Alison Hennegan on A Room of One's Own

This is an extract from the opening lecture given by Alison Hennegan on our 2017 summer course, Woolf’s Rooms.

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A Room of One’s Own (1929) was originally a talk, requested by undergraduates at Girton and Newnham, the two first women’s university colleges in Britain: Girton founded in 1869, Newnham in 1871. And it is, I think, worth saying at this point, something of the very different philosophies and aspirations which distinguished those two colleges.

Emily Davies, the daughter of a Welsh clergyman, who was the first Mistress of Girton, was clear that anything the undergraduate men of Cambridge were asked to do, her students must do, too. To do otherwise would immediately incur the charge of being lesser, not up to it, needing an easier way.

Anne Jemima Clough, the first Principal of Newnham, and sister of one of mid-nineteenth century England’s most interesting poets, Arthur Hugh Clough, thought differently. Of course she wanted her women student to have access to a university education, but she was not so impressed by everything that nineteenth-century Cambridge did to feel that she and her women must follow slavishly. ‘Equal but different’ was her position. Equality, for her, did not mean being identical.

And this is something which Woolf returns to time and again throughout her work. It helps to shape her first novel, The Voyage Out, published in 1915. It’s present in her first thoroughly experimental novel, Jacob’s Room, published in 1922, with its often deeply hostile critique of the education conventionally offered upper middle class English boys and youths which teaches attitudes to women and their intellectual capacities which are at best condescending, at worst contemptuous. (Think of Jacob’s musings in King’s Chapel as he surveys the women in it.)

It’s working away in the difficult relations between Clarissa Dalloway and Miss Kilman, her daughter’s governess. And it would be one way of characterizing a central difference between Mrs Ramsey and Lily Brisce in the 1927 novel, To The Lighthouse.

Constantly Woolf has in her sights some of the most influential teachings of the previous century, such as Ruskin’s 1865 essay, Sesame and Lilies, whose two sections detail the most appropriate education for boys and young men. Their chapter is tellingly entitled ‘Of Kings’ Treasuries’ – banks, counting houses, the world of economics. The chapter devoted to the education of girls and young women is equally tellingly entitled: it’s called ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’.  

So those two very different versions of equality – as ‘identical’ or ‘equal but different’ – run side by side throughout the various nineteenth-century feminist struggles, and they remain thoroughly familiar to us today. Wherever issues of evaluation, judgement, ranking pertain, they remain relevant, and they thread their way through A Room of One’s Own

But those two versions of equality yield no easy answers. How do they affect our sense of what is a good book, who is a good writer, what is a subject worth tackling, who stands where when they make those judgements, and why?

Alison Hennegan
Trinity Hall, Cambridge
July 2017

Literature Cambridge