Virginia Woolf, asked to give a lecture on women and fiction, tells her audience what she thought that title might mean: what women are like; the fiction women write; the fiction written about women; or a combination of the three. However, she felt she could not form a conclusive truth about those subjects, and instead has come up with "one minor point--a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." She says she will use devices of fiction in relating how her thoughts on the lecture mingled with her daily life; she uses a fictional narrator whom she calls Mary Beton as her alter ego, and the essay begins.
A week ago, while sitting by a river, the narrator compares the production of a thought of hers on women and fiction (which she will not relate now, though she says one may detect it in the course of her lecture) to a fisherman's catch, albeit a measly one which he throws back. Nevertheless, the thought excites her, and as she hurries across a lawn at the fictional Oxbridge, a Beadle (a minor parish official) intercepts her; only Fellows and Scholars, not women, are allowed on the lawn. The interruption makes her forget her thought. Instead, she ponders the genius of literary figures, such as Milton and Thackeray, and goes to the library. An elderly man there informs her that women are admitted only with a Fellow or a letter of introduction. She angrily vows to herself never to "ask for that hospitality again" of entering the library. She passes the chapel, listening to the organ and watching the congregation troop inside, but does not want to enter, as she would be denied permission again. She reflects on the royal wealth that had gone into building the university; the wealth now comes from independent men.
She goes to lunch and describes the gourmet food on display: soles, partridges, a delicious dessert, and excellent wine. The good food and relaxing atmosphere inspire "rational intercourse" in the conversation. She sees a Manx cat without a tail walking across the quadrangle, and suddenly feels that something is "lacking." She thinks back on a pre-war luncheon in which people said the same things as now but sounded more musical.
She walks through the late October afternoon to Fernham, the women's college where she is staying as a guest. She has a dinner of plain soup, mediocre beef, vegetables, and potatoes, and bad custard, prunes, biscuits and cheese, along with water. She feels one cannot "think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." A friend of hers, Mary Seton (referred to hereafter as "Seton"), has a bottle of a good drink, and they drink and talk by the fire. The narrator thinks more about the kings in the past and financial magnates of their time who have built the colleges with their gold. She wonders what lies beneath their college. Seton summarizes how funds were raised with difficulty for the college, and therefore why they cannot afford expensive meals.
The narrator and Seton denounce their mothers, and their sex, for being so impoverished and leaving their daughters so little. Had they been independently wealthy, perhaps they could have founded fellowships and secured similar luxuries for women. However, the narrator realizes that had Seton's mother gone into business, she would not have had Seton or the rest of her children. Moreover, only for the last forty-eight years have women been allowed to keep money they earned; before that, it belonged to their husbands. Walking back to her inn, the narrator thinks about the effects of wealth and poverty on the mind, about the prosperity of males and the poverty of females, and about the effects of tradition or lack of tradition on the writer, among other topics. She goes to sleep, as does everyone in Oxbridge.
"A Room of One's Own" begins with the word "But," an unconventional starting point that emphasizes the contrarian nature of the essay. Contrarian, because Woolf sets out to engage a topic that, in 1928, had received little serious attention: women and writing. As she explains, the subject is too vast for her to sum up in a short space, so she proposes a highly contrarian idea: women must have the security and privacy of their own room and their own money. (For comparison, 500 British pounds in 1928 is equal to roughly 200,000 British pounds in 2001, or roughly $300,000 U.S. dollars.) The narrator unravels the reasons behind this basic premise throughout the rest of the essay.
Immediately, we see how the institution of the university discriminates against women. At the lawn, library, and dinner, the narrator is either denied admission or given inferior accommodations. Though the narrator will later explore more fully what effect this has on the mind, already we see that the obstacles damage the mental process--on the lawn, she forgets her carefully-crafted thought from the river once she is redirected. Both the recognition that she is a second-class citizen and the interruption feed into Woolf's thesis: women need money and privacy to write.
The lawn pops up again later as the narrator sees the tailless Manx cat walk across it. It reminds her first of the pre-war days, and we can conjecture that the tailless cat is a vision of symbolically castrated England. Devastated by the war, England is no longer what it once was, and its musical language has been cut off, replaced by regular conversation. More pertinently to the narrator, the tailless cat also appears as out of place at the college as a woman might. Without a "tail" of her own, the narrator is similarly unwelcome on the lawn.
To return to the narrator's main premise, wealth is repeatedly cited as a necessary ingredient for creativity. The men she sees have fewer obstacles in life; unconcerned with petty (or even major) grievances, they are free to discuss higher ideas at their luxurious lunch. Generations of men, both aristocratic and independently wealthy, have fed money back into the institutions that keep their comfort and position intact. Women, conversely, have few of these luxuries. While their mediocre food at dinner is a minor annoyance, it is representative of greater inequalities women have endured for centuries at the hands of society and nature. Few women have independent wealth with which to enjoy creative lives or enable such activity in others, and until recently they could not have utilized their own wealth under law. Moreover, they are saddled with bearing and raising children. The narrator has hinted that such conditions impair women's creative abilities, and will detail her theories in later chapters.
Woolf tells the audience she will "develop in your presence as fully and freely as I can the train of thought which led me to think" about her ideas. Woolf has done this by creating a fictional lecturer (based on herself; the essay is based on two lectures she delivered at Newnham and Girton colleges in October, 1928) whose thoughts seem much more palpable to the reader than those in the standard essay. "Mary Beton" has a distinctive voice--sophisticated, witty, poetic, ironic--that sustains and enlarges her abstract arguments. She also speaks of her "train of thought"; the wording is similar to the new Modernist technique of "stream-of-consciousness." Developed by James Joyce and William Faulkner, and tweaked by Woolf in "To the Lighthouse," stream-of-consciousness relates the ongoing chaotic narrative of a character's thoughts. Though Mary Beton's narrative flits around frequently--from the luncheon to the Manx cat to Tennyson--"A Room of One's Own" is a carefully structured essay that is a true "train of thought," and attention should be paid to Woolf's rhetorical skill as an essayist. Moreover, the narrator's absence of a "real being," as Woolf says, will play an important role when Woolf presents her aesthetic ideology.