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Author Joanna Kavenna, tell’s Litro why Virginia Woolf is still her heroine: “Woolf dared to take herself seriously as a writer, to insist on the importance of her enterprises. This was, to her, the symbolism of the room of one’s own: that a writer should not be deterred by a society that tells her she is absurd, or foolish, for writing at all”
Some years ago now, I was a doctoral student, writing a fairly silly paper on the ‘commodification of Virginia Woolf.’ As part of the research, I borrowed a car and drove down to Monk’s House, through gaudy cornfields, everything fired by midsummer sun. Monk’s House belonged to Woolf and her husband Leonard, and it was from here that Woolf walked out on 28th March 1941, to drown herself in the nearby River Ouse.
Woolf was then (and is still) a heroine of mine: one of the very few British women writers who have established themselves firmly in the 20th-century canon. I read her for the first time at 14 or 15 – at first focusing on Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse, then moving on to the diaries, letters, and other works including Orlando and Between the Acts. I read Woolf over and over again, obsessively, through my later teens and early twenties. Recently I edited and introduced a collection of her essays (Essays on the Self NHE 2014) and was delighted, once more, by her lucid, elegant style.
In 1929, Woolf published her seminal essay, A Room of One’s Own. In this, she argues that a woman, in order to write and to retain her creative independence, needs a room of her own (with a lock) and 500 pounds a year. (The equivalent of about £30,000 a year in today’s terms.) Thereby, this woman frees herself from prying eyes, censorious discouragement by others, and intervention or dissuasion in line with the passing fashions of the market.
Woolf was fortunate enough to have achieved this independence through inherited wealth – a point she concedes freely. Such financial independence was untenable then for almost everyone, and remains so today. Still, Woolf’s argument was that writing had been, traditionally, a profession dominated by affluent men. Poor men were as excluded from the canon as poor women. However, Woolf argued, women were more likely to lack financial resources because at this time they were largely prevented from earning their own money.
On this long-gone summer’s day, I arrived to find a tourist bus blocking the entrance to the car park, and day-trippers streaming into Monk’s House. The gift shop was full of slogan-ed tea towels and coffee cups. The place seemed to have been duly ruined by commercialisation; I assumed it wouldn’t take long to prove the argument of my academic paper. What happened next was quite strange. I stepped over the threshold into what had been Woolf’s sitting room. Everything was preserved as if she had just walked out into the garden. The writing desk stood in a corner – one of those antique sloping desks with slender drawers to keep pens and paper in. The fireplace, the floral curtains, the sense of a particular sort of English house, from a particular era – all reminded me of my grandmother’s house, a woman who, though several decades younger than Woolf, and far less affluent, had preserved the same sort of domestic style throughout her life.
Standing in Monk’s House, I burst into tears. It was the sort of uncontrollable weeping more usually associated with profound grief. I tried at first to conceal my state – the house was full of visitors, and like many people I hate to cry in public. I went outside, breathed deeply, tried to resume. But I found that I couldn’t stop. In the end, I gave up any attempts at self-moderation, and wandered around the house sobbing loudly. Through the kitchen, into Woolf’s small dry cell-like bedroom with a single bed in it, into the immaculate garden, I cried and cried.
None of the other day trippers asked me why I was crying, they just moved aside to let me pass, looking at me in mild consternation. Perhaps they thought I was suffering from a disproportionate case of idol worship, fan hysteria.
I drove back to my teeming, pleasurable student life, and forgot the whole thing soon enough. A year later, when I was writing up my doctoral thesis, I inserted a brief footnote describing the experience at Monk’s House but failing to explain it – as I did not know what had caused it or what, if anything, it meant. The examiners perhaps thought that this a little too personal for a piece of academic work, but, if so, they were tactful and made no mention of it. They awarded me the doctorate, and sent me on my way.
I went out into the world, to earn my living, and – inspired by Woolf – to write novels of my own. I went first to London, to a jaundiced flat in the north of the city. I moved to a commune in the east of the city. I worked as a secretary and then as an editor for the Guardian newspaper. I moved to South London, to a burn-by-night house, perfectly placed for a few demolished pubs. I moved to New York, to Alphabet City, and worked for the New York Review of Books. The roof of my apartment fell down, so I moved to a charming dive opposite the Brooklyn Museum, where the sound of acrimony gurgled through the walls.
I took a job at the philosophy department of Oslo University, and moved to a minimalist room in that beautiful city. I took another academic post, in Munich. I went to Paris, to Tallinn, to Berlin where I lived in the former East, in an apartment above a train line. The room shuddered as I typed out a novel in the evenings. In Sydney, I lived by the Pacific Coast – the sun-bleached rocks like bones. I moved to South Africa, to China, to Italy. Most recently, I lived in a crumbling colonial building in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka, and watched my children playing in the garden, as I typed.
I wonder now if my uncharacteristic weeping at Monk’s House was, essentially, about rooms. I had recently lost my last grandparent at that time, my beloved grandmother, and had nearly lost my wonderful father, who has since passed away. I mourn the dead, and miss them always. As we go through life, we inhabit a series of rooms, and so do those we love. There are the rooms we are born in, the rooms we know as children, the friendly institutional rooms of school, where we play our part, one among an infinite series, the rising generation. Beyond, the rooms of adult life – rooms that have ‘played their part in the slowing down of the heart,’ as the British poet Charlotte Mew wrote – a rough contemporary of Woolf’s. We move through linear time, and yet these rooms remain – where we slept and ate and drank and loved, talked through one evening and another. We can return to these rooms, physically, or in our thoughts, but we can never regain the past.
We all seek a room of our own, and yet, we fail: our habitation is never permanent. Yet, writers live in the world of the imagination, and this makes one room an everywhere, as the English poet John Donne wrote. Woolf dared to take herself seriously as a writer, to insist on the importance of her enterprises. This was, to her, the symbolism of the room of one’s own: that a writer should not be deterred by a society that tells her she is absurd, or foolish, for writing at all. She argued that writers should dream freely, without suppressing their imaginations in line with external edicts. Thus, Woolf has inspired further generations of writers, and continues to inspire me in my own work. Some writers may be ‘commodified,’ it is true, and may become famous for reasons that have little to do with their work. But others, are present in the cultural imagination because their words are powerful, and resonate across the years. Woolf, for me, is a perfect example of the second category; the only category that matters at all.