Book of a lifetime: ‘A Room of One’s Own’ by Virginia Woolf

At 15, I knew I would write, and that anything more sustained than scrappy fragments would need time and privacy. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own consolidated this and saved a great deal of self-castigation about whether I was asking too much of life.

Short enough to be read in a couple of hours, this astonishing, generous book mingles down-to-earth advice with intoxicating flights of fancy, as when she imagines what would have happened had Shakespeare had an equally gifted sister (disaster, basically: pregnancy, suicide and an unmarked grave at the Elephant and Castle). Things read early on can become part of your fibre and sinew.

Woolf was right, I sensed, even about what I only half-understood. In one passage she gestures towards a landscape of untouched subject matter when she imagines questioning an old woman about her life – but “she would look vague and say that she could remember nothing. For all the dinners are cooked; the plates and cups are washed; the children sent to school and gone out into the world. Nothing remains of it at all. All has vanished. No biography or history has a word to say about it. And the novels, without meaning to, inevitably lie.” What is that if not a challenge?

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