Today is 72nd anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s suicide. She is known by many, understood by few. Advocater of feminine real-estate, inducer of fear in an unnamed few, Nicole Kidman—a modern enigma. So in honor of her pocket full of stoneshine, here’s a mini-post about one of modern lit’s many sort-of-love-affairs-slash-maybe-kind-of-sort-of-obsessions-which-resulted-in-a-rull-nyyce-piece-of-writing.
Virgingin Woolfy (neé Stephen) was born in 1882, with a silver spoon and a much-derided Roman nose. She was exposed early by her intellectual parents and their intellectual friends to the rest of the Victorian and Edwardian intellectuals and they all just had quite the intellectual time together. Whatever, read about it yourself or something. She was plagued by nervous breakdowns, physical illness, and depressive periods, most likely brought on by genetic predisposition, the early deaths of her parents, and sexual abuse by both of her half-brothers as a teenager. And that’s all super shitty, no one denies that, BUT, she and her sister Vanessa eventually left their old home and bought a house in Bloomsbury, and surrounded themselves with a rising group of artists, writers and generally interesting people. They were (highly creatively) called, “The Bloomsbury Group.” So, hey, not too shabby in the end. In 1912, she married Leonard Woolf, in what was not always an easy, but still a life-long and very close partnership.
I know, I know, you’re thinking: “Where’s the scandal? This is a mini-post—she’s giving us all this background bullshit, and now she’s telling us about a “happy” marriage!?? I might as well just go back to not working.”
WELL HOLD UP SON, GET READY FOR SOME AMOR PROHIBIDO!!!!1!
So in this Bloomsbury Group, there were a number of proper members and those who sort of milled around the outside as friends-of-friends.
*Also, sidenote, let’s just be upfront right now, I think most of the members were way too full of themselves and weren’t actually as interesting as they thought they were (I’m looking at you, Clive Bell), BUT, that in no way negates the fact that I would do any number of horrible things if asked to have been a part of this Collective of A-holes. They pulled one of the absolutely best hoaxes I’ve ever heard about, in which 6 members, including Virginia, blackened their skin and dressed as supposed members of the Abyssinian royal family, and were given a tour of the English Naval fleet at Weymouth, took press photos for newspapers, and bestowed fake military honors on several British officers. Fucking aces.
Anyway, the various hangers on included the writer and professional gardener (she was English, after all), Vita Sackville-West. 10 years younger than Virginia, they met in 1922
at a meeting of the Droopy Eyelid Club and began a tentative relationship. As the poets say, carpe Vita.
Now, Vita was a firecracker—she was sleeping with like errybody, and would continue to do so—but Virginia, as it would turn out, was a lot of talk and pretty little show. They apparently only did the sex twice in their entire relationship. But, the lovechild which resulted is one of the most transcendentally beautiful pieces of writing
an impressionable 20something could have ever come across in a 25 cent book-bin in the English language: Orlando.
And whoooodawgy, those two times must have been some electric sex.
An extended piece of poetic prose, Orlando tells the loose narrative of a boy, beginning during the reign of Elizabeth I, who lives through significant epochs of English history, including the Restoration, the imperialist period, the Enlightenment, the Victorian era, and eventually to the present (as in, the 1920’s). Somewhere along the way, the boy becomes a man, the man becomes a woman, and thus becomes a full human being. As Nina Simone would say, “it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new gender for me, and I’m feelin’ exactly the same.”
Packed with sweeping description and intense psychological exploration, it’s a mediation on sexuality, nature, history, authority, autonomy, growth, power, poetry, purpose, and—most importantly—love in all its forms. Oh my Lord but it’s beautiful. And if this all sounds a little too “difficult,” or “pretentious,” or “good,” then just watch the movie with Tilda Swinton, which is fucking gorgeous (and also includes a lot of the humor in the book), and you’ll get the general idea and have only been obliged to give up 2 hours of your time from browsing BuzzFeed rather than like, a day.
Because for serious, y’all, there are few books that have hit ol’ JAF as hard as this one. I have no mind for quotes, but I’ve tended to remember ones from Orlando at various formative junctures in my life. I have never read any other Virginia Woolf, and I don’t really want to, because—again, let’s be real—she was kind of an asshole (and as a fellow asshole, we don’t tend to like sharing our mutual asshole territory), and I don’t really want the purity of this extraordinary piece of writing to be sullied. And don’t hate—I bet most of you are never going to read The Casual Vacancy either.
I’ll just leave you with a quote from Vita’s son, which pretty well sums it up:
“The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her.”
Now go grab yourself a cheapass copy, the way Virginia grabbed herself a ladymuse. You welcome.