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literature

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Woolf, Virginia (1882-1941)  
 
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Often these women were older, unmarried, more masculine in appearance, and highly successful artists; often they offered Woolf some form of maternal protection as she struggled with another incident of physical or mental illness.

All of them shared with Woolf an interest in art and provided critical readings of her work. None of these relationships is known to have had a sexual component.

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Woolf's first passionate friendship was with Madge Vaughan, the daughter of the well-known writer and sexologist, John Addington Symonds, whom Woolf met at the age of sixteen and who was to serve as a model for Sally Seton in Mrs. Dalloway (1925).

Violet Dickinson, almost twice Woolf's age when she nursed her during the mental breakdown following the death of her father, was an unmarried Quaker for whom she wrote "Friendship Gallery" (1907), a spoof biography that anticipates Orlando (1928). It describes a utopian community of women inspired and led by Dickinson with Woolf as the artist figure, a model for other women writers and recorder of the community's development.

Much later Woolf looked back on this friendship as the one that enabled her to say for the first time with confidence, "I am a writer."

The final of such friendships was with Ethel Smyth, a well-known composer, whom Virginia met in 1930, when Woolf was forty-eight and Smyth seventy years old. Woolf named her in the original draft of her essay "Professions for Women" as the model for the professional woman but also, once again, as the artist who engages in a different artistic medium, a more public and therefore more ambitious one for women than that of the writer.

Their friendship was also based on a bond over the loss of the mother; Smyth wrote in a 1930 letter to Woolf: "Now you can imagine how much sexual feeling has to do with an emotion for one's mother."

Virginia and Vita Sackville-West

Woolf met Vita Sackville-West, with whom she had the only intense friendship to include a physical relationship, in 1922. In this case, the age difference was reversed, Virginia was forty and Vita thirty years old and Virginia was the more confident and recognized of the two writers.

But Vita was the experienced "." The affair began in 1925, the point at which Woolf wrote in her Diary, "These Sapphists love women; friendship is never untinged with amorosity" (December 21), and is thought to have lasted until 1928.

During that time, Vita took two trips to Persia to visit her husband who was working in the British embassy in Tehran. The second time she traveled in the company of another woman, which began to create a rift as Woolf became less and less tolerant of Vita's other affairs.

In 1928, Woolf and E. M. Forster wrote a letter defending Radclyffe Hall's Well of Loneliness, not as a good novel or because of its lesbian content, but in the name of free speech.

Various members of Bloomsbury appeared at the obscenity trial prepared to testify as expert witnesses, including Woolf, who described her presence as a way of also defending Vita's Sapphism.

At the end of the same year, Woolf delivered the lectures at Newnham and Girton Colleges, which were to become A Room of One's Own (1929), accompanied by Vita, to whom she had dedicated Orlando, which had appeared just a few months earlier.

By then, the affair had ended but a strong friendship continued until 1934. These ten years were the most productive in the lives of both writers. Their emotional attachment to each other was completely severed only by Woolf's death.

Woolf has been named "the Invalid Lady of Bloomsbury" (E. M. Forster), a "sexless Sappho" (nephew and biographer Quentin Bell), and "a guerilla fighter in a Victorian skirt" (Jane Marcus, feminist literary critic).

Most recently, she has been described, in conjunction with Vita, as a "married lesbian" (Suzanne Raitt), someone for whom lesbianism was an emotional, even a sexual orientation, but not a political identity necessarily incompatible with or even disruptive of marriage.

Nor do any of her works contain explicitly lesbian characters who are not somehow deficient of a femininity associated with social respectability. And yet as the most revered modernist woman writer, Woolf is also considered to be the author of the first positive "Sapphic" portrait in the form of "the longest and most charming love letter in literature," Orlando.

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