Trigger Warnings for sexual abuse, discussion of mental illness, racism, and suicide.
Hello, folks! Grace here. I’ll be writing up a couple of articles while Laura’s on hiatus. I’ve got a small list of people I desperately wanted to write about (a list that’s been contributed to by some of you!), and now is as good of a time as any to start working my way through it. Why not start, then, with Virginia Woolf?
There are complexities in the makeup of Woolf’s character that make her problematic. Woolf was deeply anti-Sematic and had racist leanings like many in the aristocratic society of her time. Her queerness does not excuse these prejudices; however, her experiences with queerness, as well as her experiences with mental illness, are still worth exploring. These aspects of her personality, as expressed through her relationships as well as through her writing, allow modern readers of her work to find not a role model, but rather hints of their own struggles in a pillar of the past.
According to Danny Heitman in the article, “Virginia Woolf Was More Than Just a Women’s Writer”, Virginia “was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on January 25, 1882, the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, a celebrated essayist, editor, and public intellectual, and Julia Prinsep Duckworth Stephen.” A member of the upper class in England during the late nineteenth century, Woolf was raised in her family home. She was provided for and educated, though not to the same degree as her brothers and half-brothers. Heitman states that, “Although Virginia’s brothers and half-brothers got university educations, Woolf was taught mostly at home—a slight that informed her thinking about how society treated women.”
There were other aspects of her childhood, however, that revealed a sharp divide between men and women in Woolf’s society. Woolf’s brother and half-brothers are reported to have sexually abused her throughout the bulk of their mutual youth. Nigel Nicolson, in a biography of Woolf’s life, explores this, saying
George's [Virginia’s half-brother] behavior was said to
have been responsible for Virginia's sexual timidity and
even contributive to her periodic fits of ‘insanity’. Louise
de Salvo, the American Woolf scholar, has claimed that
"sexual abuse was probably the central and most formative
feature of her early life," and she alleges that "virtually
every male member of the Stephen household was engaged
in this behaviour." She uses the term incest without
Many readers may recognize just how traumatic childhood abuse of any sort can be. It is not known whether or not Woolf would’ve experienced such strong manic-depressive episodes had she not experienced sexual abuse in her past. However, as such abuse was “central and most formative” to Woolf’s early life, there is no question as to whether or not Woolf’s trauma contributed to her distress. Woolf’s mental illness is described by later scholars explicitly as manic-depressive disorder, though the illness had not been identified as such during the nineteenth century. A lot of terms get tossed around by those in Woolf’s life in order to describe her manic-depressive episodes, none of which are particularly thoughtful. Virginia’s eventual husband, Leonard Woolf, would address her ‘fits’ by sending her away to the country to an institution, where she would be deprived of any intellectual stimuli until her “madness” had passed. While I’m not going to go in depth about the horrendous, idiotic, and frightfully sexist workings of these institutions at this time, needless to say that this was England’s way of demeaning the needs of its women. The short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, explores the fictionalized experience of a woman in one of these institutions with an accuracy and horror that captivates as much as it offends modern sensibility. I highly recommend it.
Virginia’s lack of sex drive has been brought into question, too, when it is framed through her childhood abuse. While this will be expanded upon later, many scholars look at Woolf’s childhood and cite the abuse suffered at the hands of her male family members as one of the root causes behind Woolf’s lack of interest in sex.
Virginia eventually moved away from her family home and into the Bloomsbury District of London. She was already moving her way into the literary world, but living in Bloomsbury brought her into contact with the (slightly infamous) members of the eventual Bloomsbury Group. This group of intellectuals formed a sort of writers support group, exchanging works in progress for revision and reviewing each other’s’ published work. Notable members of this group include Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell née Stephen, Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, and Leonard Woolf. While the Bloomsbury Group was primarily a “boys club”, the majority of the group’s members engaged in homosexual relationships. Some engaged in polyamory, as well – though this was rather complicated.
A brief example of the shenanigans that consisted of the Bloomsbury Group’s romantic entanglements: Vanessa Stephen married Clive Bell. She then fell in love with Duncan Grant, a man who, up until this point, had only engaged in relationships with other men. Clive knew about Vanessa’s infatuated and allowed Duncan to live in their mutual home. Vanessa became pregnant with Duncan’s child and gave birth to a girl, Angelica. Duncan would then meander off to have a relationship with both Vanessa and fellow Bloomsbury member, David Grant. David Grant would then go on to eventually marry Angelica, Duncan’s daughter.
The romantic overlap within the Bloomsbury Group was nonsense, dear reader, and all the more interesting (entertaining? concerning?) for it.
Outside of these shenanigans and the various quarrels that took place over work, the Bloomsbury Group revealed itself to be full of mischief makers. In what would later be known as “The Dreadnought Hoax”, several members, Woolf included, would board a British Naval vessel under the guise of being “the Emperor of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) and his posse” (Popova). Here complications with the group arise, as they all adorned costume in order to make the rouse convincing – meaning blackface was involved (and all modern readers subsequently face palmed). According to Maria Popova of Brainpickings, the group nearly got away with the joke; however, “[t]he hoax had gone “viral” in the press and one newspaper published an interview with a man who claimed to have witnessed the Abyssinians’ visit and alleged that they had used the expression “Bunga Bunga.” The phrase quickly became a “meme” of the pre-meme era — it made its way into song lyrics and, to the cousin’s extreme distress, into the mouths of little boys in the streets of the town, who would shout “Bunga Bunga” as a mockery.”
The casual racism of this prank taints it for modern readers while also revealing the place of privilege most of the group sat in. It was within this group, though, that Virginia Woolf found her stride as a feminist writer and as a partner to two individuals in particular: Leonard Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.
Virginia’s sexuality is a bit of a complicated thing, even with these two relationships available to explore it with. Personally, I’d label her as biromantic asexual – both of the to-be mentioned relationships were reasonably romantic, but Woolf expressed little to no interest in consummating either. In terms, first, of Leonard, Emma Woolf, a relative of the family’s, reports that
“Hesitating throughout the spring of 1912 over Leonard’s
proposal, Virginia had struggled to reconcile “being half in
love” with him with a sort of revulsion over “the sexual side
of it”. Writing to him a few weeks before they became engaged
she explained what was holding her back: “As I told you brutally
the other day, I feel no attraction in you. There are moments
– when you kissed me the other day was one – when I feel no
more than a rock.”
Virginia goes on to claim that she does want to marry Leonard, and eventually, the two are wed. There is a power imbalance throughout the course of the relationship, despite the fondness between the two parties. Picture Leonard, if you would, as a well-organized, Victorian-esque man, rather securing in his masculinity but still needing to assert it over his frail, “mad” wife. He cared for her with the utmost attention during her fits and truly believed that his sending her away to England’s various institutions would improve her mental health. Emma Woolf, however, reports that Virginia felt rather differently on the matter:
“Understandably, Virginia felt frustrated at being infantilised in
this way, with all her decisions made for her. In 1912 she complained:
“Leonard made me into a comatose invalid.” This accusation is not
without a degree of truth, he replaced the excitement and social
whirl of Bloomsbury with the relative quiet of Richmond; he made
her spend the mornings in bed, he monitored her eating and weight,
her moods and menstrual cycles.”
This attention to detail speaks simultaneously to great care on Leonard’s part but also a great need to be in control. Virginia’s resentment of this obsessiveness, tied to her aforementioned lack of sexual attraction to her husband, strained their relationship despite the affection the two shared with one another.
Comparatively, Vita Sackville-West and Virginia complimented one another. Neither overbore the other, and they encouraged each other through their various struggles with work and romantic endeavors, even after the two had stopped seeing each other as partners. This isn’t to say they liked each other immediately, of course – Vita believed Virginia to be too masculine, and Virginia believed Vita to be something of a floozy (Modernist Lab). There was an immediate attraction between the two, however, that would eventually bring them together. According to another Woolf biography from the Modernist Lab:
“Virginia felt that Vita was ‘a real woman. Then there is some
voluptuousness about her; the grapes are ripe; & not reflective.
No. In brain & insight she is not as highly organi[z]ed as I am. But
then she is aware of this, & so lavishes on me the maternal
protection which, for some reason, is what I have always wished
As previously mentioned, Vita and Virginia spent most of their time together effectively snuggling, though it is said that they consummated their relationship at least twice (Nicolson). Vita respected Virginia’s boundaries and general discomfort with sex and did her best to not frighten her lover in fear of triggering a manic-depressive episode (Nicolson). It was a far more balanced relationship, I’d argue, than the one Virginia had with Leonard. Both women gave themselves to the relationship, Virginia to the point of writing the novel, Orlando. A beast of a novel, the main character undergoes a gender transformation halfway through a quest to reobtain their childhood home. Vita, having been driven from her home of Knole in her youth, was regifted said establishment in this novel.
Virginia used her writing to explore more than just improved lives for her lovers, however. She and the Bloomsbury Group lived and worked through World War One, a highly traumatic event for all of them, even though few participated as soldiers. According to Emma Woolf:
“Although Virginia did not write directly about war, the conflict
resonates through her novels, particularly Jacob’s Room (1922)
and Mrs. Dalloway (1925) with their legacy of loss, shell-shock
and a generation changed forever. The recurrent symbols of
distant armies, bombs and guns overheard across the Channel
in To the Lighthouse (1927) and The Years (1937) also have their
origins in the First World War.”
Think about this: we at Queer History have discussed the impact of World War II on individuals within the queer community, because said individuals were in immediate danger. World War I as an event, however, was the first of its kind that modernity had seen – it was unprecedented and therefore traumatic to the citizens of all countries involved. “Shell-shock”, as cited above, wasn’t recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder, and it had no treatment. Soldiers and citizens wandered in fugue states, unable to cope with the reality of their lives. Woolf retreated from London during World War I, but she recognized the gravity of the time she was living in and suffered, mentally, for it. This external pressure only made her pre-existing mental illness harder to bear.
On a lighter (maybe?) note, she was able to address the horrors of war in a way that no previous author had done so before. All of the novels listed above were written in a form now known as ‘modernism’. Woolf and her peers rejected the standard novel of the Victorian age behind them and instead decided to forgo plot in their stories almost entirely. According to Heitman:
“I thought, wow, she was doing with language something like
what Jimi Hendrix does with a guitar. By which I meant she walked
a line between chaos and order, she riffed, and just when it seemed
that a sentence was veering off into randomness, she brought it back
and united it with the melody.”
Modernism works a bit like a guitar riff; it varies and relies on the improvisation of the author. Sometimes the smallest details can take up the most room in a piece, and more often than not, they seem nonsensical. This, however, was Woolf’s literary act of rebellion, her own way of fighting back against the world around her. By breaking with the form of the novel established in the Victorian era, she was able to pave the way for new forms of expression, ones that better suited her thinking and desire to break away from the structures of old.
Such rebellion continued to reveal itself in the lectures of A Room of One’s Own. While Woolf remained highly prejudiced against Leonard and his Jewish relatives, not to mention people of color, she established herself early on as a white feminist. According to Hietman, “Woolf pointed to the special challenges that women faced in finding the basic necessities for writing—a small income and a quiet place to think.” She advocated for the independence of women and for a breaking away from the institutionalization that plagued her personal life. Women were meant to think and needed their own space to breathe, she claimed. The ability to support one’s self allowed for the mind to flourish in a way that is reminiscent to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – with the basics provided for, women could excel beyond the station of what Woolf calls “the Angel in the House” – a pedestal role wherein a woman was meant to be perfect little Hestias, or guardians of the home.
Woolf defied this status with more than just her writing; she defied it as a career woman. She and Leonard opened Hogarth Press in 1917, a small publishing house that released not only Virginia’s work, but the work of Katherine Mansfield, T.S. Eliot, and Forster (Nicolson). Her feminist advocacy does not excuse Woolf’s prejudices, but her work did assist in the sharing of transformative literature throughout the wider world despite great struggle.
Woolf’s own struggle with her manic-depressive episodes did not lessen with the weight of the war on her country. She was known to entertain suicidal thoughts; they were part of the reason Leonard had her institutionalized so often. There were a few attempts made when the episodes were at their worst. Then, according to Emma Woolf:
“Woolf clearly expressed her reasons for committing suicide
in her last letter to her husband Leonard: “I feel certain that I
am going mad again: I feel we can’t go through another of those
terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices,
and can’t concentrate.” On March 18, she may have attempted to
drown herself. Over a week later on March 28, Virginia wrote the
third of her suicide letters, and walked the half-mile to the River
Ouse, filled her pockets with stones, and walked into the water.”
This is not a beautiful death. The movie, The Hours, offers up Woolf’s suicide as cinematically as possible while also offering other commentary on suicide through different means (it’s by no means a perfect movie, nor is the conversation great, per say, but aesthetically, it’s a good film). This still, however, does not render her death an act of artistry. For Woolf, it was her only escape from a world that she felt constrained and weighed down by.
Virginia Woolf is not an unproblematic figure. She endured several different sorts of struggles throughout her life, however, that many of us today may be able to relate to. Her feminist works and queer relationships allow modern readers of her stories to draw parallels between themselves and a woman who made it farther in life than many in her family – arguably many in her inner circle – believed she would. She is a figure who, at the least, history must recognize as queer, even if that queerness is imperfect.
Woolf, Emma. “The Joyful, Gossipy, and Absurd Private Life of Virginia Woolf.” Newsweek. 13 Feb 2015. Web.
“Virginia Woolf: Biography.” The Modernist Lab at Yale University. Web.
Heitman, Danny. “Virginia Woolf Was More Than Just a Women’s Writer.” Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities. May/June 2015. Web.
Popova, Maria. “The Dreadnought Hoax: Young Virginia Woolf and Her Bloomsbury Posse Prank the Royal Navy in Drag and a Turban.” BrainPickings. Web.
Belonsky, Andrew. “Today in Gay History: Virginia’s Woolf’s Orlando Says It All.” Out. 25 Jan 2014. Web.
Boynton, Victoria and Malin, Jo. Encyclopedia of Women’s Autobiography: K-Z. Greenwood Press, 2005. p. 580. Web.
Nicolson, Nigel. Virginia Woolf. London: The Orion Publishing Group, 7 June 2001. Chapter 01. Web.