Virginia Woolf famously wrote a speech, which she later turned into a short book, about the importance for a writer of having a ‘room of one’s own’. In this particular case, Woolf’s focus was on female writers at a time where women in Britain were just struggling towards greater levels of emancipation and Woolf herself was seen as a kind of vanguard, being a women of independence and great vision, as her works of fiction continue to lay testament to. In the book ‘A Room of One’s Own’ Woolf addresses the question of how women can venture into a writing career, and her view is that without economic and physical freedom such a hope is illusory at best. It is an insightful point. Economic and physical freedom remain a significant issue for women around the world even today, and in many cases for women economic freedom beyond the level of dire poverty remains an illusory hope. Freedom from oppression, freedom from physical or sexual violence, for the majority of women remains an aspiration though in some areas we have, perhaps, made a little progress. It is only, sometimes, by reading a treatise so old (it was written in 1928) that we come to realise how little has really changed. A Room of One’s Own is a great, short, feminist work that elucidates many of the problems for women in achieving their aspirations in life. Like all of Woolf’s work, it is not an easy read, her writing is simultaneously dense and nebulous, but it is definitely a worthwhile one.
But this blog is not about feminism, but rather why that work has been on my mind for the last couple of weeks. I have been in the process of creating a room of my own, a writing and reading room. I have not done this without help, I should point out, in fact my husband has been a driving force in this transformation and I’ve been very grateful for the considerable effort he’s put into achieving this goal. How it happened is this: until recently I’d been writing in the dining room. In the dining room we had a lovely oak table, eight seater, which took up the bulk of the room. The chairs are extremely uncomfortable. There was also a matching sideboard, a tall bookcase and loads and loads of junk. You see, we didn’t use the dining room very often. Mostly we eat at the kitchen table, which seats six (but extends to eight) or in the living room, and occasionally, when we have visitors, we will tidy the dining room and use the table. This happens, at best, 2 or 3 times a year. Most of the rest of the time the dining room is shut away or I am shut away in it, feeling like an interloper.
For a long time now, I have dreamed of a quiet room filled with books. My books, until recently, were stored in communal areas: the hallway, the landing. They were double stacked, so only half of them were on view at any time and often the books in the back row were forgotten. I dreamed of a room with rows and rows of shelves stuffed with books, and comfy chairs for sitting in and reading at, and blankets for warmth, and soft lighting and no TV and no technology, except for my laptop of course which I could use for writing. There is something extremely attractive about silence, to me. The idea of a quiet room, forgetting the books and the comfy chairs and all those trappings, somewhere I can go and think and be at peace, makes me feel comforted. I am quite adept at drowning out noise: my workplace is noisy, my train journeys equally so, and I have learned that in order to think I have to be able to fade that noise into the background. I am not always successful. Yet, still, a quiet room to call my own is like my safe harbour in a storm. It is something I need, but have never really had.
Recently we’ve started talking about this more seriously, perhaps because I am making a much more concerted effort to bring writing into my daily routine. The dining room was okay, but not a particularly effective space for writing. I know environment shouldn’t be hugely important, yet I think it is. Creative a space which is conducive to your writing, I think, is an essential part of the journey. Or if not creating, discovering. For some writers maybe a crowded cafe will be the right space, or a library with the right kind of ambiance (I am thinking, here, of the lovely gothic reading room in the John Rylands library), or maybe somewhere green with a river flowing and a slowly decaying wooden bench.
For me, converting one room in the house into a space in which I can write and read and think quietly is a boon. We finally committed to this a couple of weeks ago when, quite by accident, we discovered a typewriter in an antiques shop and, at £9.50, we just had to get it. I love typewriters, I’ve wanted one for a long time. My typewriter is an Olivetti Dora portable typewriter and it’s great. What’s more, kids love it. Both my kids and kids that have visited have spent an age tapping away at its keys. Then I found a wonderful writing bureau for sale, secondhand, on Gumtree. I used to have a writing bureau when I was a child, and I’d loved it. I’d spent hours at that desk doing my homework or writing or reading the old set of Australian encyclopaedias my Mum and Dad had brought back with them which were stashed in the glass fronted shelves at the bottom of the bureau. I knew that my writing desk had to be a bureau. We were lucky to pick up the one we did; it isn’t in perfect condition, there is damage to the edges and the leather rest needs replacing and there is some bleaching to the wood, but to me it is perfect. It has been loved, used, abused a little perhaps. It has character, it has stories. The lady who was selling the bureau was doing so reluctantly and I wish I could show her, already, how much I love it, how much it means to me. It made me realise that mostly when we have bought furniture I haven’t cared too much about it, but this piece of furniture is already special to me.
Then one evening I came home and my husband had removed the dining table from the room and the next thing I know he is demanding to know what kinds of shelves I want putting up and suddenly we’re off to Ikea and a couple of days later I have a wall full of shelves just waiting to be filled with books. That’s when the hard work really began. Moving and organising books is always a trial as this blog expresses so neatly, especially when you have a very large book collection, as I do. Book moving day looked like this:
(and that’s not all my books. Agh!). And after a day’s worth of trial and effort, of sorting and re-sorting and bending and lifting and carrying we discovered there weren’t enough shelves, so my husband went and got some more and we ended up with this:
A lot better, isn’t it? Everyone loves the new room. We still need to get some comfy chairs and a rug would be nice and some little side tables that we can use to perch a glass of wine on and a Scrabble board. But we can take our time over that. For now it is just wonderful to have a nice, quiet, peaceful room. Right now I am sitting at my writing bureau typing away and all I can hear is the whirring of the hard drive and the sweet chirping of the birds outside and my husband vaguely prowling around the house looking for things to do, and it is blissful.
This got me thinking about the writing rooms of other writers. Here are some interesting examples:
Proust’s ‘soundproofed’ room
Proust famously lined his writing room with cork to limit the noise, shuttered the windows and drew the blinds. A sickly man who rarely left his room, instead he focused his attention on his epic exploration of memory and time (which I will never, ever finish). This picture is a replica of Proust’s writing room from the Musée Carnavalet in Paris.
Roald Dahl’s shed
Roald Dahl’s famed shed in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire is now part of a museum dedicated to the art of storytelling. Dahl wrote his wonderful children’s novels here. In some parts of London, this would be a ‘house’ retailing for something in the region of £250,000. It’s also gorgeous. Rumour has it that no one was allowed in the hut, and no one was allowed to clean, but if that was true how is it that we have pictures of Dahl in his hut? Curious.
Virginia Woolf’s room of her own
If you read Virginia Woolf’s excellent diaries, she talks a lot about her house at Rodmell, Sussex, from which she can walk out into the country, along the River Ouse, and at which she had the ‘room of her own’, a little writing lodge in the garden, where she produced most of her most famous works.
Tove Jansson’s Island
Perhaps a bit extreme, but I can see the appeal of an ‘island of one’s own’. The island is as much a character in Jansson’s books as anyone else, if not the most enduring one.
What is interesting about all of these writing places, and when you start reading more about writing rooms, is how many writers had sheds or huts completely separate to their home to do their writing in. I suppose this makes a lot of sense: going to the shed at the bottom of the garden creates a break between home responsibility and the job of writing and in that distance between back door and shed door the writer can emerge. Creating a space in which you write, and only write, is something that perhaps helps to ease the journey between the ordinary version of you and the you that creates. It’s an interesting idea. My writing room isn’t just a writing room, it’s a shared space in which I can write and my family can read and play games and share quiet time with each other. It’s not perfect, but it is a lot better than where I was before. But writing this blog has got me wondering: perhaps there is room in my garden for a shed...?