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A Room of One's Own, by Virginia Woolf
Episode 216th April 2021 • Breaking Down Patriarchy • Amy McPhie Allebest
00:00:00 01:50:16

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Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Today we will be discussing A Room of One’s Own, published in 1929, by Virginia Woolf. This book has a very different tone than the other books we’ve read so far - whereas other texts have undertaken the work of illuminating lost history, or calling societies to action, or cutting through philosophical error with the sharp knife of reason, Virginia Woolf’s work is like talking with a friend or hearing the internal dialogue in your own head. This book is very much in the moment of 1929 England, but it’s also timeless in her stream-of-consciousness observations about what it feels like to be a thinking woman. I found A Room of One’s Own to be absolutely essential reading - I thought it was informative and kind of infuriating, but also validating and healing. And I can’t wait to discuss it with my reading partner today, Susannah Furr. Hi, Susannah!

Susannah: Hi, Amy!

Amy: I am so so excited to have you here, Susannah. Susannah and I met in 2005 when my husband was completing his MBA and her husband was completing his PhD in Technology Strategy at Stanford. Our families were living in student housing, and Susannah had just had her fourth baby and I was pregnant with my third, in the tiniest little student apartments. But we shared these huge, glorious courtyards with other student families from all over the world, and our kids would ride their bikes and play imaginative games in the sandbox and just basically run feral from sunup to sundown. Susannah and I became dear friends in the courtyard, and also on morning runs around campus, where we would talk and talk about every subject under the sun. But we haven’t lived in the same country for a long time and I’ve really missed you, so I’m super excited to have this time with you today. Could you start off by telling us about yourself? Where you’re from, what you love, and just some things that make you you?

Sus: I share the fond memories, Amy!  It was a really unique time and we made the most of it--I loved our conversations and am looking forward to this one.  


I was born in 1973 in LA while my dad was in med school--the 4th of what would end up to be a family of 8 kids. At age 2 my family moved to a small town in SW Washington where I lived until my family moved to Provo, Utah when I was a junior in high school.  I went to BYU where I met my husband, Nathan, during freshman year in a writing class and we joined a writing project together about zombies. We both served LDS missions (his in Ontario and Quebec and mine in Netherlands and Flemish-speaking Belgium) and then got married in October 1996 just three months after getting home. I was really prepared to stay at home with kids and love it--I think I wanted five. My mom had been such a cozy loving force in my and my siblings’ lives and made it look so easy... but ultimately stay-at-home motherhood tortured me from the beginning for many reasons we can get into later. My Mom studied English Literature at university and is a great writer...  which is something I’m grateful for because it encouraged my own love of the humanities which I studied as an undergrad.  And then again as a masters student in Art History--a degree I started after about a five year break from university during which time I had my first two kids and realized I really wasn’t cut out for being at home all day with kids while living in Boston where Nathan worked two years as a management consultant….) So we had moved back to Provo so that Nathan could start an MBA--a good but cheap one--before going on to pursue a PhD in Business. And I was able to last minute join the program I had applied to five years earlier but never started.  It was an exhilarating time in my life as I literally squeezed my reading, writing and studying for exams into tiny little slots of time in between kids naps and preschool shifts.  We also had our third baby during that time.  


Having learned that I was much happier as a woman and mother when I had a side project to motherhood, I started a clothing line when Nathan started his PhD….It was a really fun challenge and I learned a lot about myself and gained a lot of confidence that has served me so well--it took so much courage to set up fabric accounts in New York and London and work on pattern design with my bossy San Francisco but New Jersey native pattern maker...I loved it but that side project ultimately needed way more time than I felt good about giving it and I had a semi nervous breakdown one dark night pre-christmas in 2007.  I remember saying “when did I last really look in beatrix’s eyes?” (she was my youngest and had been born right during my first go at my brand which pregnancy ended up being at risk and I had to put everything on hold while I was on bedrest from 20 weeks till she was born pre-term at 34 weeks).  Since that time at Stanford when we were neighbors, our family lived for seven years in Utah where Nathan had a tenure track position at BYU in the business school which life we ultimately outgrew ...and in a reverse pioneer fashion from my ancestors who came to the USA from England, Wales, and Denmark for religious freedom, we moved to France 5 ½ years ago. Living here with all its delights and destructions has been terribly hard and brilliant at the same time.  We love it and can’t imagine moving anywhere else...although we do love adventure and travel and also love our kids and if they all choose US addresses we might be tempted back in some fashion.   My oldest two kids have graduated high school: the oldest is studying computer science in Michigan, the second lives at home with us while studying art in Paris and my two youngest are still in high school.


I am currently working on two research projects with Nathan that I feel so strongly about. The Earnest Project is an attempt to find, spend time with and understand better the lives and philosophies of people who tend to display the gravity of traits we are calling “earnest” for lack of a better word.  (i.e. mindful, wholehearted, diligent, passionate, authentic, and principled etc.)  That project was well underway--attending literary festivals, visiting artist ateliers, factories etc) when the pandemic grounded our itinerary and we started Uncertainty Possibility or UP School which is both a book and workshops to help people transform their relationship with change and live into all the possibility that is just on the other side of uncertainty. 


Amy: Wow, Susannah. I am so grateful for that introduction, and I wish we had time to go down like 75 different rabbit holes to ask you more questions about your path. I’m especially excited about the Earnest Project and “Uncertainty Possibility” School - those are two projects that I would have interest in no matter who was doing it, but knowing that you and Nathan are the architects makes me want to sign up right now and pre-order your book! 


But another question I am going to ask is why you were interested in participating in doing an episode on Breaking Down Patriarchy.


Sus: 

Whenever I get goosebumps I have to take note; on reading about your project and skimming the texts that you would cover I had both the good kind and bad kind.  I get reaaaaallllllllllyyyyyyyy queasy around patriarchy so I’m totally down with breaking it down ;) and I felt so thrilled for you and for what you would bring to light in your research and discussions which undoubtedly will encourage and liberate listeners. So it was an honor to be included and also that feeling of “this is a team I want to be on.”  As far as this particular text goes, I hadn’t read it yet and have become a bit obsessed with Virginia Woolf over the past few years.  It’s been a slow crescendo but a couple things influencing my curiosity were the Overlook Press Illustrated Lives booklet by Mary Ann Caws which had some fascinating details and haunting photos and then my stumbling upon Charleston House in East Sussex which is a home Virigina actually found and recommended to her older sister and best friend, Vanessa, who with other artists lived, painted, created and designed an amazing interior world and where Virginia spent a lot of time among many other notable guests such as T.S Eliot, and E.M Forester. I have visited twice and keep wanting to return.


Amy: Well that gives me goosebumps, Sus, because I didn’t know you had a special interest in Woolf, or had been to her house, but when I sent you the list I hoped you would choose Woolf, because whenever I think of the phrase “A Room of One’s Own” I picture you!! I remember you in your tiny little student apartment, with your four children sleeping in bunk beds next to each other - I think you called it “the barracks” - and you carved out a teensy little space for yourself where you started your company, with fabrics and magazines and inspiration photos on the wall. I remember going up there and seeing your space and being mystified - kind of a feeling of “how did you know how to do this? How did you know that you could? How did you give yourself permission?” You were sooooo far ahead of me on that path, and I am so grateful for your example.


So let’s start by learning a little about the author of this famous, iconic book, Virginia Woolf.


Amy


This bio is taken mostly from the inside cover of A Room of One’s Own, and it says:


Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in Kensington, London, England in 1882. Her father, Leslie Stephen, was a respected man of letters, and as a young girl Woolf was introduced to many literary figures, including Henry James. Woolf also made great use of the family’s vast library, working her way through much of the English literary canon as a teenager. Her summers were spent in St. Ives, Cornwall, which would later form the setting for her famous novel, To the Lighthouse. [And I have to throw in that listeners should definitely read To the Lighthouse]


In 1895, when Woolf was just thirteen, her mother died, triggering the first of many mental breakdowns. Starting at the age of 15, Virginia’s father and his doctor claimed that reading and writing made her nervous condition worse, and prescribed a regime of physical labour such as gardening to prevent a total nervous collapse. This led Woolf to a lifetime of obsessively engaging in physical labour, which often made her anxiety worse. 


Between 1897 and 1901 she was able to take courses in Greek, Latin, German and history at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London. (It’s worth noting that after attending public school, all of Virginia’s brothers attended Cambridge University. In contrast, the girls in the family were homeschooled, and Virginia was lucky to go to the Ladies Department of King’s College.) After graduating from King’s College she began publishing work with the Times Literary Supplement. However, in 1904, following the death of her father, Woolf suffered another breakdown, which led to her being institutionalized. 


Following her discharge, Woolf and her sister and brother moved from their family home to a new home in Bloomsbury. It was here that Woolf met Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster and various other writers and intellectuals, who together would form the famous Bloomsbury Set. In 1912, Virginia married the author Leonard Woolf, who nursed her through another breakdown and a suicide attempt. Woolf published her first novel, The Voyage Out, in 1915. This, as well as various essays, quickly established her as a major public intellectual. 


During the twenties, Woolf published the novels that established her as a leading figure of modernism and one of the greatest British novelists of the 20th Century. She published Mrs. Dalloway in 1925, To the Lighthouse in 1927, and Orlando in 1928. 


Woolf was also a popular speaker, and on October 20th and 26th, 1928, she delivered speeches to two student societies at Cambridge University. She later combined these speeches into an extended essay with six chapters, and published it in book form in September, 1929, as A Room of One’s Own.


Stylistically, Woolf experimented with a lyrical stream-of-consciousness narrative mode, and is now considered - along with fellow modernist James Joyce - one of the finest innovators in the English language. Her work has been translated in fifty languages, and her major novels have never been out of print. 


After completing her last novel, Between the Acts, Woolf fell into a period of deep depression - exacerbated by the onset of World War II and the destruction of her home during the Blitz. On March 28, 1941, fearing total mental collapse, Woolf drowned herself by filling her overcoat pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse near her home. She was 59 years old.


I also think it’s important to add that Virginia Woolf was a survivor of sexual abuse. Virginia’s family was a blended family of eight children, and she had two older half brothers who molested Virginia from the time she was 6 years old until she moved out of the house at age 23. This abuse is well-documented, as Virginia wrote about it in her journals and multiple biographers and historians have written about it and made attempts at analyzing the effect this had on her mental and emotional state throughout her life. I think it’s an important detail to include, given the nature of Woolf’s work, and in general I believe in de-stigmatizing abuse by talking about it. 


So that’s Virginia Woolf - she was a genius and she changed English literature forever, and if you want a multimedia experience, I also recommend listening to the Indigo Girls’ song, “Virginia Woolf,” which makes me cry every time.


---


Allebest: Ok, let’s dive into the text. 


Amy: Chapter One


[The very first sentence introduces Woolf’s style. She had been asked to give a lecture on “women and fiction,” and she begins with:] 

When you asked me to speak about women and fiction I sat down on the banks of a river and began to wonder what the words meant. ...the first duty of a lecturer (is) to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece forever. All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point - a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction, and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved. (7-8)


Right off the bat I’m going to introduce a more recent voice to the conversation:

Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, responded to Woolf's observation that only women with 'a room of their own' are in a position to write. Woolf herself was making the point that not all women in her society had such a safe space, but Walker continues the conversation by discussing the further exclusions and difficulty suffered by women of color. In her 1983 book In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose, Walker writes:


Virginia Woolf, in her book A Room of One's Own, wrote that in order for a woman to write fiction she must have two things, certainly: a room of her own (with key and lock) and enough money to support herself. What then are we to make of Phillis Wheatley, a slave, who owned not even herself? This sickly, frail, Black girl who required a servant of her own at times—her health was so precarious—and who, had she been white, would have been easily considered the intellectual superior of all the women and most of the men in the society of her day.

This is an important place to start, because it does highlight the limitations of Woolf’s point of view as a well-to-do person in a country where she is not a racial minority. Walker seems to point out that it’s not as easy as just “getting your own room and getting money” for many, many women. And she reminds us that women like Phyllis Wheatley and others have persisted against great odds to produce works of genius and Art.

With that said, of course it would benefit all thinkers and artists - to have a quiet space and time to work, and an income. And that has been an obstacle for many thinkers and artists throughout the ages, especially for women, and especially for people of color, and for all people who struggle with poverty. 


One of my favorite quotes from Chapter 1 is: “At any rate, when a subject is highly controversial--and any question about sex is that--one cannot hope to tell the truth.  One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold.” And the question she has focused on that led her to the opinion she holds is : what is the force behind this massively diff experience between the sexes? (barred out and locked in, meals, libraries, turf, money, ideas) and luxury of privacy and space.

I love this because she’s not being hysterical or bossy and admits from the outset the complexity of this predicament, millions of years in the making, between the sexes. With her stream of consciousness mapping out exactly what happened to her--both in her private thoughts and in her conversations and even what she ate and where it was eaten--she takes you along in her little side car and by the end you can’t help but see the ‘truth’ of her two requisites for a woman writing fiction: the freedom that comes with space and money.(4) 

Yes, exactly. I love that you chose that quote because it does distill it down to those essential themes: women need freedom, space, and money. 

And she illustrates these themes by continually telling a story. And she brings the listener in almost like a confidante as she goes through her day.

[She starts by telling how she was sitting by a riverbank at “Oxbridge” - which is a term people use that combines Oxford and Cambridge University - thinking about these speeches and trying to brainstorm ideas. She describes the process of thinking of an idea like fishing, dangling a line down into the mind and waiting for a tug. She says how a thought came tugging at her line. She pulled it up and tried to examine the thought, and as she was thinking, she got up and started strolling across the lawn.] “Instantly a man’s figure rose to intercept me. Nor did I at first understand that the gesticulations of a curious-looking object in a cut-away coat and evening shirt, were aimed at me. His face expressed horror and indignation. Instinct rather than reason came to my help,...

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