’s novel this transformation is captured through the sensuous possibilities of the female gaze to catalyse and sacralise the quotidian moment of bodily proximity by placing it outside heteronormative and reproductive economies of exchange:
For if Chloe likes Olivia and Mary Carmichael knows how to express it she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been. It is all half lights and profound shadows like those serpentine caves where one goes with a candle peering up and down, not knowing where one is stepping. And I began to read the book again, and read how Chloe watched Olivia put a jar on a shelf and say how it was time to go home to her children. That is a sight that has never been seen since the world began, I exclaimed. (76)
Within the lab in Mary Carmichael’s fiction Chloe and Olivia develop affects and sympathies hitherto unrepresented in fiction that insists on representing women only in relation to men, incapable of independent experiences of love and friendship with each other. New architectural imaginaries in modernist fiction become affordances for new registers of corporeal, neural, and unconscious processes producing in turn bodily dispositions, habits, and forms of interpersonal exchange that break into the consistency of the gendered and classed humanist subject replacing it with interrupted, collaborative, porous selves caught in acts of mutual creation and shared introspection.
The Laboratory and the Female Sentence: towards an architectonics of style
In A Room of One’s Own, the question of the relationship between space and fiction culminates in an exploration of spatiality as an element of style as well as a critical and heuristic tool with which to rethink literary history. Applying an architectural optic to works of fiction, Woolf argues for the experience of reading as a modality of inhabiting space. Margaret Cavendish’s prolific poetry simulates the spatial experience of an overgrown garden, her raw and untrained use of language becoming metonymic affective units that produce the effects of engaging with botanical and vegetative spaces. In Austen’s hands, on the contrary, the thickness and resistive friction of language dissipates and becomes translucent to release the effects of literary figuration in the form of pure affects, singularities of sensation, intensities of landscape and weather, energies and dynamics of thought, feeling, and encounter – a sublimation of the personality of the writer to create a type of pure spatiality without fixed dimension, a transformation of material constraint and overdetermination into a dematerialization of literary space:
[W]hen people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare, and for that reason Jane Austen pervades every word that she wrote, and so does Shakespeare. (62)
Fiction in that sense not only represents worlds, real and imagined, but actively produces worlds by arranging, concentrating, partitioning, and distributing phenomena and ways of perceiving (or obscuring) them. In Mary Carmichael’s book fresh paradigms of spatial co-habitation are paralleled by a reconfiguring of the architecture of literary form. The new woman author breaks the male sentence and tampers with the linear, chronological logic of narrative emplotment, the male sequence, to dynamize the spatial experience of reading, into a form of transportative mobility: “For I feel as one feels on a switchback railway when the car, instead of sinking, as one has been led to expect, swerves up again. Mary is tampering with the expected sequence. First she broke the sentence; now she has broken the sequence” (74). The railway compartment, a leitmotif in Woolf’s writing about fiction, appears in essays like “Modern Fiction,” “Mrs Bennett and Mr Brown,” and “Character in Fiction” as a metaphor for both the communicative and epistemic structure of modern novels with their emphasis on relativism, randomness, and the difficulty of totalised, absolute knowledge, as well for the new kinds of relationships between readers and writers offered by modernist fiction. The railway compartment as a fluid and contingent space of fleeting and chance encounters between strangers also references Mary Carmichael’s syntactical innovations and forms of sociality and intersubjectivity that modernist figurative and stylistic turns allow to be envisaged and articulated. A room of one’s own that was once a historical impossibility becomes in the course of Woolf’s text a figure of impossibility, a limit concept and a threshold that interrogates the very structures, metaphysics, and politics that enable the production of a model of privacy that is also a phobic and at its extreme fascistic mechanism of exclusion and disenfranchisement. The room that isolates and protects the writer thus enabling her to occupy a space of pure contemplation outside the influence of material concerns, is also a bounded space securing its monadic autonomy through a process of elimination and othering. To embrace this spatial formation as a prototype of women’s emancipation and politicisation is to collude with the concept’s economic and epistemic history as a tool of women’s oppression and marginalisation. Woolf’s room of one’s own is a mobile, renewable, and shape shifting construction, oriented towards possible futures, a model of which she goes on to offer in Three Guineas:
Let it be built on lines of its own. It must be built not of carved stone and stained glass, but of some cheap, easily combustible material which does not hoard dust and perpetrate traditions. Do not have chapels. Do not have museums and libraries with chained books and first editions under glass cases. Let the pictures and the books be new and always changing. Let it be decorated afresh by each generation with their own hands cheaply. The work of the living is cheap; often they will give it for the sake of being allowed to do it. (155)
Its boundaries are combustible and porous rather than ossified and concrete, its interior a zone of multiple permeations, transports, copresences, a space structured by the spectral force of embedded histories that remain animated like hauntings rather than codified in institutional knowledge. The work of women and fiction as Woolf concludes is neither solitary nor finished. It is an intergenerational, intersectional endeavour spanning time and place: “For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice” (60-61).
The individual woman writer of fiction is ultimately part of a community, both its beneficiary and its representative. Mary Seton’s quest for the eponymous privacy returns us to the communal and ethical possibilities of privacy’s elusiveness, and to the impossibility of securing a realm of private life that is unaware of the incremental, participatory, and unfolding nature of women’s political work encapsulated in the text’s final speculative tableau. Shifting its attention from the nature of spaces and fictional forms for feminist futures, the narrative interrogates the future of the education and by extension access to cultural knowledge and capital that new institutional spaces like Fernham (and Newhham) offer to women.
The task of women writing fiction has a social agenda but one that is founded on an expanded definition of the social to include the unrepresented and invisibilized task force of “many other women who are not here tonight for they are washing up dishes and putting the children to bed” (102), the obscure female ancestors, “forerunners” whose lives and contributions are excised from recorded history, and a latent coming female consciousness whose anticipated birth in the future is mediated by relations of obligation, receptivity, hospitality, and radical openness to the past: “she will be born. As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part…that we cannot expect…I maintain that she would come if we worked for her” 102-03). The room is supplemented by “the common life which is the real life and not…the little separate lives which we live as individuals”, the conventional association of the “common sitting room” (102) with kinship formations of family and reproduction, and the aggrandizing structure of private property, is substituted by a model of natality and emergence based in collective endeavour.
 Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own/Three Guineas (Ed. Michele Barrett). London: Penguin Books, 1993.
Paromita Patranobish is an academic based in New Delhi. She has a PhD in Modernist literature with a focus on nonhuman embodiment in works of Virginia Woolf. She has taught at Shiv Nadar University, Daulat Ram College, and Ambedkar University Delhi.
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