Study Guide

A Room of One's Own Wealth (and Poverty)

By Virginia Woolf

Wealth (and Poverty)

Chapter 1
Mary Beton

Still the same flow of gold and silver went on; fellowships we founded; lectureships endowed [...] Hence the libraries and the laboratories; the observatories; the splendid equipment of costly and delicate instruments which now stands on glass shelves. (1.5)

Yep, cash rules everything around me. Note how Woolf exhaustively lists the material aspects of a fine university. What about the human capital?

What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? Looking in at shop windows? [...] Mary's mother [...] may have been a wastrel in her spare time (she had thirteen children by a minister of the church), but if so her gay and dissipated life had left too few traces of it pleasures on her face. (1.28)

Mary's mother must have been a very busy woman... or women's poverty must be explained some other way. This quotation might remind you of what Woolf has to say about women's writing—that it is passed down from woman to woman, just like money. The better women's writing, the better later writing will be.

It is only in the last forty-eight years that Mrs. Seton has had a penny of her own. For all the centuries before that it would have been her husband's property [...] Every penny I earn, they may have said, will be taken from me and disposed of according to my husband's wisdom—perhaps to found a scholarship in Balliol or Kings. (1.28)

Mrs. Seton is the mother of the fictional Mary Seton, Mary Beton's dinner companion. She comes to stand in for all the impoverished women of the past. And the rub? Any of Mrs. Seton's money could be taken by her husband and used to found, say, a university scholarship—just for boys.

Chapter 2
Mary Beton

For that visit to Oxbridge and the luncheon and the dinner had started a swarm of questions. Why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What effect has poverty on fiction? (2.1)

Okay, first, Woolf is continuing her pattern of insisting on the very material basis of art. But we feel like we should point out that not every man is rich. Does Woolf consider that?

No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds. Food, house, and clothing are mine for ever. Therefore not merely do effort and labor cease, but also hatred and bitterness. I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me. (2.14)

Mary's inheritance does way more than just make it so she doesn't have to work. She can think in a completely new way, too. So much for living for your art.

The news of my legacy reached me one night about the same time that the act was passed that gave votes to women. A solicitor's letter fell into the post-box and when I opened it I found that she had left me five hundred pounds a year for ever. Of the two—the vote and the money—the money, I own, seemed infinitely more important. (2.14)

This is a pretty big statement: financial independence is more valuable than being able to vote for one's own interests. In other words, Mary would rather have 500 pounds than the right to vote. Do you agree?

That building, for example, do I like it or not? Is that in my opinion a good book or a bad? Indeed my aunt's legacy unveiled the sky to me, and substituted for the large and imposing figure of a gentleman, which Milton recommended for my perpetual adoration, a view of the open sky. (2.14)

Here is where Woolf starts to show us how wealth might make aesthetic judgment possible. If you don't need anyone to give you money, then you don't have to pretend to share their opinions. Can art ever really be good if you have to do it for the money?

Chapter 4

It is [Aphra Behn]—shady and amorous as she was—who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you tonight: Earn five hundred a year by your wits. (4.21)

In 1928, 500 pounds per year was enough to live comfortably. But here's the question: Mary Beton didn't earn her money. So, is it better to earn money "by your wits" or to have it fall out of the sky?

Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for. It might still be well to sneer at "blue stockings with an itch for scribbling," but it could not be denied that they could put money in their purses. (4.21)

A "blue stocking" is an intellectual woman. So it's not just that having money makes it possible to think your own thoughts, but it works the other way around, too: do a good job putting your thoughts on paper and you'll end up with money.

Chapter 6
Virginia Woolf

Intellectual freedom depends on material things. Poetry depends on intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. [...] Women, then, have not had a dog's chance of writing poetry. (6.14)

If you were waiting for Woolf to state the point of the book in a nutshell, your wait is over. This is it. You can't have good poetry without good food.