From the book Reading Women by Stephanie Staal ’93.
Our first weekend back in the city, John, Sylvia, and I took an afternoon stroll down the promenade in Brooklyn Heights, taking in its arresting view of Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge, the steel and glass cityscape etched indelibly into the blue sky. The wind whipped around us, laced with the chill of winter, and I had this funny image that we had just landed in Oz, that, even as we walked, we were moving from black-and-white into brilliant color. The dog sniffed the air, enlivened by so many scents, her tail wagging furiously behind her, while Sylvia ran in circles around us, her arms spread airplane style, and then screeched to a halt right in front of me, her eyes shining. “I love New York!” she exclaimed. I laughed and bent down to give her a kiss on the head. Annapolis seemed a million miles away, almost as if we’d never left the city at all.
Still, the reality of living in under 1,200 square feet was that John and I were now forced to occupy the same orbit, whether jockeying each other for the one shower or bumping into each other in our narrow kitchen while I made breakfast and he brewed the coffee. Privacy became a quaint notion of the past.…
Every sound, every conversation, every tap of the keyboard reverberated throughout the entire apartment. Add to this mix a very loquacious four year old and a beagle with baying in her blood, and our home often seemed more asylum, of the lunatic variety, than refuge.
All this might have been tolerable, except that the apartment was also where I worked—and where John worked, too, at least for our first few months back in the city. The effect was an increase in what I can only describe as mental noise, the clanking of too many fragmented ideas, too many interrupted thoughts. Torn between the stresses of working freelance and the demands of family life, I was fast turning into the caricature of the absentminded mother—constantly forgetting my keys, double-booking appointments, losing the thread of my sentences. Out of necessity, I took to writing lengthy to-do lists and Post-it reminders, which I would invariably misplace. I strode purposefully into rooms, only to halt suddenly, midstep, because—damned if I could even remember why . . . At times, caught up in the chaotic twirl of daily life, I would grope blindly for stillness, for that proverbial eye of the storm, if only for the chance to breathe. No wonder so many mothers start meditating and doing yoga. With the move, I had missed the first day of Fem Texts and fallen behind on my reading assignment, which was, rather perfectly, Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own. The book—an extended essay, really—is based on two lectures Woolf gave at Cambridge University in 1928. Expanded and published in October 1929, around the time the Great Depression was sweeping across the world, A Room of One’s Own makes the apparently simple case that in order to write fiction, a woman must have a room and an income of five hundred pounds a year, no strings attached. Then, working backward from this basic proposition, Woolf weaves a sparkling literary cape for the age-old feminist arguments in favor of economic autonomy and equal opportunity for women,
In one of her most memorable illustrations from the book, Woolf imagines that Shakespeare had an equally talented sister, Judith, who, because she is a woman, is undone by her own genius. Deprived of the same education as her brother, her gifts remain locked up inside, discouraged, even as her mind and hands are busied with other tasks, such as mending the stockings and minding the stew. Her father promises her in marriage to the son of a neighbor, a dull wool stapler, and when she protests, he beats her. He later tries to ply her with promises of beads and fine petticoats, but Judith doesn’t care about these things. She runs away to London, carried off by her dreams, the humming of her own gifts. Once in the city, she knocks on the stage door of a theater, looking for work. The men who answer laugh in her face, the spittle of their hilarity wet on her cheek. She has nowhere to go to improve her craft, no support for her genius. Finally, the actor-manager of the theater takes pity on her. His pity leads to her pregnancy, and so—“who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?”—the young Judith kills herself on an icy night and now lies buried in an anonymous grave at some crossroads where tour buses stop outside the Elephant and Castle.…
These words, when I read them, lodge in my throat. Woolf prophesied that within the next century Shakespeare’s sister would live again, embodied by a new generation of women. Woolf herself would not live nearly so long. Twelve years after A Room of One’s Own was published, she filled her coat pockets with stones, waded into the River Ouse, and drowned herself. By then, World War II had invaded her daily life with its threat of destruction. Bombs blasted her London home and library to rubble.
She had finished a novel, but despair hovered. “I feel certain that I am going mad again,” she wrote to her husband, Leonard, on the morning of her suicide, “and I shan’t recover this time.” For most of her life, Woolf had suffered from episodes of mental illness and violent mood swings that battered her health and relationships, but also infused her writing with radiant insight. In A Room of One’s Own, she contemplates the “severances and oppositions in the mind,” which has “no single state of being.” She writes: “Clearly the mind is always altering its focus, and bringing the world into different perspectives. But some of these states of mind seem, even if adopted spontaneously, to be less comfortable than others. In order to keep oneself continuing in them one is unconsciously holding something back, and gradually the repression becomes an effort.”
This observation is reflected in her fiction as well. Pick up any one of Woolf’s novels: Her prose is frenetic, an exercise in the anarchic wanderings of the mind, thought stumbling over thought, facts and ideas contradicting each other. Woolf writes of a mind divided against itself, ever struggling to coalesce a sense of self from all the bits and pieces of thought, experience, emotion.
Crowded into an urban apartment, working to regain my professional footing, keeping watch of a young child, I thought about Virginia Woolf’s conditions for female creativity. If I had the money—five hundred pounds converted into U.S. currency and adjusted for inflation, of course—and a room of my own, which I sort of had here by the kitchen, was that really all it would take? My daughter pounded on the door of my home office. “Mommy? Mommy? Mommy?” I stopped typing, the words of the sentence I had been writing now scattered, the muse frightened away. I swung open the door in a motion of irritation. And there stood my daughter, holding out to me a piece of paper with a poem she had written, her expression serious and proud.
“Mommy,” she said, “I wrote this for you.”
Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs (www.publicaffairsbooks.com), a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.