September 22, 2010

Queer women in literature:
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

[Small spoiler note: I tried not to include any huge spoilers about the plot of Mrs. Dalloway, but I did include a few excerpts about the relationship between Clarissa and Sally Seton.]

This semester I decided to take my first English class at Duke, and so I signed myself up for “English131S: Topics in a Single British Author – Virginia Woolf”.

I have to admit that I signed up for the class because I knew Virginia Woolf was a feminist and a queer woman. As someone who wrote openly about her relationships with women and men, Virginia Woolf has been retrospectively labeled as a bisexual author of the early 20th century. Our instructor, Professor Sarah Nuttall, confirmed this fact, noting that Woof’s relationships with women are extremely well documented, particularly one with Vita Sackville-West, a fellow English author and poet.

Both Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf were members of a literary circle called the Bloomsbury Group, which discouraged sexual exclusivity. The two married women had a long romantic affair, and Woolf’s novel Orlando (1928) was later called “the longest and most charming love-letter in literature” (according to Vita Sackville-West’s son). Published in 1928, Orlando was considered one of her best novels and is a story about a young man who awakens one day to find himself in a woman’s body.

Anyone looking to read about lesbian, bisexual or transgender women in early 20th century literature should definitely consider giving Virginia Woolf a try. While she’s not the most accessible author (she drops key moments in her plots between parentheses and in the middle of long-winded descriptive paragraphs), her stylistic qualities make her worth all of the effort.

Having just finished Mrs. Dalloway for this class, I can easily say that Woolf’s depiction of the relationship between Clarissa Dalloway and Sally Seton is by far the most eloquent romantic relationship between two women that I have ever read about in fiction. Within the first thirty pages of the novel, the protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway remarks on her wondrous relationship with a woman:

“Yet [Clarissa] could not resist sometimes yielding to the charm of a woman, not a girl, of a woman confessing, as to her they often did. And whether it was pity, or their beauty, or that she was older-like a faint scent, or a violin next door (so strange is the power of sounds at certain moments), she did undoubtedly then feel what men felt. Only for a moment; but it was enough. It was a sudden revelation. Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination."

When I first read this paragraph in Woolf’s novel, I was floored. I felt like I could have written this-not in terms of the quality, but the context. It seemed very similar to my own coming out experience, or perhaps anybody's:

"The strange thing, on looking back, was the purity, the integrity, of her feeling for Sally. It was not like one’s feeling for a man. It was completely disinterested, and besides, it had a quality which could only exist between women, between women grown up…the charm was overpowering, to her at least, so that she could remember standing in her bedroom at the top of the house holding the hot-water can in her hands and saying aloud, ‘She is beneath this roof…She is beneath this roof!'"

Perhaps something equally remarkable about Mrs. Dalloway, is that it was a best-seller. I had no idea that a novel published in England in 1925 with prominent same-sex romance throughout the work (5 of the main characters are implied to be LGBT) would be so well-received by the public at the time. Today the book is still immensely popular, making TIME magazine's 2005 Top 100 novels list. I have to wonder what kind of political or social undercurrents the novel might have brought with its publication, considering the equality it demands for same-sex romantic attraction:

"But nothing is so strange when one is in love (and what was this except being in love?) as the complete indifference of other people."

Equally exciting about the novel is that it is highly affirmative of same-sex relationships between women. The stereotypical portrayal of LGBTQ women in older literature is that if lesbians do exist (which they rarely do), one or both of them ends up depressed, desolate or dead. Nevertheless, Woolf’s portrayal of Clarissa Dalloway’s relationship with Sally is largely positive, perhaps more so even than any of Clarissa's relationships with men:

"All this was background for Sally. She stood by the fireplace, talking, in that beautiful voice which made everything she said sound like a caress. Suddenly she said, ‘What a shame to sit indoors!’ and they all went out on to the terrace and walked up and down. Peter Walsh and Joseph Breitkopf went on about Wagner."

And of course…it’s just beautifully depicted as well:

"She and Sally fell a little behind. Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a store urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it – a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling!"

Personally I think that if you want to read empowering literature about LGBTQ women in fiction, reading Virginia Woolf if you haven't already is a great idea. I had actually tried to read Mrs. Dalloway two different times before this class, and I always stopped by page 10 or 20 because she's really difficult to get into. ("Plot" isn't her main focus-description is.) For me, being in this class and knowing ahead of time that Woolf writes equally about same and opposite sex attraction was a huge motivator to get through the novel.

"But this question of love, this falling in love with women. Take Sally Seton; her relation in the old days with Sally Seton. Had not that, after all, been love?”


  1. Beautiful post, Megan. The passages you chose from Mrs. Dalloway were the same passages that resonated with me when I read it. Thank you for discussing the LGBTQ aspects of this novel; I think that they really got short shrift in class.

    I think that the great strength of the novel lies in Woolf's power to make us, her readers, feel the emotion of the characters.

  2. Woolf is definitely a talented author. I actually read Mrs. Dalloway this summer (a friend of mine bought it for me and practically nagged me to read it and wouldn't stop until I did, which I'm glad I did because he alludes to the novel EVERY DAY).

    The book was brought to my attention through Michael Cunningham's The Hours, which I wrote a research paper on months before I read the Woolf novel. You should definitely read that. It's not written in the same style as Mrs. Dalloway, but the way Cunningham weaves the novel with his own fiction and Woolf's life is definitely interesting.

    Anyways, my edition of Mrs. Dalloway was actually a more censored version of the edition you're talking about. The emphasis on Clarissa's relationship with Sally was toned down significantly. Maybe I'll get around to reading the older edition if I ever have time to.

  3. Same reason I want to take the D.H. Lawrence class at Duke. Excellent post Meg.