Two by Woolf

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf ★★★★

Asked to talk about Women and Fiction, Virginia Woolf approached the topic in her unique conversational style, moving from one stream of thought to another. This essay, delivered as talks in British women’s colleges in the 1920s make the case for the importance of women having their own space and income to allow them to explore their own feminine voices. Taking the examples of established authors such as Jane Austen, who famously wrote in the family’s sitting room, and George Eliot, who not only took on a male nom de plume but also wrote weighty tomes adopting a male narrative style, Woolf also makes the case for the fictional Judith Shakespeare, the would-be sister of the famous playwright. She compares the siblings, who, having equal potential and talent are nonetheless given very different opportunities, the one having access to education and being allowed to work in the theatre as formative experiences, and the other being denied these options by virtue of her sex. The author also discusses the importance of women finding their unique mode of self-expression, something which she not only advocated but also took pains to explore in her own work, taking as she did the risk of appealing to a narrower readership while making her mark as an influential writer. I first read this book in the late 80s as part of a Women’s Studies course and can’t say I got very much out of it the first time around, mostly focusing as I did on the fact that much of the arguments Woolf was making seemed to me at the time to be no longer relevant to contemporary women. But with this reading, I was very much interested in the argument she made for the fact that women in the past had had to work against challenges far more daunting than those their male counterparts ever faced, with the whole of public opinion set against their efforts to distinguish themselves as anything other than wives and mothers, which makes their achievements that much more valuable. While it’s true we’ve come a very long way, I couldn’t help but be once again surprised how plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, since although the majority of women today—at least in the Western world—have all the options they might wish for, they more often than not have to sacrifice their artistic ambitions, if not in the name of family then in the name of career, or at least feel they must do so, while those who choose to live for their art are still often regarded as eccentrics and outcasts.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf ★★★★⅓

All the action within this novel takes place during one day and evening as Mrs Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class woman, is first preparing for, then throws a party in the evening. While still at home before she sets out to run her errands, she is visited by Peter Walsh, a man she’s known since she was a young girl and who once asked her to marry him. For the whole of the novel, we wander from one stream of thoughts to another, with Clarissa’s mind wandering from the moment’s happenings and backwards into the past, then without preamble we are following Peter’s thoughts, then Clarissa’s husband’s and so on, with the author’s focus wandering between every person encountered in the novel. Clarissa thinks about the life choices she has made. Peter has just come back from India and is seeking a divorce from his wife now that he has fallen in love with a much younger married woman. Clarissa’s husband has bought her flowers and intends to tell her he loves her, something he presumably hasn’t said in a very long time. There is Doris Kilman, the teacher of Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth, who, while she venerates the young girl to a degree that borders on desire (or as much desire as a religious fanatic will make allowances for), despises her mother Clarissa for all she stands for as a society woman living a life of ease and luxury. We meet Septimus Warren Smith, sitting in the park with his wife; he is a war veteran suffering from a very bad case of shell-shock who is being treated for suicidal depression. His wife is concerned because he talks to himself and to his deceased army friend Evans, who may have been much more than just a buddy, and together they are waiting to meet a psychiatrist who will suggest a course of treatment for the young man.

I had a couple of false stars with this book over the years, never making it past the first couple of pages, and must say one needs to be in the right frame of mind to fully appreciate this short, yet very profound novel. Having just finished reading A Room of One’s Own I found myself in the right mood for more of Woolf’s deep reflections on life and how we are affected by circumstances and the people we are surrounded by, whether by choice or happenstance. Once one gets accustomed to the flow of words, which doesn’t follow a traditional narrative style with chapters and commentary, but pours forth in an organic way meant to mimic a real-life experience, one is transported by the portraits Woolf paints of these people, whom we get to know from the inside out, as opposed to the other way round. Because of this, there is a timeless quality to this novel, even though the events it alludes to are very much fixed in the London of the 1920s.

Both these audiobooks were beautifully narrated by the much recommended Juliet Stevenson.

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