Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

A Room of One's Own, Ordinary Life-Writing, and the Note Books of a Woman Alone

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

A Room of One's Own, Ordinary Life-Writing, and the Note Books of a Woman Alone

Article excerpt

"And so I learnt that the one necessity for such as I am in life is one's own room." Thus wrote Evelyn Wilson, on her first night in a London bed-sitting room in 1912. She had gone to work as a live-in governess at seventeen; after ten years in other people's houses, she had retrained as a stenographer and secured, with triumph and relief, a room of her own. And with a door she could lock, she began to write. Wilson would spend the next two decades living on her own, working at "Miss de Burgh's Registry for governesses, nursery nurses, and superior maids" (Ostle vii), and keeping a record--part journal, part commonplace book--of her work, her struggles, and her reading. Not long after her death in 1934, the stack of notebooks Wilson left behind wound up in the hands of Mary Geraldine Ostle, an ordinary London working woman who had read A Room of One's Own with enthusiasm and gratitude. Ostle heard in Wilson's words a resounding echo of Woolf's, and grew convinced that these private notebooks had public value. After reading A Room of One's Own in 1929, Ostle had written to thank Woolf "from the sole[s] of my shoes." "The truth of the book lives," she declared, "& someday, let us hope, will be known." In 1938 she wrote to Woolf again, with praise for Three Guineas, and in this letter she identifies herself as the editor of The Note Books of a Woman Alone, "in which I tried to express some of the difficulties women labour under." She adds, "Your first book started it." (1)

Ostle's edition of Wilson's notebooks was published in 1935 by J. M. Dent, issued the same year in America by Dutton, and quite favorably reviewed, (2) but it was never reprinted and has remained virtually unknown. It is not referenced in the two studies of singleness in the period--Katherine Holden's The Shadow of Marriage and Virginia Nicholson's Singled Out--and it appears nowhere in the extensive scholarly work on women's life-writing. Only Thomas Mallon gives it a few pages in his survey A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries (1984); there Wilson appears in a chapter on "Prisoners," grouped, far too simply, with diarists "jailed only by their own temperaments" (263). The Note Books then disappears again until Anna Snaith, in her work on the Three Guineas letters, finds Ostle's credit to A Room of One's Own, and briefly discusses the link in "Wide Circles" (2000), her introduction to those letters.

The Note Books is, as Snaith suggests, a concrete example of the impact and influence of A Room of One's Own on one of Woolf's ordinary readers. It is also, I believe, among the significant progeny of that work. The materialist argument of A Room of One's Own, and its examination of private life as a missing part of public history, led Ostle to read Wilson's notebooks politically, and inspired her to take on an editorial project that was daunting for someone untrained and unpracticed. It entailed "decipher[ing] curious marks and notes" (xiii) and sourcing and writing copyright requests for hundreds of quotations, many of which were copied or clipped from newspapers without identifying information. "The editor's task has been difficult" (289), she confesses in her acknowledgements, sounding relieved to be done. The result of her labor is a record rare for this era, a first-person account that reflects, and reflects upon, the shift in circumstances for increasing numbers of unmarried women: on the one hand, the opportunity for independence offered by the emergence of white-collar jobs; on the other hand, the low wages, insecurity, and isolation of what the journalist Edith Shackleton called, in her review of The Note Books, the "egg-and-gas-ring life."

I argue here that while Ostle's preservation of Wilson's notebooks was directly inspired by A Room of One's Own, the editorial presentation also sheds light on a fundamental ambivalence in Woolf's attitude toward ordinary life-writing. There is a tension in A Room of One's Own between Woolf's call for historiographical "reclamation work" (Highmore) on the one hand, and her investment in an ideal of literary value on the other--between a conviction about the significance of ordinary women's life-writing and a felt imperative to move contemporary women decisively beyond it. …

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