Sunday, March 17, 2013

My Five-Star Bookshelf, Part Twenty-Six

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas

Remember that I wrote that Virginia Woolf is one of the most influential literary figures in my personal literary canon? These two books have been important to me for so long that I can barely remember a time when they weren't touchstones of my thinking: the first for asserting women's right to write and the second for critiquing the material structures of patriarchy that concentrate power and wealth in a small number of male hands at the expense of social justice.

OK, so Virginia Woolf is not a raving socialist. But she was arguably influenced by her husband, Leonard Woolf, who was (well, maybe not the raving part). She was also influenced by the suffrage movement and first-wave feminism (not that it was called that in Woolf's day). A Room of One's Own, a series of linked essays, traces the emergence of women writers (she would do so again, more humorously, in Orlando) and the struggles they must overcome for their art, and famously claims that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." With sharp wit and cutting insight, Woolf imagines a line of maternal descent quite different from Bloom's "anxiety of influence" demonstrated most particularly, in Woolf's era, in T.S. Eliot's writing. Sadly, despite the advances women writers made in the twentieth century, we may now be in a retrograde period, wherein women artists seem to be losing ground and influence again. And that's perhaps where Three Guineas comes in.

Three Guineas is a response to a request Woolf received to contribute funds to anti-war work. Woolf's narrator declares that she would contribute except — The text (in effect a series of essays) explains how she feels funds might be directed to prevent war, rather than through a contribution to the letter-writer's society, through economic equality between the sexes, through education, and through an acknowledgement of the destructive force of patriarchy. Reading this text as an eighteen-year-old made real and immediate for me ideological ideas that were, until then, abstract to the point of being almost incomprehensible.

These texts together have underpinned my academic work for some twenty-five years. And of course I have moved far beyond Woolf's perspectives — and was fortunate enough to have been born in the second wave of feminist daughters. Still, I owe a tremendous intellectual and philosophical debt to these books of Woolf's, and they remain among my favourite five-star texts.