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Virginia Woolf and sexuality

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 Woolfs 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 Woolfs feminism as deeply radical, drastic, basic, transform-
ational.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 (D1, 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, Woolfs 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 com-
parison 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 dont do, one has to grope for a new one, and she
rejects the realist conventions of her literary predecessors, Arnold Bennett
(18671931) and Thackeray (181163), as impossible if one had the least
respect for ones soul (D1, p. 259).
Yet most modernist historians insist that sexual revolution and espe-
cially 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

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Virginia Woolf and sexuality

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
mens sexual as well as political relationships with women. Writings by
homosexual activists, John Addington Symonds (184093) and Edward
Carpenter (18441929), praising homoerotically inclined women and men
as members of an intermediate or third sex, inspired widespread discus-
sion among progressives seeking identities and lifestyles free of gender
conscription. At the same time, sexologists and psychiatrists, most notably
Havelock Ellis (18591939) and Sigmund Freud (18561939), cultivated
scientific authority for long-standing prejudices regarding womens sexual-
ity. Both promoted heterosexuality, marriage and motherhood as require-
ments for womens 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 homo-
sexual 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. Woolfs 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 mens 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

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triggered by and attached to fascist figures like Percival and Giles underlie
the success of dictators in 1930s Europe. This trance-like enthralment
to dominators contaminates nearly all of the characters in both novels,
but is most overt in the homosexual Nevilles self-deprecating craving for
Percival, and the heterosexual Mrs Manresas delighted sexual response to
Giless bloodied boot. Thus, Woolfs opposition to any domination of one
over another includes opposition to forms of sexuality that eroticise
master/slave relationships.
Sexuality is also key to Woolfs 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 Ones Own (1929), she begins by mocking the love
lyrics of Tennyson and Christina Rossetti as outdated, and ends by suggest-
ing 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.
Woolfs novels are passionately concerned with female sexuality, espe-
cially the role of male sexual abuse in womens 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 conven-
tional trajectories of heterosexual desire. In her letters, diaries and fiction,
Woolf reflects profound alienation from gender norms and socially con-
structed 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. 1778). In the fiction, Woolf portrays heterosexual
seduction as dangerous and degrading for women. In The Voyage Out
(1915) Rachel dies rather than succumb to Hewets courtship; in The
Waves, Bernard condescendingly describes womens 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 Woolfs novel, this is an unworthy

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Virginia Woolf and sexuality

sexual fantasy, if one ha[s] the least respect for ones 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 femi-
nists who highlighted male sexual exploitation of women as a weapon of
male power. Male sexual violation of women as a weapon against womens
political and intellectual liberty is a pervasive theme in Woolfs fiction,
as when Hugh Whitbread forces a kiss on Sally to punish her for saying
that women should have votes (Mrs D, p. 181). Woolfs 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 Dalloways sexual assault on Rachel in The Voyage Out;
Giless greenhouse sexual rendezvous with Mrs Manresa in Between the
Acts); male sexual exploitation of women in marriage and in prostitution
(Colonel Pargiters paid-for affair with Mira in The Years); and chastity
mandates for women. Throughout her fiction, Woolf mocks chastity ideals
by exposing mens adoration of idealised women as masks for their domes-
tic abuse (Willoughby for his dead wife, Teresa, in The Voyage Out);
narcissism (Mr Ramsay for Mrs Ramsay in To the Lighthouse (1927)); or
repressed homosexuality (Edward for Kitty in The Years).
In Woolfs time, campaigns against sexual slavery, a term which today
would encompass the range of male sexual violences against women, high-
lighted prostitution as emblematic of mens 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 Rachels 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

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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. Rachels shocked recognition, So thats why
I cant walk alone! (VO, p. 82), admits what the much younger and
terrified Rose confronts but cannot yet articulate.
In Woolfs fiction, male sexual violence pervades womens lives as lived
experience (Shakespeares sister in A Room of Ones Own (1929)); as
memory (Rachels and Roses 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). Woolfs
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. Woolfs memoirs,
Reminiscences (1907), A Sketch of the Past (1939), 22 Hyde Gate
(19201) and Old Bloomsbury (19212), 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 Woolfs fiction attached to violating or threatening sexual events.
The incest themes in Woolfs fiction have been well established, the con-
sensus among trauma scholars best summed up by David Eberly and Suzette
Henke in their recent collection, Virginia Woolf and Trauma: Embodied
Texts: that [in Woolfs 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 Woolfs speaking-out. These campaigns resulted in the first
legislation protecting women from sexual abuse and violence within
their families.10 Woolfs incest narratives reflect and support these crucial
feminist gains.

Lesbian sexuality
Central to Woolfs sexual radicalism is her lesbian sensibility, which she
shaped in accord with her liberationist and egalitarian ideals. For Woolf,

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Virginia Woolf and sexuality

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 intensifica-
tion 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 (L1, 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). Woolfs mar-
riage to Leonard Woolf was much like Clarissas to Richard Dalloway in
Mrs Dalloway and Kittys to Lord Lasswade in The Years: affectionate,
grounded in mutual respect and shared work, but not sexually passionate.
Instead, the great romance of Woolfs life was the aristocrat and author,
Vita Sackville-West (18921959). Virginias 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 Virginias 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, Woolfs
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 Vitas
defection, Woolf wrote a lesbian romantic love classic, The Years, as a coded
memoir and eulogy to their love affair.

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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 Vitas 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 pas-
sages we can discern Woolfs 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 Woolfs
creativity ideas rush in. Similarly, Woolf writes while contemplating Vitas
perfect body . . . So many rare & curious objects hit ones 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).
Woolfs 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 Bells 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, Woolfs attention is on the intensity and quality of sexual emotion
rather than specific acts. Readers accustomed to equate sexual representa-
tions with overt acts of hetero- or homosexual intercourse can miss the
woman-centred eroticism pervasive in Woolfs novels. Even Woolfs beloved
friend and fan, Lytton Strachey (18801932), 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. 2245). Woolfs innovative poetic method, the marvellous
and exquisite arabesque style Strachey admires, extends to her sexual
scenes. Woolfs indirection in sexual matters is not motivated by sexual fear
or prudery, but, at least partly, by her mistrust of merely graphic representa-
tions of all kinds in fiction.

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Woolfs 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 Dalloways
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 aston-
ishing 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 Woolfs 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. Woolfs poetic style seeks equivalence (the outline not
the detail) for emotional states whatever the occasion: a pair of old shoes
for a mothers incommensurable grief for her son, Jacob, killed in war (JR,
p. 176); a kitchen table for Mr Ramsays intellectual lifes work (TL, p. 23);
a great carp for Lucys indomitable faith in peoples yet untapped greatness
and beauty (BA, p. 205); a match in a crocus for womens sexual, spiritual
epiphanies. Like Clarissa, Rhodas orgasmic fantasies speak to spiritual as
well as sexual release: Now my body thaws; I am unsealed, I am incandes-
cent. 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,
Rachels 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 patho-
logy 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

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that Allan was lesbian. Allans 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 womens clitoral autonomy, Sigmund Freuds
writings pathologised clitoral in favour of vaginal orgasms. Seen in its histor-
ical context, Woolfs emphasis on literal and metaphoric clitoral pleasures
Clarissas diamond . . . infinitely precious, wrapped up (Mrs D, p. 35), the
pellets triggered by Virginias contemplation of Vitas perfect body
appears innovative and courageous and her indirection understandable.
As noted in Clarissa and Rhodas orgasmic raptures, Woolfs sexual
impetus is consistently toward that which expands, alleviates, thaws, fertil-
ises, opens, frees. Woolfs involvement in the womens 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 Womens
Co-operative Guild to Mrs Bessie Wards 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; D1, 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 corres-
pondence Woolf encourages Katharine Symonds Furse to write openly
about her father John Addington Symondss homosexuality.16 After Lytton
Stracheys 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 Stracheys 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 (18541900), 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 relation-
ship 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, Allans well-publicised trial publicly

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Virginia Woolf and sexuality

humiliated her and ruined her career. In 1921, Parliament nearly criminal-
ised female homosexuality, and in 1928 The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe
Halls (18801943) novel in defence of female same-sex love, was banned.
Like the Wilde trial, Halls trial had both an inhibiting and inspiriting
effect on its targeted population. The banning of Halls book exacerbated
popular hostilities toward female homosexuality, and confirmed that litera-
ture 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 Halls trial, Laura Doan found a range of terms
and concepts applied to Halls 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, Woolfs 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 Woolfs 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 Woolfs writing strategies, the lesbian
content in her novels appears transparent and omnipresent. Woolfs 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, Rhodas 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, Rhodas beloved is clearly named, Alice (Draft W1, p. 122).
As Hankins notes, strongly sensual passages in the Orlando draft are either
excised or encoded in the published version.21

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The richest source of Woolfs lesbian metaphors is her own experiences

with loving women, especially Vita. Woolfs reliance on personal experience
makes sense, given the paucity and negativity of representations of lesbians
available to her. Feminist sex radicals of Woolfs generation primarily
focused on transforming heterosexual relations, and did little to develop
lesbian-affirming theories except in correspondences, select social or dis-
cussion groups, or privately distributed journals.22 English literature, even
that written by contemporaries like Henry James (18431916) and
D. H. Lawrence (18851930), generally depicted lesbians as sinister preda-
tors 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 survival.
In the aftermath of work by nineteenth-century sexologists, prominent
among them Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (182595), Richard van Krafft-Ebing
(18401902) and Dr Karl Westphal (183390), medical authorities newly
defined homosexuals as a distinct human type and diagnosed homosexual-
ity as the effect of congenital defects. In contrast, Sigmund Freud declared
homosexuality a mental illness, subject to cure. The most influential sexo-
logist in Woolfs time, Havelock Ellis (18591939), defended homosexual-
ity as inborn and incurable, but not, as formerly claimed, necessarily linked
with other traits like insanity or criminality. However, Ellis and his follow-
ers constructed a scientific model of the true female homosexual as
masculine. In The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall confirms Elliss
version of female inversion (Elliss preferred terminology) with her por-
trait of the mannish Stephen Gordan. With Halls 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 mascu-
line women in Clarissa Dalloways 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

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Virginia Woolf and sexuality

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 Woolfs generation, especially in uncoded writing. In Woolfs
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
Woolfs 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 Woolfs 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 Woolfs 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 interro-
gating 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 mem-
ories 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 fishmongers fountain
(Y, p. 369). Two of Woolfs favourite moments with Vita reappear in her
letters and fiction: Vita standing in a fishmongers 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). Kittys 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 Kittys memories of her adolescent crush on her teacher,
Miss Craddock (Y, pp. 277; 65). Beginning with Mrs Dalloway, memory

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fragments from moments with Vita appear throughout Woolfs 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 pro-
duces a litany of flowers when she thinks about a female beloved: green
cowbind, water lilies, moonlight-coloured may, wild roses and ivy serpen-
tine. In Woolfs fiction, the combination of a womans 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 Slaters 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 womans hand illuminates an otherwise mundane setting, as when
Clarissa, with Sallys 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 Mintas hand, instantly saw the
whole world spread out beneath her (TL, p. 73). Under the spell of
Miss Fripps 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. 603; 75).
In addition to Vita, Woolfs 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 Rachels feelings for Helen Vinrace and in Peggys
epiphany while leaning against Eleanors knee. Traces of Woolfs adolescent
crush, Madge Vaughan, can be found in descriptions of Sally Seton and
Eugenie. Woolfs 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 (18581944),
Woolfs 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 distinc-
tions. Instead, she depicts a continuum of female erotic possibilities by
establishing commonality among, for example, Rachels confused, daughter-
like attachment for Helen Vinrace in The Voyage Out; Clarissas nostalgic
romantic friendship with Sally Seton in Mrs Dalloway; Rhoda and Kittys
schoolgirl crushes on their teachers in The Waves and The Years, respectively;

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Virginia Woolf and sexuality

and the heartbroken Miss La Trobes painful longing for the actress who had
[once] shared her bed (BA, p. 211).
In addition to autobiography, Woolfs 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 Ones Own the
lesbian possibilities in the novel about how Chloe liked Olivia . . . (ROO,
p. 86) appear in the ellipses. Kittys lesbian desires, aroused by Miss Fripps
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 Kittys 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 numer-
ous references to Marcel Prousts 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 dis-
covered the lesbian meaning of Orlandos 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. Sarahs 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 Leonards Hogarth Press.25
In Woolfs lifetime, references to Shakespeares sonnets and to Plato were
widely recognised homosexual codes: Shakespeares 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 Platos academic prestige and
homoerotic writings to fashion a non-medical, non-pathological version of
male same-sex love.26 For example, Edward Carpenter uses Platos 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 (183994), whose cult of beauty and
ideal of the aesthetic life founded the Aesthetic movement and profoundly
influenced Oscar Wilde; her friend, Goldie Lowes Dickinson (18621932), a
homosexual writer, peace activist and Cambridge don; John Addington
Symonds; Edward Carpenter; and Lytton Strachey. This chivalric male

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homoerotic tradition is one likely model for Woolfs metaphoric merging of

lesbian emotions with heroism, self-perfection, and personal and political
Thus, in Mrs Dalloway, Septimuss homosexuality is suggested by his
siding with Shakespeare against Rezias desire for children (Mrs D, p. 89),
and in The Waves, Nevilles 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 Kings
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 Clarissas beloved, Sally
Seton, reads Plato in bed (Mrs D, p. 33). Thus, in Woolfs 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, Woolfs prominence as an early twentieth-century 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. 33742; 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. 6228; p. 622.
5 Virginia Woolf, Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown, in The Captains Death Bed and
Other Essays, ed. Leonard Woolf (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1950),
pp. 94119; pp. 96, 115, 117. All further references to Woolfs 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. 932; 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. 7283;

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Virginia Woolf and sexuality

Michael F. Davis, Latent Intelligence and the Conception of Queer Theory, in

Walter Pater: Transparencies of Desire (18801920), ed. Laurel Brake, et al.
(Greensboro, NC: ELT Press, 2002), pp. 26185; Christopher Reed, Making
History: The Bloomsbury Groups Construction of Aesthetic and Sexual
Identity, in Gay and Lesbian Studies in Art History, ed. Whitney Davis
(New York: Harrington Park Press, 1994), pp. 189224.
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
18501940 (Bristol, PA: Taylor and Francis, 1994), p. 30; Sheila Jeffreys, The
Spinster and Her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality 18801930 (Boston, MA:
Pandora, 1985), p. 76. The 1908 Punishment of Incest Act was the first legisla-
tion 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), 96113; 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, 589
(Fall 1982/Winter 1983), 11446; 11718.
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. 18398;
p. 188; Laura Doan, Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern English
Lesbian Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), pp. 3150.
16 Rowena Fowler, Virginia Woolf and Katharine Furse: An Unpublished Corres-
pondence, Tulsa Studies in Womens Literature, 9:2 (Fall 1990), 20128; 218.
17 Doan, Fashioning Sapphism, pp. xiixiii.
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. 180202; p. 181.
21 Ibid., pp. 1945.
22 Bland, Banishing the Beast, pp. 28896; Judy Greenway, Its What You Do With
It That Counts: Interpretations of Otto Weininger, in Bland and Doan, Sexology
in Culture, pp. 389.
23 Eileen Barrett, Unmasking Lesbian Passion: The Inverted World of Mrs Dalloway,
in Barrett and Cramer, Lesbian Readings, pp. 14664; p. 148.
24 Patricia Cramer, Pearls and the Porpoise: The Years a Lesbian Memoir,
in ibid., pp. 22240; 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

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patricia morgne cramer

Second Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf, ed. Vara Neverow-Turk and

Mark Hussey (New York: Pace University Press, 1993), pp. 1819; 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).

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