Monday, 8 August 2005

A Room of One's Own

I've just read Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own for the first time. What an astonishing book. It's only about a hundred pages long, but like one of those pop-up birthday cards, it unfolds to reveal a very intricate architecture, containing in miniature almost the whole programme of feminism from that day to this: anger at inequalities of power, wealth and privilege, and examination of their roots; a call for a women's history; a sceptical focus on men's “knowledge” of women; mistrust of simple ideas about the sexes; interest in relations among women where men stop being the focus. As if she just knew! The book – it was originally meant for a lecture to undergraduate's at the women's colleges of Girton and Newnham – is full of casual asides as to how a student might profitably look at, say, the domestic history of the Elizabethan household, or the psychology of women's art.

The idea that culture has material foundations, that you need a room of your own and five hundred pounds a year to be a poet, is a Bloomsbury theme, it comes out in Howards' End too. The Bloomsbury people's intellectual elitism and passionate love for higher things combined with this intense awareness to make them more egalitarian, funnily enough. If you think pushpin is just as good as poetry then the fact that some people are poor and others rich doesn't really matter much, especially as everybody is getting richer together. But if you think Art and Beauty and above all good Conversation are the most important things in the world, then it matters terribly. (So I suppose that the Blair government's artistic policy of “access” is another way in which the powerless little clique has conquered the world.)

Did they conquer the world? If you could trace back the lineage of the spiky-haired gothic brats in Camden Town, and the elegant loft-dwellers of Manhattan or Hoxton, and the pot-smoking first-homers in small towns everywhere – of everything alternative or bohemian or unconventional, which by now includes almost everything in contemporary culture, would you find the little Cambridge gang of lesbians and nutters? I would like to think so.

Here are two quotes which make me very happy.

Meanwhile the wineglasses had flushed yellow and flushed crimson; had been emptied; had been filled. And thus by degrees was lit, halfway 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 anyone but oneself.

So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery, and the sacrifice of wealth and chastity which used to be said the greatest of human disasters, a mere flea-bite in comparison.

Reading books like this could be a very bad idea. After spending a few hours with Virginia Woolf, you may not want to spend time with anyone else, and you may not care about anyone else's good opinion. Then you will be cursed with the worm that dyeth not, of permanent dissatisfaction, because there aren't many people like that in the world.

But she's wrong about the silver pot. The trick is to want praise and commendation from the right people.