Critical Piece: Woolf as a feminist and queer author. Focus on her life, husband, and her female friends. Her identity as a queer person and the reflection of the same on her works.
The first time I picked up To The Lighthouse I was frustrated. I was probably around 14 at the time, and I found that the book was not one I could will my way through. The book spans a decade through various streams of consciousness. What leaves you confused is that it moves from one point of view to another, with absolutely no warning, and so seamlessly, that you read on, until you realise that the few paragraphs you read suddenly made no sense. One minute you are in Ramsay family’s summerhouse on the Isle of Skye listening in on bits of conversation from the drawing room, and the next, you are in the middle of a conversation taking place on the lawn. After a few attempts at trying to gain control over the narrative, you just give up. At least, that is what happened to me.
I didn’t pick up that book again until I was in college and on my way to graduate with a B.A. in Literature. Virginia Woolf came up in our lectures for being an important feminist writer of all time. When I found myself unable to read the rest of her works without prejudice, I realised what I had to do. So, once again, I found myself clutching the book and trying to make sense of it. I won’t lie. It was extremely difficult. Finally, I decided to let go; to trust Woolf and surrender myself to her. Suddenly, it seemed a thousand times easier. I found myself drifting between thoughts and conversations, and even a long description of weeds and rabbits taking over the garden. That is when I realised, the book didn’t really have a plot. The book is frustrating, while also being numinous, because I realised Woolf had an ability that very few people did– the ability to create a story out of nothing. Once, I was able to get through the book, I found myself open to the rest of her works and therefore, receptive to her experiences.
I also realised that my difficulty with the book, was not a personal one, and neither was it only applicable to that particular work. In fact, Edward Albee’s celebrated work, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is a pun. In the play, a troubled college professor and his aggrieved wife taunt each other by singing “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?,” substituting the iconic British writer’s name for that of the fairy-tale villain. While the reference is just that, the campus setting of the play, gives it a sense of authenticity, considering her works form an integral part of academia across the world. In fact, the feminist discourse in her works has secured her a spot in gender studies as a woman’s writer. When you become a subject of literary theory, you often cease to be viewed as an author whose works are a pleasure to read.
Michael Cunningham, the author of The Hours, once said, “I read Mrs. Dalloway for the first time when I was a sophomore in high school. I was a bit of a slacker, not at all the sort of kid who’d pick up a book like that on my own (it was not, I assure you, part of the curriculum at my slacker-ish school in Los Angeles). I read it in a desperate attempt to impress a girl who was reading it at the time. I hoped, for strictly amorous purposes, to appear more literate than I was.” Even though he wasn’t able to understand several of the underlying themes in the novel, he fell in love with her style, “I could see, even as an untutored and rather lazy child, the density and symmetry and muscularity of Woolf’s sentences. I thought, wow, she was doing with language something like what Jimi Hendrix does with a guitar. By which I meant she walked a line between chaos and order, she riffed, and just when it seemed that a sentence was veering off into randomness, she brought it back and united it with the melody.” As we all know, he went on to write The Hours, which is a retelling of Mrs. Dalloway, in a story within a story format, where the narrative alternates between Woolf’s original plot and a fictional speculation on Woolf. But, that’s a story for another day.
Focusing on Mrs. Dalloway alone, the conclusion that Woolf was a queer and a feminist novelist, is easy to come by, by placing the limelight on the relationship between Clarissa Dalloway and Sally Seton. Less than thirty pages into the novel, you see Mrs. Dalloway commenting on her relationship with a woman: Yet [Clarissa] could not resist sometimes yielding to the charm of a woman, not a girl, of a woman confessing, as to her they often did. And whether it was pity, or their beauty, or that she was older-like a faint scent, or a violin next door (so strange is the power of sounds at certain moments), she did undoubtedly then feel what men felt. Only for a moment; but it was enough. It was a sudden revelation. Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination.
It is astounding how the novel gained so much appreciation, considering five of the main characters are implied to belong in the LGBTQ category. But, what makes things even more surprising is that; it is one of the earliest novels that portray lesbian relationship in a positive light. At the time, if lesbians ever existed in a novel, as rare as they might be, one or both of the partners ended up depressed, desolate or dead. That was far from the case in this novel, as can be deciphered from this passage, “All this was background for Sally. She stood by the fireplace, talking, in that beautiful voice which made everything she said sound like a caress. Suddenly she said, ‘What a shame to sit indoors!’ and they all went out onto the terrace and walked up and down. Peter Walsh and Joseph Breitkopf went on about Wagner. She and Sally fell a little behind. Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a store urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it – a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling!”
But in order to understand her as a feminist and a queer author, we have to delve into her personal life.