Admire that cover. This is a copy I bought on my very first trip to New York City, back when I was 16 and had only been out of the Midwest once in my life. If you can't see it, the price is $2.45. Inside, I have noted that I bought it at Barnes & Noble in NYC. That was huge for me. This was long before B&N's became ubiquitous. I saved up my allowance for months for that shopping trip and came home with a ton of new books. I distinctly remember feeling very literary.
Which apparently didn't last long, because I underlined a few key phrases in the first 20 pages (in bright orange highlighter), and then nothing more. I'm guessing I found it a bit dry.
No longer. I returned to it after reading All Passion Spent, so I could tie the theme of the two books together. This reading was much more enjoyable than it was for my 16-year-old self. Imagine how fun it would have been to hear Woolf read part of it--it was originally written as a speech for the Arts Society at Newnham College, Cambridge. Woolf had been asked to speak about women and fiction, and she took the topic to heart, and likely in a direction that wasn't anticipated by the college. This is the collection of essays that include Woolf's famous postulations about Shakespeare's sister and why she never would have had the success Shakespeare had (hint: she was a female at a bad time to be a female. Not that now is perfect, mind you, but we have made some progress since Shakespeare's time).
Woolf is thoughtful, funny, sad, angry, wry, and at times, prescient about things that still happen today: ""The history of men's opposition to women's emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself." She marvels at the work done by the Brontes, Jane Austen, and George Eliot (although she's a bit unkind about Jane Eyre, and frankly, I disagree with her). She asks interesting questions: What would those women have written if they'd had the opportunities to experience the world the way men did? But then she turns that question on its head and discusses what women, perhaps, should write about:
"With the eye of the imagination I saw a very ancient lady crossing the street on the arm of a middle-aged woman, her daughter, perhaps, both so respectably booted and furred that their dressing in the afternoon must be a ritual, and the clothes themselves put away in cupboards with camphor, year after year, throughout the summer months. They cross the road when the lamps are being lit (for dusk is their favorite hour), as they must have done year after year. The elder is close on eighty; but if one asked her what her life has meant to her, she would say that she had heard the guns fire in Hyde Park for the birth of King Edward the Seventh. And if one asked her, longing to pin down the moment with date and season, but what were you doing on the fifth of April 1868, or the second of November 1875, she would look vague and say that she could remember nothing. For all the dinners are cooked; the plates and cups washed; the children set to school and gone out into the world. Nothing remains of it all. All has vanished. No biography or history has a word to say about it. And the novels, without meaning to, inevitably lie."
This is still such a worthwhile read, even though women have made progress in the field of literature. Certainly today Woolf would have many more women to discuss. I wonder what she would say about writers like Anne Tyler, who chronicles the domestic family world so beautifully, or a writer like Edwidge Danticat, who has written extensively (and beautifully, if painfully) about the chaos, war, murders, and despair in Haiti.
Still, women writers today still don't have full equality and are not treated with parity by many of their male counterparts. So perhaps it's a good time to revisit this book. It's no longer enough for a woman to have a room of her own and a small but reliable income in order to write.