In 1928 the students of Newnham College, Cambridge – one of only two colleges at that university which then admitted women – had few advantages. Compared to the male-dominated splendour of the rest of the university, their resources were modest, something that showed in everything from the food they ate to the books they were able to consult. Worst of all, although they could sit the same exams as their male peers, they could not be awarded degrees. Women would not be admitted as full members of the university until 1948.
Not everything was dismal for the women of Newnham in 1928, however. In October that year, Virginia Woolf came to address them on the subject of “Women and Fiction” and they were witness to a crucial moment in the history of women’s creativity and freedom. They watched as this intelligent, articulate woman, who was already the author of several acclaimed novels, stared injustice full in the face and said: no more. Now, thanks to a new theatrical adaptation of Woolf’s work, we are able imaginatively to sit where they sat and see what they saw.
Although the period costume and the powdered hair help, it is really the voice that transforms Sarah Blake into Virginia Woolf. As she stands behind a lectern in the basement of a trendy bar in east London, her diction and intonation are what make you believe that you are a Newnham student, hearing those words – “a woman must have money and a room of her own, if she is to write fiction” – for the first time. Blake inhabits Woolf, seeming to capture every student in her audience with her gimlet eye, daring us to disagree with her.
As well as being its only cast member, Blake is the author of this adaptation. Woolf’s lectures were published in 1929 as A Room of One’s Own, and it is from this that Blake edited down her text – a process she describes afterwards as extremely painful.
The impetus for dramatising the work now is not a happy one. Blake argues that many of Woolf’s observations are still true. Superficially, women who write fiction today seem to get equal billing with their male counterparts. The likes of Hilary Mantel, Zadie Smith and Lionel Shriver are among the most prominent authors. Yet their work will never get the kind of avid coverage given to Martin Amis, say, or Jonathan Franzen. The biggest book review in many publications is still most often devoted to the work of a man. And that’s not counting the difficulty of even making it to publication. Eimear McBride, the prize-winning author of the brilliantly experimental novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, has said that she initially received “glowing refusals” from every big publisher.
This new version of A Room of One’s Own is about getting the essence of Woolf’s original message out to a wider audience. The need is pressing: women, who do the vast bulk of unpaid caring work in our society, must still scratch around for physical space and financial support if they are to write professionally. Bills must be paid; children, husbands and parents cleaned up after.
Woolf was not immune to these travails. In a letter to her fellow author Katherine Mansfield in 1921, she wrote: “I’m in the middle of my novel now, but have to break off, of course, to make a little money. I shall write an article on Dorothy Wordsworth, and so pay for our new sheets.”
Next time you read an article about pillowcases written by a woman, stop and ask yourself: what kind of novel might she have written instead?