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literature

Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

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Woolf, Virginia (1882-1941)  
 
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Woolf and Female Homoeroticism

Same-sex desire in the form of eroticized relationships between women remains fundamental to Woolf's thinking about the connection between women and creativity.

Female most often takes the form either of mourning for a lost maternal femininity or of a conflation between female artist, spinster, and lesbian: on the one hand, a sexually charged but always elusive relationship to the mother; on the other hand, a nonsexualized female artist--unmarried, celibate, childless, but independent.

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The female artist has access to an artistic medium that allows her to put into question a compulsory heterosexuality that leaves the attractions between women unrealized, both sexually and aesthetically. At the same time, the figure of the lesbian as unmarried woman threatens to politicize the erotic, thereby producing the "mannish lesbian" as sexual and thus social outcast.

Woolf repeatedly describes the nature of female homoeroticism in terms of "that vast chamber where nobody has yet been," as in this passage from A Room of One's Own. In what is considered the first example of feminist history and literary criticism, she makes her most explicit statement about the relations between women as both existing in real life and nonexistent in literature.

By introducing "Chloe and Olivia," characters in a novel authored by the fictitious Mary Carmichael, she suggests that women exist not only in relation to men but also in relation to each other (these two share a laboratory). They can even like each other, a liking that has served as a sign for many readers of the possibility of love, and therefore lesbian desire.

Mrs. Dalloway

The first and only novel to deal explicitly with both female eroticism and the figure of the lesbian is Mrs. Dalloway, a novel about a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, the wife of an M.P., a day spent preparing for a party she will host.

This ostensibly meager plot is meant to focus attention on both a subplot, Clarissa's memories of Sally Seton, with whom she fell in love as a young girl, and a parallel plot, that of Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked veteran who commits suicide during Clarissa's party.

Although Clarissa and Septimus never meet, they are connected by the importance of and yet impossibility of same-sex desire, for Clarissa because she and Sally both chose marriage to rich, respectable men, for Septimus because his love object was killed during the war.

By choosing Richard Dalloway over Peter Walsh, who intercepted the kiss from Sally that marks "the most exquisite moment of her whole life," Clarissa is allowed to retreat to the virginal bed in the attic that preserves the memory of a pastoral and premarital homoeroticism.

Sally represents the beautiful adolescent given to self-abandonment who has a way with flowers and a passion for envisioning the abolition of private property and the attainment of equal rights for women. She is the one through whom Woolf represents lesbianism as an erotic attachment brought to a close by marriage but also as the occasion for a highly eroticized language.

Mrs. Dalloway's love for Sally is described as follows: "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. It was over--the moment."

Although Sally inspires in Clarissa an identification with the desire men must feel for women, she herself remains at a far remove from the masculinized lesbian, Miss Killman, the tutor of Mrs. Dalloway's daughter, Elizabeth.

Miss Killman is described as poor, clumsy, over forty; she works for a living, is prone to religious fervor and pro-German sympathies, and always wears the same mackintosh. At the same time, she is a highly knowledgeable historian and economically independent.

Her attraction to Elizabeth is presented as a sexual orientation rather than a passing phase, and thus unlike the eroticized language used to elicit Sally, Miss Killman's lesbianism is described in terms of an authoritarian politics:

For it was not her one hated but the idea of her, which undoubtedly had gathered in to itself a great deal that was not Miss Killman; had become one of those spectres with which one battles in the night; one of those spectres who stand astride us and suck up half our life-blood, dominators and tyrants; for no doubt with another throw of the dice, had the black been uppermost and not the white, she would have loved Miss Killman! But not in this world. No.

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