The Four Marys
The title of the essay comes from Woolf's conception that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction". The narrator of the work is referred to early on: "Here then was I (call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please—it is not a matter of any importance)". The two Marys were ladies-in-waiting to Mary, Queen of Scots; they are also characters in a 16th-century Scottish ballad, Mary Hamilton, about a lady-in-waiting who is facing execution for having had a child with the King, a child she killed.[a]
In referencing the tale of a woman who rejected motherhood and lived outside marriage, a woman about to be hanged, the narrator identifies women writers such as herself as outsiders who exist in a potentially dangerous space.
Women's access to education
The essay examines whether women were capable of producing, and in fact free to produce, work of the quality of William Shakespeare, addressing the limitations that past and present women writers face.
Woolf's father, Sir Leslie Stephen, in line with the thinking of the era, believed that only the boys of the family should be sent to school. In delivering the lectures outlined in the essay, Woolf is speaking to women who have the opportunity to learn in a formal setting. She moves her audience to understand the importance of their education, while warning them of the precariousness of their position in society. She sums up the stark contrast between how women are idealised in fiction written by men, and how patriarchal society has treated them in real life:
Women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time. 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; beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some would say 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 and profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read; scarcely spell; and was the property of her husband.
In one section Woolf invents a fictional character, Judith, Shakespeare's sister, to illustrate that a woman with Shakespeare's gifts would have been denied the opportunity to develop them. Like Woolf, who stayed at home while her brothers went off to school, Judith is trapped in the home: "She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school."
While William learns, Judith is chastised by her parents should she happen to pick up a book, as she is inevitably abandoning some household chore to which she could be attending. Judith is betrothed, and when she does not want to marry, her father beats her, then shames her into the marriage. While William establishes himself, Judith is trapped by what is expected of women. She runs away from home to London, is harassed and laughed at when she tries to become an actor, and is finally made pregnant by an actor-manager who said he would help her. She kills herself and "lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle". William lives on and establishes his legacy.
Building a history of women's writing
In the essay, Woolf constructs a critical and historical account of women writers thus far. Woolf examines the careers of several female authors, including Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, and George Eliot. In addition to female authors, Woolf also discusses and draws inspiration from noted scholar and feminist Jane Ellen Harrison. Harrison is presented in the essay only by her initials separated by long dashes, and Woolf first introduces Harrison as "the famous scholar, could it be J---- H---- herself?"
Woolf also discusses Rebecca West, questioning Desmond MacCarthy's (referred to as "Z") uncompromising dismissal of West as an "'arrant feminist'". Among the men attacked for their views on women, F. E. Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead (referred to as "Lord Birkenhead") is mentioned, although Woolf further rebukes his ideas in stating she will not "trouble to copy out Lord Birkenhead's opinion upon the writing of women". Birkenhead was an opponent of suffrage. The essay quotes Oscar Browning, through the words of his (possibly inaccurate) biographer H. E. Wortham, "that the impression left on his mind, after looking over any set of examination papers, was that, irrespective of the marks he might give, the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man". In addition to these mentions, Woolf subtly refers to several of the most prominent intellectuals of the time.
Woolf wrote in her diary before A Room of One's Own was published that she thought when it was published she would be "attacked for a feminist & hinted at for a sapphist".
In one section of the book, describing the work of a fictional woman writer, Mary Carmichael, Woolf deliberately invokes lesbianism: "Then may I tell you that the very next words I read were these – 'Chloe liked Olivia ...' Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women." Woolf references the obscenity trial and public uproar resulting from the publishing of Radclyffe Hall's lesbian-themed novel The Well of Loneliness (1928). Before she can discuss Chloe liking Olivia, the narrator has to be assured that Sir Chartres Biron, the magistrate of Hall's obscenity trial, is not in the audience: "Are there no men present? Do you promise the figure of Sir Chartres Biron is not concealed? We are all women, you assure me? Then I may tell you ..."
Woolf scholar and feminist critic Jane Marcus believes Woolf was giving Radclyffe Hall and other writers a demonstration of how to discuss lesbianism discreetly enough to avoid obscenity trials; "Woolf was offering her besieged fellow writer a lesson in how to give a lesbian talk and write a lesbian work and get away with it." Marcus describes the atmosphere of Woolf's arrival and presence at the women's college with her lover Vita Sackville-West as "sapphic". Woolf is comfortable discussing lesbianism in her talks with the women students because she feels a women's college is a safe and essential place for such discussions.