I’ve spent most of my spare time this past month, including a week’s annual leave, de-cluttering and decorating the bedroom that doubles up as my study. It is very much my room, despite the fact we both sleep in it. One of the things I insisted on when discussing moving in with my partner, now husband, was having four walls I could shut the door on and call my own. A place where I had total control. And we were lucky enough to be able to afford a place where that was possible, both having rooms of our own, that by necessity also function as bedroom/spare room.
Virginia Woolf famously coined the phrase ‘A Room of One’s Own’ as the title of her 1929 book, based on essays delivered to two Cambridge women’s colleges in 1928. Analysing the impediments to women’s success in writing fiction, she states: ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ She focuses mainly on the restrictions faced by the ‘daughters of educated men’: deprived of the schooling their brothers enjoyed, locked into stifling domesticity, and unlikely to have access to any space they could completely call their own. Alice Walker, in her 1974 essay In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, highlights Virginia Woolf’s largely middle-class assumptions, asking: ‘what then are we to make of Phillis Wheatley, a slave who owned not even herself?’ Phillis Wheatley was a poet and slave in the 1700s, who, along with many other black, poor, and working class women managing to write against the odds, provides a compelling and humbling example of how we can be a bit up ourselves with needing our perfect space and ambience in order to be able to write.
Let’s face it, writing is the cheapest, most portable of arts, even if you factor in the modern day need for a basic lap-top. And I have generally prioritised getting on with it over fussing with my writing environment. But when I couldn’t reach for a book without spilling a dusty pile of out-of-date papers and the curtains were ripped to shreds, it did feel time to pay my space a bit of attention and make it somewhere pleasant to work.
Virginia Woolf did acknowledge the lost potential of working-class women who may have been writers. ‘Yet a sort of genius must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working class. Now and again an Emily Brontë or a Robert Burns blazes out and proves its presence. …Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.’ Undoubtedly it would have made a difference to Phillis Wheatley et al if they’d had their own space and an independent income.
As to the finance, Virginia Woolf thought £500 a year would be sufficient for a woman writer. In today’s money that equates to about £30,000. Yep, I could jack in the day job for that. In terms of a Universal Basic Income I would settle for less. But I’m not sure I’d be giving up the day job altogether. I like the way a job connects you to the outside world and the people you would never encounter in a writer’s ivory tower. I like that my job is completely unrelated to creative writing. So, while Virginia Woolf is a step in the right direction, there is a danger in perpetuating women writers’ isolation, writing novels about lonely women authors with plummeting confidence issues.
However, when the day job is the only guaranteed income, it’s hard not to let it take over. Full time work means what it says, and it’s the time that I resent; how hard it is to squeeze enough hours and energy for writing; the constant demands of everything else, including this latest project of my room, which of course took far longer than I’d planned.
But I am gratified that during this month I have been increasingly desperate to get back to writing. This pleases me because it shows that I have carved out a space in my head for writing, so that it now feels plain wrong to ignore it for long. It is above all this metaphorical space in our heads that Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own can represent, the claiming of this space from the patriarchy that can still deny us full control of our own creative potential. We know too well that there are still many barriers, by no means all financial, to women claiming this space with confidence and assurance. But I for one am pleased to feel that I’m not giving up as I sit in my lovely new room, making the most of what I have got and pushing on through self-doubt and frequent rejection to keep writing as well as I can.