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Roomscape: Women Writers in the British Museum from George Eliot to Virginia Woolf

Susan David Bernstein
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Examines the Reading Room of the British Museum as a space of imaginative and historically generative potential in relation to the emergence of modern women writers in Victorian and early twentieth-century London Drawing on archival materials around this national library reading room, Roomscape is the first study that integrates documentary, theoretical, historical, and literary sources to examine the significance of this public interior space for women writers and their treatment of reading and writing spaces in literary texts. This book challenges an assessment of the Reading Room of the British Museum as a bastion of class and gender privilege, an image firmly established by Virginia Woolf's 1929 A Room of One's Own and the legions of feminist scholarship that upholds this spatial conceit.Susan David Bernstein argues not only that the British Museum Reading Room facilitated various practices of women's literary traditions, she also questions the overdetermined value of privacy and autonomy in constructions of female authorship, a principle generated from Woolf's feminist manifesto. Rather than viewing reading and writing as solitary, individual events, Roomscape considers the meaning of exteriority and the public and social and gendered dimensions of literary production.

    eISBN: 978-0-7486-8161-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Series Editor’s Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Julian Wolfreys
  5. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-xi)
  6. Abbreviations
    (pp. xii-xii)
  7. Chapter 1 Exteriority: Women Readers at the British Museum
    (pp. 1-32)

    Virginia Woolf’s 1929 A Room of One’s Own cast the Round Reading Room of the British Museum as a bastion of class, gender and national privilege. Legions of feminist scholars have followed her lead. From gynocritical appeals, like Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own (1977, 1998) to more recent scholarship such as Victoria Rosner’s Modernism and the Architecture of Private Life (2003), Woolf’s portrayal of this public space as antithetical to writing women and to women writing has loomed large. Roomscape argues otherwise. It makes two central arguments: first, the book shows that the British Museum Reading Room facilitated...

  8. Chapter 2 Translation Work and Womenʹs Labour from the British Museum
    (pp. 33-73)

    In a large folio book with the title ‘Applications for Reading Room Tickets, 1872–79’, and archived at the British Library on Euston Road, is a letter dated 15 October 1877:


    I am desirous of obtaining a card of admission to the Reading Room of the British Museum, & should be much obliged if you would kindly send me one. I do not know whether it is necessary to mention references. If so I suppose it will suffice to say that my father, Dr. Karl Marx visited the Reading Room daily for nearly 30 years.

    I am, Sir, Yours truly...

  9. Chapter 3 Poetry in the Round: Mutual Mentorships
    (pp. 74-112)

    A Punch cartoon of 1885, with the caption ‘Valuable Collection in the Reading-Room, British Museum’, showcases the power and problems affiliated with exteriority for women at the British Museum Reading Room. The cartoon series heading, ‘Interiors and Exteriors’, offers a touchstone for precisely the kind of exteriority I attribute to this space, one where intellectual, spiritual and creative acts and experiences – what we might call ‘interior’ states – usefully converge with the ‘exterior’ features of a public room of readers and writers encircled by the lettered past contained in the bookshelves. The only notable female figure in this sketch,...

  10. Chapter 4 Researching Romola: George Eliot and Dome Consciousness
    (pp. 113-146)

    On 14 November 1861, George Eliot recorded in her diary, ‘Went to the British Museum Reading Room for the first time’ (JGE: 105). In the ‘British Museum Signature of Readers’ volume for 1861, is the signature ‘Marian Evans Lewes’, written directly below that of George Henry Lewes. Although legally prevented from assuming her partner’s name, George Eliot used this moniker for private correspondence, frequently signing letters ‘M. E. Lewes’, and, as evident in the British Museum archives, for some public matters as well. In this signature register, both list their address at 16 Blandford Square, N.W. in Marylebone, and Eliot...

  11. Chapter 5 Reading Woolfʹs Roomscapes
    (pp. 147-183)

    In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf argues that a woman needs money to afford a private interior space in order to write fiction. The implication is that most women in early twentieth-century London had no such access to these necessities for a writing career, and that public spaces were not compatible with this endeavour. In this chapter I challenge Woolf’s argument even by her own example, for she registered for a reader’s ticket at the British Museum in 1905, and thus acquired a room for free. While not her ‘own’ room and not entirely free inasmuch as some...

  12. Coda: Closing Years and Afterlives
    (pp. 184-195)

    If I had not first registered for a Reader Pass at the British Library in January 1998, perhaps I would not have written this book. Seeing displaced readers adjusting to the new reading rooms – and only a few were open in the early months of the library on Euston Road – and overhearing lamentations over the closing of the Round Reading Room half a mile south piqued my curiosity. Perhaps the end of the era of the British Museum Reading Room inspired A. S. Byatt’s Possession. Although the novel was written and published nearly a decade before the closing...

  13. Appendix: Notable Readers
    (pp. 196-211)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 212-225)
  15. Index
    (pp. 226-236)