Roomscape: Women Writers in the British Museum from George Eliot to Virginia Woolf: Books

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Roomscape: Women Writers in the British Museum from George Eliot to Virginia Woolf. By Susan David Bernstein. Edinburgh University Press. 248pp, Pounds 70.00. ISBN 9780748640652. Published 19 March 2013

Literary conceits make bad history. The reign of Macbeth was noted for progressive change to laws protecting women and children, and by the king's acts of Christian charity. George Washington never did chop down his father's cherry tree. The more memorable the device, the more difficult it is to displace. Parts of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own fit into this category of adamant distortion. Anyone who has read the essay will know that Woolf's room for women writers is physically and figuratively antithetical to the libraries of Oxbridge and the British Museum's Round Reading Room. She compares the latter to "a huge bald forehead" and describes its male scholars as lunatics, miscreants and misogynists. Its catalogue subordinates women to men, and cross-references them with children, brain size, hairiness and attractiveness. Everything about the Reading Room is embedded with a flavour of patriarchal domination, Woolf argues.

Her essay has had centrifugal force, tossing women out of our memory of the library and banishing the ghosts of those who read and wrote there during the Victorian era. But Woolf's critique rests on a profoundly selective depiction, if not an outright lie. Her excerpts from the catalogue are polemically judicious. She doesn't mention the female faces she would have seen behind the desks. She forgets to tell us the history of women readers.

Susan David Bernstein's volume reflects on two women who didn't like the Reading Room much - Woolf and George Eliot. In contrast to their absence from it, it also investigates some remarkable Victorian figures who not only used its bibliographical resources, but whose work was shaped, in different ways, by their encounters and experiences there. The translations and political activities of Eleanor Marx, Clementina Black and Constance Black Garnett are reanalysed according to their almost daily library attendance. …

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