Whenever we try to imagine the feelings or motives of a writer, we impose our own thoughts and ideas, our own biases, onto that person and their work. Perhaps in order to justify our choices or legitimate the philosophies that we hold dear, we interpret texts so that they fall into place in our own ideological frameworks. Literature, because it engages with the most important and passionate questions in life, evokes responses in readers that emanate not only from the mind but also from the subconscious and from the deepest places in the heart. Writers like Virginia Woolf ask, and sometimes answer, questions about life's meaning, about the nature and importance of relationships, about spirituality, work, family, identity and so on. It is what makes writing fascinating and the critiquing of writing something more than an intellectual exercise.
When we interpret a text, we bring our own hopes, fears, joys and beliefs to the forefront, despite our claims of intellectual objectivity, and what is at stake is not just an evaluation of the work itself, but often an evaluation of our political, social, psychological and emotional identities. What we see or read into a text can become a kind of experiment, a literary depiction of the way we see, or would like to see, and interpret ourselves and our world. Often, in the course of interpreting, we feel compelled to name and label both writer and text in order to talk about them in ways that make sense to us, and in order to pinpoint them in relation to ourselves. When we label anything, we attempt to control or own it; we assign values or a set of rules to that person or object. What is lost in that process? What possibilities do we ignore when our reading of a work or a person becomes limited by a label?
Many of the readings or interpretations of the life and work of Virginia Woolf are concerned with her relationships -- relationships with other people, with her characters and with the world of creative expression. Much critical writing on Woolf reflects a strong desire to locate her definitely within either a heterosexual or homosexual framework. These interpretations of Woolf's sexuality, in her life and her writings, are varied and reflect anxieties within the culture about the role of women, the nature of sexual identity, and the fear society has of people who do not conform to traditional heterosexual or homosexual models.
While critical views are many and varied, it is possible to loosely identify two groups at opposite poles in this debate. Some conservative male critics are invested in re-creating a Woolf who was a devoted wife and daughter, someone who enjoyed close friendships with women but someone who respected the primacy of heterosexual norms. They largely ignore the potential homosexual interpretations of Woolf's work and brush aside her relationship with Vita Sackville-West because acknowledging those things in any real way would threaten the established patriarchal order. Nigel Nicolson, in his book Portrait of a Marriage , characterizes the physical relationship between Vita and Virginia as "tentative and not very successful" and claims, "It is a travesty of their relationship to call it an affair" (207). There are several problems with this characterization. Firstly, Nicolson is comparing or measuring Woolf's relationship with Vita Sackville-West in terms of her heterosexual marriage to Leonard Woolf instead of seeing it as a relationship in its own right. Secondly, he ignores or discounts evidence of immense physical as well as emotional passion between the two women found in their letters to one another. Thirdly, he is imposing his own values, those of a heterosexual male, onto a relationship between two women that he cannot possible know about or understand. Nicolson's interpretation of their relationship is an attempt to control and re-inscribe Woolf's life according to his patriarchal notions of what is appropriate for a woman. His misapprehensions are formed from the label he imposes on Woolf, the label of a heterosexual, married woman. This label does not allow Woolf to step outside her prescribed roles and defines her according to her relationship with Leonard Woolf and according to her place in the established social order.
Others, notably lesbian critics, seek to create a Woolf whose love for women was a primary, compelling and erotic force in her life that outweighed her affection for men. They argue that her work is filled with lesbian allusions in particular, but that they are veiled out of a fear for the conservatism of the time. This interpretation of Woolf is scarcely less confining in that lesbian critics see Woolf primarily as a repressed lesbian and view her relationships with men, and her female characters' relationships with men, as a convenience or a sell out or a denial of true identity.
Both views represent a desire to appropriate, label and define Woolf and limit her power to make alternate choices. I would argue that this desire stems from a cultural rigidity, a way of thinking that is rooted in dualism. We are programmed to see things in terms of good and bad, right or wrong, heterosexual or homosexual, single or married, male or female, inside or outside and so on. Anything that challenges this kind of thinking represents a threat to the illusion of stability that our culture perpetuates. There is little difference between the interpretation of a conservative or a lesbian critic in terms of the underlying need to define a person as one thing and not another.
But would Woolf have been satisfied with this kind of polarized thinking, or was she trying to understand and examine relationships in less limiting ways? While I agree with lesbian critics that there are definitely homosexual allusions in Woolf's work and that one of the reasons for her not explicitly depicting active homosexual relationships may have been the homophobia of the time, I also think that Woolf was seeking to express the lives and loves of women in particular in new ways. One of the striking things in Woolf's representations of lesbians in her novels Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse , is the continual choices they must make between relationships with others and relationship with self and the creative process.
The two most likely lesbian figures, Clarissa in Mrs. Dalloway and Lily inTo the Lighthouse , choose to keep their love for women largely within the realm of their imaginations. While some critics read this as a reflection of the narrowness of the times in which Woolf was writing, another possible interpretation is that Woolf was looking for alternative ways of expressing love between two people without pushing them into a monogamous, traditionally-defined relationship. The kinds of rules and jealousies that often arise in relationships, whether gay or straight, are forces that can limit and distract individuals from their creative process. Relationships between two people can intensify a sense of separation, an awareness of duality, as one seeks approval or assurance of love from the other person. It is hard to imagine that Woolf, who often wrote about the need to escape dualistic thinking, was promoting either exclusively heterosexual or homosexual relationships, but rather was investigating relationships that allowed individuals to retain a sense of their own identity. Given the fact that women as well as men are raised within a patriarchal society and that they internalize those values, there is no reason to suppose that "marriage" between two women would be much different from marriage between a man and a woman.
Woolf may have been more concerned with how women could be independent from either men or women than in imagining or creating a lesbian utopia. While it is important to recognize and affirm Woolf's relationships with men and women and the relationships her characters have with both sexes, it is equally important not to get stuck in defining Woolf and her characters as heterosexual, homosexual or even bisexual. Each encounter, each relationship, can be appreciated and acknowledged and examined in terms of the choices being made and in light of the fact that Woolf had a powerful desire to endow herself, and some of her female characters, with a profound sense of freedom and autonomy.
In Three Guineas , Woolf writes that women "must earn enough to be independent of any other human being and to buy that modicum of health, leisure, knowledge and so on that is needed for the full development of body and mind" (80). For Woolf, part of achieving a full realization of one's humanity involved being free economically, intellectually and perhaps emotionally from others.
Emotional freedom need not mean avoiding relationships but perhaps it meant not being consumed by them. Woolf chose to marry a man she loved deeply and enjoyed profound companionship with rather than a man who swept her off her feet with passion. In her relationship with Vita Sackville-West, although her letters are filled with expressions of love and pleas to meet, Woolf exercised occasional checks and balances that reveal her as someone who put herself and her creative process first. When Vita is involved with other women for instance, and wants to talk to Woolf, she refuses to listen and tells Vita she is board with the conversation. On another occasion, when she is intensely at work on her writing, she says in a letter to Vita written on June 22, 1926, "I think I won't come on Thursday for this reason; I must get on with writing; you would seduce me completely..." (277). This kind of detachment indicates that Woolf knew how to guard herself from becoming too emotionally involved, and therefore dependent, on another person. Regardless of whether Woolf was involved with a woman or a man, she chose to negotiate relationships so they contributed to a life centered around her writing.
Woolf's creative fire, her desire to be an independent thinker, her need for solitude and her love affair with the intellectual process, seem more relevant to her life and work than any lesbian or feminist agenda. In Three Guineas , she denounces the word "feminist" and no longer sees a need for it once women have gained the right to work. Surely she would approach the word "lesbian" in a similar way. Despite her dislike of labels, however, critics of all persuasions have sought to label and define her and use her work as fuel for various causes. In her book Lesbian Panic: Homoeroticism in Modern British Women's Fiction, Patricia Juliana Smith argues that, "The difficulty - if not the impossibility - of defining who or what is Ôlesbian' undermines the surety and clarity that the structures and role assignments of institutional heterosexuality assume to provide" (14). Smith identifies the potential subversiveness of lesbianism in life and in fiction as it undermines the accepted "naturalness" of heterosexuality, but ignores the fact that this subversive power is undermined as soon as lesbianism becomes a topic of discussion. Once lesbianism is discussed it must be defined and will no doubt be fitted with the same kinds of rules that characterize heterosexual alliances. Frequently, lesbianism is defined in relation to or as different from heterosexuality, which still places it within a framework of established values. It is these established values, the binary conventions, that Woolf rails against.
Elizabeth Meese, in her essay "When Virginia Looked at Vita, What Did She See," argues that not using the word lesbian can be a form of suppression: "I say it matters when a critic avoids the word lesbian ; as long as the word matters, makes a social, political, or artistic difference, it matters when lesbian is not spoken" (105). However, if lesbian is a word that only has meaning as something opposed or contrary to heterosexuality, then the power of that word to create change or subvert social systems is undermined. Perhaps Woolf avoided placing such restrictions on her female characters, particularly in her novel Orlando , in order to free them from the bonds of marriage, gender, and sexual definition. As Karen R. Lawrence remarks in her essay "Orlando's Voyage Out," in the novel that was supposed to be a portrait of her female lover, Woolf "refuses to replace the Ôtruth' of phallocentric narrative with a corresponding Ôtruth' of female sexuality" (269).
As long as relationships between women, in life or in the pages of a book, are viewed through the lens of patriarchal, heterosexual desire they will be viewed in limited and limiting ways. For example, when Smith examines Clarissa's relationship with Sally Seton and her subsequent choice to marry Richard, she presents that choice in dualistic terms and calls it, "a choice between duty and love, between expectation and desire, between heterosexual privilege and homosexual marginality..." (42). Smith is looking at the potential relationship between Clarissa and Sally in terms of the heterosexual relationship and marriage between Clarissa and Richard. That comparison implies that the only difference she sees between those two choices is one of sex - Clarissa makes a commitment either to be with a man or with a woman. Smith and others would argue that Clarissa chose to marry Richard because a lesbian love was impossible at that time, or that she wanted the privilege of heterosexual life and the security that provided but that her choice was the equivalent of sacrificing a life of passion for one of almost nun-like celibacy. What these interpretations presuppose, is that a life with Sally, the young woman that Clarissa describes in such passionate terms and who kissed her at Bourton, would have been more fulfilling and less confining than traditional marriage with a man. It also assumes that Clarissa's choice to marry Richard is an unfulfilling one.
What if Clarissa's choice, to marry Richard with whom she has a comfortable connection and to remember and re-experience her connection with Sally, is a way for her to experience a range of relationships without losing her sense of self. Being with Sally might have been just as consuming and limiting as marrying Peter, while marrying Richard allowed Clarissa to engage in a variety of relationships and enjoy a heightened sense of her own daily experiences -- a way of being that surely requires a self-awareness and absorption that is hard to have while engaged in a passionate and demanding love relationship.
Clarissa's relationship with Richard need not be seen as a failed marriage, but rather as a conscious choice that provides Clarissa with some material comfort, companionship and the freedom to let her imagination roam. We interpret this as a failed marriage, a marriage where something is missing, because our culture expects a woman to put her partner first, to give all to her primary relationship, to elevate marriage and union with another person above a relationship with herself.
Likewise, Smith's premise that Clarissa denied herself love by not having a relationship with Sally rests on the idea that some kind of committed relationship is ideal and that Clarissa's day, without a grand passion, is filled with "trivial preparations for the evening's party." Smith implies that Clarissa's day is only made significant by her memories of the past. What Smith fails to acknowledge is that Clarissa is able to have memories and to re-examine her life precisely because of the choices she has made and that there may be a kind of deep satisfaction and fulfillment for her in this kind of remembering -- a fulfillment that may not have been possible had she actually married Peter or engaged in a relationship with Sally. To characterize Clarissa's activities as trivial is to ignore the sensual awareness that she has while walking about London -- an awareness that is rich and meaningful:
She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day... to her it was absolutely absorbing; all this; the cabs passing; and she would not say of Peter, she would not say of herself, I am this, I am that. (8-9)
Clarissa's awareness of life and her sense of what she calls the danger of living suggests a person who has a heightened awareness of life that may arise from an ability to be alone with herself. She is receptive, open, able to enjoy the sensations of life and value them. She has achieved a balance between her own inwardness and her connection to the world around her which I would argue stems from her ability to embrace possibility. If Clarissa was living a life of repression, if her marriage to Richard was "dishonest" as Smith argues, if she had denied herself love by not being with Sally, is it possible that she would have been so in love with life itself?
Unlike Septimus who represses his homosexual tendencies, marries from a sense of obligation and is unable to live with his guilt and shame, or Miss Kilman who experiences a guilty longing to embrace Elizabeth and then die, Clarissa remembers her encounters with Sally in a spirit of celebration and reverence. She is able to love Richard in one way, Peter in another and Sally in a third. She may have chosen to marry and live with Richard, but in some fundamental sense she has not given up Peter and Sally because within her heart and within her imagination her love for them is warm and alive. Clarissa's choices can be respected as ones that work for her. She seems to be a character who first and foremost is in dialogue with herself and from a consciousness of that primary relationship, she encounters other people and places in her world.
A similar assessment could be made of Lily in To the Lighthouse . Lily is a figure who is often identified as a repressed lesbian, who is unable to indulge in a lesbian relationship because the object of her affection is a married woman. And yet, there is nothing in Woolf's novel to suggest that Lily is devastated by not being able to actualize her love for Mrs. Ramsay in a physical relationship. Her interactions with the older woman are powerful and suggest that Woolf saw possibilities for eroticism and communion that did not always need physical consummation:
Sitting on the floor with her arms round Mrs. Ramsay's knees, close as she could get, smiling to think that Mrs. Ramsay would never know the reason of that pressure, she imagined how in the chambers of the mind and heart of the woman who was, physically, touching her, were stood, like the treasures in the tombs of kings, tablets bearing sacred inscriptions, which if one could spell them out, would teach one everything, but they would never be offered openly, never made public. What art was there, known to love or cunning, by which one pressed through into those secret chambers? What device for becoming, like waters poured into one jar, inextricably the same, one with the object one adored? ... Could loving, as people called it, make her and Mrs. Ramsay one? (50-51)
While Smith interprets this passage as a sign of Lily's self-denial and her need to elevate her feelings for Mrs. Ramsay in order to avoid confronting her lesbianism, it could also be seen in term of Lily's desire to experience a different kind of love than the love expressed through the daily rituals of a traditional marriage or committed relationship. Lily has seen first hand how Mrs. Ramsay's relationship with her husband sucks her time and her energy and does not allow the older woman the kind of creative solitude that Lily herself thrives on. Given the fact that this model of relating is likely to inform a relationship between two women due to their exposure to heterosexual conditioning, it may be that Lily, and by extension Woolf, is examining the ways in which it is possible for a woman to love someone without sacrificing the things in her own life that are important. For Lily, that means primarily her art and the extent to which she can believe in herself and her abilities. Smith comments that Lily has, "in the end, acquired the potential to create artistically and to love another woman should she so choose..." (69). Yet Lily is loving another woman. What this comment implies is that Smith is saying Lily could choose to actively engage in a physical and emotional relationship with a woman along the lines of a heterosexual relationship. While it is vital to acknowledge the legitimacy of Lily doing just that, it is also important to consider whether Woolf saw a relationship between two women that follows heterosexual patterns of relating as equally limiting as a relationship between a man and a woman. When we impose either a heterosexual or a homosexual framework onto Woolf and her writing, perhaps we lose sight of what was most important to the writer herself. In "A Sketch of the Past," Woolf describes the things that gives her most pleasure:
It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; making a scene come right; making a character come together. From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we - I mean all human beings - are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art... we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself... . It proves that one's life is not confined to one's body and what one says and does... I feel that by writing I am doing what is far more necessary than anything else. (72-73)
Lawrence, Karen R. "Orlando's Voyage Out." Modern Fiction Studies 38.1(1992): 269.
Meese, Elizabeth. "When Virginia Looked at Vita, What Did She See; or, Lesbian: Feminist: Woman - What's the differ(e/a)nce?" Feminist Studies 18.1 (1992):105.
Nicolson, Nigel. Portrait of a Marriage. New York: Atheneum, 1973.
Nicolson, Nigel and Joanne Trautmann, eds. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Vol. 3. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1977.
Smith, Patricia Juliana. Lesbian Panic: Homoeroticism in Modern British Women's Fiction. New York: Columbia UP, 1997.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1979.
--- . "A Sketch of the Past." Moments of Being. Ed. Jeanne Schulkind. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1976.
--- . Mrs. Dalloway. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1925.
--- . Three Guineas. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1938.
--- . To the Lighthouse. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1927.