Between my degree in Comparative Literature and my voracious reading hobby, you’d think I would have read some Virginia Woolf before now. Asking around about Woolf, one colleague offered: “I read her at school,” his tone revealing that he didn’t remember the experience fondly. Others spoke very positively of her though, highlighting A Room of One’s Own as a book they both enjoyed and recommended.
If you’re going to add a classic and/or favourite work to your collection, I believe in finding an edition that has a real uniqueness and beauty to it. No one does that better than The Folio Society. They seem to champion aesthetic above all else, and their finger is on the pulse, if this edition is anything to go by. The texture of this hardback is rough to the touch, but in a good way – like passing your palm over the fabric of a new sofa, or the plunging your fingers into sand on a beach.
Its palette is all pale creams an watery blues – a calming combination that allows the novel to sit unassumingly on your shelf (which will satiate any clutter-free advocates who aren’t looking for eyesores), while still looking like the most impressive book you own. Its artwork – creative woodcut illustrations by Vanessa Bell – is simplistic and minimalistic (something that goes hand-in-hand with beauty, more often than not).
Charmingly, the cover replicates the exact same artwork as the original 1929 first edition. And the hard, outer shell that the book slots into carries more of Bell’s abstract woodcuts, which at first glance are difficult to decipher, but soon reveal themselves to be the face or form of a woman, or something as simple as a cup of tea resting upon a table.
The work itself I found to be a true and immeasurably important pillar of feminism. She writes about women writers with such clarity and such forethought that it’s hard to fathom that this admirable call to action was written in 1929.
Woolf both praises and belittles female writers that pre-date her era, for either managing to write free and unimpeded by the opinion of others (like Jane Austen and Emily Brontë), or for allowing her potential genius to be suppressed by society and the views of the time.
‘What genius, what integrity it must have required in face of all that criticism,’ Woolf observes, ‘in the midst of that purely patriarchal society, to hold fast to the thing as they saw it without shrinking.’
Her stalled efforts in trying to write a piece (on women and fiction) by a deadline – something many students have suffered at some time or another – evolves instead into its a story of its own, where the journey is more important than the outcome. We follow Woolf’s research and her unabashed thought process, rather than any polished findings, and we’re better off for it.
To stress some of her points, Woolf dreams up a fictional sister of Shakepeare’s, who was driven to death instead of getting to put forth her own genius. And she conjures up hopeful predictions for the future, stating that given a century (and a room’s of one’s own, with a stable income), women should be as free and as celebrated as men in their writing. That century is only 11 years away, and we’re close to Woolf’s hopeful dream, I feel.
I did spot a little judgemental superficiality from Woolf along the way – sometimes she accuses men of hating women because said man is ‘unattractive to them, more often than not’ (meaning physically). While I loved her attack on such misogynist creatures, I found these few remarks immature and shortsighted, given how intellectually acute the rest of her thoughts are. Equally, it’s a little jarring to read the way she talks about homosexuality among women with such shock and delicacy, but this is simply because it wasn’t a hushed taboo in its time – Woolf knows this, and points it out.
She beats down the male gender a little, sometimes – I love it when she writes of finding new genders, ‘of other sexes looking through the branches of trees at other skies,’ as this truly satisfied the Science Fiction geek in me, but she quickly goes on to state that man would then ‘rush for his measuring rods to prove himself superior.’
But often you’ll find that she swings the other way too – she sometimes embraces men’s ability to write and their innate gender traits. One very genuine and insightful notion she presents is that in order to write well, men must embrace their womanly side, and women must embrace their manly side (‘men must write man-womanly and women must write woman-manly’). This is truth, pure and unfiltered, and it’s a stance I’ve found to be true of my own writing, when attempting to do justice to my female characters.
If you’re a Woolf fan, this is an edition that deserves its rightful place on your shelf. It’s gorgeous, resilient (I took it away on holiday and it withstood the battering effect of travel astonishingly well) and it’s sure to draw the eye and the discussion of anyone browsing your collection. If you were a Woolf-ignorant, like I was, trust me you’ll come away from this appreciating her mind, her writing, and most importantly: her goal to encourage free and unhindered creative writing in women everywhere.
The Folio Society edition of A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf and illustrated by Vanessa Bell is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com.