“Anything may happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation.”
– Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
Reading Virginia Woolf is a journey. For me, it started with To the Lighthouse in college. I fell in love with the novel’s beautiful language and the way she conveys the passage of time through unconventional means. It was a promising start and so I moved on to the well-known Mrs. Dalloway. In this book, Woolf captures the spirit of London, revealing that despite various infrastructural changes to the city over the past 92 years, the soul of London’s character remains the same. There is a frenetic quality to her descriptions as Mrs. Dalloway embarks across London to buy her own flowers. The text comes to life off the page and I found myself continually stopping to read passages aloud to my (very patient) husband. I was enchanted and so, I moved on to The Waves, which is now my favorite of her novels.
As I read The Waves, the most experimental of the three novels, it felt like I had been caught in a Virginia Woolf whirlpool, spinning deeper and deeper into the heart of her avant-garde style. The Waves follows the inner monologues of six characters as they progress through their lives, beginning with their childhoods and following them up through adulthood. Each character has a distinct voice and as their storylines intertwine, Woolf builds the overall picture through the combination of their perspectives. The part that struck me most about this book is how she weaves in seemly unrelated passages describing the sea at various points in the day. I soon came to discover that nature fits in like a puzzle piece in the overall picture Woolf creates with The Waves, setting the tone for how we read the characters at various stages in their lives. Symbolically, the turmoil of the sea reflects their inner feelings and acts as a deciphering tool for the novel. These are the kind of novels that go below the surface and beyond mere intellect; they speak to your soul.
A year or so after reading The Waves, I picked up Orlando: A Biography. I knew this book would be strange and I was right. I thought, if any book can top The Waves this time-bending, gender-defying tribute to Woolf’s friend and lover would be the one. Perhaps, I set my expectations too high, but I found myself disappointed in Orlando. I knew the book was a satire and expected the comedic tone. While I did find its jabbing humor entertaining, I couldn’t help but feel that something was missing. It’s not that Orlando lacks depth, quite the contrary, as Woolf insightfully philosophizes about gender roles and social customs throughout the novel. It’s more that these passages felt very on the nose compared to the other books.
Somehow, as if by the book’s bluntness, it loses some of the finesse and heart that I had responded to in my earlier readings. Orlando engaged my intellect, but not my emotions. I didn’t feel the rush of excitement as in Mrs. Dalloway or the weight of existence as in The Waves, but Orlando did inform my understanding of Woolf and filled out the ironic, social critic that I had glimpsed in earlier works. I knew that she was a feminist, but now I felt like I understood Woolf’s perspective on feminism. I realized I loved her earlier books because she buried the themes in them that are laid bare in Orlando. Behind the weightier subject matter, was always the woman declaring her place in the world.
This lead me to A Room of One’s Own (originally given to me as a Christmas gift from my husband), which is a long form essay based on a series of lectures Woolf gave on women and fiction. In it, Woolf explores the questions of female authorship and the historical barriers to entry for women in the literary field. She offers encouragement to women writers arguing that every book they write paves the way for future women. She philosophizes that “in a hundred years… women will have ceased to be the protected sex. Logically they will take part in all activities and exertions that were once denied them.” This got me thinking, nearly 100 years later, have these barriers been broken down? As she anticipated, the feminist movement has made leaps and bounds since her time, and many barriers have been broken. Then again, similar to what many modern women have experienced, I have been followed around my neighborhood by predators, told to “smile” by strangers, and catcalled while simply walking on a city street. As a podcast producer, I had the experience of a male presenter refusing to acknowledge my presence or take direction because of my gender. Woman may have ceased to be “protected” as they once were in Woolf’s time, but that does not mean that we have gained full equality. Yet I take courage from her writing. In A Room of One’s Own she tells her female audience that “so long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters.” I will do just that. I’m not sure that anyone will read this, but I have seen the realization of Woolf’s theory that women bolster other women. Because she and Austen and Bronte and other trail blazers wrote, I can sit in a room of my own and write. The more women who follow their lead, the wider the path we build for future women.