Tuesday, 6 May 2008

A Room of One's Own

"There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall." Cyril Connolly, 1957.

So, where does the literary woman turn on realising she's a housewife, and not the all-conquering careerist that she once thought she would become? To a book of course. And it has to be Virginia Woolf's A Room Of One's Own. Any essay on women and fiction that includes the phrases "domesticity prevailed" and "back to nursery tea" (both, surely, promising titles of novels yet to be written) has to be one of my favourite books. The tantalising combination of a certain English gentility (so many references to luncheon), drawing room manners and the between-the-wars era, is so appealing to someone who has learnt to embrace the domestic and find beauty and meaning in the baking of a loaf, while keeping one eye on a Barbara Pym or an Elizabeth Taylor. And of course settling down for a good long read later with a nice cup of tea and a slice of Battenburg.
I can't read A Room Of One's Own without crying. Tears of anger, of indignation, of pity, of inspiration. And of admiration. Woolf was truly a woman's writer. Not just in subject matter, but in essence, embodying in every wonderful, undulating sentence, the ecriture feminine desired, decades later, by Helene Cixous in The Laugh of the Medusa ("Woman must put herself into the text - as into the world and into history - by her own movement."). Woolf's writing disengages from the masculine ordered sentence and revels, plays and dances in long, fluid, loops, letting meaning dip and flow. Here's the description of an Oxbridge college -
The windows of the building, curved like ships' windows among generous waves of red brick, changed from lemon to silver under the flight of the quick spring clouds. Somebody was in a hammock, somebody, but in this light they were phantoms only, half guessed, half seen, raced across the grass - would no one stop her? - and then on the terrace, as if popping out to breathe the air, to glance at the garden, came a bent figure, formidable yet humble, with her great forehead and her shabby dress - could it be the famous scholar, could it be J-- H-- herself? All was dim, yet intense too, as if the scarf which the dusk had flung over the garden were torn asunder by the star or sword - the flash of some terrible reality leaping, as its way is, out of the heart of spring. For youth --
Here was my soup.
Just this one passage holds so many keys to the whole of women's writing, to women's very being. Just as, in the 1970s, Cixous longs for women to write in "white ink" - to enter into the Lacanian Symbolic Order and subvert the masculine - to overthrow the black ink of male writing, of male language and thus of the whole social order - and replace it with the white ink, the milk, the female fluidity, Woolf's writing already is fluidity. The sentences meander, playing with subordinate clauses as if they were undercurrents in a stream (indeed - a stream of consciousness). Even the vocabulary includes fluidity, so that solid walls become "waves", the windows curved. The joyous use of punctuation, of questions within a sentence, of jumps and omissions of ordered, chronological thinking, (here things are "phantoms only, half guessed, half seen") are in themselves, wonderful to read. But also very clever. The very beauty of the writing is in opposition to the staid scholarly articles and monographs written by men that she claims to consult in her research into women and fiction. The above passage reads like a novel, or even poetry - or both - (again muddying the distinction between different genres in a way that is predicitive of post-structuralist theory of the 1970s and 80s) so that the prescription for formal academic language is torn apart. The contrast between dry-as-dust male scholarship and vivid, alive, fluid female scholarship isn't described. It's embodied in her very writing. And that final sentence, "here was my soup" plunges us straight back from the lofty to the domestic. Woolf proves (as she later states) that the domestic is every bit as important in the tradition of literature as wars, battles, politics.
I re-read the Shakespeare's sister section out loud in bed to Mr Pram last night. I cried. Mr Pram didn't (although he did look a little disturbed. I think, in hindsight, that was because he thought I was becoming unhinged, rather than at the power of Virginia Woolf's argument).

My battered old Penguin edition is always on the bedside table pile, so that whenever I feel the weight of that label ,"housewife and mother," dragging me down, I can dip in and revivify my belief in the importance and power - and the subjugation - of women, and be inspired to get out my notebook, hole myself away in the dining room at the desk I inherited from my grandma ("for we think back through our mothers if we are women") surrounded by tottering piles of books and undusted shelves (I didn't say I was an efficient housewife) and begin to write, and to read...

If Woolf is the mother-figure in the great line of domestic authors whom I love to read, Persephone Books is the reading room of the house, in its restful-grey drawing-room palette and it's wallpaper-and-household-fabric endpapers. But more of that later.


Jeanette said...

I'm so glad you now have a blog Rachel,i'm going to look forward to reading all of your posts,(even if I'm not really clever enough.)especially now I no longer sub to "The Mother",so can't read your column in there.

Rachel said...

Thanks Jeanette. It was yours and Souad's blogs that inspired me to get cracking on this one.

Oll Sills said...

Put the books down and pick up the iron you lazy swine!


Rachel said...

Oll - you know me too well to know that'll never happen!