When I was at university in London, someone discovered that Virginia Woolf had attended the ladies’ department that was attached to the institution, before women were allowed to participate in traditional academia. We were taken to an archive to see the list of courses that had been offered to women at the time. I marvelled at the curls of Woolf’s name written in her own hand, registering her interest in bicycle lessons.
The university claimed Woolf as their own, naming a building after her and displaying a picture of her outside of the main entrance. This felt insincere to me, as the doors of the university had not actually opened to her, on account of her gender. I was a young woman in the future, where things were different. I was the first person in my family to pass through the doors of a university, yet I didn’t feel as if I was fully able to enter. The university was elite and I felt dirty and cheap. There were many kinds of people who were not given permission to pass through those doors and I felt that acutely as I sat on the wall beneath the picture of Woolf, smoking a cigarette, clutching at being cool.
I threw myself into the hard, fast city, trying to outrun my beginnings. I read Woolf for the first time and her dense, psychological prose unravelled a tight knot inside of me. When I found ‘A Room of One’s Own’ I knew that was what I needed. I had given up the place I came from in pursuit of freedom and there wasn’t anywhere in the world that felt like it belonged to me.
I have lived in many rooms since then (21 and counting) and the necessity of a space in the world that feels like my own, an anchor from which to write, has become increasingly important. Yet, rooms aren’t always physical spaces. These stories have functioned as places for me to inhabit, too. I have passed through each of these rooms at different times in my life; they opened their doors and offered me safety, refuge, or a push elsewhere when I needed it.
First published by Hogarth Press, September 1929, and widely available today