The beauty of Woolf’s essay-lectures lies in her drifting, in the stream of her consciousness — the only river, it seems, that she can languish next to undisturbed; the one she often disappears into, stones in her pocket; the river later disastrously actualised as a kind of objective correlative.
It is intriguing that many seem to take her at her word, affirming the desire for “a room of one’s own”, disregarding the reality that this pronouncement is one she openly struggles with, acknowledging this desire as an insufficient solution but perhaps one of the few new options now in reach for women after the explosive social adaptations forced through by suffrage.
The tension is also just outside the text itself, which we recognise as a kind of fictionalised recollection, surely thought but not written on the riverbanks of Oxbridge but rather in some isolated corner of a flat, a house, a cottage, even though nothing written here directly describes the stasis of a room, a chair, a desk. It is the liminal space of literature, where even in writing Woolf records lapses of concentration, detailing caricatures drawn absentmindedly in the margins of old white men’s faces; and always food — what is ordered, digested, walked off; meals imagined or consumed, it is hard to say.
It is money, of course, that allows her to wander, gives her the freedom to look at the world not with “fear and bitterness”, nor even “pity and toleration” — though she must consciously process both these tendencies when they inevitably arise — but rather savouring the “freedom to think of things in themselves.” And Woolf’s privileged existence is never far from her mind. Though she acknowledges the luck of her circumstances — a life funded by an annual inheritance bequeathed from an aunt who fell from a horse — she is all too aware how fragile life is; how a life explored, and the time necessary to explore it, are an exceptionally rare thing, for the women of her time especially. Even though so many things have improved for women, she writes, to no longer be “the protected sex” comes with its own complications, which may not lead to more freedom but more acceptance in a wider world of servitude, further caught up in the web of capital; women’s labour no longer abstracted but recognised, but remaining a labour that restricts life nonetheless.
This is a reality no doubt familiar to us, and today especially, where consciousness of the material conditions that govern our lives are more explicit than ever before in the popular imagination. The bullshit jobs, the drudgery, the time-poverty. Women continue to bear the brunt of so much social labour, but still the material conditions of womanhood remain a fraught topic of conversation. So often online this debate, over-amplified despite the myopia of social media, returns to the biological essentialism that Woolf herself would have surely had no time for. What she dreads, it seems, is the ascendance of womanhood from a kind of “protected sex” to a kind of “protected occupation”, in which there is little room for imagining womanhood otherwise. This is surely why the questions of women and literature are so entwined for her. Both are fragile, fleeting, malleable — for better and for worse. The space of literature, the role of fiction in women’s lives, she writes
is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners … Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, seem to hang there completely by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.
I often think about how I first started to write, first began to play the game of writing. At university, I was a typical student of photography. Writing was secondary. Most essays were written hurriedly in the dead of the night before, fueled by caffeine and cigarettes, each chained irresponsibly and anti-socially in my tiny cupboard of a room on campus. When it came to writing my dissertation, however, I found a love of the commitment to a longer process, the commitment necessary to do it well. The shift from short 1500-word essays to what then felt like a 10,000-word tome was electrifying. I loved the days, the weeks spent working on nothing else. But on graduating, writing was hard. Unemployment provided little room for rumination and reflection, incapable of thinking about anything other than where my next paltry payment would come from. Moving to Cardiff, desperate for work in a city I knew better, at that point, than my own hometown, I found a job as an “exhibitions officer”. I was the key holder to a photography gallery in Penarth, responsible for cleaning, tidying, greeting visitors who were often few and far between. The empty time afforded me a space to write in, tethered to a desk and finding that activity to be the only thing, some days, that felt fulfilling. I would eat and write, eat and write, sedentary, getting fat on Tesco meal deals and ideas, quite unhappy but employed and occupied with thoughts that were my own.
I later lost that job, which was always somewhat precarious. But by that time I knew I wanted to return to university, having the time but not the community in which to develop my ideas, craving the intensity of that environment where I felt real progress could be made. Writing began to feel like an occupation soon enough, even if it meant I was never paid for it (or that any of my work was ever actually published). Another student loan at least provided some degree of comfort, though certainly not enough in a city like London, through which I was able to respond to texts, contexts, largely performing the idea of a life desired, which required an anxiety-inducing buy-in, the investment of other people’s money; an experience full of confusion, false confidence, emboldened by the only true wealth I had, which was doled out in time — and even then, only twelve months — but which also only expanded the abstract weight of debt to a society that cared relatively little for the work undertaken.
Another job in exhibitions followed my second graduation, and with the habit of time-theft well established, I found the time to write a book. The blog took off too. But still the low-level anxiety underlying everything — financial concerns, strained relationships, grief and bereavement, a desperate attempt to carve out the life I wanted against the strictures of my material conditions. I fell into a depression, feeling like the thing I loved to do was its own form of self-sabotage, a way of picking holes in the life I was expected to be content within. I remember the isolation felt, especially at work — the inability to talk to anyone about myself or how I felt, hiding self-inflicted wounds at sweltering office parties during the summer months, only finding connection with colleagues outside the office with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. No one questioned this self-sabotaging behaviour or seemed to acknowledge it as a symptom of something much deeper. In the end, I was let go from that job; an opportune moment arose where I was told that my contract would not be renewed due to building refurbishments and budget cuts, various excuses made, only to see the job advertised again a month or two later. I wish they’d just been honest with me; then again, I wish I could have been honest with them as well.
Every bout of writing, every burst of productivity, always the same material circumstances. I have wondered repeatedly whether I can count writing as an illness, as a psychological compulsion, as a symptom. But perhaps it is more true to say that the strange temporality of ill-health has been the only time I have felt truly in possession of the time required to think for myself. Financial stability helps; at least having enough to live on. But a room of one’s own? I write in beer gardens, parks, public houses. Work in an office of any kind is uninspiring. I do not need a room but rather the room to drift, internally and externally.