Woolf’s contemporary and close friend Vita Sackville-West also devised a room of her own. Unlike Woolf’s modest shack at the back of the field, Sackville-West purchased and renovated a tower at Sissinghurst sticking up in the middle of her gardens, and therein she created a designated writing space. Though the chamber is today cordoned off from visitors, one may look through the doorway at the innumerable books, preponderant desk, rugs, and cushions, everything announcing that, “yes, here I write, this is my space.” As well-stocked as Carlyle’s, the tower room gives the impression of a writer who gathered concrete evidence to demonstrate her avocation, to convey the importance of her work, to prove a point by the sheer fact of separation in a tower from her family. Even her sons lived in a separate building.
If physical and private space is all that’s required to be a writer, then Vita Sackville-West is a writer to emulate, and not just for the convenient removal of children. But she’s not, is she? Her literary lights have dimmed. She is a minor presence like most of us in the literary firmament, barely a twinkle these days, while Virginia Woolf has blazed into a cosmos all her own. Sackville-West’s garden columns are excellent and still available in book form, and her superb, well-maintained gardens, among them the deservedly famous White Garden, are handsome manifestations of horticultural art, no mean achievement.
Really, the only reason for visiting Sissinghurst is to walk the garden paths. In that respect, Sackville-West possessed exemplary talents, not to mention servants and gardeners to do the work and maintain the splendour. Woolf’s writing space seems authentic and not copied, a sparseness filled with writing that has arguably changed our notions of a woman’s life dedicated to art and what it means to be revolutionary within a certain context and time. Vita Sackville-West remains trapped in period stodginess, the bastion of her tower office reminiscent of Carlyle’s patriarchal den.
Jane Austen's writing table in the drawing room at Chawton
Jane Austen lacked space. In her residence at Chawton, there was no extra room for a writer, never mind a studio cabin or tower. The bedroom she shared with her sister is small, scarcely large enough for a bed and dresser, or, if one were so psychotically inclined, to swing a cat. A small round table in the parlour, possibly a Sheridan and now protected by a plexi-glass shield, is situated by a window looking out to the main street of the village. Apparently, Austen used it as a make-do desk. There is no room to expand, no room to accumulate artifacts, no room to mark it as a writer’s personal territory, no room for very much except to sit, converse, drink tea, and apply quill to paper when the opportunity presented itself.
In her letters, Austen does provide much information about writing novels in a family parlour, but I suspect she didn’t wait for the right moment or insist she be left alone. In the absence of private physical space, she created a private psychic one by constructing an impregnable fortress of literary purpose within her mind which could not be broken down by general chatter and other interruptions. Among her other gifts, Austen did not lack the ability to concentrate.
I think of Virginia Woolf’s essay and cabin, Vita Sackville-West’s tower, and Carlyle’s study, their necessary, self-imposed isolation, and wonder how Jane Austen managed to produce six scintillating novels, at least two of which are masterpieces, in the midst of the busy domesticity of a small house where servants and family bumped against each other crossing a threshold. There is little evidence that she requested, or was conscious of needing a room of her own. True, her sister and other members of her family respected her achievements, and perhaps they sat quietly in the parlour and did not unduly disturb.
Austen might have produced more novels of surpassing merit and wit if she had been accorded her own space, if not a tower, then at least a private room. But she died relatively young at 41, young for a writer. The real question is not space in Jane’s Austen’s case, but time. I stood outside her Winchester home in a neighbourhood of Georgian row houses only metres away from the Cathedral where her remains are entombed and memorialized. Suffering from an unspecified ailment, she had come to the city to consult a doctor who could do little. I experienced a sensation similar to that in Virginia Woolf’s cabin, no doubt a projection of my individual store of cultural memories and literary affections.
A sign on the Winchester house cautions visitors against knocking. The home is still a private residence. On her death-bed in that particular house just down the street from a bookshop, Jane Austen asked her sister to pray for her. I did not pray, but I fancied seeing Woolf and Austen arm in arm, confabulating and strolling in April sunshine when the myriad, naturalized daffodils had burst into yellow bloom in the fields surrounding the cabin at Rodmell.
© 2012, Kenneth Radu
The author in Wordsworth's garden behind Dove Cottage, Grasmere
Kenneth Radu is the author of several books (fiction, poetry, and a memoir), the most recent being a volume of short stories, Sex in Russia (DC Books). A new collection entitled Earthbound is also forthcoming from DC. He is currently working on a novel manuscript, other stories, and now and then enjoys writing something else. He lives near Montreal.
Photos: Courtesy Kenneth Radu