I started reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own again and was, once again, experiencing the joy of being carried away on her shimmering, glimmering stream of consciousness, dazzled occasionally by that “wild flash of imagination, that lightning crack” that she herself allows Charles Lamb but denies Max Beerbohm, to hopefully land at some point from where my life would look less dim, less pitiful.
Eventually, and famously, of course, she says in the essay that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. Through the almost hundred years that have followed — the essay was published in 1929 — the idea of writing has been extended to include all work that is meaningful.
In one of the first, brilliant passages, Woolf talks about the “fish” of her thought. Asked to speak about “women and fiction”, and pondering on the idea somewhere in “Oxbridge”, where women are still suspect, she glimpses a thought that “had let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it, until — you know the little tug — the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out?” It darted about so much that she found it impossible to sit still and found herself walking rapidly across a grass plot.
She was intercepted by a man’s figure, with “horror and indignation” on his face. “…he was a Beadle; I was a woman.” Only the fellows and scholars were allowed where she had stepped in; but the gravel was the place for her. The little fish went into hiding. So, once again, something did not get written by a woman.
As I read this, now, my stream of consciousness, of whose quality I will not say anything, but its volume remains impressive, came to a sudden, rude halt. A violent thought arose in my head, quite unlike the little fish. It was about the nature of my room. A Room of One’s Own has inspired generations of women to find their own rooms. And many of us have, in some way. Many other things have changed in our favour, too.
And what is the room like? In our search for freedom, and work, which always means paid work, we have stepped out, and built our rooms, maybe in reality, maybe inside our heads. But what we ought to have left behind has never stopped following us. Because no one has stepped in to do the invisible work that we do, at our homes.
Some of us may not have left at all. We may have tried to build the room in the middle of everything. This room has no walls. If it has any, it is an extremely porous one, through which everything enters.
This year’s Oscar top dog, which picked up seven prizes with its hot dog fingers, may be problematic in many ways, starting with its American definition of ‘Asians’, but it gets one thing right, which is the number of worlds a woman today is assailed with.
Even as the middle-aged protagonist sits in her failing laundrette, all her other versions in other universes come crashing down upon her. Even as I sit in front of my laptop, working from home, I find myself trapped in what feels like the Tower of Babel. As I try to focus on the keyboard, my daughter’s school WhatsApp group of parents, which is a mothers’ group (why?), passes on information about school dispersal time, the mixer-blender makes a grating noise, wanting to stop, I suppose, and a grocery list explodes in my ears. And I have listed only three noises, hardly anything.
I do not have the language to describe the rest. Nor do I have the time. I just know that stepping into my room is not stepping out of everything.
Unlike in a film, I have no resolution. I drown in noise.