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A Room of One's Own, ordinary life-writing, and The Note Books of a Woman Alone.

"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. (3) There is, likewise, a distinct ambivalence in the prefatory material with which Ostle turned Wilson's notebooks over to the public. In Ostle's letter to Woolf, the political conviction behind her editorial project is clear. Her introductory "Note by the Editor," by contrast, is remarkably vague and diffident, and neither that note nor the introduction she solicited from Geraldine Waife, a former colleague of Wilson's, mentions Woolf, A Room of One's Own, or any of its arguments. Ostle's effacement of her political purpose may be partly a result of caution against putting off potential readers. But both her note and Waife's introduction also reflect a confusion of documentary with literary value, and a resulting ambivalence about publishing what Ostle apologetically calls "amateurish" writing (xiii). There are good reasons to follow Ostle in reading Wilson's notebooks through Woolf, but to do so most profitably we need to read beyond A Room of One's Own, and to navigate the tension in Woolf's thinking about ordinary life-writing and literary value. There is in Woolf's work more than Ostle found to define and illuminate the value of The Note Books of a Woman Alone; in equal measure, this singular, fascinating text illuminates the adaptability of Woolf's articulations of women's experience across class divisions.

As Anna Snaith has demonstrated in detail, Woolf had an abiding interest in ordinary life-writing, particularly in the role of diaries and letters in feminist historiography. (4) One early example of this is the short story "The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn," in which a medieval historian, Rosamond Merridew, reflects on the frustrations of studying a period "more bare than any other of private records" (CSF 35), and tells the story (perhaps a fantasy) of discovering at an isolated country estate the intact diary of a twenty-five-year-old Joan Martyn from the year 1480.5 The current Mr. Martyn prefers the stud books and genealogies--"Horses or Grandfathers!" (CSF 43)--but Merridew, thrilled at her luck, seizes upon the young woman's record. She "bypasses the books of records written by men," Snaith argues, "for the autobiographical recording of a woman's life," and the transcription of the diary in the second half of the story "reinforc[es] the importance not just of noticing, but of publishing women's accounts of their lives" ("Private Voice" 101).

A Room of One's Own echoes Miss Merridew's lament for the scarcity of private records; Woolf rues that the "average Elizabethan woman" "never writes her own life and scarcely keeps a diary," and that "there are only a handful of her letters in existence" (41). Similarly in Three Guineas, she wishes for the guidance that would be afforded by historical records of professional women. The regret is not just that "[t]here were no professional women, except governesses," but that "the lives of governesses ... can be counted on the fingers of one hand" (200). She lauds the recent publication of one of these, the journal of "an obscure Miss Weeton" from the years 1807 to 1811, which seems to her to have "crept" out of hiding, its voice "reach[ing] us from the darkness" (200) of the past. Such forms of ordinary life-writing, Woolf suggests, can be a source for the missing "mass of information" (AROO 41) about past women's lives and, along with other kinds of records, can contribute to the "supplement to history" that she urges young female historians to create.

However, Woolf was less sure of the value of ordinary life-writing from her own time. Surveying twentieth-century women's writing in A Room of One's Own, she hopes that "the impulse towards autobiography may be spent" (72), that women "may be beginning to use writing as an art, not as a method of self- expression." We do find here what sounds like a call not just for historical, but also for contemporary reclamation work: she declares that she would prefer the "true history" (82) of the girl behind the shop counter to "the hundred and fiftieth life of Napoleon" (83); she conjures from the poor areas "south of the river" (80) images of the "infinitely obscure lives [that] remain to be recorded" (81). But she is not actually asking for individual testimony either written or collected; rather, she is proposing subjects for the redemptive imagination of the novelist. She is urging her fictional novelist Mary Carmichael to visit those streets and rooms, to observe and explore, and ultimately to relieve in contemplative novelistic prose "the pressure of dumbness, the accumulation of unrecorded life" that she feels hanging so heavily over the impoverished streets (81). Woolf is enjoining women novelists to break social taboos and literary proprieties and venture across urban and social terrain "in the spirit of fellowship," free of "the shoddy old fetters of class" (80). But it is novels she is after, not personal testimonies, and the distinction is significant. In the one record of Woolf's response to contemporary working-class life-writing--her "Introductory Letter" to Margaret Llewelyn Davies' Life As We Have Known It, a compilation of personal recollections by members of the Women's Co-Operative Guild--we find a deep ambivalence toward "infinitely obscure" women relieving "the pressure of dumbness" by publishing words of their own (AROO 81).

Woolf begins the "Letter" by recalling her experience at a Women's Co-Operative Guild Congress in 1913, and on one level she constructs a narrative arc in which the "impassable" (xxx) divide she felt between herself and the Guild women is diminished seventeen years later by reading their essays and letters. She weaves elements of their stories into an elegant composite account of the texture of their lives, their hardships and strength, and the transformative power of the Women's Guild. The writings, she finds, alleviate "the old curiosities and bewilderments which had made that Congress so memorable, and so thick with unanswered questions" (xxix). But she proceeds to evaluate the papers by narrowly literary standards that are, as Mary Childers puts it, "stunningly inappropriate" (69). Woolf begins the preface certain that "this book is not a book" (xvii), and in this respect she concludes where she began, constructing not an arc but a circle: "It cannot be denied that the chapters here put together do not make a book--that as literature they have many limitations" (xxix).

Woolf elaborates on this judgment in the voice of a hypothetical--and male--"literary critic," but the objecting voice merges with her own. In her own voice, Woolf frankly doubts that the women's writings will mean much to readers who cannot "supplement" them with "the memory of faces and the sound of voices" as she herself can, and the doubting literary critic shares this memory. Indeed, he anchors his judgment in his recollection of those very faces: "The writing ... lacks detachment and imaginative breadth, even as the women themselves lacked variety and play of feature" (xxix). Although Llewelyn Davies clearly presents the essays as documentary "record[s] of individual experience" contributing to the history of Co-operation (xi), Woolf cannot refrain from holding them up to the ideal of wholeness and transcendence that she articulated so powerfully two years earlier in A Room of One's Own: the creative mind "incandescent and undivided" (89) that can "build up out of the fleeting and the personal the lasting edifice which remains unthrown" (84). (6) Toward the end of the "Letter" Woolf declines to judge what is and is not literature (xxxxi), but she cannot wholly resist the question, relinquish the category, or suppress her judgment. Literature, the "Letter" suggests, is what real books are made of, and real books are things that do not "need shoring up" by introductions (xvii) or supplementing by direct experience of their authors. Against that aesthetic ideal, the Women's Guild testimonies are judged to be merely "fragments" and their voices, particularly unfairly, only "half articulate" (xxxxi).

Woolf's ambivalence toward the Women's Guild narratives sheds light on the submerged tension in A Room of One's Own between her desire for records that tell something "perfectly true and substantial" (41) about ordinary women's lives, and the question of how that truth will best be told. According to Woolf's "Letter," it was Davies herself who initially doubted the value of the women's papers, hesitating to share them with Woolf on the grounds that "they were very fragmentary and ungrammatical" and that "[i]t might be that their crudity would only perplex, that the writing of people who do not know how to write--" (xxxi). In Woolf's telling, she does not allow Davies to finish that sentence, but cuts her off to insist that "[i]n the first place, every Englishwoman knows how to write; in the second, even if she does not she has only to take her own life for subject and write the truth about that and not fiction or poetry for our interest to be so keenly roused that--that in short we cannot wait but must read the packet [of papers] at once" (xxxii-iii). Perhaps so, but when Woolf is faced with presenting those same papers to the public she feels compelled to point out that "[p]oetry and fiction seem far beyond their horizon" (xxix). Her initial conviction of the intrinsic value of personal testimony gets dampened down with reservations and qualifications, as the aesthetic ideal articulated in A Room of One's Own presses back in.

It is telling that in "The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn," that great fantasy of reclamation work, the discovered voice of an "ordinary" medieval woman turns out to be a delicately sensitive, lyrical one, with the imaginative instincts of a novelist. "If I ever write again," Joan concludes, "it shall not be of Norfolk and myself, but of Knights and Ladies and of adventures in strange lands" (CSF 62). Joan Martyn is an earlier incarnation of Judith Shakespeare, a writer whose "genius" "never got itself onto paper" (AROO 44), a "poet who never wrote a word" (AROO 102). These figures of lost genius suggest that Woolf's ambivalence toward ordinary life-writing arises in part from the pressure of the question to which A Room of One's Own is a response: "the perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature" of the past (AROO 38), the challenge of the patriarchal voice that declared it "impossible for any woman, past, present, or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare" (42). For all its intrinsic human interest and its documentary and political value, the unpolished voice and rough shape of ordinary women's life-writing trails with it the long history of oppression and frustration and often the embarrassment of poverty. It drags against the will to full liberation and incontrovertible refutation of that prating male voice.

Ostle's presentation of The Note Books of a Woman Alone reveals a similar tension between conviction about the value of Wilson's writing as personal testimony and documentary evidence, and misgivings about its appearance as a "work" of women's writing. As an expression of "the difficulties that women labour under," Wilson's notebooks are, as Ostle recognized, rich and multi- faceted. Wilson's journal entries record not just the circumstances of her own life, but also, on occasion, those of the clients of Miss de Burgh's Registry, women in the upper levels of domestic service. Wilson's work went far beyond the stenography for which she had been trained: she dealt directly with women applying for jobs, parents seeking positions for daughters, and women seeking household help; sometimes she had to mediate disputes between employers and employees. She brought to the work an acute sympathy born of her own experiences, as a governess, of exploitation, homelessness, and confinement. She notes sometimes paying out of her own meager earnings the registration fees of the poorest job-seekers--"my candidates," she calls them (32), or "my unemployed" (33)--and within her limited powers she advocated for the most vulnerable. Without a child of her own, Wilson took the part of a mother toward "these girls who come to me and own that they have no one behind them at all. I am a woman," she wrote, "and all women are responsible for all children" (96). One of the longest journal entries tells the hair-raising story of her efforts to get a laid-off nurse, traumatized from being torn away from the children she had raised, from infancy, for seven years, out of the abysmal workhouse infirmary to which she had been sent, in her doctor's words, "to pull herself together" (49).

At the same time Wilson's notebooks form the record of the central purpose they served for her: the intertwined projects of self-reflection and self- education, through which she strove to understand herself and her circumstances in social, psychological, and spiritual terms. In addition to the periodic journal entries, the notebooks include autobiographical recollections, a short dramatic sketch, and, comprising the bulk of the text, extensive quotations copied from her readings, often followed by her comments. Toward the end of her life, Wilson attempted to work the accumulated material of twenty years into a comprehensive conceptual order: she cut up her pages and arranged the entries into titled sections, mapping the concerns that defined her life. Among these are "Women: Their Work; Their Homes"; "Children and Family Life"; "Money"; and "Vision and Bewilderment." Thus the journal entries do not appear in chronological order, but the arc of Wilson's life emerges nonetheless: a middle-class but unhappy childhood, marked by maltreatment; the loss of her parents in young adulthood; her exclusion from the family money, as her father's business and assets went to her brothers; her precarious but cherished independence through work; social insecurity and estrangement from her family; and the fear, ultimately realized, of losing her position. At the age of forty-eight or forty-nine Wilson was laid off, with the rest of the staff, after Miss de Burgh died and the agency was sold. The Note Books concludes with a grim, brave final chapter in which Wilson records her resolve to hasten the course of a terminal illness so as not to outlive her small remaining savings: "I saw the doctor, played the fool, and so got the information I wanted," she writes. "I now have to keep in mind and do all he tells me not to do! ... To be condemned to live when I lack the means is senseless" (287).

Ostle was better educated and better off than Wilson: she was a certified teacher and worked for the Froebel Society in various capacities, including registrar, secretary, and librarian. (7) Her 1938 letter to Woolf notes that she had a "one-room flat" and could afford the occasional luxury. But she too was "a woman alone"-- unmarried and self-supporting--and she recognized in her own life as well as in Wilson's the historical and systemic oppression of women as a sex that Woolf had anatomized in A Room of One's Own. (8) Ostle's political reading of Wilson's writing is, as I have said, clear in her letter to Woolf. It is also explicit in a "Note by the editor" that Ostle felt compelled to insert into Wilson's text. Following a series of passages Wilson copied from Villette, Ostle adds, "If any reader laughs at, or thinks it is out of date to quote from Charlotte Bronte concerning the difficulties of women, I suggest they beg, borrow or steal one, or all, of the following books" (187). The ensuing list includes A Room of One's Own} But Ostle's prefatory note to The Note Books avoids any mention of "the difficulties of women" in general. She offers the book vaguely as "an account of a woman's mental life in varying moods" (xiii). Her very brief indication of her editorial process suggests that in terms of genre she is positioning it among collections of quotations: she explains that she "generally omitted [Wilson's] quotations from the classics because they are to be found in other anthologies" (xiii). This rationale implies a reader who would be turning to the book for aphorisms and distillations of wisdom, and that its value will be in its selection of these, rather than in the life and conditions it portrays. But framed thus, the documentary and autobiographical value of The Note Books is diminished. Ostle is left apologizing for it being "somewhat amateurish, even very much so at times" (xiii), and doubting its coherence: "[Eve's] comments ... about life are here," she writes; "they illumine the book, account for the selections [of quotations], I think. I cannot know" (xiv). She repeats, "I cannot know," and concludes with a dramatic but obscuring flourish: "Eve has gone. I might not have known her even had I met her every day. For are not all souls, especially those who pity, unknowable, incalculable, alone?" (xiv). The question is perhaps intended to create an air of tantalizing mystery around a vanished soul. But in light of Ostle's statement to Woolf, it seems a dismaying retreat from the claims of documentary and autobiographical value that could so easily have been made for this book.

Wilson's notebooks had come to Ostle through her friend Geraldine Waife, a former colleague of Wilson's who had received them, to her "great surprise" (ix), from Wilson's brother, along with word of Wilson's death. (9) The publication was Ostle's initiative, but she solicited an introduction from Waife, who could offer some biographical details and a personal account of the woman she knew. Like Ostle, Waife was better educated than Wilson. She seems to have worked at the agency only for a short time, and she went on to marry and have children. But she remained attuned to the challenges faced by working women, and by single women in particular: in 1923 she had published a novel about a women's teacher training college, titled Colleagues: A Novel without a Man and dedicated "to the million 'superfluous women' with profound respect." Waife pays tribute to Wilson as one who, though "uneducated," "made use of every incident, every book, every person encountered in her way through life, and who could therefore see and think for herself (viii), but she too is uncertain about the purpose of publishing the book. She ends up offering The Note Books as a kind of inspirational or self-help work, on the grounds that "Wilson made out of her thoughts a philosophy that really stood by her in her loneliness and isolation" (x). In this way she credits the aspiration to conceptual order reflected in The Note Books, without apologizing for amateurishness. However, she ends up qualifying the book's value as much as Ostle does, by restricting it to readers in Wilson's own social and economic position:

   If Miss Ostle can make a book out of these note-books that will
   help others placed as Eve was, it will be a good thing. It will
   certainly not be a book for those who can get easily all the
   physical, mental, and spiritual help they need. It will be a book
   for those, like Eve, who have little time for reading, who read in
   a shaky bus, or hanging from a strap in the tube, or in a
   restaurant. There may be no other Eves, and then this book can get
   nowhere. But I think there may be some who need its mental shelter.
   (x)


"Maybe," she concludes, "some will find in it more than I, or the editor, can" (xi). This disavowal of the book's value for herself (and Ostle) seems to be a defensive marking of her own superior social position. But the restrictive assignment of its readership is also a way of dealing with The Note Books as a publication with a genre problem. If it could not be offered up to stand by Bartlett's Familiar Quotations or with the works of philosophers or theologians, what was it? "What is this book then, if it is not a book?" they seem to be asking, as Woolf did of Davies' collection (xvii). Although Woolf had asked for the "true history" of a shop girl, neither Ostle nor Waife was able to assert the value of The Note Books in documentary terms.

Thus it seems that Ostle and Waife ultimately read Wilson's notebooks as a demonstration of the central thesis of A Room of One's Own: as dramatizing how financial independence and creative and intellectual achievement are interrelated, how poverty and oppression left women writers hobbled. Read this way The Note Books helps to answer the objection Woolf anticipates in closing A Room of One's Own, that she has "made too much of the importance of material things" (96). But to read The Note Books as a vindication of that aspect of Woolf's materialist argument is also to read Wilson's life as instructive mainly in its failure, as Waife does. She pays tribute to Eve's devotion to self-education, but follows with the pronouncement, "And yet Eve failed. She failed to make a living that would provide for her old age.... She was just a worn-out woman when she left Miss de Burgh's Agency, and was unable to find any work at all" (viii). And it is to read Wilson's writing likewise as an earnest but rather poor example of an established genre--the anthology of quotations, or the work of popular philosophy--much like the multitudes of failed "women's novels" that Woolf sees lying "scattered, like small pock-marked apples in an orchard, about the second-hand book shops of London" (AROO 67).

The documentary and political significance of The Note Books was nonetheless clear at least to Edith Shackleton, who reviewed the book for the feminist weekly Time and Time and saw it as representing a turning point in the history of working women, and of singleness, as well as a "reproach ... to our common sense as a community." "This is the era of the Lonely Woman," Shackleton declares: "The penniless spinster no longer pines in the irritable bosom of her family, but has fled or been hustled out to earn a living." On the one hand, this woman's living was likely to be meager, and her life solitary; on the other hand, "to the governesses and poor relations of yesterday," the modern single woman's "independence, her room of her own, would have been imagined as heavenly bliss. For this reason The Notebooks [sic] of a Woman Alone has interest." Though Shackleton's review does not mention Woolf, it appears under the title "A Room of One's Own," and the historical interest of The Note Books, clearer to us now than it could have been to her, also lies in its direct and indirect connections to Woolf's feminism: its place in the reception history of A Room of One's Own, and its parallel mapping, "from below," of Woolf's arguments about the systemic poverty of women, the politics of domestic space, and, perhaps above all, about self-education through reading.

Given the apparent echo of A Room of One's Own in Wilson's assertion of the necessity of private space, and the appearance among her quotations of the final paragraph of "How Should One Read a Book?" Snaith in "Wide Circles" takes The Note Books as "proof that [Woolf's] work was being read by ordinary women" and that "[h]er imperfect education was offering inspiration and support to women like Evelyn Wilson" (9). In terms of reception history, however, The Note Books is primarily a record of Ostle's reading of Woolf, not of Wilson's. Wilson may have read "How Should One Read a Book?" in the second volume of The Common Reader, which was published in 1932, two years before her death, but she may well have encountered the passage excerpted elsewhere. (10) There is no evidence that Wilson read A Room of One's Own. As I have noted, her testament to the necessity of her own room was written when she began working at the registry, about fifteen years before A Room of One's Own was published. It is hard not to think that Wilson would have seized upon a book titled A Room of One's Own if she had encountered it, and some of its trenchant and aphoristic lines would certainly have been copied into her notebooks, or at least have been approximated "from memory" as some of her quotations are. For Wilson was keenly attuned to analyses of the condition of women in everything she read. She gratefully copied out long passages on the subject from women writers and activists such as Winifred Holt by, E. H. Young, Ethel Mannin, and V. H. Friedlander, (11) and even from rather improbable sources, such as Joseph Conrad.

The direct connection of The Note Books to A Room of One's Own, then, is through Ostle. But even if Ostle's credit to A Room of One's Own had not been preserved in her letter to Woolf about Three Guineas, Wilson's own emphasis on the issues of power and privacy within domestic space would have invited dialogue with it. The connection was made, as I have noted, in the title of Shackleton's review, and the New York Times review opens by citing Woolf directly: "A room of her own and 500 [pounds sterling] a year Virginia Woolf said a woman should have if she was going to write creatively." Against that figure of the woman writer the reviewer presents Wilson, "a woman who never had more than 3 [pounds sterling] a week (12) and who never knew either success nor any sort of creation," but whose "room of her own" was nonetheless "a stronghold, symbol, and literal blessing and comfort in a hard life." The reviewer is right that Wilson's room was a "stronghold," a structure of defense: she defiantly defined "home" as "any room across the door of which I can draw the bolt" (26). But it was for her, also, as much as for any aspiring novelist with a legacy, a space of freedom and of creativity. That bolt meant she could read undisturbed and write free from prying eyes. Her notebooks were her creation.

Wilson's notebooks further testify to the need of private space for all who must live where they work, whether or not they will ever write a word. "How can I explain to these mothers, these employers of home-workers," she asks herself, "that a room alone, a warmed one to which the employee can go, is a necessity?" (1). The psychological importance of privacy goes deeper than its enabling of reflection and creation; Wilson saw it as essential to a worker's sense of integrity and dignity to have what she herself had finally attained: a space "where I may be myself, and neither apologize for nor justify my presence" (7). Tellingly, later journal entries recognize that though her room has a lock, it is still less than her own, and her presence may still be felt as an imposition: "No landlady likes you forever" (90), she observes at one point, and records at another how she is subject to hostility, and a particularly sparse meal, when she chooses not to go out on a Bank Holiday (102).

The Note Books of a Woman Alone also provides, as Snaith observes, "confirmation of so many of [Woolf's] ideas about the importance of access to books and libraries for working women" ("Wide Circles" 9). Waife remembers that Wilson "read and re-read books from free libraries" and "went without meals to buy a few more" (viii). Books were "mental food" (39), and at times more important than physical sustenance. They were also Wilson's means of access to broader horizons, compensating in some degree for her limited physical space. This mental space too was restricted by poverty, as Waife notes, and its limits are to some extent reflected in Wilson's quotations, which are heavy on classic and popular novelists such as George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and George Gissing, whose works would have been readily available at circulating libraries and in cheap editions. Wilson is herself aware of the constraints. She is conscious of being "unlearned" (133); even in the privacy of her notebooks, behind her bolted door, she cannot entirely shut out the voice of the "well-educated man [who] would jeer at my ill-stocked mind" (42). Woolf of course knew this jeering voice. And it is the affirmation of the liberating possibilities of self-education with which she answered it that can help us read The Note Books as more than a document and a product of deprivation. The Note Books is also an exemplification of the intellectual resourcefulness and independence that Woolf celebrated in her conception of the "common reader"--solitary, idiosyncratic, unprofessional, and unbowed.

In "The Common Reader," her preface to the first volume of that collection, Woolf takes up Samuel Johnson's vision of "all those rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is carried on by private people" (19). The sketch is imprinted with Woolf's (and Johnson's) class: Wilson could hardly dream of a room "full of books"; hers were few and mostly borrowed, and her single rented room was all the space she would ever call home. But Wilson was as much an exemplar of this figure as was Woolf herself: voracious and "[a]bove all guided by an instinct to create for [her]self, out of whatever odds and ends [s]he can come by, some kind of whole" (CR1 1). Wilson's process was cumulative, and constructive. It was also, as in Woolf's account of the common reader's, "[h]asty, inaccurate," a matter of "snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure." Wilson gives the source of one of her quotations as "a book-marker" (213); another was copied from a Christmas card (231). She "read as a child does," Waife remembers, "everything, looking for gold" (Ostle x). Classics, the Bible, eminent nineteenth-century novelists, contemporary psychologists, sermons, journalism, letters, poems printed in newspapers, ephemera--out of such heterogeneous materials Wilson pieced together an intellectual edifice of her own. As Lily Briscoe is able to say at the end of To the Lighthouse, "I have had my vision" (226), so Wilson, near the end of her life, asserts, "I have lived my own life, thought my own thoughts, not those of others.... Hence I claim that my life has been worth living" (42).

Given the intersections of Wilson's and Woolf's themes and concerns, it is hard not to regret that Wilson never read A Room of One's Own, and tempting to imagine how Woolf would have responded to The Note Books. Woolf, however, appears not to have sought out what her "first book started." Snaith finds that Woolf mentions Ostle's second letter in her diary shortly after Three Guineas was published ("Wide Circles" 9). In this entry, Woolf makes note of a negative review, then follows it with "Miss Osler or some such name writes to thank & praise--my grand work &c &c" (D5 145). There is a note of dismissiveness in this rendering of Ostle's enthusiasm and gratitude, rather than of consolation or interest; there is no further mention of Ostle in the diary, and no record of a reply. Given Woolf's introductory "Letter" to Davies' collection of the Women's Co-Operative Guild pieces, it seems to me likely that Woolf would have responded to The Note Books of a Woman Alone with the same mixture of fascination and resistance: turning the pages eagerly--the "true history" of an employment agency clerk, after all, the record of a life about as "obscure" as she could wish for--and yet saying to herself as she did of that one, "this book is not a book" (xvii). As a novelist and a feminist Woolf was fascinated by the records of obscure women's lives, but she preferred them distanced by time. As with the imagined journal of Joan Martyn, or the real one of Miss Weeton, governess, these are imbued with value by their scarcity and with mystique by their almost uncanny survival. And they belong, reassuringly, to a history of oppression, not to a present in which increased opportunity brought not just the possibility but, as Woolf felt it, the imperative of demonstrating women's intellectual and creative equality. At the end of A Room of One's Own, Woolf's sights are fixed on the ideal of literary genius in the figure of the spirit of Judith Shakespeare, whose "opportunity to walk among us in the flesh" (102) she projects, rather pessimistically, a hundred years hence. And yet at the same time, in this final "fiction" (102) she defines a crucial cultural role for the writings of a woman like Wilson and, no less, for the work of a woman like Ostle, whose editing of Wilson was her own means of expression. Woolf urges women to cultivate "the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think" (102), for only such individual efforts, she maintains, will collectively, eventually, make it possible for "the dead poet who was Shakespeare's sister" to be born and "find it possible to live and write her poetry" (103).

In the first version of the essay "Lives of the Obscure," Woolf proposed that the memoirs of the obscure provide "that background, atmosphere and standing of common earth which nourish people of greater importance" (E4 140). (13) She defends the value of these "trivial and ephemeral" books on the grounds that they are essential to ordinary readers and therefore to "good" books: they provide the "gradations of merit" that ease the approach to the "sublime and precipitous"; they are replete with the rich sense of ordinary life that readers need to bring to the "splendid pinnacles" of literature. The conclusion of A Room of One's Own significantly revises this account of the vital service of lesser books to great ones. Like the first account, it has a rhetorical doubleness. On the one hand it insists on the necessity of the former; on the other hand it implies a rather dramatic subordination in which perhaps a century's worth of women's writing appears as so much compost for the rare flowering of genius. Women seem urged to write for a century in the service of Judith Shakespeare; their effort is called upon in "preparation," almost messianically, for her "coming" (103). This figure of transcendent female genius hovering over the end of A Room of One's Own cannot have eased Ostle's self-consciousness in the face of what seemed "amateurish" in Wilson's writing and in her own editorial work. On the other hand, the power that Woolf invests in the writing of "exactly what we think" is no less than the power to change the culture so fundamentally that it will in time be able to accommodate, perhaps even nourish, what it would once have destroyed. It would be hard to leave A Room of One's Own with the impression that such change is to be brought about more for the sake of genius than for the sake of justice: in Woolf's vision here, the two causes are ultimately one. Woolf's urging of women to work for Judith Shakespeare had, among its more immediate results, the publication of The Note Books of a Woman Alone, as it sanctioned not only the writing and publishing of "exactly what we think" but also affirmed that to do so "even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while" (103).

Works Cited

"A Woman Alone." Rev. of The Note Books of a Woman Alone. New York Times 18 Oct. 1936: BR9. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2007).

Childers, Mary M. "Virginia Woolf on the Outside Looking Down." Modern Fiction Studies 38.1 (1992). 61-79. Print.

Cuddy-Keane, Melba. "'A Standard of One's Own': Virginia Woolf and the Question of Literary Value." Virginia Woolf: Turning the Centuries: Selected Papers from the 9th Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf. Ed. Ann Ardis and Bonnie Kime Scott. New York: Pace UP, 2000. 230-36. Print.

Daugherty, Beth Rigel, ed. "Letters from Readers to Virginia Woolf." Woolf Studies Annual 12 (2006). 25-212.

Highmore, Ben, ed. The Everyday Life Reader. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Holden, Katherine. The Shadow of Marriage: Singleness in England 1914-1960. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2007.

Ostle, M.G., ed. The Note Books of a Woman Alone. London: J. M. Dent, 1935. Print.

Shackleton, Edith. "A Room of One's Own." Rev. of The Note Books [sic] of a WomanAlone, ed. M.G. Ostle. Time and Tide 18 Jan. 1936. WH/7/7.34/01/12a. Hull History Centre, Hull.

Snaith, Anna. "'A View of One's Own': Writing Women's Lives and the Early Short Stories." Trespassing Boundaries: Virginia Woolf's Short Fiction. Ed. Kathryn N. Benzel and Ruth Hoberman. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. 125-138. Print.

--"'My Poor Private Voice': Virginia Woolf and Auto/Biography." Representing Lives: Women and Autobiography. Ed. Alison Donnell and Pauline Polkey. Houndsmills: Macmillan, 2000. 96-104. Print.

--, ed. "Three Guineas Letters." WoolfStudies Annual 6 (2000). 17-168. Print.

--. Virginia Woolf: Public and Private Negotiations. Houndsmills: Macmillan, 2000. Print.

--. "Wide Circles: The Three Guineas Letters." WoolfStudies Annual 6 (2000). 1-12. Print.

Nicholson, Virginia. Singled Out: How Two Million British Women Survived Without Men After the First World War. New York: Viking, 2007. Print.

Waife, Geraldine. Colleagues: A Novel Without a Man. London: Chapman & Hall, 1923.

Woolf, Virginia. The Common Reader, Volume I. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. London: Vintage, 2003. Print.

--. The Common Reader, Volume II. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. London: Vintage, 2003. Print.

--. The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. 2nd ed. Ed. Susan Dick. San Diego: Harcourt, 1989. Print.

--. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Vol. 5. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. London: Hogarth, 1984. Print.

--. The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Vol. 4. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. London: Hogarth, 1994. Print.

--. "Introductory Letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davies." Life As We Have Known It: By Co-Operative Working Women. Ed. Margaret Llewelyn Davies. London: Virago, 1977. xvii-xxxxi. Print.

--. A Room of One's Own / Three Guineas. Ed. Michele Barrett. London: Penguin, 2000. Print.

--. To the Lighthouse. Ed. Stella McNichol. London: Penguin, 1992. Print.

(1) Ostle's first letter to Woolf appears in WoolfStudies Annual 12 (2006, edited by Beth Rigel Daugherty), her second in Woolf Studies Annual 6 (2000, edited by Anna Snaith). "Evelyn Wilson" (abbreviated to "Eve") is the pseudonym Ostle chose for the woman who kept the notebooks. Ostle notes that the title is Wilson's own: "I have left it as Evelyn Wilson wrote it in each of her eight fat notebooks" (xiii).

(2) Reviews of The Note Books appeared in New Statesman & Nation, Times Literary Supplement, The London Mercury, The Fortnightly Library, Time and Tide, Boston Evening Transcript, and New York Times. I discovered The Note Books after chancing upon The New York Times review.

(3) Ben Highmore uses the term "reclamation work" to encompass a wide range of historio-graphic and ethnographic efforts to salvage the records of ordinary life from "the 'condescension of history,' [which] has clearly cast much of social life into oblivion" (223). I use the term "ordinary life-writing" to refer to the diaries, notebooks, and letters of people who were not professional writers, and as distinct from memoirs and biographies which, however obscure their authors and subjects, were written for publication.

(4) Versions of this argument appear in "'My Poor Private Voice': Virginia Woolf and Autobiography" (2000), Virginia Woolf: Public and Private Negotiations (2000), and "'A View of One's Own': Writing Women's Lives and the Early Short Stories" (2004).

(5) Written in 1906, the story was first published in 1979, edited and introduced by Susan M. Squier and Louise A. DeSalvo, who also supplied the title.

(6) A Room of One's Own does critique literary canonization and even ridicules the complacent claims to universality--"sonorous phrases about 'elemental feelings', the 'common stuff of humanity'" (83)--with which it was so often defended. Melba Cuddy-Keane notes how forcefully Woolf exposes "the infiltration of socially gendered values into literary judgments" (330), and outlines the diversity of Woolf's "evaluative practice" which was certainly not "limited to 'high modernist' principles" (232). As a reader, editor, and reviewer Woolf did of course recognize the different values of different kinds of writing. But the highest value remains that of genius, defined by a "freedom and fullness of expression" (AROO 70) and a capturing of "reality" (AROO 99). The latter is an amorphous quality, but one that "fixes and makes permanent"; communicated in writing it is "what is left of past time and our loves and hates."

(7) In her 1938 letter to Woolf, Ostle says that when she wrote in 1929 she was "Registrar and Secretary" of the Froebel Society, which she describes as a "women's educational society" (Snaith, "Three Guineas Letters" 18). The letterhead of the 1929 letter gives "The Froebel Society and Junior Schools Association" as a "Scholastic Agency for Teachers and Governesses" and identifies Ostle as "Secretary and Librarian" and holder of an "N.F.U. Teacher's Cert. and Trainer's Diploma" (Daugherty, "Letters from Readers" 63). Further information on Ostle is scarce. She published two articles in the Froebel Society journal Child Life (1927 and 1934) and Sharing Makes a Feast: A Christmas Play for Children and Adults in 1934. A London Times obituary gives her death as May 29, 1950.

(8) The other books listed are Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby, Poor Women by Nora Hoult, The Rector's Daughter by F. M. Mayor, A Clergyman's Daughter by George Orwell, The Old Ladies by Hugh Walpole, and Miss Mole by E. H. Young.

(9) Waife does not indicate why Wilson's brother, from whom Wilson was estranged, made her the recipient of his sister's notebooks. Wilson mentions Waife as a valued friend in a few of her entries; possibly she left instructions for the notebooks to be sent to her.

(10) Wilson's excerpt is the final paragraph of the essay, in full, in which Woolf imagines "the Almighty," on the Day of Judgment, concluding of those who arrive with their books under their arms, "Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to given them here. They have loved reading" (CR2, 270; Note Books 210).

(11) E. H. (Emily Hilda) Young was a suffragist and popular novelist. Ethel Mannin was a leftist feminist and prolific writer of novels and non-fiction. V. H. Friedlander was a poet, novelist, and active member of the Women's Social and Political Union.

(12) According to Waife's introduction, when Wilson began working at the agency she earned about thirty shillings a week; after twenty-one years of ten-hour days she made 3 [pounds sterling] a week--perhaps 150 [pounds sterling] a year, allowing for two weeks unpaid holiday.

(13) The two paragraphs that opened the first version of "Lives of the Obscure" (published in The London Mercury and in The Dial) were cut and replaced by a new introduction in The Common Reader; the earlier one is reprinted in Andrew McNeillie's notes to the essay in Essays of Virginia Woolf Vol. 4. See also Jane Marcus's analysis of it in "Invincible Mediocrity: The Private Selves of Public Women" (The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings. Ed. Shari Benstock. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1988. 114-46. Print).
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Author:Ophir, Ella
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Date:Jan 1, 2014
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