It’s been a painfully slow week. Well, the weekends have gone by quickly – too quickly, to be honest – but the days are dragging on. Maybe it’s a side effect of this frigid (ok, by mid-Atlantic standards) weather…
The irony, of course, is that as I sit in my toasty room, I’ve become too lethargic to really write, or to think about something novel (yes, pun intended) to write about. I’m also painstakingly working my way through reading several books, some of which are closer to being finished than others. It’s at times like these where the next best thing I can do is pull something from my archives, and in this case I’m going to post a short paper I wrote a couple of years ago about fiction and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. There’s no food this time around, but there is, as Woolf does best, some beautiful prose and intricate structure in her well-known argument for the social and economic advancement of Englishwomen in her time.
Since this post was once a paper, I apologize in advance for the formal tone – it’s not a very technical essay, but I think it’s a good one nevertheless. Hopefully you will, too.
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?
So begins A Room of One’s Own, the treatise in which Virginia Woolf outlines her argument for women to secure an income and, literally, their own space (“room”) in which they may write their own fiction. Yet rather than rely solely on socioeconomic data or rhetoric to substantiate its claims, Woolf’s text uses an arguably more unusual, but nevertheless significantly powerful technique: it incorporates a carefully crafted fictional apparatus into its reasoned argument.
While the use of fiction in the author’s speech is most clearly justified by the stated purpose of the talk (“women and fiction”), its place in the broader genre of the essay is less expected. Why, after all, should Woolf invoke the fictional realm in order to persuade her audience to confront their disadvantageous circumstances? Yet this is precisely what A Room of One’s Own does, to the extent that fiction becomes essential to Woolf’s argument and its exposition – not merely as an active demonstration of the possibilities to be unlocked by economic independence for women, but also as a literary vehicle that allows her to communicate (and hence change) the very realities that prevent other women from writing fiction.
Woolf announces her intention to turn to fiction in shaping her argument very early on in the text, as she meditates on how she may locate the realm of “truth:”
At any rate, when a subject is highly controversial…[o]ne 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 licenses of a novelist, to tell you the story of the two days that preceded my coming here…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….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.
This passage is as much a statement of intent as it is a conscious and highly ironic exploration of fiction as an alternative means of argumentation. Recognizing the impossibility of locating truth in a subject of such ‘controversy,’ Woolf quickly draws upon the “liberties and licenses of a novelist” and turns to fiction to construct a platform upon which her “audience” may have “the chance of drawing their own conclusions.” Yet she also deliberately establishes the terms of her decision in such a way that (humorously) deflects any sense of responsibility and accountability for her words. In other words, fiction sets up a screen through which Woolf may pose her argument without having to expose her “limitations,” her “prejudices,” and her “idiosyncrasies.” Even the signifying ‘I,’ with its dual implications of self-consciousness and vision, becomes quite literally disembodied, merely a “convenient term for somebody who has no real being.” Thus Woolf defines a space that grants her authority and agency without subjecting herself to the potential for explicit skepticism or criticism, which would undoubtedly have been the case had she chosen to argue solely on non-fictional grounds. That she does so within the very logical and rhetorical confines of the essay form demonstrates the peculiar potency of such a strategic literary move.
If we are to take Woolf’s definitions at face value, then we see that “women and fiction” become her argument for economic security and creative liberty. Perhaps the strongest manifestation of this claim takes the form of the fictitious Judith Shakespeare, sister to the famed playwright who was “as adventurous, as imaginative, [and] as agog to see the world as he was” but, failing to secure a living through her literary talent, “killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some crossroads…outside the Elephant and Castle.” The constructed narrator proceeds to invoke her own construct as both cautionary tale and reasoned argument against the systemic suppression of women’s literary creativity in 16th-century England:
This [account] may be true or it may be false – who can say? – but what is true in it, so it seemed to me, reviewing the story of Shakespeare’s sister as I had made it, is that any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half-witch, half-wizard, feared and mocked at….To have lived a free life in London in the sixteenth century would have meant for a woman who was poet and playwright a nervous stress and dilemma which might well have killed her.
Once again, fiction operates at multiple levels within this passage. In addition to the presence of the disembodied ‘I,’ fiction manifests itself in the imagined existence of Judith Shakespeare and in her equally imagined (because it was never realized) vocation as “poet and playwright.” Woolf also complicates matters by introducing a series of paradoxical dichotomies that challenge fundamental logical relations – between truth and falsity, between historical fact and self-constructed truth (“the story…as I had made it”), and between the ‘freedom’ of life and its associated “nervous stress and dilemma” preceding suicide. Yet if Judith was destined to take her life despite having “lived a free life in London,” then why, one might well ask, should any woman among Woolf’s audience stake her own demands for economic and literary liberation merely to create fiction?
The answer, it would seem, lies in the observation that Judith indeed never managed to set her own fiction to paper – hence she was unable to construct her own “room” in which she could confront the “dilemma.” For the power and necessity of fiction are grounded in Woolf’s very use of it to assert her claims. That is, her imagined constructs – the selfless ‘I’ and Judith, among others – demonstrate the liberating and exploratory capabilities of fiction as a means of attaining socioeconomic reform as they also proclaim the need for women to achieve such change by creating fictional works themselves. This symbiotic relationship between the forging of individualized space (“a room of one’s own”) and the drive to make such a process possible (by securing an income) is the crux of A Room of One’s Own, and one that most likely could not have been attained on non-fictional grounds alone. It is in this respect, where “[f]iction,” indeed, “is likely to contain more truth than fact.”
This paper was reprinted with the permission of its original author (i.e., me) and may not be published elsewhere without the author’s consent.