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The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Women Writers Cambridge

Henke, Suzette A.: "Modernism and trauma" See Linett, Maren Tova (ed.),
New York: Cambridge University Press 2010 (2010)

Virginia Woolf, Septimus Smith, and post-traumatic stress disorder

In "A Sketch of the Past," Woolf recalls the moment when her half-brother Gerald
Duckworth lifted her onto a "slab outside the dining room door" and "began to explore
[her] body . . . [W]hat is the word for so dumb and mixed a feeling?"(22) Shortly
thereafter, she describes nocturnal hauntings by the face of a savage animal leering at
her from a looking-glass. Anatomizing this memory in "A Sketch of the Past," she
speculates that it must have been her acute sensitivity to pain, her "shock-receiving
capacity," that spurred her to become a writer. By reformulating trauma, she could
exorcize its debilitating effects. "It is only by putting it [trauma] into words that I make
it whole," she proclaims, while triumphantly concluding that, by virtue of
scriptotherapy, the psychological wound "has lost its power to hurt me" (MOB 72).
Childhood sexual abuse was one of several factors that affected Woolf's sporadic
episodes of psychological distress. I should like to suggest that traumatic personal
losses, including the death of her mother in 1895, of her half-sister Stella in 1897, of her
father Sir Leslie Stephen in 1904, and of her brother Thoby in 1906, also affected her
so-called breakdowns, possibly misdiagnosed as mania, depression, or bipolar malady.
What seems extraordinary is the fact that from 1915 until 1941 - a period of twenty-six
years - Woolf endured chronic physical and psychological illnesses while continuing an
impressive reading program, extensive travel, numerous social engagements, and
prolific literary creation.
Without question, Virginia Woolf drew on her own experience of mental distress and
psychic dissociation as a model for Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway. In her
manuscript notes, she wonders if his figure will be "founded on R [Rupert Brooke?],"
with "eyes far apart," and neither "degenerate" nor "wholly an intellectual. Had been in
the war."(23) Or should this troubled character be "founded on me"? His personality is
to "be left vague - as a mad person is," so he "can be partly R.; partly me."(24) Smith
clearly shows symptoms of PTSD when he confesses his "inability to feel" as a
nameless war crime. During periods of hyperactivity, he exhibits a radical swing
between self-hatred and megalomania. One moment, he feels despicable; the next, he
proclaims himself a martyred messiah, "the Lord who had come to renew society."(25)
In Woolf's holograph of "The Prime Minister," a draft of the early scenes
of Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus emerges as a deviant and idiosyncratic figure. Tormented
by flashbacks, he imagines himself a sacrificial scapegoat: "One might give one's body
to be eaten by the starving, and then . . . be a martyr, and then, as I am going to die, I

will kill the Prime Minister."(26) Woolf's shell-shocked veteran articulates a death wish
associated with memories of the First World War. He plans to sacrifice himself for the
redemption of starving refugees by offering his body in eucharistic communion.
Envisaging himself as the man-god slain to expiate the sins of a guilty community, he
becomes a self-appointed judge and avenging angel.
A psychiatric casualty of war, Smith suffers from the symptoms of combat fatigue
identified by Solomon, Laor, and McFarlane in an essay on "Acute Posttraumatic
Reactions in Soldiers and Civilians": (1) "Distancing," including "reports of psychic
numbing." (2) "Anxiety," sometimes "paralyzing," along with "thoughts of death." (3)
"Fatigue and guilt about poor performance in combat." (4) "Loneliness and
vulnerability," especially in the wake of battlefield deaths. (5) "Loss of self-control . . .
and a range of impulsive behaviors." The veteran's "psychic numbing becomes so
pervasive that it blocks not only pain, horror, and grief, but also the perceptions needed
to make realistic judgments."(27)
Smith's megalomanic self-image has become porous, and he experiences his body as
"macerated until only the nerve fibres were left" (MD 102-3). Uplifted by a sense of
mystical identification with the universe, he feels united with the leaves and trees of
Regent's Park, with roses painted on the wall of his room, with cynanthropic canines,
and with birds twittering messages in Greek. Before the war, Smith had been incapable
of adopting a socially constructed masculine persona. Like West's protagonist, he
fostered a narcissistic ego-ideal romantically projected onto an inappropriate love
object, Miss Isabel Pole. In order to handle the death of his commanding officer Evans,
he adopted a faade of stoicism that eventually drove him mad. Unable to conform to
society's expectations regarding gender and class, he withdrew into a world of
megalomania and terror. According to Karen DeMeester, "traumatic war experiences
shattered the cohesion of his consciousness and left it fragmented, a stream of
incongruous and disconnected images."(28)
This troubled young man succumbs, in panic, to feelings of estrangement and despair,
alienation and existential dread. But his suicidal leap from a Bloomsbury window, so
obviously a defeat for the maimed historical subject, might nonetheless be interpreted as
an act of romantic heroism that saves him from joining the "maimed file of lunatics"
(MD 98) he once saw being herded in a queue along Tottenham Court Road. He has,
like Shelley's Adonais, preserved his identity from the corruption of the world's slow
stain. Smith's melodramatic performance of suicide effects a "mimetic-contagious
transmission of psychic suffering" to Clarissa Dalloway, a middle-aged society hostess
whom he has never met.(29)His death proves to be the final symbolic act whereby he
attempts to incorporate meaning and value into overwhelming personal and historical

Virginia Woolf and sexuality

Cramer, Patricia Morgne
The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, Second Edition: Sellers, Susan (Ed.)
[ New York: ] 2010 pgs 180-196
Language is the still unborn. I cannot say what I feel.
But I feel it! ... I can see it. I can touch it, I cannot say it.
Nicholas to Eleanor1 (Draft Y5, p. 113)
Sexuality and modernism
Virginia Woolf's prominence among early twentieth-century feminist, modernist and
Bloomsbury innovators is well established, her iconoclasm most often discussed in
terms of her feminist, pacifist, anti-imperialist and aesthetic theories. In Virginia Woolf
as Feminist, Naomi Black aptly describes Woolf's feminism as 'deeply radical', 'drastic,
basic, transformational'.2 Woolf called for radical reinventions of gender norms - 'For
the degradation of being a slave is only equalled by the degradation of being a master.'3
Her pacifism was equally thoroughgoing and lifelong: her 1919 vow to oppose 'any
domination of one over another; any leadership, any imposition of the will' (Di, p. 256,
emphasis added) produced modernist classics that expose the roots of war and empire in
habits of dominance and submission instilled at every level of private and public life.
Modernism is widely associated with innovation, alienation and abrupt breaks with past
traditions. As Suzette Henke notes, Woolf's name is a 'watchword' for modernist
innovation.4 When defining herself as 'modern', Woolf speaks in terms of fundamental
transformations, profound alienation from existing traditions, and unmitigated breaks
with the past: thus her claim that around 1910 'human character [itself] changed', and
her comparison of axes 'breaking . . . crashing . . . destr[oying]' to modernist aims.5 As
early as 1919, at the beginning of her writing career, Woolf writes, '& as the current
answers don't do, one has to grope for a new one', and she rejects the realist conventions
of her literary predecessors, Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) and Thackeray (1811-63), as
impossible 'if one had the least respect for one's soul' (Di, p. 259).
Yet most modernist historians insist that sexual revolution - and especially male
homosexual and lesbian liberation - is also a core motivator for modernist
experimentation. Woolf came of age in an era of unprecedented popular, literary and
scientific preoccupation with sexuality, including male and female homosexuality. Early
twentieth-century feminists developed thoroughgoing critiques of male heterosexuality
as socially constructed and oppressive to women, and they called for radical
transformations in men's sexual as well as political relationships with women. Writings
by homosexual activists, John Addington Symonds (1840-93) and Edward Carpenter

(1844-1929), praising homoerotically inclined women and men as members of an

'intermediate' or 'third sex', inspired widespread discussion among progressives seeking
identities and lifestyles free of gender conscription. At the same time, sexologists and
psychiatrists, most notably Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) and Sigmund Freud (18561939), cultivated scientific authority for long-standing prejudices regarding women's
sexuality. Both promoted heterosexuality, marriage and motherhood as requirements for
women's health, and claimed female sexual passivity and masochism were innate. Woolf
was closely familiar with these sexual ideologies and active in circles where their ideas
were discussed.
In defining early twentieth-century modernism, Michael Bell reflects consensus opinion
that 'Sexual liberation, and liberation through sexuality, were conscious and central
projects of the time.'6 Critics like Karla Jay, Michael F. Davis and Christopher Reed
claim modernism itself is a homosexual phenomenon, shaped by the outsider ambitions
of its homosexual progenitors, most notably Djuna Barnes, Natalie Barney, E. M.
Forster, Gertrude Stein, Lytton Strachey, Sylvia Townsend Warner and, of course,
Virginia Woolf.7 Increasingly, feminist and gender studies place Woolf among lesbian
modernists. Woolf's prominence among feminist and Bloomsbury radicals, groups
widely recognised as forefront innovators in early twentieth-century sexual theories and
lifestyles, suggests we can expect sexuality to be central to her modernist innovation
and experimen-talism as well.
In fact, Woolf approached sexuality with the same 'outsider' (D5, p. 189) and
'revolutionist' (MB, 1976, p. 126) aims she applied to other social and literary
conventions. She even frequently approached political and aesthetic challenges on
sexual terms. For example, in her anti-war pamphlet Three Guineas (1938), Woolf
traces the origins of war to men's socialised habits of dominance and violence. But in a
1935 diary entry, written as she was working on Three Guineas, Woolf suggests that, to
end war, not only gender (referring to psychological traits) but gendered desire
(referring to eroticised violence) must be transformed. After a losing argument with her
nephew, Julian, against why men need war, she asks 'whether one can give people a
substitute for war . . . Lust & danger. Cant cut them out at once . . . Some fantasy must
be provided' (D4, p. 307, emphasis added). In The Waves (1931) and Between the Acts
(1941), Woolf suggests that sexual desires triggered by and attached to fascist figures
like Percival and Giles underlie the success of dictators in 1930s Europe. This trancelike enthralment to dominators contaminates nearly all of the characters in both novels,
but is most overt in the homosexual Neville's self-deprecating craving for Percival, and
the heterosexual Mrs Manresa's delighted sexual response to Giles's bloodied boot.
Thus, Woolf's opposition to 'any domination of one over another' includes opposition to
forms of sexuality that eroticise master/slave relationships.
Sexuality is also key to Woolf's innovations in plot and, as later discussion will
illustrate, to her experimental prose style. For example, whenever she delineates her
revolutionary literary aims, she usually targets heterosexual love lyrics and plots as
exemplary of what is wrong with the literary traditions she inherited. In her pamphlet on
how to encourage women writers, A Room of One's Own (1929), she begins by

mocking the love lyrics of Tennyson and Christina Rossetti as outdated, and ends by
suggesting a lesbian plot about Chloe liking Olivia as the starting-point for a new kind
of fiction. In 'The Narrow Bridge of Art', another manifesto for a radically new fiction,
Woolf asks novelists to get beyond stories about 'Tom' and 'Judith', 'falling into love and
falling out of love'. Here, as in her argument with Julian about how to end war, Woolf
aims to reshape what provides excitement and pleasure: 'ideas . . . dreams . . .
imaginations . . . poetry' (CE2, p. 225) - 'substitute fantasies' to be provided.
Woolf's novels are passionately concerned with female sexuality, especially the role of
male sexual abuse in women's subordination and the liberating possibilities of lesbian
love. Woolf could not 'pour [her] mind straight into the old channels of English poetry'
('Narrow Bridge of Art', CE2, p. 222); neither could she, in 'real life' or in prose, follow
the conventional trajectories of heterosexual desire. In her letters, diaries and fiction,
Woolf reflects profound alienation from gender norms and socially constructed forms of
heterosexual desire. For example, her diary diatribe against the 'normal Englishman in
love' is characteristic: 'His stupidity, blindness, callousness, struck me more powerfully
than the magic virtues of passion' (D2, pp. 177-8). In the fiction, Woolf portrays
heterosexual seduction as dangerous and degrading for women. In The Voyage Out
(1915) Rachel dies rather than succumb to Hewet's courtship; in The Waves, Bernard
condescendingly describes women's heterosexual initiation as biting sugar from his
hand - only Rhoda, the lesbian, is 'uncaught' (W, p. 247); in Between the Acts, Isa 'in
love' is compared to a salmon, hooked and 'caught' (BA, p. 48). At the beginning of The
Years (1937), Delia attaches her yearning for 'beauty' and 'freedom' to a Cinderella
fantasy of rescue by a mysterious man (Y, p. 12). In Woolf's novel, this is an unworthy
sexual fantasy, 'if one ha[s] the least respect for one's soul'. By the end of the novel,
Woolf connects such typical female masochistic sexual desires with Empire when we
find middle-aged Delia married to a pompous 'Empire-admiring' country gentleman (Y,
p. 398).
Sexuality and feminism
Throughout her work, Woolf engages with the same issues related to sexuality widely
debated among her contemporaries, but she does so on her own terms and in ways
consistent with her own feminist and pacifist values. Woolf shared with other feminists
the goal of a completely changed non-hierarchical society, and the belief that such a
dream required not only practical changes but a radical redefinition of sexuality as well.
Her sexual politics are closest to, but not identical with, that strand of pre-war feminists
who highlighted male sexual exploitation of women as a weapon of male power. Male
sexual violation of women as a weapon against women's political and intellectual liberty
is a pervasive theme in Woolf's fiction, as when Hugh Whitbread forces a kiss on Sally
to 'punish her for saying that women should have votes' (Mrs D, p. 181). Woolf's fiction
supports the sexual issues central to early twentieth-century feminist campaigns against
marriage as a form of institutionalised sexual slavery (her novels are peopled with dead,
dying, or simply ineffective wives); the sexual double standard (Richard Dalloway's
sexual assault on Rachel in The Voyage Out; Giles's greenhouse sexual rendezvous
with Mrs Manresa in Between the Acts); male sexual exploitation of women in marriage

and in prostitution (Colonel Pargiter's paid-for affair with Mira in The Years); and
chastity mandates for women. Throughout her fiction, Woolf mocks chastity ideals by
exposing men's adoration of idealised women as masks for their domestic abuse
(Willoughby for his dead wife, Teresa, in The Voyage Out); narcissism (Mr Ramsay
for MrsRamsay in To the Lighthouse (1927)); or repressed homosexuality (Edward for
Kitty in The Years).
In Woolf's time, campaigns against sexual slavery, a term which today would
encompass the range of male sexual violences against women, highlighted prostitution
as emblematic of men's sexual relations with women. Lucy Bland notes that
'Prostitution haunted relations between men and women during this period,'8 filling
many women with dread of the sexual proclivities of men. In The Voyage Out, the
prostitute wafting from 'one room to another' (VO, p. 194) appears as Rachel's ghosted
double shortly after Rachel is sexually accosted by the 'respectable', married
Richard Dalloway. In The Years 'street love' comes into the middle-class home when
ten-year-old Rose returns to her bedroom, terrified by her confrontation with an
exhibitionist at a pillar box. Heterosexual initiation teaches both Rachel and Rose to
equate expressions of sexual and personal freedom with violation and punishment.
Rachel's shocked recognition, 'So that's why I can't walk alone!' (VO, p. 82), admits
what the much younger and terrified Rose confronts but cannot yet articulate.
In Woolf's fiction, male sexual violence pervades women's lives as lived experience
(Shakespeare's sister in A Room of One's Own (1929)); as memory (Rachel's and Rose's
flashbacks of childhood sexual abuse in The Voyage Out and The Years, respectively);
and as omnipresent future possibility (the gang rape haunting Isa in Between the Acts).
Woolf's preoccupation with the impact of male violence on women derives from her
wide-ranging commitments to social justice, her love for and loyalty to women, but also
her personal experience of childhood sexual abuse by her half-brothers, George and
Gerald Duckworth. Woolf's memoirs, 'Reminiscences' (1907), 'A Sketch of the Past'
(1939), '22 Hyde Gate' (1920-1) and 'Old Bloomsbury' (1921-2), recount the story of the
Duckworths' sexual violations. Woolf records two primary events: one, when she was
five or six years old, when Gerald lifted her on to a slab and molested her, and a second,
during adolescence when George would sneak into her room at night, forcing his sexual
attentions on her (MB, 1976, pp. 69, 155). Trauma markers drawn from memories of her
sexual violation appear throughout Woolf's fiction attached to violating or threatening
sexual events.
The incest themes in Woolf's fiction have been well established, the consensus among
trauma scholars best summed up by David Eberly and Suzette Henke in their recent
collection, Virginia Woolf and Trauma: Embodied Texts: 'that [in Woolf's fiction], a
haunting, if sometimes repressed trauma narrative can be found embodied over a
lifetime of literary production'.9 This important collection moves beyond views of
Woolf as mere victim of childhood abuse, and emphasises her legacy in writing as
survivor strategy and as a discerning indictment of the social conditions which protect
perpetrators. Furthermore, it is probable that contemporaneous feminist campaigns on
behalf of incest victims created the political and intellectual milieu for Woolf's

speaking-out. These campaigns resulted in the first legislation protecting women from
sexual abuse and violence within their families.10 Woolf's incest narratives reflect and
support these crucial feminist gains.
Lesbian sexuality
Central to Woolf's sexual radicalism is her lesbian sensibility, which she shaped in
accord with her liberationist and egalitarian ideals. For Woolf, lesbian love was about
sexual preference, but also an impetus for personal transformation, literary inspiration
and political resistance. In her fiction, she invents an erotic ideal that combines intellect
and body, founded in lesbian sexual passion, but expanding beyond the couple as an
intensification and reinvigoration of daily and creative life. In her letters and diaries,
statements about 'Much preferring my own sex' and 'how much nicer young women are
than young men' (L3, pp. 145, 164) are common. Her letters, diaries and fiction record
adolescent crushes on Violet Dickinson, Madge Vaughan and Mary Endicott (Li, p. 85;
D2, p. 122; L6, p. 103), as well as adult flirtations with Mary Hutchinson, Ottoline
Morrell, Elizabeth Bowen and Victoria Okampo (L5, pp. 229, 252, 302, 355). Woolf's
Richard Dallowayin Mrs Dalloway and Kitty's to Lord Lasswade in The Years:
affectionate, grounded in mutual respect and shared work, but not sexually passionate.
Instead, the great romance of Woolf's life was the aristocrat and author, Vita SackvilleWest (1892-1959). Virginia's sexual passion for Vita inspired a metaphoric exuberance
she did not experience with Leonard or any other man. Her letters and diaries abound
with lines like the following about Vita. In 1926, anticipating two nights alone with
Vita, Woolf writes, 'Still, the June nights are long and warm; the roses flowering; and
the garden full of lust and bees, mingling in the asparagus beds,' and, later the same
year, 'The flowers have come, and are adorable, dusky, tortured, passionate like you -'
(L3, pp. 275, 303).
Woolf met Vita in 1922; their love passion peaked between 1925 and 1928, remaining
strong, at least on Virginia's side, into the early 1930s. Thus, Woolf wrote most of her
major novels - from Mrs Dalloway (1925) through to The Years (1937) - with Vita in
her heart and much on her mind. For example, Mrs Dalloway is, among other things, a
coming-out narrative inspired by the heydays of their courtship. In 1928, Woolf
published a mock biography of Vita, Orlando, dedicating the book to her. During the
thirties, Vita became less willing to socialise away from home, preferring to spend her
time on her Sissinghurst estate writing, gardening, and courting her sister-in-law, Gwen
St. Aubyn. Although initially hurt and angry, Woolf's letters to Vita in the 1930s
gradually become nostalgic, focused on joyful remembrances from their more
passionate past. In 1935, Virginia qualifies an invitation to see Vita with 'Mere affection
- to the memory of the porpoise in the pink window' (L5, p. 370), and in August 1940,
less than a year before her suicide, she writes to Vita, 'You have given me such
happiness' (L6, p. 424). Between 1931 and 1937, in response to Vita's defection, Woolf
wrote a lesbian romantic love classic, The Years, as a coded memoir and eulogy to their
love affair.

For Woolf, the 'ardour & lust of creation' (D3, p. 129) and her love and lust for women,
especially Vita, are mutually invigorating. For example, in a 1930 diary entry, Woolf
juxtaposes fantasies of Vita's recent visit with writing the Hampton Court scene for The
Waves, while in 1924 she had recorded 'peering across Vita at my
blessed Mrs Dalloway'. In these passages we can discern Woolf's lesbian creative
process. She calls up a memory and its emotions associated with Vita, contemplates the
book she is writing, and then returns to thinking of Vita. Conjuring Vita liberates
Woolf's creativity - 'ideas rush' in. Similarly, Woolf writes while contemplating Vita's
'perfect body ... So many rare & curious objects hit one's brain like pellets which
perhaps may unfold later' (D2, p. 313; D3, p. 287; D2, p. 306). When recalling Vita in
gaiters, Woolf writes, 'it was the sight of the gaiters. . . that inspired Orlando - the
gaiters and what lies beyond - ' (L5, p. 157).
Woolf's prose is saturated with sexuality. However, her sexual themes are not easily
located if one reads her novels through still extant stereotypes of Woolf as sexually
timid or with representational expectations. The lingering effects of caricatures of her as
sexually underdeveloped, propagated by her family and friends, have led some to
misread Woolf as sexually repressed. Early descriptions of Woolf as neurotically
virginal (by Quentin Bell, her nephew and first biographer), and claims that she saw 'life
more purely than most of us . . . but less passionately' by Clive Bell, her brother-in-law
and Bloomsbury comrade,11 have contributed to this distortion. In an important
corrective to Bell's depiction of Woolf as sexually timid, Ellen Hawkes writes, 'Her
metaphors intensify rather than veil sexuality . . . Immersion in the experience, not a
frightened escape, moves the language.'12
Thus, Woolf's attention is on the intensity and quality of sexual emotion rather than
specific acts. Readers accustomed to equate sexual representations with overt acts of
hetero- or homosexual intercourse can miss the woman-centred eroticism pervasive in
Woolf's novels. Even Woolf's beloved friend and fan, Lytton Strachey (1880-1932),
while praising To the Lighthouse as 'an extraordinary form of fiction', finds the novel
flawed because it seems to lack sexual excitement. Strachey complained to his lover
Roger Senhouse, 'It is the lack of copulation - either actual or implied - that worries
me.'13 It is well known that Woolf rejected the 'fact-recording power' of realist fiction in
favour of a poetic style that gets at 'feeling[s] and ideas' by means of 'outline rather than
the detail' ('Narrow Bridge of Art', CE2, pp. 224-5). Woolf's innovative poetic method,
the 'marvellous and exquisite arabesque' style Strachey admires, extends to her sexual
scenes. Woolf's indirection in sexual matters is not motivated by sexual fear or prudery,
but, at least partly, by her mistrust of merely graphic representations of all kinds in
Woolf's sexual passages are poetic but not disembodied. What writer before Woolf - or
since - has so artfully turned the female body into a such a rich source of metaphors for
self-generation, ecstasy, illumination, self-transformation? Her representations of the
vulva, female sexual arousal and orgasm are indirect, metaphoric, but recognisable.
Clarissa Dalloway's meditation on what it feels like - 'this falling in love with women' is perhaps the most famous:

It was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush which one tried to check and then, as it
spread, one yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered
and felt the world come closer, swollen with some astonishing significance, some
pressure of rapture, which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an
extraordinary alleviation over the cracks and sores! Then, for that moment, she had seen
an illumination, a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed. But
the close withdrew; the hard softened. (Mrs D, p. 32, emphasis added)
Here, we can easily discern Woolf's sexual style: her reach for symbolic equivalence for
female genitalia - the match and crocus for clitoris and labia; her emphasis on the
quality of emotion aroused; and her deliberately crafted associations between female
sexual ecstasy and female spiritual peaks of insight. Woolf's poetic style seeks
equivalence (the 'outline not the detail') for emotional states whatever the occasion: a
pair of old shoes for a mother's incommensurable grief for her son, Jacob, killed in war
(JR, p. 176); a kitchen table for Mr Ramsay's intellectual life's work (TL, p. 23); a 'great
carp' for Lucy's indomitable faith in people's yet untapped greatness and beauty (BA, p.
205); a match in a crocus for women's sexual, spiritual epiphanies. Like Clarissa,
Rhoda's orgasmic fantasies speak to spiritual as well as sexual release: 'Now my body
thaws; I am unsealed, I am incandescent. Now the stream pours in a deep tide fertilising,
opening the shut, forcing the tight-folded, flooding free' (W, p. 57).
Born in 1882, Woolf grew up at a time when middle- and upper-class women were
raised, and expected to remain, sexually ignorant. Woolf exposes the deplorable effects
of female sexual naivete in, for example, Rachel's extreme sexual vulnerability in The
Voyage Out, and the sexual hypocrisy of the Pargiter sisters in the opening chapter of
The Years. Even among educated elites, men equated female sexual knowledge with
pathology and sexual deviance. The belief in inborn female sexual passivity was so
extensive that some physicians considered a woman who expressed even heterosexual
desire pathological.14 In 1918, Maud Allan, a successful dancer, sued Noel Pemberton
Billing, an Independent MP, for libel for calling her performance 'The Cult of the
Clitoris' because his title and review implied that Allan was lesbian. Allan's knowledge
of sexual terminology, especially the meaning of the word 'clitoris', was the key factor
in the dismissal of her law suit.15 Similarly hostile to women's clitoral autonomy,
Sigmund Freud's writings pathologised clitoral in favour of vaginal orgasms. Seen in its
historical context, Woolf's emphasis on literal and metaphoric clitoral pleasures
-Clarissa's 'diamond . . . infinitely precious, wrapped up' (Mrs D, p. 35), the 'pellets'
triggered by Virginia's contemplation of Vita's 'perfect body' -appears innovative and
courageous and her indirection understandable.
As noted in Clarissa and Rhoda's orgasmic raptures, Woolf's sexual impetus is
consistently toward that which expands, alleviates, thaws, fertilises, opens, frees.
Woolf's involvement in the women's movement provided a setting for her characteristic
impulses toward freedom and truth-telling to shape themselves around sexual issues.
For example, Woolf stood up to the initial resistance of the women in the Richmond
Branch of the Women's Co-operative Guild to Mrs Bessie Ward's sexual explicitness in
her speech on venereal diseases. But when the Guild members recanted, Woolf agreed

to arrange a speaker on sex education (L2, p. 238; Di, p. 141). In 1941, Woolf urged
Ethel Smyth to write about masturbation in her autobiography (L5, p. 459). Whenever
confronted with the question of homosexuality in her own and others' writing, Woolf
urges openness. In their 1930s correspondence Woolf encourages Katharine Symonds
Furse to write openly about her father John Addington Symonds's homosexuality.16
After Lytton Strachey's death in 1932, Woolf decided against writing his biography
because she could not tell the truth about his sexual adventures.
Woolf could not write openly about Lytton Strachey's homosexual love affairs - or her
own - because in her lifetime legal, medical and popular hostilities toward
homosexuality were severe. Male homosexuality was illegal under the Labouchere
Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1882. The landmark conviction of
Oscar Wilde in 1895 to two years of hard labour for 'acts of gross indecency' galvanised
the emerging male homosexual subcultures. Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), an Irish
playwright, novelist, poet and short-story writer, was famous and wildly successful at
the time of his conviction. His prison term ruined his health, his relationship to his wife
and children, and his writing career. Watching such a formerly confident, public figure
be brought down so precipitously for homosexual activity, other men engaged in
homosexual acts intensified the secrecy surrounding their already double lives. At the
same time, many men developed a new self and group consciousness connected to their
Unlike Wilde, Maud Allan was not imprisoned for lesbian acts because lesbianism was
not illegal. However, Allan's well-publicised trial publicly humiliated her and ruined her
career. In 1921, Parliament nearly criminalised female homosexuality, and in 1928 The
Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall's (1880-1943) novel in defence of female same-sex
love, was banned. Like the Wilde trial, Hall's trial had both an inhibiting and inspiriting
effect on its targeted population. The banning of Hall's book exacerbated popular
hostilities toward female homosexuality, and confirmed that literature with overt lesbian
content could not be published in Britain. At the same time, the widespread publicity
surrounding the trial made lesbianism visible not only to the public but to women
erotically attracted to women as well.
In her study of reviews of Hall's trial, Laura Doan found a range of terms and concepts
applied to Hall's depictions of two women in love, among them 'Sapphist', 'female
sexual invert', 'masculine woman', 'homogenic', 'intermediate sex', 'homosexual' and
'lesbian'.17 Woolf herself generally referred to homoerotically inclined men as
homosexual18 and to women as 'Sapphist' or 'lesbian' (D2, p. 235; L4, p. 14). These
latter terms may have been household words for Leonard and Virginia since Leonard
refers to 'Sapphism' and 'Lesbian' in his 1928 review of The Well of Loneliness.19 Thus
Woolf wrote at a time when concepts about female same-sex desire were available to
her, but definitions and identities attached to lesbian desire were in the process of being
constituted. At the same time, legal and social prohibitions required that, like other
writers of her generation, Woolf adopt codes and strategies of indirection for her
homoerotic themes. Woolf published Orlando, a mock biography based on the life of her
lover, Vita Sackville-West, in 1928, the same year that The Well of Loneliness was

banned. As Leslie Hankins notes, 'Woolf's lesbian narrative in Orlando suggests love
and erotics between women, mocks compulsory heterosexual-ity, challenges
homophobia, and slips coded lesbian signatures and subplots into the novel.'20 Its
success signifies Woolf's skill in writing fiction in which lesbian content is pervasive,
but not easily apparent to readers of her generation hostile to lesbian themes.
However, once we become aware of Woolf's writing strategies, the lesbian content in
her novels appears transparent and omnipresent. Woolf's drafts provide the easiest
access to her lesbian themes. Typically, they contain more overt statements than the
published versions of her fiction, especially on controversial topics. For example, in The
Waves, Rhoda's characteristic 'side to side' motion is only vaguely connected to 'she
whose name I do not know' (W, p. 43, emphasis added) - a lesbian reference easy to
miss. But in the draft, Rhoda's beloved is clearly named, Alice (Draft Wi, p. 122). As
Hankins notes, strongly sensual passages in the Orlando draft are either excised or
encoded in the published version.2i
The richest source of Woolf's lesbian metaphors is her own experiences with loving
women, especially Vita. Woolf's reliance on personal experience makes sense, given the
paucity and negativity of representations of lesbians available to her. Feminist sex
radicals of Woolf's generation primarily focused on transforming heterosexual relations,
and did little to develop lesbian-affirming theories except in correspondences, select
social or discussion groups, or privately distributed journals.22 English literature, even
that written by contemporaries like Henry James (1843-1916) and D.H. Lawrence
(1885-1930), generally depicted lesbians as sinister predators slated for
extreme loneliness, madness or death. Popular opinion still widely regarded
homosexuality as a sin, a crime against nature, a dreaded contagion, a threat to race
In the aftermath of work by nineteenth-century sexologists, prominent among them Karl
Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-95), Richard van Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902) and Dr Karl
Westphal (1833-90), medical authorities newly defined homosexuals as a distinct
human type and diagnosed homosexuality as the effect of congenital defects. In
contrast, Sigmund Freud declared homosexuality a mental illness, subject to cure. The
most influential sexologist in Woolf's time, Havelock Ellis (1859-1939), defended
homosexuality as inborn and incurable, but not, as formerly claimed, necessarily linked
with other traits like insanity or criminality. However, Ellis and his followers
constructed a 'scientific' model of the 'true' female homosexual as masculine. In The
Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall confirms Ellis's version of female 'inversion' (Ellis's
preferred terminology) with her portrait of the mannish Stephen Gordan. With Hall's
1928 trial, the 'mannish lesbian' became the dominant, popular image of the female
homosexual in England.
Although we can find traces of this popularised aversion toward masculine women in
Clarissa Dalloway's intense dislike for Miss Kilman,23 Woolf otherwise portrays
masculine lesbians, like Rose Pargiter in The Years and Miss La Trobe in Between the
Acts, favourably. However, Woolf depicts a wider range of lesbian and proto-lesbian

types in her fiction. These include the artist/visionary (Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse
and Eleanor Pargiter in The Years); the feminist marriage resister (Evelyn Murgatroyd
in The Voyage Out and Rose Pargiter in The Years); the spinster/scholar (Miss Allan in
The Voyage Out and Lucy Craddock in The Years); and the closeted married lesbian
(Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs Dalloway and Kitty Malone in The Years).
In her letters and diaries, we can find Woolf freely referring to other women who
sexually desire women as a distinguishable group, but not, overtly, to herself. In 1925,
she writes about Vita, 'These Sapphists love women', and in 1929, in a letter to Vita, she
refers to 'Lesbians' as 'Your [not our] race' (D3, p. 51, emphasis in original; L4, p. 14).
However, it is anachronistic to expect clearly defined, overt lesbian self-identification
from women of Woolf's generation, especially in uncoded writing. In Woolf's time and
our own, 'lesbian' is a wide-ranging term for women whose erotic and emotional lives
centre on women, a definition which aptly describes Woolf's life and work. Rather than
shirk from the sometimes laden term 'lesbian', in reference to Woolf, we need to read
her lesbian themes within her autobiographical, cultural and historical contexts.
Leonard read Woolf's diaries and Virginia conducted her relationship with Vita with
enough secrecy to protect him. She wrote her letters expecting government inspection
(L4, p. 14). Although outspoken and garrulous at parties and among friends, Woolf
seems generally to have kept her deepest feelings to herself (D2, p. 61). Even among her
Bloomsbury companions where talk about male homosexuality was candid, Woolf kept
the extent of her lesbian passions private (L3, p. 332). Furthermore, concepts of
lesbianism were unformed and those offered by medical experts did not match her own
experiences or values. In Woolf's writing, what it means to love women is a question
and a process. We find - not an embrace of a preexisting lesbian identity - but a lesbian
identity 'in the making'.
Without a language or a developed lesbian literary tradition on which to rely, Woolf
often searched out the words for lesbian passion by interrogating her feelings for Vita.
In a 1928 letter to Vita, Woolf recalls their recent rendezvous and asks, 'How I felt - now
what was it like!' Woolf responds in metaphor, 'somewhere I have seen a little ball kept
bubbling up and down on the spray of a fountain: the fountain is you; the ball me' (L3,
p. 540). Similarly, in 1922, Woolf investigates her reaction to her first meeting with Vita
and finds sounds associated with happy childhood memories of vacations at St Ives (D2,
p. 217). When Woolf wants to cast a lesbian ambiance over a character or scene,
metaphors and memories such as these reappear: for example, associated with Rhoda as
the 'nymph of the fountain always wet' (W, p. 127), or with Kitty, a character based on
Vita Sackville-West, compared to 'a ball on the top of a fishmonger's fountain' (Y, p.
369). Two of Woolf's favourite moments with Vita reappear in her letters and fiction:
Vita standing in a fishmonger's shop (L3, p. 326; Y, p. 369) and Vita leaning against her
knee (D3, p. 117; L3, p. 231; TL, p. 51; Y, p. 384). Kitty's hilltop epiphany in The Years
intermingles St Ives memories (depicted in 'The Sketch of the Past'), with memory
fragments from a train ride Vita and Virginia once took to view an eclipse (recounted in
'The Sun and the Fish'), with Kitty's memories of her adolescent crush on her teacher,
Miss Craddock (Y, pp. 277; 65). Beginning with Mrs Dalloway, memory fragments

from moments with Vita appear throughout Woolf's fiction -nightingales (L4, pp. 29,
314), white pearls (L3, p. 342; L5, p. 157), porpoises (L3, p. 462) and pigeons (L5, p.
266) - to name but a few.
At a time when yoking homosexuality and abnormality was so common, Woolf counters
in her letters and diaries with a plethora of metaphors linking her passion for Vita with
natural phenomena: grapes (L3, p. 224), beech trees and waterfalls (L3, p. 227), nuts
(L3, p. 346), apricots (L3, p. 403) - and especially, the vulva-like flowers. Like Clarissa,
Rhoda produces a litany of flowers when she thinks about a female beloved: green
cowbind, water lilies, moonlight-coloured may, wild roses and ivy serpentine. In
Woolf's fiction, the combination of a woman's kiss and a flower produces 'moments of
being' - erotic and mental epiphanies - as when Sally kisses Clarissa by the fountain
(Mrs D, p. 35), and Miss Craye kisses Fanny in 'Slater's Pins Have No Points' (CSF, p.
220). In her lesbian-based moments of being, Woolf reproduces the transformative and
inspirational effects of lesbian love she experienced in private life. An act as simple as
holding a woman's hand illuminates an otherwise mundane setting, as when Clarissa,
with Sally's hand in hers, suddenly hears the voices from her party, and sees the
candlesticks, the curtains, the roses, with shocked intensity (Mrs D, p. 171); or when
Nancy, holding Minta's hand, instantly 'saw the whole world spread out beneath her'
(TL, p. 73). Under the spell of Miss Fripp's kiss, 'ideas rush in' on Kitty: she sees the
pettiness of Oxford life, determines never to marry a don, and dreams, significantly, of
her beloved cousin, Eleanor (Y, pp. 60-3; 75).
In addition to Vita, Woolf's fiction pays tribute to a lifetime of loving women in various
ways. Echoes of her childhood and lifelong love for her sister, Vanessa, appear in
Rachel's feelings for Helen Vinrace and in Peggy's epiphany while leaning against
Eleanor's knee. Traces of Woolf's adolescent crush, Madge Vaughan, can be found in
descriptions of Sally Seton and Eugenie. Woolf's beloved spinster tutors, Miss Allan,
Lucy Craddock, Julia Craye and Miss Lambert, recall her youthful passion for her tutor,
Janet Case. The lesbian and feminist composer, Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944),
Woolf's closest female confidante in the 1930s, inspired her portraits of truculent lesbian
figures, Rose Pargiter in The Years and Miss La Trobe in Between the Acts. At a time
when sexologists created a sharp divide between heterosexuals and homosexuals, Woolf
avoids such rigid distinctions. Instead, she depicts a continuum of female erotic
possibilities by establishing commonality among, for example, Rachel's confused,
daughterlike attachment for Helen Vinrace in The Voyage Out; Clarissa's nostalgic
romantic friendship with Sally Seton in Mrs Dalloway; Rhoda and Kitty's schoolgirl
crushes on their teachers in The Waves and The Years, respectively;
and the heartbroken Miss La Trobe's painful longing for the 'actress who had [once]
shared her bed' (BA, p. 211).
In addition to autobiography, Woolf's coding tactics include ellipses or dashes,
juxtaposition and intertextual allusions. In a 1927 letter to Vita, Woolf suggests sexual
play with a dash: 'If I saw you would you kiss me? If I were in bed would you -' (L3, p.
443). In A Room of One's Own the lesbian possibilities in the novel about how 'Chloe

liked Olivia . .. ' (ROO, p. 86) appear in the ellipses. Kitty's lesbian desires, aroused by
Miss Fripp's kiss and her adored tutor, Lucy Craddock, also appear as ellipses: 'I
want...'. Juxtaposition creates meaning by proximity rather than linear time. Thus, we
can 'fill in the lesbian blank' for Kitty because thoughts of Eleanor appear juxtaposed
with Kitty's unnamed longings (Y, p. 75). At times, Woolf establishes lesbian meanings
by integrating events or objects from another lesbian or male homosexual novel. For
example, The Years contains numerous references to Marcel Proust's homosexual
autobiographical novel Remembrance of Things Past, such as an empty milk can, an
emblem of unrequited homosexual love in both novels.24 Similarly, Danell Jones
discovered the lesbian meaning of Orlando's final cry, 'The wild goose . . .' (O, p. 329),
in the love vows of Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, two women who lived in
passionate and lifelong partnership in the eighteenth century. Sarah's line, 'I want to hear
you say I may chase the wild goose with you', appears in The Chase of the Wild Goose,
a fictionalised biography of this couple published by Virginia and Leonard's Hogarth
In Woolf's lifetime, references to Shakespeare's sonnets and to Plato were widely
recognised homosexual codes: Shakespeare's sonnets, because many believed they were
addressed to a man, and Plato for his praise of male homoerotic love in such works as
the Symposium, Lysis, Phaedrus and Alcibiades. Plato links homoerotic eros with the
striving for absolute Good and Ideal Beauty. In Hellenism and Homosexuality in
Victorian Oxford, Linda Dowling shows how homosexual men in late nineteenth-and
early twentieth-century England used Plato's academic prestige and homoerotic writings
to fashion a non-medical, non-pathological version of male same-sex love.26 For
example, Edward Carpenter uses Plato's eulogies to manly love to describe homoerotic
love as 'a glorious enthusiasm, a winged splendour, capable of soaring to the
contemplation of eternal verities'.27 Woolf was closely familiar with writings by the
main proponents of this ideology, especially Walter Pater (1839-94), whose cult of
beauty and ideal of the aesthetic life founded the Aesthetic movement and profoundly
influenced Oscar Wilde; her friend, Goldie Lowes Dickinson (1862-1932), a
homosexual writer, peace activist and Cambridge don; John Addington Symonds;
Edward Carpenter; and Lytton Strachey. This chivalric male homoerotic tradition is one
likely model for Woolf's metaphoric merging of lesbian emotions with heroism, selfperfection, and personal and political liberation.
Thus, in Mrs Dalloway, Septimus's homosexuality is suggested by his siding with
Shakespeare against Rezia's desire for children (Mrs D, p. 89), and in The Waves,
Neville's homosexuality is confirmed by his incantation to Plato and Shakespeare to
protect the secrecy and sanctity of his love for Percival (W, p. 179). Woolf began
studying Greek at fifteen at King's College, London and was later tutored by Clara Pater
(sister of Walter Pater) and Janet Case. She once wrote that she first learned about
sodomy from Plato in adolescence, an experience she recalls when Clarissa's beloved,
Sally Seton, reads Plato in bed (Mrs D, p. 33). Thus, in Woolf's fiction, references to
Plato can be lesbian signatures, just as references to Sappho, the seventh-century bC
lesbian poet, can be attached to male homosexuals such as St John Hirst, who reads
Sappho in church (VO, p. 230).

Like her Hellenist homosexual predecessors and peers, Woolf articulates lesbian love in
terms of erotic sensibility, friendship alliances, and self and political transformation - a
way of being in the world that includes but is not limited to specific sexual acts. Now
read within her lesbian and historical context, Woolf's prominence as an early twentiethcentury sexual theorist, and her role as a shaper of modern lesbian identities, can be
more widely acknowledged.
1 Virginia Woolf, The Years, holograph, microfilm. 8 vols. The Virginia Woolf
Manuscripts from the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection at the New York Public
Library. Woodbridge, CT: Research Publications International, 1993.
2 Naomi Black, Virginia Woolf as Feminist (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,
2004), pp. 7, 10.
3 Virginia Woolf, 'The Intellectual Status of Women', in D2, pp. 337-42; p. 342.
4 Suzette Henke, 'Virginia Woolf: The Modern Tradition', in The Gender of Modernism:
A Critical Anthology, ed. Bonnie Kime Scott (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
1990), pp. 622-8; p. 622.
5 Virginia Woolf, 'Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown', in The Captain's Death Bed and Other
Essays, ed. Leonard Woolf (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1950), pp. 94-119;
pp. 96, 115, 117. All further references to Woolf's works are from the Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich editions.
6 Michael Bell, 'The Metaphysics of Modernism', in The Cambridge Companion to
Modernism, ed. Michael H. Levenson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999),
pp. 9-32; p. 25.
7 Karla Jay, 'Lesbian Modernism: (Trans)forming the (C)Anon', in Professions of
Desire: Lesbian and Gay Studies in Literature, ed. George E. Haggerty and Bonnie
Zimmerman (New York: Modern Language Association, 1995), pp. 72-83; Michael F.
Davis, 'Latent Intelligence and the Conception of Queer Theory', in Walter Pater:
Transparencies of Desire (1880-1920), ed. Laurel Brake, et al. (Greensboro, NC: ELT
Press, 2002), pp. 261-85; Christopher Reed, 'Making History: The Bloomsbury Group's
Construction of Aesthetic and Sexual Identity', in Gay and Lesbian Studies in Art
History, ed. Whitney Davis (New York: Harrington Park Press, 1994), pp. 189-224.
8 Lucy Bland, Banishing the Beast: Sexuality and the Early Feminists (New York: The
New Press, 1995), p. 32.
9 Suzette Henke and David Eberly assisted by Jane Lilienfeld, Virginia Woolf and
Trauma: Embodied Texts (New York: Pace University Press, 2007), p. 1.

10 Margaret Jackson, The Real Facts of Life: Feminism and the Politics of Sexuality
1850-1940 (Bristol, PA: Taylor and Francis, 1994), p. 30; Sheila Jeffreys, The Spinster
and Her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality 1880-1930 (Boston, MA: Pandora, 1985), p.
76. The 1908 Punishment of Incest Act was the first legislation against male sexual
abuse of children in their own families.
11 Clive Bell, Old Friends: Personal Recollections (London: Chatto & Windus, 1956),
p. 113.
12 Ellen Hawkes, 'The Virgin in the Bell Biography', Twentieth Century Literature, 20:2
(April 1974), 96-113; 111.
13 Quoted in Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey: The New Biography (New York:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994), p. 569.
14 George Chauncey, Jr, 'From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality: Medicine and the
Changing Conceptualization of Female Deviance', Salmagundi, 58-9 (Fall 1982/Winter
1983), 114-46; 117-18.
15 Lucy Bland, 'Trial by Sexology?: Maud Allan, Salome and the "Cult of the Clitoris"
Case', in Sexology in Culture: Labeling Bodies and Desires, ed. Lucy Bland and Laura
Doan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 183-98; p. 188; Laura Doan,
Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture (New York:
Columbia University Press, 2001), pp. 31-50.
16 Rowena Fowler, 'Virginia Woolf and Katharine Furse: An Unpublished
Correspondence', Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, 9:2 (Fall 1990), 201-28; 218.
17 Doan, Fashioning Sapphism, pp. xii-xiii.
18 Fowler, 'Virginia Woolf and Katharine Furse', 218.
19 Doan, Fashioning Sapphism, p. 25.
20 Leslie Hankins, 'Orlando: "A Precipice Marked V": Between "A Miracle of
Discretion" and "Lovemaking Unbelievable: Indiscretions Incredible"', in Virginia
Woolf: Lesbian Readings, ed. Eileen Barrett and Patricia Cramer (New York: New York
University Press, 1997), pp. 180-202; p. 181.
21 Ibid., pp. 194-5.
22 Bland, Banishing the Beast, pp. 288-96; Judy Greenway, 'It's What You Do With It
That Counts: Interpretations of Otto Weininger', in Bland and Doan, Sexology in
Culture, pp. 38-9.
23 Eileen Barrett, 'Unmasking Lesbian Passion: The Inverted World of Mrs Dalloway',
in Barrett and Cramer, Lesbian Readings, pp. 146-64; p. 148.

24 Patricia Cramer, '"Pearls and the Porpoise": The Years - a Lesbian Memoir', in ibid.,
pp. 222-40; p. 235.
25 Danell Jones, 'The Chase of the Wild Goose: The Ladies of Llangollen and Orlando',
in Virginia Woolf: Themes and Variations: Selected Papers from the Second Annual
Conference on Virginia Woolf, ed. Vara Neverow-Turk and Mark Hussey (New York:
Pace University Press, 1993), pp. 181-9; p. 188.
26 Linda Dowling, Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford (Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Press, 1994).
27 Edward Carpenter, Iolaus: An Anthology of Friendship (New York: Mitchell
Kennerley, 1917).
PATRICIA MORGNE CRAMER, University of Connecticut, Stamford