I’m working on a piece right now involving ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and in an attempt to derive inspiration I went back to an essay I wrote on the subject last year. I’m happy to report it is helping.
17, December 2009
A Room of One’s Own: The Interruption Act
I have chosen to research A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf because of my strong reaction to it both emotionally and intellectually. Woolf’s fundamental argument is strong, direct and set forth in the first meaty paragraph “…a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction…” (4). Her argument is incredibly compelling for me due to the fact that I am a woman and an aspiring fiction writer. Woolf writes A Room of One’s Own within the form narrative essay. Woolf utilizes her form to, amongst other things, highlight the idea of ‘interruption acts.’ To make it plain, she sews in interruptions for her narrator “Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any other name you please…” (5) to illustrate the point of the interruption act itself. Women are interrupted if they do not have a room of their own and enough money in order to sustain themselves. Now that is interesting. Is that why I find myself writing this paper late into a dismal day on campus? I, like so many other women, do not have a room of my own or enough money to keep me from almost constant worry. I have to agree- good point Virginia Woolf- my thoughts would come out clearer if I had a room of my own and enough money not to worry about things like rent and food. There must be millions of woman who feel the same way I do. Woolf’s assertions from eighty years ago are still valid today to woman writers.
I’ve come to the library on my University campus to search out articles written about A Room of One’s Own and the interruption act. On my way into the library I passed through the food court where I first smelled and then saw all kinds of: coffees, sweet bread, wraps with bacon, and citrus juice drinks. My stomach was grumbling but I did not have enough money to buy food on campus. First I thought of how much writers like to write about food these days. Things must have been different in Woolf’s experience, due to how she prefaces her food description with “It is a curious fact that novelist have a way of making us believe that luncheon parties are invariably memorable for something very witty that was said, or for some thing very wise that was done. But seldom spare a word for what was eaten” (10). Secondly, I thought of Woolf’s description of Oxbridge’s luncheon, in which she went into great detail about the “soles, sunk in deep dish, over which the college cook had spread a counterpane of the whitest cream” (10). How decadent when compared to the woman’s college meal of “…the soup. It was plain gravy soup” (Woolf 17). Her sentence length even shortens in her description of the woman’s college to bring attention to the small, chopped up inadequacy found there. Here again she uses form to make her point ring clear. She’s illustrating the difference between what it is to be a woman studying at her time and what it is to be a man. She gives long, drawn out descriptions of food in order to illustrate how rich men are. She then illustrates how poor women are, how their poverty affects their ability to write well or write badly accordingly, with short stubby sentences, almost choked. I am incredibly fortunate to live in a time when I am able to attend the same universities as men, where I can study such things as Literature and Creative Writing. Though, oddly enough, I am not wealthy enough to buy food from the campus eateries. I’ve gotten hideously off topic, where was I?
Here I am, Andrea Conwright or Loretta Davies or any other name you would like to assign me, sitting at a table in the midst of a library full of academic looking books and students, starring into my computer screen. I get up to browse the shelves looking for the section on Virginia Woolf. I have a nagging hunger in my stomach and a reoccurring thought of how am I going to pay the rent? I come across the biography Lyndall Gordon wrote, Virginia Woolf: A Writers Life. It really does not help me in my search for interruptions except in understanding who the person Virginia Woolf was and what her life was like in order for her to come up with such an argument. She was not educated in the traditional sense of going to a university, as I am now privileged to be so doing. Instead she stayed home and read books from her family’s library. She also would have had a great interest in the Victorian Era woman writers cannon due to her parents’ involvement in the art world during that time. Apparently, her mother was a model for the Pre-Raphaelites. Was Woolf’s mother at all like Christina Rossetti’s unfortunate sister-in-law, Elizabeth Siddal? Coincidently they did both pass untimely.
I move away from the books and back to the computer with a database full of academic published articles. I am having the hardest time concentrating, just like Woolf’s narrator was when she sat down to research at the British Museum. It occurs to me as I look out of the many glass windows that today is not unlike the day in London that the narrator describes as “The day, though not actual wet, was dismal…” (26). I look around and find a young man that matches the description of the young man at the museum; he is so satisfied with himself writing away and hummhumming to himself.
His smug academic air gives me a wave of inspiration. I come across an article by Anne Fernald entitled A Room of One’s Own, Personal Criticism, and the Essay. Although it had many good pieces of information, I was only able to find one paragraph of use. She starts off the paragraph with “…the interruptions of A Room of One’s Own are not the highly controlled interruptions of a philosophical dialogue with oneself” I find that very interesting (Fernald 179). Here I thought that they were controlled interruptions, I suppose not- are my interruptions not controlled then? If they are not controlled at least let them reflect another of Woolf’s devices or forms: stream of consciousness. Fernald picks out the interruption of the “Oxbridge beadle who has the position and power to wave the narrator off the turf or to demand to see her is [sic] permit to the library” (Fernald 179). Fernald goes on to impart “As important as these indignities are in themselves, more important is that the resulting interruption causes Mary Beton to forget what she had been thinking: “What idea it had been that had sent me so audaciously trespassing I could not now remember” (Fernald 179). The interruption indeed is the more distressing loss.
The most poignant point Fernald makes in her paragraph pertaining to the interruption acts within Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is, “The intrusions serve the argument of A Room of One’s Own as they could serve no other; they are Woolf’s best evidence of the frustration of being interrupted” (Fernald 179). I could not agree more. Have I not been feeling the same frustration of interruption through out this entire essay? It was so good to finally come across real information written by a woman that is coherent and to the point. Fernald further extrapolates on her argument of form aiding intention: “That is, the good which comes from anger at being expelled from the grass or the library is Woolf’s ability to articulate the connection between patriarchal oppression and the loss of a thought” (Fernald 179). Brilliant! Now this was something of a break through. Narrative form is the only way that Woolf could have expressed this injustice. If she had just written it plainly as Fernald had in her critique Woolf may not have been taken seriously or her readers may have felt as though their heads were being pushed down by a thick voice saying listen to me listen to me!
The last nugget of truth I would like to share from Fernald’s essay pertains to the reader’s ability to feel the loss Woolf’s narrator experienced: “Readers feel the loss of the thought acutely: first analytically, as readers of an argument; then, sympathetically, as readers following a character’s effort to construct an argument” (Fernald 179). I feel such sympathy with Virginia Woolf’s narrator at this moment as I grasp to polish off my argument. My cell phone rings and it’s my boyfriend- apparently our last rent check bounced. I’ll have to push that down and out if I’m ever going to get any writing done today.
If Woolf’s argument of space and money is still relevant to me, I’ll bet I’m not the only woman writer in this predicament of interruption. To that end, I stumble across another article this one by another Anne: Anne Aronson, “Composing in a Material World: Women Writing in Space and Time.” That sounds like a course in woman’s studies. Aronson’s essay appears to be the analysis of the finding from a case study performed on adult female student writers. The study includes woman of all different backgrounds. I look down at my watch: I only have an hour before I need to go check in on my ageing Grandmother. I wish I didn’t have to today. A wave of shame floods over me. I can be so selfish. In the midst of my thoughts, my eyes roll over the section Writing in Time. Aronson discusses how the women in her case study share the same feelings of guilt in respect to the time they spend on their writing instead of with their families, “The fact that women feel guilty when their roles conflict is news to no one; my point is that these conflicts are acted out hour by hour minute by minute, within the specific concrete material conditions in which women write” (295). Validation! I was right, other woman are facing the same issues I am. I read further to where Aronson writes about how most of the women in her study write in public family spaces such as the kitchen or living room. These women are constantly interrupted and watched over. I feel this same way at my grandmother’s house and in my own home, I do not have a space that I can write in that is off limits to the rest of the household. Is this because I’m a woman? Aronson articulates the concept of being watched over as an interruption act, “When the women in my study write in public spaces within the home, they not only face the challenges of trying to concentrate in a bustling environment, but they are also subject to surveillance by others” (Aronson 290). My hour is running out, I best get on with it then.
I am still sitting in the library and the hummhumming gentleman has gotten up and left, the day is still dismal. New people are sitting where he was and I’m struck with the reality of time passing. How much time has passed since Virginia Woolf wrote and published A Room of One’s Own? Eighty years have passed. I recall an argument Woolf makes about creating ‘woman writing.’ Have woman been able to accomplish everything Woolf set out? Authors like Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Anne Lamott come to mind, they have accomplished what Woolf was looking for. I would say women have come a long way and have been recognized for their talents as woman writers. I have a few more minutes so I’ll search around for some other woman’s opinions on the matter. Here’s an article Shakespeare’s Daughters by Rachel Cusk in The Guardian. How funny, I believe Virginia Woolf wrote for the Guardian at some point. Cusk asserts her opinion about “woman writing”, “…it seems to me that “women’s writing” by nature would not seek equivalence in the male world. It would be a writing that sought to express a distinction, not deny it.” She goes on in great detail about “woman writing” being the book of repetition appose to the masculine book of change. But does she have anything to say about the interruption act? Here we are: “What compromises women – babies, domesticity, mediocrity – compromises writing even more. She is on the right side of that compromise – just.” A contemporary woman writer for the Guardian holds Woolf’s argument to still be true. She is arguing on the same side of Aronson. Cusk goes on, “Her own life is one of freedom and entitlement, though her mother’s was probably not.” Again very interesting, does she mean to be a ‘mother’ means to not be an accomplished writer? My phone is ringing, it’s Grandma.
Before I head off to help out Grandma and deal with my rent situation I’ll leave you with this: I agree with Virginia Woolf’s narrator one must have a room of one’s own and money in order to write well. Woolf used narrative form very effectively to illustrate her argument that a woman must have a room of her own and be financially stable in order to write fiction well. She used her form to illustrate how when one does not have the luxury of space and money one is often interrupted. It was not just physical interruptions like the Oxbridge beetle but psychological interruptions like the ones I have put down on paper for you, making the rent and feeding one’s self. Further, I am not alone in my difficult situation. Many, if not all, woman writers are experiencing interruptions eighty years hence Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own publication. It is good to note we have produced writers like Didion, Morrison and the like in the mean time. As far as my writing is concerned- I am aware of the obstacles set out in front of me, keeping me from writing the best work that I am capable of. It is now my decision whether or not to hold onto guilt or hold onto my desire to write. Only time will tell- my Grandmother is calling again. It’s time to say good bye and good luck!
Aronson, Anne. “Composing in a Material World: Women Writing in Space and Time.” Rhetoric review 17.2 (1999):282. Web.
Cusk, Rachel. “Shakespeare’s Daughters” The Guardian: guardian.co.uk. (2009): 12 December 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/dec/12/rachel-cusk- women-writing-review. Web.
Fernald, Anne. “A Room of One’s Own, Personal Criticism, and the Essay.” Twentieth Century Literature 40.2 (1994):165. Web.
Gordon, Lydall. Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life. London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1982. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. New York: A Harvest Book Harcourt Brace & Company, 1989. Print.