When my grandmother, Dorothy Ann Oswald, was still living in the Rosa Spier Huis, a retirement home for elderly artists, it had become a small habit of mine to take a moment to have a look around in her apartment whenever we visited her. This was not impolite nosing around just for the sake of it. I did it to find out what oma Dorothy, an Alzheimer patient, was still capable of both mentally and physically. That is how I stumbled upon a little green book with a similarly coloured ribbon marker. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf.

Every time I was there I would find it on her bedside table in exactly the same position, prompting me to open it and see which page she was at. Wondering whether she was advancing I took note of the page she was at every time and indeed: slowly, but surely she worked herself through the book. After several months she even finished it. It is, as far as am aware, the last book she read front to cover.[1]

As the months progressed my grandmother deteriorated. Eventually the moment came where the Rosa Spier Huis was no longer able to provide the care she needed and thus she moved to a new elderly home. A move which necessitated her shedding most off her last belongings – already significantly diminished compared to her possessions when she still lived independently.

I knew exactly what I was looking for the moment when my father and I entered her old apartment to gather some last things. A little green book with a similarly coloured ribbon marker. Quickly I rummaged through the couple of piles of books which were left behind to find it and, together with some other interesting titles, it was taken back home.

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After several weeks I started reading A Room of One’s Own and what I read was shocking. Not so much due to the content of the text, but because it seemed to touch upon almost every single aspect of my grandmother’s life. As if she purposefully had picked the book most resembling of herself as a person. The essay, written four years before my grandmother was born in 1933, is broadly about “women and fiction”, but more specifically about Woolf’s assertion that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. In other words, it is about women’s dedication to the arts. Women like my grandmother – a former ballet dancer at the Royal Ballet and teacher who dedicated herself to dance education in The Netherlands, skilled weaver, admirer of poetry who was able to recite by heart and so on.[2]

Woolf’s narrowing of the topic is done as to fulfil “what is, I understand, the first duty of a lecturer”. Namely, “to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece for ever”. Reading this firstly caused me to chuckle since oma Dorothy was indeed an avid note taker. So much even that I was surprised that this book did not contain any notes. Likewise, it struck me as so fitting that the last book she read shared her striving for “a nugget of pure truth”. She herself pursued this among others through her active participation in Dutch Freemasonry and as an avid reader who interested herself in all topics, including world religions and philosophy. Just how essential this search for truth was for her I was confronted with when we were helping her move to the Rosa Spier Huis. I wanted to pick up a small carry-on suitcase only to find that it was incredibly heavy. When I opened it I saw it was filled with about twelve tomes of Plato’s writings.

Important to underline, however, is that the book is not simply about fiction, but about women and fiction; not simply about women’s dedication to the arts, but about women’s dedication to the arts in a world run by and for men. I wonder to what degree my grandmother would have recognized the struggles and attitudes recounted by Virginia Woolf. How many times she herself would have “flushed with anger” when being confronted with men who “insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women”. For she too was confronted with the various limitations put on women throughout her life and she too did not put up with them, but instead asserted herself as an independent woman.

It can’t only have been the topics and themes of the book which must have sparked recognition with my grandmother as it did with me though. The very world through which Virginia Woolf moves in her essay – that of a campus, of dining-halls, of bourgeois society, British bourgeois society, of London itself – must have come across as very familiar to her. My grandmother went to boarding school and lived independently in London as a sixteen year old pupil (her parents were living and working in East Asia). She too must have felt growing up how important it is for a woman to “have money and a room of her own”. Thinking of this it even crossed my mind that she might have started reading  A Room of One’s Own, because that’s what her apartment in the Rosa Spier Huis was intended to be.

A more sobering similarity is Virginia Woolf’s meandering style. She seems to jump from one thought to the other not so much associatively, but with deep ruptures between one moment and the other. Though Woolf turns this way of reasoning into something beautiful I can’t help to associate it with the disruptive and debilitating gaps of thought which my grandmother had as an Alzheimer patient. In a sense they are mirror images of each other. The one spontaneous against capricious, creative against destructive, but similar nonetheless.

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I could go on like this for many more pages, drawing parallels wherever possible and at the same time there would still be so much which would not have been covered. I have made no mention for example on the central role which Singapore played in her life. On how everything in her life led back to that place for her. That doesn’t matter though. Dorothy Ann Oswald was an inexhaustible person, to want to convey who she was is in a sense impossible, not only since I only barely scratched the surface myself.

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[1] Though she kept reading almost her whole life. When my father came back with her last possessions I was astonished to find that she, a woman with advanced Alzheimer’s, had started a new book – Philosophy Between the Lines by Arthur M. Melzer – in her new nursing home (another which she had begun to read in the Rosa Spier Huis didn’t come with her) with various underlined words, phrases and paragraphs as was her habit. In this way we can even know what probably was the last page she ever read.

[2] The connection with my grandmother is only further reinforced by the numerous poems which Woolf cites in her essay. Especially since the ones she cites – e.g. Tennyson – are exactly those poets my grandmother greatly appreciated.

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On May 19 2017 Dorothy Ann Oswald died, aged 83.

A Room of One’s Own (1929) by Virginia Woolf is offered for free online by the University of Adelaide.

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