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Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings

Eileen Barrett
Patricia Cramer
Copyright Date: 1997
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 306
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  • Book Info
    Virginia Woolf
    Book Description:

    The last two decades have seen a resurgence of critical and popular attention to Virginia Woolf's life and work. Such traditional institutions as The New York Review of Books now pair her with William Shakespeare in promotional advertisements; her face is used to sell everything from Barnes and Noble books to Bass Ale. Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings represents the first book devoted to Woolf's lesbianism. Divided into two sections, Lesbian Intersections and Lesbian Readings of Woolf's Novels, these essays focus on how Woolf's private and public experience and knowledge of same-sex love influences her shorter fiction and novels. Lesbian Intersections includes personal narratives that trace the experience of reading Woolf through the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. Lesbian Readings of Woolf's Novels provides lesbian interpretations of the individual novels, including Orlando, The Waves, and The Years. Breaking new ground in our understanding of the role Woolf's love for women plays in her major writing, these essays shift the emphasis of lesbian interpretations from Woolf's life to her work.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-3927-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. A Note on the Text
    (pp. xiii-xiii)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiv-xiv)
  6. Contributors
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  7. PART I: Lesbian Intersections

    • ONE Introduction
      (pp. 3-9)

      In the 1970s, feminist scholars inaugurated a resurgence of critical and popular attention to Virginia Woolf’s life and work. Woolf’s writings are now essential to classroom and critical studies of modernism, women writers, feminist theory, and lesbian and gay studies. Interest in her life and writing extends beyond the universities to those whom she called common readers, and her image is prominently displayed in a range of venues, from Hanif Kureishi’s avant-garde filmSammy and Rosie Get Laidto an episode of the popular television programMurphy Brown,to evoke the radical feminist politics with which she is associated. Sally...

    • TWO A Lesbian Reading Virginia Woolf
      (pp. 10-20)
      TONI A. H. McNARON

      In 1964, I received a Ph.D. in English literature and history without ever having been required or even encouraged to read Virginia Woolf. Granted, my training was in the Renaissance, and at that time most academics would not have known of Woolf’s many critical essays about that period and its great writers. The only novel of hers that I knew about wasTo the Lighthouse,pressed into my hands by a lover, not a professor. But she definitely was an ardent fan of the tall, horsey British woman and was eager to have me be knowledgeable enough to hold up...

    • THREE The Pattern behind the Words
      (pp. 21-36)

      Among the clutter of my studio is a very large photograph of Virginia Woolf taken in her late thirties, a beautiful one with her long fingers stretched up to her cheekbones and deep-set, melancholy eyes. It has lived in my changing work spaces, among books, clay, etching inks, and tools for twenty years, and holds the place of honor and the muse. Along with this photo are a number of large, hand-printed quotations from Woolf about work, the brain, shapes, and the creative process. As they yellow, tear, stain, and deteriorate, I make them again, and again, and again.


    • FOUR ʺThe Gift of a China Inkpotʺ: Violet Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Brontë, and the Love of Women in Writing
      (pp. 37-56)

      Virginia Woolf loved women. Virginia Woolf’s deepest emotional resources developed from her dependence on women and her occasional resentment of that dependence. Virginia Woolf envied women; she got angry at women; she needed women; she hungered to be joined with other women, in imagination, through learning, through creating fictional women, through friendship. Discussing feminist ethics as a form of epistemology, Sandra Harding questions the concept of scientific truth, making a strong case for the fact that seeking knowledge requires empathy as well as inductive reasoning. To substantiate this argument, Harding hypothesizes that a lesbian perspective offers a series of political...

    • FIVE Reading Influences: Homoeroticism and Mentoring in Katherine Mansfieldʹs ʺCarnationʺ and Virginia Woolfʹs ʺMoments of Being: ʹSlaterʹs Pins Have No Pointsʹʺ
      (pp. 57-77)

      On January 9, 1923, Katherine Mansfield died of tuberculosis, from which she had suffered for much of her young life. Yet, Mansfield continued to live on acutely in the minds of those who had known her and her work. Her literary friend and rival, Virginia Woolf, records in her diary how Mansfield haunted her imagination for years (Tomalin 204). For example, just one week after Mansfield’s death, Woolf saw a vision of “Katherine putting on a white wreath, & leaving us, called away; made dignified, chosen” (D2: 226). Five and a half years later, Woolf recounts:

      All last night I...

    • SIX Lesbian Modernism in the Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein
      (pp. 78-94)

      To the extent that lesbians have been associated with the obscure, the neglected, and the marginal, there is something quintessentially “lesbian” about bringing the shorter fictions of Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein into critical focus. Although her accomplishment in this genre equals that of her contemporary James Joyce, Woolf has not been highly appreciated for her short stories. The standard format for a critical study of Woolf remains, as Avrom Fleishman notes, “a series of chapters on the nine longer fictions, one after another” (“Forms” 44). When mentioned at all, her short stories tend to be regarded not as innovative...

    • SEVEN The Death of Sex and the Soul in Mrs. Dalloway and Nella Larsenʹs Passing
      (pp. 95-114)

      At first glance, Virginia Woolf and Nella Larsen might strike many critics as too distant for the comfort of comparative analysis. On the surface, Larsen’s slender corpus and all too recent critical recovery would create a fragile balance with Woolf’s stellar writing career, prodigiousoeuvre,and transatlantic literary ascendancy. Linking these two writers, however, accords with the loud challenge of current feminist practice to both acknowledge and defy the divisions of race, class, and sexuality that threatened feminist comity a decade or so ago. But beyond the good faith effort to keep the ethnocentric genie locked up in the bottle,...

  8. PART II: Lesbian Readings of Woolf's Novels

    • EIGHT Introduction
      (pp. 117-127)

      Virginia Woolf’s life and work reflect that continual negotiation between truth and secrecy characteristic of gay life. In Woolf’s lifetime, taboos against homosexuality influenced the majority of women and men who preferred their own sex to construct encoded lives, carefully protecting their private selves from public knowledge. This double life of the closet sometimes took on comic forms, as when Greta Garbo perfected heterosexual love scenes on the screen while she pursued women lovers in private (Castle 1–6) or when Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson, both homosexual, appeared together on BBC radio giving advice on how to...

    • NINE ʺThe Things People Donʹt Sayʺ: Lesbian Panic in The Voyage Out
      (pp. 128-145)

      InThe Voyage Out, as the boat carries a band of British tourists up a river into the heart of a South American jungle forest, Terence Hewet sits on deck and reads these enigmatic lines from Walt Whitman’sLeaves of Grass: “Whoever you are holding me now in your hand, / Without one thing all will be useless” (267). Whitman’s personified book, which reveals and celebrates the secret pleasures of homosexual love only to the percipient reader, warns its peruser, “holding me now in your hand,” that without this “one thing,” all efforts to unlock its meaning will be in...

    • TEN Unmasking Lesbian Passion: The Inverted World of Mrs. Dalloway
      (pp. 146-164)

      I came out in the early 1970s, when, as for many other women my lesbianism was inseparable from my feminism. I came out as a “woman-identified woman” who agreed with the Radicalesbians that lesbianism “is the primacy of women relating to women, of creating a new consciousness of and with each other, which is at the heart of women’s liberation, and the basis for the cultural revolutions” (245). Perhaps I was naive, but I was thrilled by my own and other women’s potential to transform the world. Protected by a community of lesbian feminists, I came out at a time...

    • ELEVEN Bringing Buried Things to Light: Homoerotic Alliances in To the Lighthouse
      (pp. 165-179)

      Bloomsbury inherited from such literary forebears as the Romantics and Wilde’s circle the aspiration to a chosen community of friends and lovers —an aspiration visible in the lives and work of E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, Vanessa Bell, and Virginia Woolf. Crucial to this chosen community was the sharing of unsanctioned and unconventional sexual preferences, especially homosexual preferences. I see Woolf’s alliances with her male homosexual friends, and her writing of such alliances and supportive community into her fictions, as of vital importance to her construction of relationships between women.¹ Feminist and lesbian criticism has tended to downplay the significance...

    • TWELVE Orlando: ʺA Precipice Marked Vʺ: Between ʺA Miracle of Discretionʺ and ʺLovemaking Unbelievable: Indiscretions Incredibleʺ
      (pp. 180-202)

      Orlandocame 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.¹ 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 that women do when they seek out each other’s society?” (O220). Woolf’s lesbian narrative inOrlandosuggests love and erotics between women, mocks compulsory heterosexuality, challenges homophobia, and slips coded lesbian signatures and subplots into the novel. In the pivotal moment of...

    • THIRTEEN Rhoda Submerged: Lesbian Suicide in The Waves
      (pp. 203-221)

      Although it is Shakespeare’s “incandescent,” androgynous mind that Virginia Woolf reveres inA Room of One’s Own, it is Shakespeare’s silenced sister, a victim of suicide, who haunts that essay and impels Woolf’s passionate peroration on “the dead poet who … will put on the body which she has so often laid down” (AROO118). Why, then, in Woolf’s next book,The Waves, does she lay down the body of the “incandescent” Rhoda, also a victim of suicide, and create in her male counterpart, Bernard, a figure many critics have come to revere as the ideal androgynous artist? Answering this...

    • FOURTEEN ʺPearls and the Porpoiseʺ: The Years—A Lesbian Memoir
      (pp. 222-240)

      Virginia Woolf began writingThe Yearsin her fiftieth year—an apt time for recollection and reassessment. Woolf’s reminiscent mood during the thirties is apparent in the letters and diaries as well as in the novel. During her trip to Greece in April 1932, for example, Woolf considers the passage of time: “but what can I say about the Parthenon—that my own ghost met me, the girl of 23, with all her life to come” (D4: 90). That Woolf’s nostalgia during the thirties carried over into the writing of the novel is suggested by the end to the...

    • FIFTEEN Entering a Lesbian Field of Vision: To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts
      (pp. 241-258)

      Despite the fact thatBetween the Actsboasts the only “out” lesbian in Woolf’s fictional repertoire andTo the Lighthouseabounds in female sexual imagery,¹ neither book exhibits the kind of specifically lesbian imagery that recent readings of her other novels have brought to light.² Yet I see these as two of the most radically lesbian texts ever written, by Woolf or any other writer. My premise here is that a narrow focus on sexual identity in Woolf’s writings can actually distract us from more significantly lesbian movements of the heart and mind. This essay draws on a tradition of...

  9. Works Cited
    (pp. 259-276)
  10. Index
    (pp. 277-288)