Perceiving Room: Negotiations of Space and Privacy in Bowen, Struther, and Woolf
This paper examines literary imaginations of private space and gender in early twentieth century women’s writing. Focusing on Elizabeth Bowen’s “Attractive Modern Homes” (1980), Jan Struther’s Mrs. Miniver (1937), and Virginia Woolf’s “Street Haunting: A London Adventure” (1930), I argue that their representations of personal “rooms” take off from and challenge contemporary discourses of gender, domesticity, and space. In particular, these texts respond to the separate spheres ideology and Stephen Taylor’s notion of the Suburban Neurosis. Through their depictions of both literal and metaphorical “rooms,” they urge not only a rethinking of gendered spaces, but in that vein also the role of women in and beyond the household. In parallel to this, explorations of the Self and the effects of modernity, especially in the form of modern homes, will also be discussed. The possibilities and limitations of women’s identities as wives and mothers in the home, and as participants and writers beyond are in these ways reflected in their interactions and negotiations with private space. By portraying a woman’s anxious transition into a new household, “Attractive Modern Homes” complicates Taylor’s supposition of the Suburban Neurosis, and subtly hints at the danger of the separate spheres ideology at work. The “neurotic” woman in Bowen’s text finds a foil in Struther’s Mrs. Miniver, a woman of management who defines her domestic space. Characterizing the figure of the modern flâneuse, Woolf’s “Street Haunting” brings forth also the interactions between different selves and the environment. The importance of female mobility as conveyed in Mrs. Miniver is in this way expanded onto the streets of modern London. Building on from Woolf’s ambivalent discussion on the need for but also escape from “one’s own room,” this paper concludes with an attempt to extend the understanding of private space to that of writing and publication as well.