Heads up: this essay is based on two papers read at Newnham and Girton, two women's colleges.
Woolf was assigned to talk about "Women and Fiction."
So, she starts off by addressing an unspoken question: what does this business about the room have to do with Women and Fiction?
Woolf thinks about what her assigned topic might mean.
Maybe it's to talk about women as writers of fiction. She rattles off several authors she might discuss in this vein.
But she might also be supposed to speak about what women are like, what kind of fiction they write, or about how they appear in fiction... or it might be all three together.
Whew. The more she thinks about the topic, the more complicated it becomes.
All she knows is that in order to write fiction, "a woman must have money and a room of her own" (1.1).
So this essay will be Woolf's attempt to describe how she got to that conclusion.
In order to do this, she will make "use of all the liberties and licenses of a novelist," meaning that she'll be making stuff up (1.1).
Woolf explains that the "I" she's going to use from now on aren't meant to be her, but rather "a convenient term for somebody who has no real being" (1.1).
Huh. Things are definitely getting weird.
She settles on Mary Beton, Mary Seton, or Mary Carmichael as pseudonyms. (Intrigued? Visit the "Allusions" section to learn more about the four Marys.)
And we begin!
Mary Beton sits by a river that flows through the campus of "Oxbridge," a fictional university that's, uh, actually either Oxford or Cambridge.
She's fishing for an idea about the topic at hand.
(Fishing, get it? She's sitting by a river, but fishing for an idea. Okay, we'll stop now).
She's so excited about her idea that she... gets up and walks on the grass.
We can already see that Mary likes to live dangerously.
All of a sudden a beadle (a university official, but on the rent-a-cop scale) runs over to kick her off the grass, telling her that the "turf" is for the "Fellows and Scholars" of the university and that her place, as a woman, is on the gravel (1.3).
You know, in case she soils it with her lady-shoes. Or something. We really don't understand this. Usually "Keep Off The Grass" signs apply to everyone.
This unpleasant run-in makes her forget her idea, but she keeps walking.
She decides to try her luck at the library, but can't go in there, either. A guy at the door tells her that ladies are not allowed into the library.
So she walks past a church and sees all of the old deans of the university heading to services. She thinks about all the money the university founders had to lay out to pay for this fancy school.
Time for a ritzy luncheon at the university.
Honestly, at this point we're surprised they let her in.
After the meal, she sees a tailless cat that helpfully becomes a metaphor for the world after the First World War: "something [seems] lacking" (1.7).
She imagines that before the war men and women hummed the poetry of Tennyson and Rossetti under their breath.