The series of lectures collected in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is based on the premise that what women need to succeed as writers, in the most pragmatic sense, is five hundred pounds and a room of their own. The cash is necessary for the economic independence that has historically preceded other kinds of independence; the room to provide a place where they can commune with themselves free of the clatter that is typically attached to their assigned roles as daughters, wives and mothers.
This particular chapter examines the integrated political/artistic act of the woman as writer, tracing a line from Lady Winchelsea to the acclaimed novelists of nineteenth century England, and placing their works in the context of gender politics and artistic temperament. Personally, I am particularly interested in Woolf’s observations about the relationship between woman writers and the form of the novel (in the paragraph that begins, “Here, then, one had reached the early nineteenth century.”) and with the notion of “integrity,” the lack of which creates a flaw that causes a work of art to crash “upon our heads.”
It is in these ideas that you might see the depth of the challenge women faced in becoming writers, as men first barred their access to artistic creation (think of all the famous female composers!), and then used the authority of literary criticism to bully women into submission. In the face of all this resistance, what strength must a person have to see her artistic vision to fruition, free of the blurred focus that might arise from emotional response to her temporary surroundings?
Here are some excerpts from other lectures in the book. They may provide insight into the ideas you encounter in chapter 4.
Indeed, if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room.
A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively, she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.
On the facts of life, for women who might have been becoming mothers at age 16:
That woman, then, who was born with a gift of poetry in the sixteenth century, was an unhappy woman, a woman at strife against herself. All the conditions of her life, all her own instincts, were hostile to the state of mind which is needed to set free whatever is in the brain. But what is the state of mind that is most propitious to the act of creation, I asked?
On the practical and economic conditions designed to thwart genius:
…to write a work of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty. Everything is against the likelihood that it will come from the writer’s mind whole and entire. Generally material circumstances are against it. Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down. Further, accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world’s notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them. It does not care whether Flaubert finds the right word or whether Carlyle scrupulously verifies this or that fact. Naturally, it will not pay for what it does not want. And so the writer, Keats, Flaubert, Carlyle, suffers, especially in the creative years of youth, every form of distraction and discouragement.