Saturday, September 29, 2012

Reflections on A Room of One's Own

As Virginia Woolf calls for women to equip themselves with a “Room of One’s Own” to write fiction, she sounds a trumpet for the strategic occupation of a woman’s private space. The occupation of this space may propel an intellectual movement evidenced by creativity, invention and outward expression that extends beyond the individual to propel social and economic ramifications.

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind,” Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own. (Woolf, 1929) This freedom of mind, may manifest itself if the woman has the benefit of a place to “write” and earns 500 pounds a year. My research indicates that Woolf was talking about money that in today’s terms would equal $29,400, (Everything2, 2012) about $5k above the per capita income of South Carolina. In 2010.

Long considered a defining feminist manifesto situated in the first wave of feminism stretching from 1850 to 1930, some feminist commentary and suffrage advocates point out that Woolf viewed her class distinction as a stronger identifying force than her gender. “Of the two – the vote and the money – the money, I own, seemed infinitely more important,” Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own. (Woolf, 1929)
On a personal level, I think my career path may have pleased Woolf. Just 61 years after her 1929 Room work, I got my first job as a daily newspaper reporter, making several hundred dollars a week. Even in 1990, I battled male reporters for meaningful assignments, taking me away from the skullduggery of covering things like the Miss South Carolina pageant. I wonder what she would think of the gender enrollment rates of colleges today or the ubiquity of blogs that allow women to communicate with audiences beyond their cities and countries. The writing outlets help modern women shape the economic, social and political happenings of our time.   

Scholar Julie Solomon asserts that the special metaphor in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own  solidifies the meaning of the social and political existence of women. Solomon points out the modestness of Woolf’s feminist approach: “Woolf urges women to acquire economic, political and cultural power within institutions traditionally dominated by men,” Solomon writes. (Solomon, 1989).
To comprehend the spatial practices as work in A Room of One’s Own, we must further explore French theorist Michel DeCerteau’s point of view. By invoking DeCerteau, Solomon establishes a foundation for the tactical understanding of Woolf’s work. “Tactics can be used to subvert the established structure. But they can also function as behaviors of accommodation and conformity. The tactician, like the tightrope walker, can adapt and conform his/her behavior to the demands of an environment as well as subvert that environment.” (Solomon, 1989) For Woolf, the patterns of living, behaviors and tactics of everyday life may lead to subversion of the status quo.

Citing A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas as examples of DeCerteaunian tactical economies, Solomon writes: “In both essays Woolf advocates tactical practices with constitute the political alternatives of a subjugated group.” (Solomon, 1989). Through these tactical practices, we gain insights into Woolf’s point of view regarding the “danger” of masculizing women  in the process of equality.

As Bernice Carrol cites Woolf, “…If women took part in the existing institutions without severe conditions, they would end up as ‘female’ counterparts of Sir William Bradshaw and Mr. Ramsey.” (Carroll, 1978). Thus a scholar may aptly conclude that Woolf didn’t want women to turn into men, but rather, women may create an atmosphere to flourish as women.

Through these works we notice the tension between intellectual prowess and the spatial “box” where women resided, subjects of childbirth, childrearing and innumerable tasks of domesticicy, leaving little time for writing and intellectual contributions.  

In her fictional portrayal of Shakespeare’s sister, Judith, Woolf leads us down a path to understand the perilous predicament of a hypothetical woman poet born into a man’s body. “That woman, who was born with a gift of poetry in the sixteenth century, was an unhappy woman, a woman of strife against herself. All the conditions of her life, all her own instincts, were hostile to the state of mind which is needed to set free whatever is in the brain,” Woolf writes. (Woolf, 1929)

However, by carving a space of one’s own, the individual woman clears the canvas, giving her a space to where she may color her world with meaning.  A Room Of One’s Own creates a space within which women are not merely thoughts in a patriarchal brain … space is written by the mind and body in motion, assertions in subjectivity. It is also created by the mobile gaze, the countless individual points which re-write and challenge the spaces of panoptic or objectivizing eye. Those multiple, singular points of view, and the many ‘varieties of error’ through which space is written, lead to truth.” (Whitworth, 2007).
Through her own pen, Woolf gives rise to a new space that prompts interpretation and dialogue. Throughout the book, as Doyle writes, “All of her chapters situate us in places, libraries, restaurants, lecture halls – she brashly flaunts her power to imagine the world, the place on her own terms through her own body.” (Doyle, 2001)  “Woolf’s practice makes us feel that our relation to men and women unfolds through the world of things, through the real that we are suspended in as both dialectical selves and intercorporeal others.” (Doyle, 2001).

So, we come, we move, we write, we leave traces of our existence through scraps of work. For me, written relics of the past, such as a coffee table book, a master’s thesis, pamphlets and articles remain in cabinets. “Woolf forces us to live the tragic arc of the Daedalian fall from the sky, to live in the flight of being, despite the threat of exposure and entrapment it presents,” Doyle writes. (Doyle, 2001)



Carroll, B. A. (1978). To Crush Him in Our Own Country: The Political Thought of Virginia Woolf. Feminist Studies, 118.

Doyle, L. (2001). The Body Unbound: A Phenomenological Reading of the Political in A Room of Ones Own. Virginia Woolf Out of Bounds: Selected Papers from teh 10th Annual Conference on VIrginia Woolf (pp. 129-139). NYC: Pace.

Everything2. (2012, September 29). Retrieved from

Solomon, J. R. (1989). Staking ground: the politics of space in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas. Women Studies, 331-345.

Whitworth, E. A. (2007). Locating Woolf: The Politics of Space and Place . New York: Palgrave Macmillan .

Woolf, V. (1929). A Room of One's Own . Orlando: Harcourt Brace and Company .



Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Abandoned House in To The Lighthouse: More than Dusty Drawers, Mouse Droppings and Overgrown Grass

Poor 70-year-old Mrs. McNab struggled to pull the cobwebs out of the Ramsey Home in To The Lighthouse attempting to restore the house to presentable grandeur. This was no easy task for an aging woman battling “too much work for one woman,” in a place that had stood for “all of these years without a soul in it.” (Woolf, 1981)

Yet the house remained, suspended in time from the day the residents left. Showing multiple signs of deterioration Wool f illustrated the decay with many mice, the leaky roof and the moldy books. “The house was left; the house was deserted. It was left like a nutshell on a sand hill to fill with dry salt grains now that the life had left it,” Woolf writes. (Woolf, 1981) Woolf underscores the abandonment of the house, once bustling with the presence of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey and their children, as she writes, “The rain came in. But they never sent; never came.”  Just  29 lines later, Woolf repeats the passage with a slightly varied word choice: “They never sent. They never wrote.” (Woolf, 1981).

The abandonment of this house conjures many speculative representations for me. Perhaps the closed house “died” along with the strong maternal figure, Mrs. Ramsey, who simultaneously passed away in London. Or the house may signify an “end of an era” or a “loss of innocence” as World War I waged on.  The fact that the home “stood still in time,” indicates an arresting of progress, a subsequent deterioration. In this sense, the exterior structure may represent the aging patriarch, Mr. Banks, or the retirement of the Victorian era.  

As Mrs. McNab battles the abandoned abode and eventually enlists the help of Mrs. Bast, readers find McNab particularly troubled by the inattentiveness of the residents to care for their personal items.  “But people should come themselves; they should have sent somebody down to see. For there were clothes in the cupboards; they had left clothes in the bedrooms.” (Woolf, 1981).

Gaston Bachelard offers insights into a potential motive for the residents to simply stash their belongings away and leave – it was an effort to preserve order. For Woolf characters, the effort may have been to preserve normalcy despite the matriarch’s death or the onslaught of war. “In the wardrobe, there exists a center of order that protects the entire house against uncurbed disorder. Here order reigns, or rather, this is the reign of order. Order is not merely geometrical; it can also remember the family history,” wrote Bachelard, in Poetics of Space. (Bachelard, 1964)
So inside the home, each family artifact remained in its designated position, awaiting the return of the inhabitants. While the cupboards concealed the clothes, hiding them from exposure, the abandoned house  transformed itself into a silent relic of a family that once was, a time that once existed and a vault of family memories.  
“Nothing it seemed could break that image, corrupt that innocence, or disturb the swaying mantle of silence which, week after week, in the empty room, wove into itself the falling cries of bird, ships, hooting, the drone and hum of the fields, a dog’s bark, a man’s shout and, folded them round the house in silence,” Woolf writes. (Woolf, 1981)
The task was left to Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast to inject life back into the house by dusting off the past and creating a place for the future. Woolf writes that the pair seemed “guided” by a force.  “But there was a whole force working; something not highly conscious; something that leered, something that lurched; something not inspired to go about its work with dignified ritual or solemn chanting.” (Woolf, 1981) 
For Bachelard, this life-force may be explained by the fact that the home was inhabited by the two and would soon open its doors to the family once again. “A house that has been experienced is not an inert box. Inhabited space transcends geometrical space,” Bachelard writes.

With the grass cut, the carpets cleaned, the beds changed and the cobwebs eradicated, the house stood once again as a gathering point for the remaining Ramseys and awaited the return of Lily Briscoe. 

Works Cited

Bachelard, G. (1964). The Poetics of Space. New York: The Orion Press.

Woolf, V. (1981). To The Lighthouse. New York : Harcourt.



Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Memory of A Family's Space: A Soul Searching Journey for Virginia Woolf

“Certainly there she was, in the very centre of that great Cathedral space which was childhood; there she was from the very first.” (Woolf, Moments of Being , 1985)

The reading of Virginia Woolf’s works, Sketch of the Past and To the Lighthouse, in tandem with the French philosophical work Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard , generates multiple intersections for the reader. This entry will discuss the allegory of the house for the human soul, the role of human memory in conjuring scenes, the dichotomy of inside and outside, and the ability of Woolf to engage and move readers utilizing these techniques aptly documented by Bachelard.
 Bachelard sets the tone for the ten-chapter book in the introduction by unleashing a fundamental analogy.  “Our soul is like an abode. And by remembering the houses and rooms, we learn to “abide within ourselves. Now everything becomes clear, the house images move in both directions: they are in us as much as we are in them…” Bachelard writes.  (Bachelard, 1964)
Bachelard pays homage to Carl Jung who, “asks his readers to consider the comparison of a multistory house with a nineteenth century upper story, and a sixteenth century ground floor, first proposing the house as a tool for analysis of the human soul. ” (Bachelard, 1964)
This space classification occurs to the reader in Woolf’s Sketch of the Past as Woolf describes her family’s Hyde Park home as a “cage.” “She emphasizes the divisions of generations and interests of the house through space, in that her father, with his library on the top floor or the house ‘pure intellect’ and downstairs, her brothers, with the social world of parties and professions, as ‘pure convention.’ ” (Johnston, 2003)
While To the Lighthouse represents a fictional work, Mark Hussey writes, “Woolf consciously used her own childhood memories of summer vacations in St. Ives, Cornwall and Talland House …. and drew portraits of her parents, Leslie Stephen and Julia Prinsep Stephen, in the figures of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey.” (Hussey, 1995)
In the Sketch of the Past, Woolf addresses the catharsis she experienced from creating To The Lighthouse. “But I wrote the book very quickly; and when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed with my mother. I no longer hear her voice. I do not see her,” Woolf writes. (Woolf, Moments of Being , 1985).  The details of Mrs. Ramsey replaced the remembrances of her own mother.
In To the Lighthouse Woolf provides intimate details of Mrs. Ramsey caring for her children, including her young needy James, while engaging with her husband and society. Bachelard states that individuals can conjure memories via place-based mechanism. “When we dream of the house we were born in, in the utmost depths of revery, we participate in the original warmth, in this well-tempered matter of the material paradise. This is the environment in which the protective beings live. We shall come back to the maternal features of the house,” Bachelard writes. (Bachelard, 1964)
This is certainly the case for Woolf who took a mental journey back in time to a familiar place that enabled her to generate rich memories and her mother.  As the narrator of To The Lighthouse, Woolf artfully detailed the lives of the Ramseys,  with glimpses of their marriage, the antics of children and teens, and domestic duties. Bachelard underscores the idea that “localization” of spaces and events triggers rich memories that individuals (and writers) can access for information and descriptions.  
 “Memories are motionless, and the more securely they are fixed in space, the sounder they are,” Bachelard writes.  “For a knowledge of intimacy, localization in the spaces of our intimacy is more urgent than the determination of dates,” according to Bachelard. (Bachelard, 1964).
Woolf offers insights about remembering scenes, “I find that scene making is my natural way of marking the past. A scene always comes to the top; arranged; representative. This confirms in me my instinctive notion – it is irrational; it will not stand to argument. ” (Woolf, Moments of Being , 1985)
Johnson points out that Woolf’s role as the narrator in Sketch of the Past catalyzes a “loss of innocence in the space” and produces a space for the spectator that allows for action and audience. (Johnston, 2003)
By establishing a dialectic of inside and outside, we may observe a partitioning of the domestic sphere and the public sphere in Woolf’s work.  “Outside and inside form a dialectic of division, the obvious geometry of which blinds us as soon as we bring it into play in metaphorical domains. It has the sharpness of the dialectics of “yes and no”, which decides everything,” Bachelard writes in the chapter titled, Dialectics of the Outside and Inside. (Bachelard, 1964) During Part I of To the Lighthouse, The Window, the protagonist moves from inside to outside, following along after her husband, watching over children and interacting with Lily.
Always attentive to her children, cautious of their feeling and her own words, Mrs. Ramsey expresses a sense of relief at the end of the day. “No, she thought …. Children never forget. For this reason, it was so important what one said, and what one did, and it was a relief when they went to bed. For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself.” (Woolf, 1927).
I was particularly tickled by this passage, as Mrs. Ramsey cleaned up James’ handiwork of hand cut magazine clippings, as it reminds me of the night-time ritual of getting my own little James to bed and experiencing a moment of pure silence.
 “But what a joy reading is, when we recognize the importance of these insignificant things, when we can add our own personal daydreams to the ‘insignificant 'recollections of the author! Then insignificance become the sign of extreme sensitivity to the intimate meanings that establish spiritual understanding between writer and reader,” states Bachelard. (Bachelard, 1964)


Bachelard, G. (1964). The Poetics of Space. The Orion Press, Inc. .
Hussey, M. (1995). Virginia Woolf A to Z. New York: Facts on File, Inc. .
Johnston, G. (2003). Politics of Restrospective Space in Virginia Woolf's Memoir "A Sketch of the Past" . Mapping teh self; space, identity, discourse in British autobiography, 285-296.
Woolf, V. (1927). To The Lighthouse. Harcourt: London.
Woolf, V. (1985). Moments of Being . New York: Harcourt, Inc. .

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Just What the Doctor Ordered: Contemporary Prescriptions for Mrs. Dalloway's Characters

In the Virginia Woolf book, Mrs. Dalloway, Peter Walsh points to the ambulance speeding by as “one of the triumphs of civilization." (Woolf, 1925) As I contemplate the “triumphs of modern pharmacology,” I wonder what Mrs. Dalloway’s world would have looked like if the characters had the benefit of modern-day psychiatric drugs. What if the suicidal character Septimus could pop the anti-anxiety medication Paxil? Would he be able to satisfy his wife, Rezia, longing for children? Rezia herself may benefit from the wealth of fertility treatments, ovulation predictor kits and the like to facilitate the process once Septimus hallucinations subside.  
And what about Mrs. Dalloway, the leading lady of the book? We find her navigating from one society party to another, ensconced in the London social life, yet alienated from those around her. She too would probably benefit from  Prozac or Zoloft to smooth the edges of her tepid marriage, unrequited love for Peter Walsh and affections for Sally Seton.  For Mr. Dalloway, who wants to carry flowers to his wife and share his love, perhaps a dose of Viagra would fill the bill. Maybe then he could break the ice and cross over the cavernous space of alienation between them.
It is fun to muse over these contemporary prescriptions for these conditions brought to life in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, but this levity is quickly erased when one considers the serious psychological disorders at play in the book.  The range of psychological disorders runs throughout the 194-page book, including the devastating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) faced by Septimus.
Virginia Woolf writes life into Septimus’ condition with phrases such as “he did not feel,”  “even taste had no relish to him,” he suffered from sensations of falling into the flames,  and the whole world was clamoring, “kill yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself,” a self-fulfilling prophesy that comes true as the book unfolds. Despite doctors prescribing rest and proclaim, “there is nothing whatever the matter. ” (Woolf, 1925)
After serving as a distinguished soldier in World War I, Septimus faced a world of auditory hallucinations, disturbing dreams and visions that hampered any semblance of marital relationship with his wife, Rezia. After five years of marriage, she longed for children, an ill-fated dream of destiny.
Rezia’s plight and that of Dalloway showcase the stark alienation that these individual felt, based on Woolf’s character development.  For Rezia, the emotional vacancy abandonment swelled, “She had asked for help and been deserted… They had been deserted.” (Woolf, 1925)
For the flower carrying  Dalloway, the fear of rejection bubbled up into outward awkwardness. “Bearing his flowers like a weapon, Richard Dalloway approached her….still there was time for a spark between them…. (but he could not bring himself to say that he loved her; not in so many words).” (Woolf, 1925)
So many literary analyses draw lines between Septimus and Mrs. Dalloway as Woolf writes in the text, “She felt somehow very like him – the young man who had killed himself, she felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away.” (Woolf, 1925)
Yet I propose that lines may also connect the young wife Reiza and the high-society Dalloway who stood by their spouses, bound by vows of marriage, for better or worse.  They  both were entrapped by the rules of society, they longed for something more yet were forestalled by their spouse.  
And you may ask, what would the doctor order for Peter Walsh, the debonair cad who waltzes in and out of Clarissa Dalloway’s life? The pharmacy would fill his prescription for Rogaine to preserve his handsome mane.


Woolf, V. (1925). Mrs. Dalloway. Harcourt .

Sunday, September 2, 2012

From Gettysburg to the Streets of London ... Walking A Way to Understanding

As a Pennsylvania native, I have seen many maps of the Gettysburg battlefield, showing from an aerial view the movement of troops, the historical landmarks and the action points of the renowned civil war battle. However, it was not until I physically toured the battlefield and navigated the area, personally witnessing the space that the troops traversed, did I situate the battlefield and experience the “place.” I observed the contour of the land, noted the horizon, the topography, the landscape and the weather conditions.

Any tourist who has walked an historic site may not the sense of eeriness that creeps into an individual’s demeanor when they duplicate the passage of those who passed before them.  Today, the Virginia Woolf Society offers walks designed to replicate the movement of Woolf and her famous fictitious characters, including Mrs. Dalloway’s bustling through the London city streets. (Virginia Woolf Society , 2012).

For  noted French philosopher Michel deCerteau, this phenomenon of evaluating space is the difference between a strategic view of the map and the tactical account of the tour, enriched by movement through the particular place. (deCerteau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 1984)

He wrote of this phenomenon in his books including a chapter “Walking in the City,” that the “act of walking is to the urban system, what the speech act is to language or to the statements uttered,” providing an enunciated function and implying relation with the space. (deCerteau, 1984)

I am reminded by a brief walk that Mrs. Jarvis persuaded Mrs. Flanders to take in Jacob’s Room:

“It is perfectly dry, said Mrs. Jarvis, as they shut the orchard door and stepped on to the turf.
 I shan’t go far,” said Betty Flanders. “Yes Jacob will leave Paris on Wednesday.”
“Jacob was always my friend of the three,” said Mrs. Jarvis.
“Now, my dear, I am going no further,” said Mrs. Flanders. They had climbed the dark hill and reached the Roman Camp.
The rampart rose at their feet – the smooth surface circle surface surrounding the camp or the grave. How many needles Betty Flanders had lost there! And her garnet brooch .”…
How quiet it is!” said Mrs. Jarvis.
Mrs. Flanders rubbed the turn with her toe, thinking of her garnet brooch. (Woolf, 1947)

The focus on the garnet brooch elicits a memory to the past, revealing a ghost of past experience conjured by setting foot on that space.  For deCerteau, this indicates the “trace” left by memory on geographical spaces. (deCerteau, 1984)  Further, the focus on the “circle surface” surrounding the camp addresses a symbolic order of the unconscious that tipped off Mrs. Flanders to recall the lost needles and rosy brooch.

While the bulk of this blog entry has focused on movement through the city, I would now like to take a moment to discuss the personification of a letter and the seizing space. In  Jacob’s Room, Woolf breathes life into a letter placed on Jacob’s table, imbibing it with the emotions, memory of the recipient’s mother, Mrs. Flanders.  The letter, placed on the table by Florinda when she enters the room, then “witnesses” a sexual encounter between Jacob and his paramour.

“But if the blue envelope lying by the bisquit box had the feelings of a mother, the heart was torn by the little creek, the sudden stir. Behind the door was the obscene thing, the alarming presence, and terror would come over her as at death, or the birth of a child,” Woolf writes in Jacob’s Room (Woolf, 1947).

While we know that Woolf and her husband Leonard Woolf, published the works of Sigmund Freud, on the Hogarth Press, this passage seems to pay homage to the Oedipal complex and the accompanying psychological ramifications.

In Jacob’s Room, Woolf  emphasizes the ubiquity and social ritual of letters. “Let us consider letters – how they come at breakfast and at night ….Venerable are letters, infinitely brave, forlorn and lost. Life would split asunder without them,” Woolf writes in Jacob’s Room. (Woolf, 1947).

Letters travel the distance of space and geography to bring sentiments and information to the readers. For my family, the travel to Gettyburg battlefield and the tour of monuments, troop movements and American historical markers, prompted us to buy postcards and memorabilia to prompt memories for years to come.


deCerteau. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Virginia Woolf Society . (2012, September 2). Retrieved from Virginia Woolf Society:
Woolf, V. (1947). Jacob's Room. London: Hogarth Press.