Monday, 30 January 2012

Reading and Commuting

I am beginning this post by acknowledging that, in this city, to complain about having a short commute to work is equivalent to some kind of heresy...

Having said that, two ferry stops is just NOT enough time for a book junkie to get a decent fix.


This morning, I pulled A Room of One's Own out of my backpack as I settled myself on the ferry, opened it to page 15 and started reading. I ignored the violent rocking that always accompanies the first stop due to the backwash off the sea wall and kept reading doggedly on... And then, all too soon, we were gently chugging into the city wharves, and I'd not even made it to the end of the chapter! I can't even blame slow reading, because I don't read slowly. Although, I will say that Woolf's text does make me slow down to really enjoy it - it's just so considered, and elegant. The opening chapter (I got to the end on the trip home) is all about her internal response and subsequent wrangling with the topic of women and fiction, about which she was invited to lecture - which is the premise of the book, which is taken from that lecture. Should she write about women in fiction, women writing fiction, why it is believed that women can't write great fiction and the reason why, and a stack of other permutations on the theme...

The backdrop is a day spent on the campus of a great university, 'Oxbridge' (uhuh....), where she is first waiting until it is time to join a luncheon party to which she has been invited and while en route is chivvied off the lawn by a Beadle while walking to the college where she is to dine - women must walk on the gravel pathways, only the Fellows and Scholars (male) are allowed on the grass. Still with some time to pass, and following the tangled train of thought still wrestling with how to approach her topic, she realises that an essay that has been tickling her brain is, in all likelihood, in the library of the university, which she is just passing. So, she makes her way through the doors. To be met by, as she puts it, a 'guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction'. With still an hour to spare, she passes by a chapel where there is something happening, given the music coming from within and the people entering. She decides this time not to enter, even if she does have the right and remains outside listening to the music, musing on the possibility that the academic figures she is watching are a, perhaps, soon to be obsolete species, given that - in her opinion - outside the rarified atmosphere of the university environment, they may fail to survive.

The luncheon itself - as a guest in one of the male colleges - is delectable, leisurely and memorable. She describes the courses in great detail, relishing the aesthetics of the presentation as well as the richness of the fare. Moving on, she arrives much later for a dinner engagement with a great female scholar in a college of a much less affluent nature, with a meal that she gives only a perfunctory nod to - although, there is a great deal of detail about the prunes that make up, with custard, the dessert, which is not at all complimentary.

She ponders, after this day which has produced a series of roadblocks due entirely to her gender, and a sumptuous male hosted feast followed by a more frugal female hosted repast, on how it is that money and privilege are so unevenly divided... And the first inklings of where she is headed begin to make themselves felt.

I can't, for the life of me, imagine being barred from a library. A library!!! Books are for everyone, are they not? The reality, of course, is that this has not always been the case. In the course of human history and scholarship, it is only in very recent times that scholarship has been open to women. Not that it stopped us - stories abound of women who strove to learn, and who rose to the highest rank, albeit often in disguise - Pope Joan comes to mind, and there was a woman doctor who served in the Crimea (I think - I'll have to go and look that up, can't remember exactly which war...), also disguised as a man. In both cases it was their bodies that gave them away when they fell pregnant.

There are many others, and I think, sometimes, how pleased, but probably envious too, they'd be to see how many women there are at universities, who are accepted as academics. I still think though, that Woolf's concept of that room, and independent income, are key to our potential for success. Someone once said to me that women are one man away from poverty. It sounds extreme, but in my experience, once there are children in the mix, the overriding tendency is that it is the women who carry the bulk of that load, putting aside their own dreams, their own studies, their own work, in order to support those children and often, too, the children's father.

It reminds me very much of a paper I wrote in art school - the first history paper I wrote for the degree - where I was examining the stories of women artists and their struggles to both work and be recognised. I felt then, and I don't know that it's changed all that much in the interim, that at a grass roots level, that the daily lives of women who wish to create are still marked by a struggle to have the space and the funds to do so, since they have to be found AFTER the work of the domestic environment has been attended to...

And on that note, I must go and attend to the next stage of dinner production, as what could safely be left to do its own thing now needs rather more attention!

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