Woolf’s understanding of the sexism prevalent in the society began at home. Her parents, Leslie and Julia Stephen married each other in 1878. They had children from their previous marriages (four in total), and went on to have four more children together. Unlike Virginia’s brothers and half-brothers who got university educations, she was home-schooled. However, her family was extremely influential and was well associated with intellectuals of the later Victorian era. While, her lack of formal education could have weighed her down, her family background placed her within the highest circles of Britain. Her father’s massive library was her main source of knowledge.
Several traumatic experiences from her childhood also made way into her works. Several of her letters describe the sexual abuse she underwent by the hand of two of her older stepbrothers. This experience could have factored into her mental illness, which plagued her all her life. She was a manic-depressive (a condition that had no name at the point, and hence, had no treatment). It was her depression that ultimately caused her to claim her life. “The only way I keep afloat is by working,” Woolf confessed. “Directly I stop working I feel that I am sinking down, down.”
Virginia and her siblings moved to London’s Bloomsbury after the death of her father in 1904 (following their mother’s demise in 1895). Here Woolf found a footing by befriending her fellow intellectuals, who went on to form the Bloomsbury Group. The members of the group had been brought together by a shared love for leftist politics and the thirst to experiment with art. It was through Bloomsbury that Virginia met writer Leonard Woolf, whom she later married in 1912.
Growing up, she had been determined that “the man she married would be as worthy of her as she of him. They were to be equal partners.” Which is why, despite receiving proposals throughout her childhood she chose Leonard Woolf. She wrote to Leonard: “As I told you brutally the other day, I feel no physical attraction in you. There are moments—when you kissed me the other day was one—when I feel no more than a rock. And yet your caring for me as you do almost overwhelms me. It is so real, and so strange.” She only married him at the age of 30. For two or three years, they shared a bed, and for several more a bedroom, and following medical advice, as a result of her mental condition, they did not have children. She was far from faithful, and yet, her relationship with Leonard remained unaffected. They went on to buy a small printing press and started a publishing house, Hogarth Press, in 1917. The decision came from Leonard, who thought it would be a great distraction for Virginia. Retrospectively, even if Virginia Woolf had never published a single word of her own, her role in Hogarth alone would have secured her a place in literary history. As a result of this press, the world got its first look at the early work of Katherine Mansfield, T. S. Eliot, and Forster.
Several of Woolf’s works had been self-published. Right from the start, her prose focused on the female experience. In 1915, Woolf’s debut novel, The Voyage Out, was published. The plot follows a female protagonist who finds herself by setting out an epic voyage. The aim of the novel was to show the world that women “saw and felt and heard and experienced was worthy of fiction, independent of their connection to men”. In A Room Of One’s Own (1929), she pointed out that for a woman to be able to write, it is important for her two have two things—a small income and a quiet place to think—and goes on to explain the challenges a woman has to face to attain both.
She was an author who openly wrote about her relationships with women and men. In fact, her relationship with Vita Sackville-West, a fellow English author and poet was documented in Woolf’s novel Orlando (1928). In fact, it has been called “the longest and most charming love-letter in literature” (according to Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson). While several letters that had been exchanged between Woolf and her friends (including the love letters between her and Sackville-West) had very often be reflective of her lesbian sensibility, none match up to what she has put across through her novel Orlando: A Biography.
Orlando is a parodical fantasy-biography that follows the life of a young man who travels across three centuries, and changes genders. In one of the essays in Patricia Cramer’s 1997 anthology Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings, Leslie Kathleen Hankins wrote: Orlando came out of the closet as a lesbian text in the 1970s and remains out as critics continue to discover and celebrate its subversive, pervasive, and persuasive lesbian strategies. The complex and witty lesbian text plays an elaborate game of hide and seek with the reader and the censor, teasing with taunts: “What can we suppose the women do when they seek out each other in society?”
What makes the novel so compelling, considering that homophobia is very much prevalent even today, is the fact that it was written at a time when heterosexuality was considered the norm, or rather, the only possible way to be. It took several decades for the society to open their eyes towards homosexuality and a several more for the law to recognise them. She never makes explicit statements, instead, she chooses to write subtle, suggestive passages, much like this: As all Orlando’s loves had been women, now, through the culpable laggardry of the human frame to adapt itself to convention, though she herself was a woman, it was still a woman she loved; and if the consciousness of being of the same sex had any effect at all, it was to quicken and deepen those feelings which she had had as a man.
Orlando is not only a lesbian text, but a feminist discourse, as well. Throughout the novel, Woolf allows feminist politics to walk hand-in-hand with the lesbian erotica, by creating an androgynous protagonist who finds himself confronted by his own involvement in the misogynist system. It is witty in the way it mocks the censors, who were hell bent on banning homosexual content, while also, addressing the readers (straight and homosexual), and her lover, Vita. However, this wasn’t her first battle with censorship. Radclyffe Hall’s seminal lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, which had been released several months before Orlando, had been challenged and Hall was put on trial for obscenity less than a month after Orlando’s release. Virginia not only testified in Hall’s defense, but also signed a petition on the deadly effects of censorship for writers.
In 1928, there was no author who managed to write about lesbianism without being caught under the limelight of censorship. What Woolf managed to pull is nothing short of genius, as Hankins describes in the essay: In a brilliant rhetorical coup, Woolf chose to spotlight the various strategies for avoiding the censor, making these options and strategies the topic and the focal point of her book. Was it necessary to hide lesbian love? Well then, turn the novel into a rollicking game of hide and seek! Did censorship require that lesbian love be interrupted? Well, then turn the tables and make a game of interrupting heterosexual love throughout the book! Was a sex change necessary to provide the appropriate heterosexual coupling of boy girl boy girl? Well then, make the compulsory sex change the centerpiece of the novel! Turning compulsory heterosexuality into a carnival of Eros, Woolf toys with the options by using the sex change subversively rather than for protective coloration. She draws attention to the constructed nature of the sexuality and gender of her protagonist and torments the censor with daring suggestions of cross-sex desire — all the while demurely obeying the dictates of censorship. In cheeky defiance of the censor, Woolf complies with the letter of the law while outrageously demolishing the spirit of the law. Her deft targeting and teasing of the censor seems to me the most radical and daring choice because it renders farcical — and thereby critiques and disrupts — compulsory heterosexuality and censorship per se.
But, more than wittiness, what makes a truly feminist and queer novel, is the fact that it is a love letter.