“Having a room of one’s own is a desire, but also a control.” A seemingly throwaway remark toward the end of Gilles Deleuze’s preface to The Policing of Families, the 1977 work by Jacques Donzelot, but one that nonetheless seems scathing. What is it to find a room of one’s own in a house of uneasy dwelling? To carve out an enclave within rather than an exit without?
Virginia Woolf, in her essay A Room of One’s Own, is hardly unaware of this tension herself. To say simply that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”, she argues, still “leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved.” The opinion nonetheless explored is one buoyed by prejudices that Woolf, in the first person, acknowledges may only be “true” to her; such is the “I” of her narrative, her speech, her position: “only a convenient term for something who has no real being.”
Her assertion is a kind of meta-provocation, in which an affirmation of a space for women’s writing may do nothing more than further call woman and literature themselves into question — and that is no doubt the point. If literature and woman, as two subjects, are defined in any way, it is thanks to men. To talk of women and fiction in tandem is to necessarily unground both. And Woolf, of course, does this throughout all of her novels, but she is not the singular barometer of a world in which the answers given to these questions may be better for women and literature, or worse.
Woolf begins her essay with the beautiful narrative of having a thought — a thought on the riverbanks of Oxbridge, a fictionalised amalgamation of those two elitist institutions and their environs. She is first moved on from her perch in the grounds for clearly, as a woman, not being a Fellow or Scholar. She heads to one of the fabled libraries instead, somewhat absentmindedly, under no pretense she will be anymore welcome there, but daydreaming of Thackeray’s manuscripts and pulled towards that document of a work then in progress. She is once again turned away as a woman unaccompanied.
To strive for a room of one’s own quickly becomes a desire for a protected space where she will not be bothered, in which she can develop a new self, a new mode of thought, set apart from the cloistered environment of the masculine university, already a kind of museum erected to the Great Texts of Great Men. “As I leant against the wall”, she writes, “the University indeed seemed like a sanctuary in which are preserved here types which would soon be obsolete if left to fight for existence on the pavement of the Strand.” How little seems to have changed. Or at least how more inhospitable universities have become for anyone who might have found their way inside and set about rearranging the furniture. But lest we forget how Woolf also felt spurned from without, by the world at large.
What is most affirming is that Woolf produces a work of literature regardless, and this essay in particular is a beautiful document of a frustrated meander. She describes the splendor of architectural exteriors, nature, a luncheon had, a talk heard, cats encountered or dreamt of, poems remembered, the war recently waged, the social changes that have made the patriarchal traditions of the colleges all the more jarring and stultifying. She ruminates on the impossibility of poetry after the First World War, but also the poetry written anyway, that hardly resonates like Tennyson or Rossetti once did, at least to her mind, but which still strives to “express a feeling that is actually being made and torn out of us at the moment.”
I can’t help but think of my own recent trips to Oxford, visiting a friend who was studying there last year. Much to my surprise, I fell in love with the place — with the walks from Wolfson College into town, breaking free from our small group to indulge in solitary hours at Blackwell’s, then on the various college greens, reading the imagists. I bought some paperback Durrell’s there, in an Oxfam charity shop: the original Faber editions with covers that have yet to be bettered, even sullied by recent reissues with more complacent designs. We visited Tolkien’s home, the home of T.E. Lawrence. So many Oxford men, who still cast canonical shadows over its contemporary women, who require no comparison but who are yet to leave their marks on the bricks and mortar that record things in centuries, not years or decades, seemingly untouched by the rapid changes of more recent times.
At that time I was formulating a PhD proposal on photography’s influence on imagism. I reached out to Rebecca Beasley, read Merve Emre’s various essays; later, Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex. Emre’s introduction to The Annotated Mrs Dalloway, in particular, is something I have returned to often over the year or so since. But still, despite my excitement over the prospect of interacting with current faculty, being there was jarring, a daydream of another life, of other circumstances. What I found most attractive about Oxford, having had a series of tumultuous academic experiences, was that I felt in this place I would be looked after, taken care of. Life felt slower under the eye of Oxford’s histories; elongated; calming. Funding felt like a prize, an opportunity; not a blurred line between self-directed study and ill-defined wage-labour.
I’m still trying to process the pull of that institution — a place that never even entered my mind as a prospective undergraduate. The lure of a postgraduate experience there was like something of an escape, a retreat into its past, no matter how fraught and inhospitable it has been to peoples the world over. An impulse, like so many, that is more than worthy of questioning.
But it wasn’t to be. My PhD proposal was ultimately uncoached and unsuccessful — expensive too, having paid £70 for the honour of a rejection. Despite the dream, it still felt inaccessible, inhospitable, impenetrable. Of course, it is hardly worth prevaricating over my experiences in the context of Woolf’s own, regardless of how I may feel about my own gender identity. To be read as a man, even a failed one, is one thing; a woman, quite another. In Oxford, I felt read in other fragmented ways. I felt newly aware of a less than certain class position. And of course, the transgressive traditions, the excess, the expenditures. Sitting in the park with Hilda Doolittle, the silence was periodically interrupted by young students engaging in the supposedly banned tradition of “trashing” — covering those who emerge from exam halls in their customary gowns for the final time in food, paint, alcohol, confetti, water, foam, silly string. You would see evidence of these convulsions everywhere, staining pavements like students had spontaneously combusted, human piñatas of privilege rigged to blow. The joy expressed and the relief felt after three years of study was relatable, but the thought that overwhelmed on seeing this spectacle, in action or after the fact, was always how much these suits must cost, and the recollection of care taken at graduations over the years not to ruin rented gowns donned only for a few hours, as if it is the rest of us plebs that can’t be trusted, must be overseen, policed, watched, whilst those with money act with an abandon and sense of release that students elsewhere are ridiculed and more strictly disciplined for.
Woolf cannot separate past from present as she wanders through Oxbridge. Ever aware of the injustice of it all, the sad machinations of imperial capital that have left indelible marks and yet nonetheless become something fascinating to contemplate. And always the conspicuous absence of women from history’s making, which frustrates and alienates. (“[W]e must burst out in scorn at the reprehensible poverty of our sex”, she insists, defiant as she continues to wander the grounds alone.) No matter what is being discussed, the past fascinates, seduces and obfuscates in equal measure, but always tethered to violent hierarchies. “One might be talking of Spain or Portugal, of book or racehorse, but the real interest of whatever was said was none of those things, but a scene of masons on a high roof some five centuries ago.” It is men who laid the foundation, and men who still control access to the rooms that now populate the grounds.
Money leaves its sickly residue over everything — everything that is and everything that is to come. Woolf imagines what life might be like if women had had the same opportunity to learn “the great art of making money and had left their money, like their fathers and grandfathers before them, to found fellowships and lectureships and prizes and scholarships appropriate to the use of their own sex.” Perhaps we know something more of that imagined world now, and yet we must still recognise how insufficient it is. In this sense, it is easy to judge Woolf’s text as lacking today, incapable of thinking beyond the grasp of capital. Compared to novels like The Waves or To the Lighthouse, though no less enchanting in its comparable stream-of-consciousness style, A Room of One’s Own almost feels conservative from the perspective of the present. But still, the other works she produced imagine so much more — a world not just beyond sexual difference but the self as such. This is the attraction of Oxbridge’s history, no doubt, to a few. Many go to make their name; for others its grandeur is fertile ground for eluding the present and its selves altogether. This feels like the lure of postgraduate study in these hallowed halls that similarly captured my attention, dreaming of and desiring the enclosure of upper-class protectionism.
But that may be because we live in even stranger times now. I am reminded, as ever, of Mark Fisher’s remark: “Only prisoners have time to read, and if you want to engage in a twenty-year long research project funded by the state, you will have to kill someone.” This is undoubtedly the new world that Deleuze and Donzelot saw puncturing Woolf’s adage. A room of one’s own might just as easily be a cell — monastic and scholarly, at its most ascetic and romantic; or the very antithesis of freedom in a more carceral sense. This contradiction now defines us — all of us. Today we seek to enhance the capture of social beings, if only on the promise of “other” freedoms. Woolf herself articulates the paradox well, with a sorry sense of resignation: how it is so “unpleasant… to be locked out… how it is worse perhaps to be locked in.”