Virginia Woolf's attempt to answer the question of why literary history boasts so few female geniuses is celebrated as a feminist text, but less often remarked upon are its ingenuities of form and style. A narrative essay in which Woolf makes use of "all the liberties and licences of a novelist", A Room of One's Own fictionalises the thought processes that led the author to her conclusions ("Yet it seemed absurd, I thought, turning over the evening paper, that a man with all this power should be angry").
And what conclusions are those? First and foremost, that the key factor holding women back was poverty: “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. Woolf’s argument concerns wealth and class as well as gender. (Idea for a polemic relating Dublin’s housing crisis to the impoverishment of its intellectual culture: A Gaff of One’s Own). She enjoins women writers “by hook or by crook” to get their hands on “money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream”.
To Woolf, great poetry flows from minds unimpeded by anger or bitterness: “incandescence” is the signal property of artistic flourishing. Works that betray their author’s personal grudges – the “desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score” – are doomed to a fatal sterility. And so, paradoxically, women writers (widening the polemic, we might include working-class writers, gay writers and so on) can incandesce only when they transcend their self-conscious identity as women writers – and money helps.
The beauty of A Room of One's Own is that it exemplifies the serenity of mind that Woolf insists is the defining quality of all great artists. Her limpid and graceful essay is not only about securing the material conditions required to write in peace – it's also about self-overcoming.