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Concise and Invigorating
on 16 March 2003
Asked originally to deliver a talk on Women and Fiction in 1928, Virginia Woolf eventually produced this longer essay which expands its subject to cover education, marriage, property and money. She moves backwards through literary history, examining the women who have written, often against great opposition, and the female characters that have been written, mostly by men, and finds a startling anomaly: "Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant."
Unlike many feminist authors, Woolf does not argue for tearing down the achievements of male authors. In fact she argues that both sexes should write androgynously, in order to find the proper reality of things, but at its heart it is a feminist essay. At the time Woolf was writing women had been granted many more freedoms than their mothers, but still had a lot to fight for, and she urges women to do so, albeit for the realm of intellectual freedom and the pleasure of writing for a living. (I have no doubt she would do the same today, despite all our apparent advances.)
She knew she was one of the fortunate (she was left five hundred pounds a year by her aunt, giving her economic independence) and she famously concludes that a women must have a room of her own and money of her own in order to write. But why? It is not so that there are idle hours to be filled by writing - it is because writing well and truthfully can only be properly achieved when a woman is not railing against the bounds of poverty, dependence, social exclusion and disapproval.
The essay is, however, also art. Unlike a dry academic paper it skips lightly and often with humour from subject to observation, and demonstrates with her usual deftness how the real world produces new trains of thought in a person, just as a person's thoughts can mean interpreting the world in a new way. The very construction of the essay is an example of the work she is promoting, to attempt "to live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life." Because of this, and the sheer energy of the writing, it is a work that deserves a reading, no matter what your sex or station or ambition. And if you are a woman intending to write, be it a novel, travelogue or PHD you really ought to give up a couple of hours to read this; you are almost certainly guaranteed a new enthusiasm for your task.