Friday, March 11, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Virginia Woolf's 'Room of One's Own' lectures


Millions of writers claim inspiration from Virginia Woolf's 1929 A Room of One's Own, a short book of long essays about the challenges women writers face because of their lack of education and financial independence. But many forget that the book is really based on a series of lectures Woolf gave in the fall of 1928 at Newnham College and Girton College, two women's colleges at Cambridge University.

She knew what she was talking about: Raised in the Victorian era, her father kept her out of school, believing that privilege should be reserved for boys. She became an intellectual and writer despite that--and in these lectures, "Woolf is speaking to women who have the opportunity to learn in a formal, communal setting....[she] lets her audience know the importance of their education at the same time warning them of the precariousness of their position in society."
Writing recently in The Guardian, Mary Beard looked at the missing place of women in the history of great oratory--echoing themes Woolf struck about writers in A Room of One's Own, but about public speaking. And she used these very lectures of Woolf's to suggest that the circumstances would have made for a very poor speech, indeed. From the article:
In fact, when a few years ago the Guardian published its own collection of great oratory of the 20th century, it obviously had a problem with the female examples. In addition to Thatcher, the collection ended up including speeches by Emmeline Pankhurst and Virginia Woolf – both of which survive only in written form (and in Woolf's case in the heavily edited version published as "A Room of One's Own"). We have no clear idea how either of these would have come across when they were originally delivered...My hunch is that Woolf's speech – given in 1928 in the acoustically dreadful setting of Newnham College's hall (it's hard to make yourself heard today even with a microphone) – would have sounded quirky and tremulous, and probably scarcely audible to any but the very front rows, no matter what a tremendous classic of feminism the written version has rightly become. I suspect that the same would also be true for Elizabeth I's speech to the troops at Tilbury.
You can hear Woolf's voice on the rare BBC recording in the video below, and see photos from her life. Unlike Beard, I think her voice is strong, and you can hear how she uses vocal variety to emphasize particular words.


Now, to the speeches. Despite being edited into a short but inspiring book, they retain the feel of a speech because of the devices Woolf used to bring her topic into focus. Here's what I notice about them as speeches:
  • She turns the artifice of the speech inside-out to frame her points: From its opening line -- "But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction — what, has that got to do with a room of one’s own? I will try to explain." -- Woolf uses a device many speakers turn to. Using the creation of the speech as the device for framing her discussion lets her bring the audience immediately into the picture she's creating. Throughout, the published version preserves enough of these touches to suggest that Woolf used this device as a recurring touchpoint in the lectures.
  • She warns them early on that she intends to confound and surprise them:  "I soon saw that it had one fatal drawback. I should never be able to come to a conclusion. I should never be able to fulfil what is, I understand, the first duty of a lecturer to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece for ever." In this seemingly self-deprecating way--one that slyly pokes fun at standard lectures and the uses to which they were not put later--Woolf sends up several flares early in the talk suggesting that she will be turning a few precepts on their heads. It's a useful tactic for speakers who are addressing controversy, and most of the ideas in the book were considered outsized and heretical in her day.
  • She puts her core message up front, and reiterates it throughout: "All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point — a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved." The idea of "a room of one's own" is introduced early, and carried through the lectures so clearly that the audience can envision that room and what it would mean to a woman writer.
  • She tells stories, about herself and about famous women writers, to illustrate her points: Woolf describes small moments about herself to demonstrate what financial independence can do for a woman writer, describing how she paid for a lunch, feeling proud that earnings from her published writing allowed her the independence to do that. And she draws us a picture of how Jane Austen had to do her writing in the family sitting room, hiding it from servants and visitors, then wondering how much greater her great novels might have been without those interruptions--the rationale for that room, again. And she uses her novelist role as an excuse to spin fictional stories, surmising what life and work would have been like if William Shakespeare had an equally talented sister Judith who also wanted to write.
  • Her stories and descriptions make vivid, memorable word-pictures:  I've studied Woolf's fiction and nonfiction extensively, and am always struck with her active verbs and crystalline descriptions. Whether she's talking about lunch or a breeze or a cat crossing the quad, you can imagine the scene. That quality in a speech makes the words memorable for us, even without a text. It's a quality missing from too many speeches, loaded as they are with platitudes and buzzwords.
There's much to dip into in these essays, and I'm always struck these days by the fact that they help to explain the spotty history of women and public speaking. If women historically haven't been able to write, or felt they needed to hide as writers, how much more difficult was it to speak in public?

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