In the opening passage of A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf catches herself, and is subsequently caught out, in a moment of reflection on the banks of a river, within the grounds of a barely fictionalised “Oxbridge University”:
Here then was I (call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please – it is not a matter of any importance) sitting on the banks of a river a week or two ago in fine October weather, lost in thought. That collar I have spoken of, women and fiction, the need of coming to some conclusion on a subject that raises all sorts of prejudices and passions, bowed my head to the ground. To the right and left bushes of some sort, golden and crimson, glowed with the colour, even it seemed burnt with the heat, of fire. On the further bank the willows wept in perpetual lamentation, their hair about their shoulders. The river reflected whatever it chose of sky and bridge and burning tree, and when the undergraduate had oared his boat through the reflections they closed again, completely, as if he had never been. There one might have sat the clock round lost in thought. (6–7)
In this fictional account of her trespass on university property, Woolf forges a close association between the environment in which she does her thinking and what she thinks, so that body, mind, and text are shown to be engaged in the same work. Her thoughts, she suggests, have a physical weight: they bow her head to the ground. The landscape bows with her so that a momentarily surreal vista of flaming leaves and long-haired trees is at once the place she is sitting and the space of her imagination, and the “reflections” through which the undergraduate oars take on a double meaning as the boat floats through her consciousness and back out again. The interruption of the beadle causes her to lose her train of thought: it is a fish that jumps and then disappears back into the river. This reverie, which rehearses the lecture's central argument concerning the material conditions required for gender equality, identifies the university as a case in point. Oxbridge is experienced by Woolf's fictional avatar as a place where intellectual freedom is achieved within a series of carefully regulated spaces, and her essay balances the attraction and acknowledged value of these exclusive spaces against the experience of her own exclusion. As so often in her work, the geography of Woolf's prose is haunted by the Victorians, whose lyric voices she can only half hear as she sits at a college window. Her essay therefore invites a return to nineteenth-century accounts of university life that pay attention to the material, or formal, delineations of the university.