On The Pursuit of a Room of One’s Own

“Woolf is right. Women need a room. Women need floors to kick, walls to beat, air to scream into or they will wind up dead.”

The idea of the Bechdel Test has always puzzled me. Used, more often now, through an infusion in popular culture, as a colloquialism for women who are unable to talk about their inner lives without the mention of men, the Test originally considered works of art for how they centred men through the conversations exchanged by women. Do women truly ever talk about men? Do women, no matter how represented in art, consider their lives shaped by the thoughts of men as much as they do the actions of men? Perhaps women are only ever able to talk about considerable portions of their inner lives through men much as they are able to talk about considerable portions of their storerooms through rats: as an infestation. Encroachment is expressed in multiple ways: women discuss men, most often, in its synonyms. Who they speak with becomes a much more important question, then. In The Glass Essay, Anne Carson writes: “You remember too much,/my mother said to me recently./ Why hold onto all that? And I said, Where can I put it down?” I venture: “In the custody of the women in our lives”.

I have been walking a quaint, rather quiet walk between the lives of women who can be described, for most purposes, as lonely. Women whose lives are speculated or expressed to be experienced through other women: sometimes the only ways in which they have felt kinship, friendship, companionship. A semi-biographically depicted Princess Diana unravels in “Spencer” (2021) as two women struggle to hold her together through a haunting Christmas in 1991. One of them is her Royal Dresser, Magie and the other, the ghost of Anne Boleyn. Diana’s association with Boleyn is unfounded in personal accounts of the late Princess. The similarities in their experiences are less fictional, however. These women are tied by a much more political experience: solidarity. Two other women in Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019) fall in love while the matriarch of the house is away. Between them too was a mutual acknowledgement of their aloneness in the world; their reclamation of agency, even if momentary, an act of radical accompaniment. Women continue to exist in chaos– flinging themselves over boundary fences, running through moors, along the beach, always finding grace in each other; women who don’t have to speak of men.

In October 1928 Virginia Woolf wandered the streets of Oxbridge and theorised that space (a room) and material realities (income) determined women’s ability to write fiction. While she reached this conclusion she walked with many-a-women, some of her making, some contemporaries. In Woolf’s account women disappear into a vortex of dispossession, disowned and banished as they stand from their families, their neighbourhoods, their fetters. These are women who weren’t rooted to the ground under them by a community, a community of other women, a community of women before them. These are women who lost themselves, wound up dead or close to dead, because they did not experience (for the lack of income, education and such) solidarity. Woolf laments in her essay, the simplistic portrayal of how women come into the world. I lament the loss of memory and with it the loss of a political economy and community where the fatal blows to Woolf’s disavowed women could entirely be prevented. Women come into the world through other women. Their experiences are shaped, so continuously, through the collective joys, triumphs and traumas of other women. This solidarity albeit disparate, heterogeneous and loose has quickly lost its political resolve to decades of liberal sanitisation and misrepresentation.

In The Glass Essay, Anne Carson writes viscerally about the women in her life: an ageing mother, the Brontë sisters–the men are always leaving, have already left.  In 2020 I began photographing my home when my father was not present. A space without men. In frames I captured my grandmother and my mother quietly warring; Our domestic worker, Lolita di, bent over a bowl of vegetables, peeling, as my mother, unfettered from my father’s gaze, helped her with the cleaning; three women in a room, existing outside of an order fashioned by men, for men. Women are happy when they turn up for one another. Always. Always when they release their shoulders from holding up the order of men and lend it, instead, to the brushing, caressing, steadying of women. Carson is a walker. She paces across the moors that surround her home, she writes impatiently about Emily Brontë’s reclusiveness, her illness, her dour countenance. She writes of the women who scare her and touch her deeply all at once. She finds her way home.

Woolf is right. Women need a room. An attic. A reclamation of all the things they are locked in. Women need floors to kick, walls to beat, air to scream into or they will wind up dead. All  things they will burn to the ground when they flee, comrades in hand, comrades in heart. Women make women happy. That’s the part Woolf almost misses. Not entirely, but just about. Who do women write for? This is the question that has plagued me the most the last couple of weeks, as I struggled to write this piece. Women write for other women. Women write so that women everywhere else know that photographs are taken of them, while they lean into their work or war with each other; they are seen. I am not making an original point. I am not making a scientific one either. Women yearn for homes. I have seen it my whole life. Sometimes my mother is scared. “What if he turns me out”. For three decades my mother has run sugarcanes of loyalty through the juicer that is her household. We have all sipped on blood: saccharine, sticky. After all this juice, she is still scared. At age 59 Deborah Levy looks still for “Unreal Estate”: a memory palace built of houses she’s never had and a home she has not built because, as she sometimes is forced to ask: who with? It’s rather simple, I reckon. With women. Women make women happy. Are we all equal? Sometimes I think about why my mother only helps Lolita di when my father is not around. We are not equal. But we all write for each other. If we have a chance at this, any chance at all, it is with each other. In our attics, and at crossroads where we are sent to die, in homes we’re scared to build, in letters we write desperately to each other. Our companionship is political, we write for each other.

 

Sneha Roychoudhury
Sneha is a historian in the making. She takes a specific interest in sacrality as a process of nation-making in the Himalayan borderlands. She has degrees from Lady Shri Ram College and Ambedkar University, and has worked for a number of years in policy research.