A ROOM WHERE ALL'S ACCUSTOMED, CEREMONIOUS
Photo essay from Victoria Magazine ~ April 1992
Looking through an old notebook, I came across the above article from twenty - some years ago, which I saved apparently in sheer dismay at its blatant misuse of Virginia Woolf. Usually I found the literary passages accompanying Victoria's visuals to be strikingly appropriate; yet in this instance, the editors were quoting from A Room of One's Own (1928) with little respect to the original context.
When Woolf thought "of the admirable smoke and drink and the deep armchairs and the pleasant carpets: of the urbanity, the geniality, the dignity which are the offspring of luxury and privacy and space" she was writing not of London but of Oxford. Nor was she praising the town's charm and elegance; rather, she was describing rooms from which, sadly, the women of her time were categorically excluded (emphasis added).
She concludes this observation from the opening chapter of A Room of One's Own with the lament that "Certainly our mothers had not provided us with anything comparable to all this -- our mothers who found it difficult to scrape together thirty thousand pounds. . . . To raise bare walls out of the bare earth was the utmost they could do (24, 23).
But Woolf's perceptions, however poetic, constitute a severe criticism of the structural exclusion of female students from the traditional institutions of higher education. For Victoria -- itself a celebration of the "luxury and privacy and space" now available to many women -- to suggest otherwise is a grave disservice to both Virginia Woolf and the readers of Victoria.
I suppose the Woolf passage in Victoria Magazine jumped right out at me because I myself had included it in an article that I was working on at the time -- "The Student Body in the Text" -- for Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies ~ 14.3). The narrator of A Room of One's Own is an imaginary and imaginative student, thrown into distress because of her gender, an outsider looking in, a character who is chastised for wandering into territory traditionally open only to men. The harsh reality for Woolf's female scholar is not only to be wished from the room by the social structure but to be physically denied entry in the first place. On her way to the library, "walking with extreme rapidity across a grass plot," she is intercepted by a Beadle whose face "expressed horror and indignation. . . . I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here." Regaining her composure, she arrives at the library and is met by "a kindly gentleman who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied a Fellow of the College" (5 - 8).
Being denied access causes her to challenge the privilege of those who were admitted and those whose books lined the shelves: "young men who have taken the M.A. degree; men who have taken no degree . . . Professors, schoolmasters, sociologists, clergymen, novelists, essayists, journalists, men who had no qualification save that they were not women." She concludes that "The most transient visitor to this planet . . . who picked up [the evening] paper could not fail to be aware . . . that England is under the rule of a patriarchy. Nobody in their senses could fail to detect the dominance of the professor. His was the power and the money and the influence" (27 - 28, 33).
What accounts for the power gap between the diffidence of the female students and the confidence of the male students? One elusive element which may account for the discrepancy is the self - confidence that Woolf describes as that "imponderable quality, which is yet so valuable": "Life for both sexes . . . is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps . . . it calls for confidence in oneself." She further suggests that if there exists any short - cut to developing or appropriating this invaluable attribute it is "By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself. By feeling that one has some innate superiority . . . over other people." To precisely such ill - gotten gains does she attribute the "enormous importance: and power of the patriarchy -- not to mention the tomes of misogynist scholarship which she has encountered in the library. She puzzles over the refrain of misogynist anger which runs through text after text, the fear of losing power, the perceived threat to the homosocial contract: "Possibly when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority. That was what he was protecting . . . because it was a jewel to him of the rarest price." As for the male students who are groomed professionally to inherit this rarest of jewels, their birthright is the conviction of saying "to themselves as they go into the room, I am the superior of half the people here, and it is thus that they speak with that self - confidence, that self - assurance, which have had such profound consequences in public life and lead to such curious notes in the margin of the private mind" (34 - 37).
Looking at additional discrepancies, Woolf raises bodily functions to the level of theory, particularly in her comparison of an exquisite luncheon at the men's college to a humble dinner at the women's college. She writes against the time - honored division between mind and body: "The human frame being what it is, heart, body and brain all mixed together, and not contained in separate compartments . . . a good dinner is of great importance." The vast difference between the two meals brings to her mind images of fat cows and lean cows, bold rats and timid rats: "I have seen a dairy company measure the effect of ordinary milk and Grade A upon the body of a rat. They set two rats in cages side by side, and of the two one was furtive, timid and small, and the other was glossy, bold and big. Now what food do we feed women as artists upon? I asked, remembering, I suppose, that dinner of prunes and custard." For surely, "The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes" (18, 54 - 55).
Woolf addresses here not only the division between mind and body but the distinction between educational opportunities for the two sexes: "Why did men drink wine and women water?" Why did the women's college lack and ample endowments and trust funds which provided the men's schools with "the urbanity, the geniality, the dignity which are the offspring of luxury and privacy and space." Why indeed had it been so difficult to raise the modest sum required to found the women's college at all when, on the other hand, immense sums for boys' schools could be raised with considerable ease? "Why," she asks, "are women poor?" (24 - 28, emphasis added).
Although Woolf heroically curses the discriminatory practices of the academy " . . . turn me off the grass. 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," (78 - 79), she also points out that the freedom of the mind can indeed be hampered -- by deprivation and discouragement, by the lack of a tradition, "by all the power of law and custom," by not being heard (24, 50, 54). She sought to rectify this inequity by urging women to forge their own educational, professional,and literary traditions. There is a subtle connection between participating in a dialogue, forging a tradition, and gaining self - esteem:
" . . . if we face the fact . . . that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality [i.e., "the universal human, beyond gender"] and not only to the word of men and women [the world of "sexual difference"], then . . . the dead poet who was Shakespeare's sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born" (118).Woolf describes a place for the female body in our culture and gives that body a voice in the text. When women participate in this discourse, they can formulate the images that escape the bemused and frustrated student in A Room of One's Own; they can envision with confidence their place in the academy, gaining entry to the library and putting pen to paper; they can live at ease within their bodies; they can articulate the truth of their own experience.
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Try to See It, Try to Feel It: The Body in the Text ~ Part 2
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