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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt, that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary

Spoiler Spoiler Alert! This 'novel' is actually two essays Woolf drafted when asked to write about "Women and Fiction". So there is no official plot to this work, other than exploring these two concepts and their relationship to each other. 

Spoiler Over: Continue Here

That was fast! Let's get right to the meat of it, shall we?

I started this blog several days in to a long vacation/staycation/house-sitting for my mother, and during that time I read VORACIOUSLY, and it was glorious. I read three books in two days, all quite different, yet all interestingly interwoven. Later in the week, I read a fourth book that's all about money management (#reallifeyall) I read this work, of course, and then I read 'Ghost' by Jason Reynolds, since it's the community book for one of our sites this summer and I wanted to be in the know. The third book I read was 'We Were Eight Years in Power; An American Tragedy' by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Totally brilliant, very thought-provoking, definitely heavy, but an absolutely critical work. I'm not going to do a full blob post on it, even though it definitely ranks up here with the 'classics', but I'll share some parallels I saw between Woolf's work and his. I would also contend that Coates' 'Between the World and Me' belongs on these lists, but I've already read it, so I didn't think to include it on the second set. 

Since Virginia's work is fairly stream of consciousness, I'll share my thoughts in no particular order. 

Twelve little girls in two straight lines...
Did you know that Virginia Woolf's first name is Adeline? Adeline Virginia Stephen, then Woolf after she married. I like Adeline, but I also can't imagine Virginia Woolf being anything other than a Virginia. Isn't it funny how that happens? 

On fiction
I love reading how writers describe fiction. Here are a few of my favorite snippets of hers:
  • Fiction is like a spider's web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. I love this line. 
  • Fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact. 
  • If one shuts one's eyes and thinks of the novel as a whole, it would seem to be a creation owning a certain looking-glass likeness to life, though of course with simplifications and distortions innumerable.
Material needs
Virginia gets real about the fact that writers, as, you know, human people, need to have some material things to be able to actually produce work. 
  • "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." This is where the title of the work comes from, and is, I think, extremely apt. 
  • What effect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art? She asks the reader to realize that while fiction deals in the imaginary, the need for financial safety and physical space are very real for fiction writers, and for women in particular. 
  • Intellectual freedom depends on material things. Perhaps sad, but eminently true!
I was struck by similar recollections that Ta-Nehisi Coates expresses, some hundred years later, but in what is arguably a worse, or at least as challenging, a position as an early 20th century woman, in terms of access and finances as a black man in today's America:
"This focus on money must seem strange, if you have never been without it, and it still must seem strange if you have been without it before, but think of the world of writing, as I once did, as some hallowed place beyond the reach of earthly difficulties. It is an easy mistake given that writing for a living, no matter how little, is still a relative privilege."
Then later, as he progresses in his career and undergoes a dramatic financial shift: 
"I can remember when that fear lifted, how it clarified my mind, how much easier it was to see and to think."
Just ask any writer - they'll tell you that MONEY IS REAL. And it really matters, much as we might wish it doesn't. 

Being a woman and accessing knowledge
Virginia spends most of this book strolling the grounds of an imaginary university which closely resembles Oxford (I think she calls it Oxbridge). Here are a few remarkable happenings: 
  • Ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction. One - EXQUEEZE ME? No. That simply won't do. I went to the library TODAY. To get a new library card (and to discover that I still owe 5 dollars. Whoops! I'll get that to you ASAP, library!) Two - I love the idea of a letter of introduction to the library. I know they mean a letter from a man, explaining why this person/woman is allowed in, but I thought of Alice, and being introduced to the pudding. "Alice, pudding; pudding, Alice", and how she couldn't eat the pudding once they'd been introduced. "Virginia, library; library, Virginia. No books for you!"
  • Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt, that you can set upon the freedom of my mind. YASSSSSSSSSS KWEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEN. That's all I have to say about this line. 
  • The most transient visitor to this planet, I thought, who picked up this paper could not fail to be aware, even from this scattered testimony, that England is under the rule of a patriarchy. Lol. Is this line from the 1900s? Or today? Le sigh - #worktodo!
  • Why are women...so much more interesting to men than men are to women? A very curious fact it seemed, and my mind wandered to picture the lives of men who spend their time in writing books about women; whether they were old or young, married or unmarried, red-nosed or hump-backed--anyhow, it was flattering, vaguely, to feel oneself the object of such attention, provided that it was not entirely bestowed by the crippled and the infirm. ahghaghaghghaghahgahgahghaghaghaghaghaghaghaghahgahgahghaghaghaghag.
Stream of consciousness narration
At first, reading Virginia's stream of consciousness was a little jarring for me, because I wasn't sure where it was going, or if it was going anywhere in particular. And then I thought, well, if Joyce can ramble on and Faulkner can confuse the hell out of us with his gibberish, why shouldn't Virginia have the opportunity to take us on a mental stroll? And eventually, I quite liked it. 
As I have already said that it was an October day, I dare not forfeit your respect and imperil the fair name of fiction by changing the season and describing lilacs hanging over garden walls, crocuses, tulips, and other flowers of spring. HA! I love this. 
Would she use verse? Would she not use prose rather?  I must leave these questions, if only because they stimulate me to wander from my subject into trackless forests where I shall be lost and, very likely, devoured by wild beasts.  I loved this playfulness with her stream of thought and then imagined diversions that had real (fictional) outcomes. It reminded me of Dickens as a narrator, a conspiratorial friend who was both open and vulnerable. 
A Woolf sentence
There were many great examples of this, the phenomenon of a Woolfian sentence, but I wanted to make sure I gave you at least one, in case you hadn't had a taste: 
It was the time between the lights when colours undergo their intensification and purples and golds burn in window-panes like the beat of an excitable heart; when for some reason the beauty of the world revealed and yet soon to perish (here I pushed into the garden, for, unwisely, the door was left open and no beadles seemed about), the beauty of the world which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder. Don't you feel like you just traveled to another planet and back, all in that one sentence? How does she do that? So incredible. #roundofapplause
Books as part of one long story
Virginia is a believer in a relatively common concept, that books are connected, and tell a communal and ongoing story. I love this thought, and particularly enjoy reading how different writers ascribe to this or not. 
Books continue each other, in spite of our habit of judging them separately. Woolf
And more than I wanted to write something original and new, I wanted to write something that black people would recognize as original and old, something both classic and radical. Ta-Nehisi Coates
For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice. Woolf 
Oceans and centuries stood between these two works, and yet they, too, are connected, interwoven into that global tale that reaches through space and time. 

Women as the 'inferior' sex
I didn't read the criticism or theory surrounding these essays, but I'm sure they have populated many a women's studies or feminism class. Here are two nuggets I thought captured her stance quite well:
  • Possibly when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority...It must indeed be one of the chief sources of his power. 
  • Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.
zeugma (tinkered only ever so slightly!)
I modified one verb in this sentence to make it more completely zeugma, my ALL-TIME FAVORITE literary devices. Please enjoy. 
But while I pondered I had unconsciously, in my listlessness, in my desperation, been drawing a picture where I should, like my neighbor, have been drawing a conclusion."
Simply Stellar Lines
  • On the further bank the willows wept in perpetual lamentation, their hair about their shoulders.
  • One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.
Words, Wonderful Words
odalisque - a female slave or concubine in a harem, especially one in the seraglio of the sultan of Turkey

farrago - a confused mixture

As usual, I'll leave you with some of my favorite lines from the book. The first is advice and hopes that Virginia has for future female writers: 

By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter and street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.

The second is talking about 'rational intercourse', something which feels almost foreign in today's America. Here is, perhaps, the most eloquent and winning description of rational intercourse you will ever read: 
Meanwhile the wineglasses had flushed yellow and flushed crimson; had been emptied; had been filled. And thus by degrees was lit, half-way down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse. No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself.
So as you settle down to your next conversation, or even to dine well when next you can (which I hope is soon!), I echo Virginia's sentiments and say - No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself. 

Love to all of you - read voraciously and speak rationally! Keep each other safe. Keep faith. Good night. 

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