Virginia Woolf was clear: £500 a year and a room of one’s own is what one needs to write. More than a century later, more than a year in, we are still mostly stuck in our rooms, but whether those rooms are solely our own is another question.
Unlike many, for me the move to homeworking made my workspace much more noisy and crowded. I’d had a home office for years, with a standing desk and even a mini trampoline. It’s off the living room and doubles as a guest room, but – apart from the private income – I was living Virginia Woolf’s dream. Until everyone else started working from home, including my musician partner, and the internet got a lot louder. Now, if there’s a book launch in Poland, a new collaborator on the East Coast of the US, or a group to give a talk to in Germany, they’re a click away. Yesterday I was using all four of my working languages in different meetings and barely had time to write. Or get up and move. I should say “no” more – but BC (before covid) I would have done a lot of this anyway, travelling there and back to warm up and wind down, with more walking, more thinking time. I do some of my best writing on public transport, often in the notes on my phone. That’s gone now and won’t be back in the same way.
While writing together online has kept us sane, I’m still hearing from other writers, especially women with caring responsibilities, that logging on from home is not enough. It’s not just the internet pouring noisily in. It’s the domestic space invading. Other people in the house want to eat, talk, be cared for –you can’t shut them out. And when you log off, there is no transition time.
“you know the little tug – the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out?”*
That’s the thread women lose all the time. It happens to a man once, he writes about that, and everyone remembers it – the Person from Porlock. It happens to women numerous times a day.
Jane Austen wrote all her novels like this, in the shared sitting room, taking the manuscript out when she had a moment and tucking it away to be brightly social (and searingly observant) or dutifully domestic as the need demanded. But she, the Brontës, Eliot and Gaskell did not have children (nor do I, but plenty of women who write do, and yes, not all men, but it mostly affects women).
What those women writing before Woolf did have, though, was the money to write. And when Woolf’s aunt left her £500 a year – about £30k these days, the average UK schoolteacher salary – she could do the same. “Before that I had made my living by cadging odd jobs from newspapers, by reporting a donkey show here or a wedding there; I had earned a few pounds by addressing envelopes, reading to old ladies, making artificial flowers, teaching the alphabet to small children in a kindergarten. Such were the chief occupations that were open to women before 1918.”*
Woolf is clear that material conditions make writing possible. As she notes, almost all the men who had done well from writing in her day were rich. Her comparison of the Oxbridge colleges with money (for men) and without (for women) is biting. Literally. The difference is in the dinner they get served, which makes for a different postprandial mood. “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”* I had that on a postcard on my student bedroom wall once – I didn’t think how political it was.
What the income gave Woolf was freedom:
“No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine forever. Therefore not merely do effort and labour cease, but also hatred and bitterness. I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me.”*
She was aware of how rare that was. Shakespeare’s sister (not the band), she imagined, would not have even got to London as a woman alone, never mind got her plays on stage. But in two lectures at Newnham and Girton, Cambridge in 1928, Woolf asked her audience to remember that things were looking up for many Englishwomen:
“there have been at least two colleges for women in existence in England since the year 1866; that after the year 1880 a married woman was allowed by law to possess her own property; and that in 1919 – which is a whole nine years ago she was given a vote? May I also remind you that most of the professions have been open to you for close on ten years now?”*
This gave her and her listeners a responsibility to make it easier for the women who came after them to write, by working for it, and by writing themselves. A century later, Woolf predicted, things would look very different.
She was right. For the centenary of Woolf’s essay based on those lectures, the Royal Society of Literature asked its fellows to return to her theme. Some contributors did not even have a desk until their mid-twenties. Or books in the house at all. Or two coins to rub together – though one made the deliberate choice to teach full time, then part time, to have both time and money to write on. All these RSL Fellows say that waiting for the perfect conditions may well mean you never start writing. Their essays, collected in A Room of Our Own, are brilliant. In the closing one, Nadifa Mohamed gets to the point:
“But, what do feel you need to write? A room… privacy and silence… a trust fund, a mother with a PhD who read books to you in the womb… an aunt… who knows someone who knows someone in publishing… long dinners with intellectuals you don’t like very much…
But, what have you got? A shared room, no privacy, no silence… a dead-end job, an illiterate mother who recites long, ancient poems, an angry god… long bus rides that feel like free theatre… a best friend, a council house, city parks and library books, a childhood spent translating letters…
Do you need more? No.
And what is there to write? The world.”
But Mohammed was writing BC. What about now, when the public parks, libraries and transport have been largely off limits for so long? Shared spaces that could be rooms of our own have shut and may not reopen in the same way. We’re not as far from Jane Austen as we’d like to think.
Woolf and Mohammed were talking about fiction. But much of what they say applies to nonfiction and academic writing. “Being productive” in an academic context today often means “doing everything except writing, but still somehow also writing up your research to great acclaim in high-impact journals on top of a full teaching, admin and public engagement schedule – oh and do you have a personal life and family? How quaint.” The tyranny of Zoom meetings takes away your time to think, let alone write. Some Finnish universities declared a “summer peace” with no meetings for the last two months, but that didn’t cover what was deemed “essential.” It’s up to us to decide what’s essential and prioritise our writing. If all else fails, call your writing time a meeting, and meet to do just that.
Without people popping in from Porlock – except your best friend? – you’re more likely to get that writing done. With food and a house, ancient poems and a public library, you’re more likely to get that writing done. With the right people, perhaps a (Zoom?) room of our own, we can balance the writing and the rest (in both senses of the word). As Woolf said, it’s up to us. For me that means still going online, regularly, often in very short bursts, often inevitably interrupted, but more quietly. Muting all other notifications, and then the volume button, together, to write.
* All citations (except the last one) from “A Room of One’s Own,” Delphi Complete Works of Virginia Woolf (2012). Thanks to The Feminist Association Unioni (Naisasialiitto Unioni ry) for the opportunity to return to classics like these.
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