So many years and academic studies later, it is also clear that, had Virginia Woolf known everything we know these days about female authors of the past centuries, her take on female literature would probably have been different. Marguerite de Navarre had written Heptameron, a collection of novellas, clearly inspired by Boccaccio’s Decameron. When Marguerite died in 1549, three daughters of Edward, Duke of Somerset (the unfortunate Good Duke of Edward VI’s reign) wrote Hecatodistichon (Le Tombeau de Marguerite de Navarre), which was published in France in 1550 and was promptly translated and augmented by the poems of The Pleiade (Ronsard and Du Belle, in particular). The first English translation of Euripides, of his tragedy Iphigenie in Aulis, was produced by Lady Lumley, the daughter of Henry Fitzalan, the 12th Earl of Arundel. Elizabeth I, as we know, was not overt on an occasional verse. Even this very brief look at female writing in the 16th c. shows that, although no Shakespeare’s sister would be able to become an actress, women were not always beaten by their fathers, but instead had the abilities which were recognised.
This is not to say that Virginia Woolf was deceiving herself or the women who would be reading her book. But recently, as I was reading Counsels and Maxims by Arthur Schopenhauer, I came across a chapter on loneliness. Written in what one could call a typically masculine style, the chapter is a blazing apology of solitude. The progress of one’s mind, says Schopenhauer, causes the regress in their necessity to communicate. Solitude is the haven of an outstanding, self-sufficient mind. Ordinary people are only so keen on communication because they are afraid to face themselves. Those who crave loneliness are strong people. Etc, etc…
Naturally perhaps, Schopenhauer didn’t say a word about women in that chapter. Many a feminist would probably point a finger at his chapter and sneer. Or perhaps on the contrary, they would cheer for him, because for some strange reason Woolf is speaking of exactly the masculine kind of solitude in her book. “A woman needs money and a room of her own if she is to write” – is she not asking for women to have what had previously belonged exclusively to men?
What is quite obvious is that in order to give women money and rooms of their own it would take to break many centuries of tradition. There is no doubt that this tradition was stark and stifling, and that it still exists these days, when young teenage girls, still children themselves, decide to have children instead of seeking education and career. But the existence of this tradition may also very well suggest that there are two different kinds of solitude, a feminine and a masculine. There are also two rooms pertinent to each of these solitudes, and it may very well be that a masculine room will be a study, and a feminine room will remain a common room.
It would be lovely to think that when a woman says that she wants a room of her own she means that she wants to raise above the restrictions the society places on her gender and responsibilities entailed to it. She wants to acquire that sort of fortitude that a room of one’s own instills in the person who sits there. She wants to face herself. Her mind is strong enough not only to stand this solitude, but also to collect the fruits of such condition. And the fruit of solitude is the calmness of body and spirit, when the thought floats freely and effortlessly. The kind of calmness that gave us the works of Shakespeare.
But solitude, if we agree with Schopenhauer – and there is no reason not to agree with him – is a measure of self-sufficiency. The more self-sufficient one is, the happier they are in the room of their own. This is where Schopenhauer stumbles into a problem, at which Nietzsche had pointed in Human, All Too Human. “Lack of historical sense is the family failure of all philosophers”, he writes. Philosophers at the time of Nietzsche (from his point of view, anyway) “had the common failing of starting out from man as he is now”. It is hard to disagree with him, but this lack of historical sense, this failure in logic, is the direct consequence of extreme self-sufficiency.
I often feel – and this in part explains my opposition to the sometimes inevitable necessity to categorise people even by their gender, not to mention other things – that ascribing a category to oneself is retreating to the room of one’s own, to the realm of self-sufficiency, where one takes an immense pride in being different from all the others. For to be different is to be singled out; to be singled out is to be on one’s own; one can only be truly on their own in their space, which can appropriately be called a room. Of course, these days probably nobody any longer have that “family failure” of ahistorical thinking, thanks to all the academic studies. But now, probably, they have another failure of not having the knowledge of life in all its diversity, which is taking place in the common room.
Dumas had once said that he used history as a hook to hang his stories on it. A person who has a room of their own, be they a man or a woman, often has the hook, but no credible story up their sleeve. And so I think: we can earn money; we can have a study; but we, both men and women, are in far greater need for a common room – to see life, as it happens, and to better cherish the fruits of solitude.