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A Room of One's Own is a curious essay. Presented originally as two speeches to the Arts Society at Newham in 1928, the work is remarkable for its distinctive tone, for Woolf's witty and deceptively casual style, and for her decision largely eschew abstract arguments in favor of narrative, anecdote and the guidance of a strong, abiding first person narrator. She also, refreshingly, avoids doctrine and bombast, instead infusing her arguments with subtlety, curiosity and open-minded speculation.
That A Room of One's Own embraces narrative is hardly surprising. Woolf's focus in this essay is women and fiction, and specifically the obstacles faced by any woman who would become an artist. And because the obstacles are often insidious, psychological conditions created by a society dominated by men, Woolf in some ways needs to employ her narrative gifts to make these intangible living realities emotionally present to the reader. The lack of opportunities and personal space, the embittering sneers of male writers, and the absence of any kind of familial or institutional support are not presented as ideas but rather as conditions that have asphyxiated aspiring women writers for centuries. In one of the most well-known sections of the work, Woolf tells the story of Shakespeare's sister. It is an imaginative speculation about a woman who perhaps possessed the incomparable native genius of her brother, but who was denied at first the educational opportunities and then the personal opportunities afforded to her brother William. Thwarted by the scornful laughter, disapproval, and limitations of a male-centered world, and afforded no outlets for the expression of her gifts, this woman, Woolf speculates, would have sunk beneath the weight of such conditions into madness or suicide. This personal tragedy, which must have been repeated again and again over the centuries, is compounded by the immense loss to the world of the magnificent and sublime works of art that never had a chance to come into being.
In the essay Woolf also discusses those female writers who did manage to overcome their circumstances and produce works of great and lasting power: Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, and George Eliot. Yet even in the works of a writer like Charlotte Bronte, whose novels are unquestionably high-water marks in the history of English fiction, Woolf detects flaws, a certain shrillness, that has arisen out of the defensive, ideological position from which she wrote.
Erudite, witty, compassionate and provocative, A Room of One's Own is a landmark in both the history of English literary criticism and feminist theory.
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