- Roomscape: Women Writers in the British Museum from George Eliot to Virginia Woolf by Susan David Bernstein
Marking the end of a social and cultural era, the closing of the Round Reading Room of the British Museum on 25 October 1997 sparked this study of the room by Susan David Bernstein. By countering Virginia Woolf’s central argument in A Room of One’s Own that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (qtd. in Bernstein 156), Bernstein demonstrates how using this space in particular, and communal space in general, worked to “promote networks of compelling affiliations” (190). She posits that what women required were “public, social spaces where women could meet, conduct research, find mentors, and inspire and learn from one another” (1). This being Bernstein’s definition of exteriority, she argues that in providing both “interiority and exteriority” (one wonders why [End Page 252] the words private and public wouldn’t work just as well) the Reading Room offered women “a particularly generative space for writing” (1).
Bernstein follows the careers of Eleanor Marx, Amy Levy, the Black and Rossetti sisters, Mary Robinson, Mathilde Blind, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, her choices partially dictated by how often they used the Reading Room. Bernstein looks at its original spatial design, analyzes the lists of those who frequented it, and questions the separate-spheres theory by suggesting that public and private boundaries were not as rigid as Victorian lore suggests. Bernstein’s “catalogical” perspective, her “methodology for reading catalogues and indexes” (4), or and what she describes as “viewing external and easily accessible markers” reveals “women’s place in this venue’s history” (27, 29).
Bernstein also explores how class structure divided those who elected to use the British Museum (a public library with a diverse democratic readership) and those who preferred the London Library (a private paying library established by Thomas Carlyle). To begin on the left end of the spectrum, Bernstein chooses Eleanor Marx because she exemplifies “the importance of exteriority for women” (35). By this she means, “Marx supplemented her activism for both women’s rights and socialism through lectures, journalism and translations” (35). That Marx championed Henrik Ibsen by learning Norwegian in order to translate his plays captures the range of her interests and priorities, since she was “[r]iveted by the playwright’s attention to women’s social position, sexual desires, and the constraints of bourgeois morality and money” (47). Similarly, Clementina Black, head of the Women’s Trade Union League, did translation work to support her union efforts (52). Black’s congenial relationship with Richard Garnett, the “Keeper of Printer Books at the British Museum from 1875–99” (54), helped the writing careers of both herself and her sister. Bernstein therefore calls the marriage of Constance Black to Garnett’s son Edward “a Reading Room marriage” (59).
Furthermore, under the tutelage of another Reading Room regular, Constance learned Russian and “virtually introduced Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov to anglophone readers across the world” (55). Bernstein reiterates her thesis (banging on her drum a bit too often) that Constance’s “translation work is part of a story about exteriority” (55). Amy Levy, also mentored by Garnett, was another avid user of the Reading Room. Bernstein draws on Levy’s essay “Readers at the British Museum” and notes the importance to Levy “of public space and collective organising” (64), which neatly fits Bernstein’s developing argument.
In her treatment of women poets’ use of the Reading Room, Bernstein explores the reciprocal relationship between Blind and Garnett, noting its beneficial influence on Blind’s biography of George Eliot (1883). However, in contrast to Marx, Levy and Blind, George Eliot was a much less enthusiastic user of the space. She preferred her own extensive collection, or the London Library, both more conducive to her temperament (115), most likely [End Page 253] because of her non-conjugal living arrangement with George Henry Lewes. Bernstein thinks this “roomscape...