Louisa May Alcott, Virginia Woolf, and ‘a room of one’s own’
Kristina West, author of Louisa May Alcott and the Textual Child, discusses the importance of dedicated spaces for female writers, and explores the ways in which they are constantly under threat.
At the age of 12 – long before the popular and financial success of her best-known work, Little Women – Louisa May Alcott was dreaming of what Virginia Woolf later termed ‘a room of one’s own’: a dedicated space for the female writer. The young Alcott wrote to her ‘Marmee’: ‘I have been thinking about my little room, which I suppose I shall never have. I should want to be there about all the time, and I should go there to sing and think’. A year later, her journal records: ‘I have at last got the little room I have wanted so long, and am very happy about it. […] The door that opens into the garden will be very pretty in summer, and I can run off to the woods when I like.’
Yet this desire for a ‘room of one’s own’ for the female writer is constantly under threat, not only from the outside but also from the inside, as might be seen through two of Alcott’s best-known characters: writer Jo – often read as Alcott’s alter ego – and the domestic March sister, Beth. At first glance, it might appear that these two characters are opposites within the domestic space. Jo’s ‘room’ is the attic where she retires to write, read, and eat apples, a handy cushion acting as a physical barrier between her imaginary world and the humdrum reality of domestic life. Beth’s place in the March household is constructed as the domestic setting of the home and her role as the ‘angel in the house’, both in Little Women and in Alcott’s poem of the same title.
However, neither sister is settled in what appears to be their chosen space. Even in her attic, Jo dreams of escape, of running away to war or to Europe with Laurie, with the female space she has carved out for herself still too domestic and too indicative of her role as a nineteenth-century woman: in running away, she wishes to leave both female gender and the feminine domestic role behind. Beth, too, dreams of escape, of fleeing ‘washing dishes and keeping things tidy’ and her imposed position as ‘angel’ to ‘a happy world of her own’, which often centres around her piano and her private creative life: the domestic space that she constructs and inhabits may be one of safety, but it is also a place of imprisonment. Both Beth and Jo therefore contest the ‘room’ that they have apparently chosen, with each in subversion of their chosen/imposed female space; just as the young Alcott was given her long-desired room and yet immediately planned her escape from the domestic into the wild.
After all, Alcott found her role as a ‘woman writing’ no less problematic that her best-known characters. While at home, despite being the principal earner for her parents and sisters, she was too often tied down by domestic cares to write. In December 1876, she wrote in her Journal: ‘Nan [eldest sister Anna] housekeeper, I nurse, chambermaid & money maker. Dull times.’ Neither did she enjoy the ‘domestic stories’ for which she was famous, much preferring to write her ‘blood and thunder’ tales of love and scandal. Frequently, even as an adult, she ran away from the family home to write in peace in Boston; but the needs of her family always drew her back home and into a female domestic role of carer/housekeeper and ‘children’s friend’ that she did not enjoy.
In 1942, Virginia Woolf wrote that killing the ‘angel in the house’ – this paragon of domestic virtues that all women were expected to become – is ‘part of the occupation of a woman writer’. But she found it no easier to do than Alcott: ‘It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality. She was always creeping back when I thought I had dispatched her,’ Woolf complained. The problem for Woolf, for Alcott, and even for 21st-century women writers in killing the ‘phantom’ is that it resides inside, part of our history and our heritage, and while we remain invested in the angel in the house – while it remains a part of our own image – the ‘room’ we so desire as female writers will always be both liberator and prison.
Kristina West completed her PhD on constructions of childhood in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and is an affiliated member of the Graduate Centre for International Research in Childhood: Literature, Culture, Media at the University of Reading. Her research focuses on American literature, children’s literature, and critical theory. She will soon publish her next book, Reading the Salem Witch Child. Louisa May Alcott and the Textual Child is available now.