Monday, May 12, 2008

Virginia Woolf, Financial Guru?

"It is necessary to have five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door if you are to write fiction or poetry." - Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

The idea of having a private room or space in which to work on creative pursuits is still embraced by artists and writers 80 years after Woolf wrote these words. The importance of "five hundred a year"--in other words, financial security--is less often mentioned.

The idea that money is important to creativity, that great creative achievement perhaps cannot be achieved without it, seems to run counter to conventional wisdom. The "starving artist" cliche is romantic, and perhaps more importantly, democratic. But Woolf conveys the romance of financial freedom and its positive intellectual effects more eloquently than any writer on personal finance could ever do. She begins by showing us her main (fictional) character buying lunch in a restaurant.

"I gave the waiter a ten-shilling note and he went to bring me change. There was another ten-shilling note in my purse; I noticed it, because it is a fact that still takes my breath away--the power of my purse to breed ten-shilling notes automatically. I open it and there they are. Society gives me chicken and coffee, bed and lodging, in return for a certain number of pieces of paper which were left me by an aunt, for no other reasons than that I share her name.

The news of my legacy reached me one night at the same time that the act was passed that gave votes to women. A solicitor's letter fell into the post-box and when I opened it I found that she had left me five hundred pounds a year for ever."

(In 1928, five hundred a year was a comfortable but not exorbitant fortune, perhaps equivalent to an income in the high five figures today.)

"I had made my living by cadging odd jobs from newspapers, by reporting a donkey show here or a wedding there; I had earned a few pounds by addressing envelopes, reading to old ladies, making artificial flowers, teaching the alphabet to small children in a kindergarten. Such were the chief occupations that were open to women before 1918. I need not, I am afraid, describe in any detail the hardness of the work, for you know perhaps women who have done it; nor the difficulty of living on the money when it was earned, for you may have tried. But what still remains with me as a worse infliction than either was the poison of fear and bitterness which those days bred in me. To being with, always to be doing work that one did not wish to do, and to do it like a slave, flattering and fawning, not always necessarily perhaps, but it seemed necessary and the stakes were too great to run risks; and then the thought of that one gift which it was death to hide--a small one but dear to the possessor--perishing and with it myself, my soul--all this became like a rust eating away the bloom of the spring, destroying the tree at its hard."

The effect of soul-crushing jobs hasn't changed. Debt and runaway consumption raise the stakes and intensify the feeling of slavery.

"Whenever I change a ten-shilling note a little of that rust and corrosion is rubbed off; fear and bitterness go. Indeed, I thought, slipping the silver into my purse, it is remarkable, remembering the bitterness of those days, what a change of temper a fixed income will bring about. No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine for ever. Therefore not merely do effort and labor cease, but also hatred and bitterness. I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me.

"They, too, the patriarchs, the professors, had endless difficulties, terrible drawbacks to contend with . . . Watch in the spring sunshine the stockbroker and the great barrister going indoors to make money and more money and more money when it is a fact that five hundred pounds a year will keep one alive in the sunshine. These are unpleasant instincts to harbour, I reflected. They are bred of the conditions of life; of the lack of civilization. And, as I realized these drawbacks, by degrees fear and bitterness modified themselves into pity and toleration; and then in a year or two, pity and toleration went, and the greatest release of all came, which is freedom to think of things in themselves. That building, for example, do I like it or not? Is that picture beautiful or not? Indeed my aunt's legacy unveiled the sky to me, and substituted for the large and imposing figure of a gentleman, which Milton recommended for my perpetual adoration, a view of the open sky."

This eloquent passage describes exactly why I place so much importance on financial freedom. Of course, financial independence isn't the only way to get to the point of "thinking of things in themselves." I try as much as possible to intellectually distance myself from my job in my off hours and on weekends. I also try not to attach too much importance to what any person thinks of me or to this particular job--I had a different job last year and will have a different job five years from now.

For most present-day Americans, financial independence may be only a blip on the far-off horizon, but Woolf's passages on money make some points that can be useful even for those of modest means.

1. Money and material comfort are advantageous even for artists. Poverty is not more noble; it simply puts more roadblocks in the way of creativity.

2. The best situation for an artist is to have a completely independent source of wealth.

3. The next best situation is to have work which frees one as much as possible from sucking up to people or chasing after ever greater amounts of money.

4. Don't let your job interfere with your creativity. (Easier said than done, but worth keeping in mind.)

5. Think of money in terms of an amount of interest per year. Five hundred pounds "forever" means that only interest is being consumed, not capital. At a five percent rate of interest, five hundred pounds of income would have been 20,000 pounds in capital.


julie said...

What a beautiful, graceful post. Thank you! Julia Cameron's "The Artist's Way" would fit well here too.

paulina said...

Fantastic post! I really enjoy your writing and your point of view. And, of course, your obvious fondness for Virginia Woolf!

Scarlett said...

@julie: The Artist's Way is another great book--I have to reread that soon.

@paulina: Thanks! I don't know if I can claim a fondness for Woolf as this is the only book of hers I've ever finished, but I do love this one.

Anonymous said...

A bit belated, but this is the best post, I have read in quite a while!

Patrick said...

How does £500/year at 5% require £20,000? Wouldn't that be £10,000?

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