A Study in Classics: Virginia Woolf, Gender, and the Greatest Lesbian Love Letter Ever Written
Words By Jerakah Greene, Art By Christiaan Tonnis
Who was Virginia Woolf and why do queer women love her?
Virginia Woolf is one of the most loved English authors of all time. She is also probably the most hated, especially if you were forced to read Mrs. Dalloway in a high school English class and had no idea how to read her. It’s true that sometimes it seems like Virginia Woolf’s writing is in another language. I swear that in To The Lighthouse, there are sentences that span multiple pages.
It took me a while to open up to her, but once I did, I fell in love, and I’m not the only one. Virginia Woolf has a cult following among queer women. I found that her work spoke to me even more after I came out as nonbinary, specifically her novel Orlando. Virginia Woolf is one of the only authors whose work seems to see me and all of my identities. This might be because, in terms of our queerness, she and I have something in common. I love Virginia Woolf because of who she loved and the way she loved her.
Virginia Woolf met Vita Sackville-West in late 1922. Vita was already a gifted and successful writer in her own right a few years before Virginia published her first major success, Mrs. Dalloway. They were both married, though both marriages were trusting, open, and queer.
According to her letters, Vita was quite taken with Virginia, and the two began an intellectual correspondence that eventually became intimate and romantic. They wrote to each other constantly, often in awe (and sometimes jealous) of the other’s writing. One of my favorite things to do on a sad, rainy day is cheer myself up by reading excerpts of their letters on this clever Twitter bot. The affection is so warming; they really, really loved each other.
However, as this witty reimagining suggests, the dynamic between the two women was interesting. Virginia venerated Vita, and she wrote an entire novel to prove it. And while Vita loved her in return, she was also much more sexually and emotionally open. Virginia felt, as the older woman in the relationship, that she had become unattractive and “dowdy” to Vita as the other woman began to slip away from her. Today, we’d call it ghosting—but their relationship did not end; it evolved. They became even closer as lifelong friends, though not before Virginia proved the magnitude of her love. When Virginia felt Vita slipping away from her for good, she decided to pull out all the stops. She decided to write Vita (another) love letter, but this time it would be bigger, more extravagant. She set out to write Vita’s biography.
The result, Orlando, became one of Virginia Woolf’s greatest commercial successes, and to me remains one of the most romantic love letters ever written.
It isn’t a typical biography; Woolf took four thousand years of Sackville-West ancestry and combined them into one character, whose life in the novel spans centuries. The plot is complicated; Orlando switches genders about halfway through the novel, though this gives the character little pause. Queer identities didn’t mean in Woolf’s day what they do now, and they certainly didn’t in the eras Orlando takes place in. For instance, I like to say that Shakespeare was bisexual, but the truth is that Elizabethans never would have considered their sexual identities in those terms. Sex was sex and they loved who they loved; what to us seems queer, to them might have been nothing to write home about. But it’s all situational, which is why I prefer to refer to Orlando with they/them pronouns—because rarely have I seen a character who captures gender’s fluidity the way Orlando does.
Orlando begins the novel as a young man who has caught the eye of Queen Elizabeth I. They are everything a man ought to be—brilliant and cocky, wealthy and well-read, a gifted yet self-conscious writer, and quite the playboy. A woman scorns them in love, and after cursing women and running off to the Middle East to find themself for a couple of centuries (as one does), Orlando awakes as a woman.
Upon their return to England, reveling in their new woman-body, Orlando (as they often do) becomes lost in their thoughts, taking time to think of the pros and cons of being man or woman:
“And here it would seem from some ambiguity in her terms that she was censuring both sexes equally, as if she belonged to neither; and indeed, for the time being she seemed to vacillate; she was man; she was woman; she knew the secrets, shared the weaknesses of each.”
“She seemed to vacillate.” To me, it is clear—in our twenty-first century terms, Orlando is genderfluid. Some days they are one, some days they are the other; some days they are neither; some days they are both.
Why did Virginia make this choice? If this novel was really supposed to be a love letter to Vita, if Orlando is supposed to be Vita, why write Orlando as someone who vacillates between genders?
It definitely could have been that Virginia was thinking about gender theory before the field had even been incorporated into liberal arts course schedules, but it was probably because Vita herself was quite the gender rebel. Virginia likely took inspiration from Vita’s masculine attitudes in the thirties and forties. Vita was, simply put, a heartbreaker. She went from person to person, taking and leaving, which at the time was definitely a privilege granted only to men.
Maybe Virginia thought her love for Vita transcended gender. Maybe she thought nothing of it, and was having fun with her funky, magical novel. All I know is that when I read Orlando for the first time, I had just come out of the closet as nonbinary. I felt seen in way I rarely had, and not just because I saw a character who sat so comfortably between genders as I did. I also felt seen because Virginia’s love of Vita comes through so clearly, so intensely in her writing.
When we first see Orlando, Virginia goes on and on about how stunning he is—“happy the mother who bears, happier still the biographer who records the life of such a one!” His red cheeks were “covered with peach down; the down on his lips was only a little thicker than the down on his cheeks. The lips themselves were short and slightly drawn back over teeth of an exquisite and almond whiteness.” And, true to form, she goes on for an entire page. She never wastes a chance to tell us how beautiful Orlando is. When I remember who Orlando is modeled after, it makes me giddy.
Virginia’s love letter to Vita is one of the most romantic stories I’ve ever read. It reminds me of the beauty of queer love. It reminds me that there is a legacy of queer women writers who loved one another, who wrote about that love, and whose love has since become immortal.