A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf — New Review

Judging purely by title, I thought A Room of One’s Own might be a good complement to The Little Book of Hygge — another book about making your own space in the world that would go well with my ongoing project to improve my rented accommodation as much as my lease allows. Actually, Virginia Woolf doesn’t really go into the why of a writer having her own room, because it’s really more metaphorical than literal. Her thesis could be summed up that a writer needs to be themselves without fear of judgement, something that is only possible behind the privacy of a locked door.

Reading A Room of One’s Own was still an interesting experience, if not quite the one I thought I was getting. The problem I’ve had with Virginia Woolf’s fiction is that I’m perfectly capable of reading every word of her stream-of-conciousness sentences without actually retaining any of the sense. This was most problematic in The Waves, where reading criticism after I’d finished the book unearthed many plot events that I’d had absolutely no idea were happening. And A Room of One’s Own was a little like that. There were paragraphs that I read without really stopping to understand them.

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes.

A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf

But, in contrast to my reading ten years ago, there were also sentences and paragraphs — even very figurative, very stream-of-consciouss-y ones — that I did understand! I think I’m a lot more interested in how other people think now, and much more aware that the actual process of thinking is different for different people, and not just the end result. So, the beginning of A Room of One’s Own held a lot of interest on that score. Virginia Woolf doesn’t think the way I do, but I was able to follow the way she does think. (Except when I wasn’t.)

It almost made me want to give Virginia Woolf’s fiction another chance. But then I read much of the end of the book without really taking it in, so maybe I’m not ready just yet!

The fascination of the London street is that no two people are ever alike; each seems bound on some private affair of his own.

A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis — Reread Review

I remembered that How to Be a Heroine was good, but I’d forgotten how very good it is! It helps, of course, that a lot of Samantha Ellis’s heroines are the same as mine – Anne Shirley, Jo March, Katy Carr and Sara Crewe, to name just a few. Samantha Ellis opens with a story of ‘arguing (over the wuthering) with [her] best friend about whether [they]’d rather be Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw’. Nickie and I have had similar arguments. I specifically remember leaving an English class in Sixth Form arguing over whether Charles Bovary or Rodolphe Boulanger was the more desirable partner.

But I hope I’m braver about love now, and I’m tempted to make a rule that any heroine who spends a whole novel in love with someone who can’t or won’t love her back is not truly a heroine.

How to Be a Herione, Samatha Ellis

Like Samatha Ellis, who begins How to Be a Heroine surprised by the negative qualities of her beloved Cathy, I think both Nickie and I have grown up out of our previous opinions and moved closer to some middle point between these two extremes. Charles Bovary’s ‘Nice Guy’ no longer seems harmless and therefore acceptable, and Rodolphe Boulanger’s wild passion needs tempering with some sympathy for people around him.

I don’t agree with everything Samantha Ellis says – I adore Anne’s House of Dreams and still love Little Women despite it’s Victorian preachiness. The fact that Jo and Anne give up writing doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers Samantha Ellis – maybe because she’s a writer and I’m not. Or, perhaps the differences come down to the fact that I’m 12 years younger. It doesn’t really matter, because agreeing with How to Be a Heroine isn’t the point. It’s fascinating just to see these character analysed in this loving and yet educated way. We do agree about Cousin Helen and her School of Pain, at least!

Next to my heroines, I felt undefined, formless; I had no narrative arc, no quest, no journey.

How to Be a Heroine, Samantha Ellis

The twelve year difference means that some of my heroines weren’t touched on. There’s no sign of Mildred Hubble, clumsy and unlucky but determined; or Matilda, whose rises above her neglected childhood to take life into her own hands; or Enid Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl at School who conquers her temper through community and responsibility. But even so, How to Be a Heroine got me thinking about all those beloved characters, wondering how I would see them if I resisted those books now – and how I might feel if I do so again another decade from now.

If all literary criticism was like this, I’d read a lot more of it!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The translucent, golden punch tastes velvety, voluptuous and not off-puttingly milky. Under its influence, I stage a party for my heroines in my imagination, and in my flat. It’s less like the glowering encounter I imagined between Cathy Earnshaw and Flora Poste, and more like the riotous bash in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Not everyone is going to like milk punch. So there are also dirty martinis, and bagels and baklava, and my mother’s masafan, Iraqi marzipan. The Little Mermaid is in the bath, with her tail still on, singing because she never did give up her soaring voice. Anne Shirley and Jo March are having a furious argument about plot versus character, gesticulating with ink-stained hands. Scarlett is in the living room, her skirts taking up half the space, trying to show Lizzy how to bat her eyelashes. Lizzy is laughing her head off ut Scarlett has acquired a sense of humour, and doesn’t mind a bit. Melanie is talking book with Esther Greenwood, who has brought her baby and also the proofs of her first poetry collection. Franny and Zooey have rolled back the rug and are doing a soft shoe shuffle in rhinestone hats. Lucy Honeychurch is hammering out some Beethoven (in this scenario I have a piano. A ground piano. Well, why not?) Marjorie Morningstar is gossiping about directors with Pauline and Posy Fossil. They’ve come straight from the shows they’re in, till in stage make-up and full of stories. Petrova, in a leather aviator jacket, goggles pushed back, a chic scarf knotted around her neck, is telling the thrilling story of her latest flight and how she fixed an engine fault in mid-air. Mira, in her paint-stained jeans and poncho, is listening, fascinated, asking a thousand questions. Mildred has been persuaded to drink a tiny glass of sherry, then another tiny glass, then another and now she and Lolly are doing a wild, strange dance in the hallway, stamping their feet, their hair flying wild and electric. Lolly’s cakes, in the shape of patriarchs she hates, are going down a treat. The Dolls from the Valley are telling Flora some truly scandalous and unrepeatable stories, and she is firmly advising them to get rid of their men and find worthier paramours. Celie is modelling trousers of her own design and taking orders from the Lace women; Judy is giving her a ten-point plan on how to expand her business to an international market. She is quite drunk but nevertheless the plan seems quite coherent, even if it is punctuated by her bellowing ‘More leopard print, more leopard print!’

Cathy looks tumultuous and on the edge of violent weeping and just as I think she’s going to storm out or trash my flat, Jane arrives, late, with an unexpected guest. Cathy turns in anticipation: is it Heathcliff? Once I would have joined her but now I’m glad it isn’t him. It’s a better surprise. It’s Emily’s hawk. Hero or Nero. Jane’s found him at last, and has him on her arm, perched on her glove; small for a bird of prey, he is dashing and patrician looking, brown and white, observing the room with dark, flinty eyes. When Cathy sees him, she looks at Jane and smiles.And in the kitchen is a heroine I probably should have had when I was four and sitting on my parents’ carpet, wishing it would fly. In the kitchen is Scheherazade.

How to Be a Heroine, Samatha Ellis

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott — Additional Annotations

I think Little Women is the first annotated book I’ve read, and I didn’t quite know what to expect going in. I was hoping that the annotations would give me some context for the time period and country that the book was set in. Not living in America, my knowledge of the American Civil War is hazy, at best. (And mostly comes from pop culture, since it’s not a topic any of my many schools elected to cover.)

However, colonial America, especially New England with its Puritan heritage, associated billiards with taverns where men gambled, smoked and drank alcohol. When John Quincy Adams placed a pool table in the White House in 182, many people questioned his moral character. Michael Phelan (1817-1871), often called the father of American billiards, helped change the popular attitude toward the game when he opened an elegant pool hall in New York in 1850.

Annotated Little Women, ed. Daniel Shealy

Daniel Shealy’s annotations didn’t quite give me that. In fact, judging by the annotation explaining what cricket was, I think this was annotated for American audiences. Many of the annotations were about how much of Little Women corresponds to Louisa May Alcott’s actual life. (More than I thought!) Those were mildly interesting.

My brave old mother, with the ardor of many unquenchable Mays shining in her face, cried out: “Tell [Lucy Stone] I am seventy-three, but I mean to go to the polls before I die, even if my three daughters have to carry me.

Letter, Louisa May Alcott

The annotations explaining where various places in Europe were, however, I could have done without. Especially in the latter part of the book, when Amy is living in Europe, these were so thickly-scattered through the paragraphs that it became hard to read.

So a bit of a mixed bag. I probably didn’t get enough out of the annotations to make it worth the extra price and shelf-space this edition takes up. But I would still be interested to try other annotated books in future! Perhaps when they are less based on one person’s real life, they’ll annotate more about cultural context.