Did Virginia Woolf go to college? Many assume that she did, but she didn’t. She has never had formal education while her brothers and halfbrothers attended private schools and prestigious universities such as Cambridge. Her educational experience in her formative years was more like homeschooling. She read all sorts of books from her father’s library. She took classes in Greek and Latin in the Ladies’ Department of King’s College in London beginning in 1897 when she was about 15, but only for a couple of years. Besides that, she was tutored the classics by the classical scholar and women’s rights activist Janet Case, who studied at Girton College, the first women’s college in Cambridge, in the 1880s.
Despite her lack of direct experience, Woolf actively wrote about women’s higher education and the significance of women’s colleges. Her book-length essay A Room of One’s Own (1928) is based on two lectures she gave as an invited speaker in October 1928 at Newnham College and Girton College, women’s colleges at Cambridge. In the first chapter of the essay, she coins a women’s college name “Fernham” to use it as a fictitious setting. She compares her experiences of eating at different Cambridge colleges, telling how dinner at Fernham was incredibly humble compared to a luncheon she had earlier on the same day at another (men-only) college. She associates relative poverty in women’s colleges with the lack of tradition in women’s literature. The condition of women’s colleges manifests the prosperity of the one sex and the poverty of the other embedded in the patriarchal social structure.
Perhaps what is lesser-known to Korean readers is that Woolf wrote a short story about a woman’s college titled “A Woman’s College from Outside.” The story first appeared in Atalanta’s Garland, a book published to celebrate the twenty-first anniversary of the opening of the Edinburgh University Women’s Union, in 1926. It has received little scholarly attention, possibly due to its enigmatic narrative structure.
The mood the story sets up is dreamy and fairy-tale-like: under the “feathery-white moon,” “the wind of the Cambridge courts” lapses “dreamily in the midst of grey-blue clouds over the roofs of Newnham.” The wind stays in the college’s garden and gazes into rooms where “innumerable women” sleep.
Its protagonist Angela Williams is a working-class student from Wales. Enraptured by the rich atmosphere of the night, feeling drowsy, Angela stands at the window in her nightgown and is immersed into the world outside the window. She hears the “soft laughter” of other students at the dorm. The sound of laughter filled in the garden is described as “floating away rules, hours, discipline” and as “immensely fertilising, yet formless, chaotic.”
“Only Angela Williams was at Newnham for the purpose of earning her living,” the story narrates. She cannot forget about for one moment “the cheques of her father at Swansea,” “her mother washing in the scullery,” and “pink frocks out to dry on the line.” The “from outside” in the story’s title would reflect the perspective of Angela, who is an insider and an outsider as well. Perhaps she belongs to the generation whose parents pay for their daughters’ higher education for the first time.
The story ends as Angela falls asleep in the half-darkness of dawn: “She [lies] in this good world, this new world, this world at the end of the tunnel”; the world murmurs in the distance as the morning comes. The story represents a woman’s college as a mysterious yet lively site for young women’s intimacy and liberating imaginations, a site to connect them with the world outside.