When I was a student, one of my teachers advised me to read a book that I thought was boring. A book written by an author I had vaguely heard of before and to whom I’d never paid much attention.
I devoured that book. So much read and reread afterwards that it even got a bit damaged over time.
As for the author, I quickly became fascinated by her work and her life.
The book was entitled “A Room of One’s Own” and the author was Virginia Woolf.
Although Virginia Woolf’s writings were a century old, her words were reflected in my thoughts. As a woman and as an artist, I quickly recognized myself in her words. I’m not an expert on her writings, but I could applaud many of her words. As if I needed them in my life.
Her world was absolutely visionary: one might even wonder why her writings aren’t studied more in schools. It could make such a difference.
Through this new article, I’m going to talk about the power of Virginia Woolf’s words. Those who gave a different view of literature while being at the same time those who demanded a long-awaited equity.
The pleasure of covering her tracks.
Virginia Woolf has left her mark on the world of literature by confusing the issue. Orlando, her book published in 1928, is one of the best examples of this. Mixing fiction and reality, masculine and feminine, serious and humorous, this book constantly questions the viewer while subtly conveying important messages.
To create the character of Orlando, Virginia was inspired by Vita Sackville-West, a novelist and poetess with whom she had a love-relationship while married to Leonard Woolf.
Unlike Orlando, Vita didn’t have a sex change but was bisexual and androgynous, just like him. Like Orlando, Vita was worldly, had a taste for adventure and seemed to enjoy every pleasure life could bring her. And like Orlando, Vita was a writer. It even seems that in some editions of the book, we can find notes referring to Vita as well as to other people.
The full title of the book is “Orlando, a biography” and indeed, when one reads the many passages expressed by a (very) omniscient and present narrator (as when he/she only make suppositions of Orlando’s story because few traces of his past have survived) one would tend to believe that Orlando really existed and that neither his/her person nor his/her history should be questioned.
(Sorry for the his/her thing, ha ha it’s quite complicated !)
However, several important and obvious elements quickly make us understand that Orlando’s story is fake and that Orlando truly is a fictional character.
First there’s time: the character of Orlando ages very very slowly and lives for more than three centuries (like Nick Greene, another character in the novel). This allows him to be close to people like Queen Elizabeth I and to use new technologies such as the car, the plane… Orlando lives a thousand and one lives. An immortality that allows him to evolve, observe and experience the different eras. I’ll come back to that later.
One can sometimes have the impression that the story of a day will be read over ten pages while a century will quickly pass.
An equally surreal element is Orlando’s transformation: for no apparent reason (no will on his part, no operation) Orlando wakes up as a woman after a very, very long sleep of 7 days. This sudden transformation seems inexplicable and unexplained, but the reader accepts it as quickly as Orlando and those around him seem to accept it. As if this transformation wasn’t so surprising. In any case, Virginia Woolf tells us: man or woman, Orlando will always remain the same person.
“Fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact (…) Lies will flow from my lips, but there may perhaps be some truth mixed up with them.”
Virginia Woolf-A Room of One’s own
The creation of A Room of One’s Own stems from a reflection that Virginia Woolf was asked to do on women and the novel.
She tells us from the beginning of the book that to create, a woman must have money and a room of her own. In the rest of the text, she explains how she came to think this.
If the first lines of the essay seem real to us, Virginia Woolf honestly tells us that it won’t always be the case…
It begins with the example of the University of Oxbridge (a university that doesn’t exist in real life but which is certainly a contraction between Oxford and Cambridge).
From the beginning, Virginia Woolf invites the reader to play the game and imagine that she takes on the features of a young woman named Mary.
This character questions the creation of women: indeed, why don’t women create as much as men?
So there’s Virginia behind this fictional woman. She uses her imagination to reveal what she observes in reality.
We’re on the verge of autofiction.
Wishing to further illustrate her point, Virginia Woolf doesn’t hesitate to amply modify Judith Shakespeare’s story. She fully assumes this.
Virginia Woolf describes Judith Shakespeare as William Shakespeare’s sister, but in reality she was his daughter. More importantly: Virginia Woolf speaks of Judith Shakespeare as a woman who didn’t have the chance to go to school, who was harassed by her parents to get married, who was mocked when she tried to become an artist, and who killed herself when she knew she was pregnant. Although Judith’s story is rather far from reality, Virginia Woolf’s invention depicts very well the pressure that was put on women at that time.
An assumed freedom
In her personal life, Virginia Woolf shown her thirst for freedom and open-mindedness in a variety of ways: being a woman-writer (which was frowned upon at the time), her membership in the Bloomsbury avant-garde group, her homosexual relationship with Vita Sackville-West…And this thirst for freedom was also reflected in her art.
In The Waves, a novel that Virginia Woolf published in 1931, the story focuses on seven characters but the way we move from one to the other is really special.
To be honest, I had a little trouble getting into it at first. One might think, without having read the book, that it’s a very “classic” novel in which the characters converse with each other but it’s really different: The Waves is mainly (except for nine interludes) composed of inner monologues that follow one after the other, almost independent of each other but accumulating almost like waves. There’s really no line between them anymore.
The characters observe each other, have feelings for each other but they never seem to talk directly to each other. All this can be disturbing for the viewer, especially since it sometimes takes us a little time to understand who is saying/thinking what.
This multiplicity of characters and their monologues seem to evoke the idea that within each of us resides several selves.
“The door opens, but he does not come. That is Louis hesitating here. That is his strange mixture of assurance and he touches his hair ; he is dissatisfied with his appearance. He says, ‘I am a Duke — the last of an ancient race.’ He is accrid, suspicious, domineering, difficult (I am comparing him with Percival). At the same time he is formidable, for there is laughter in his eyes. He has seen me. Here he is.
There is Susan, said Louis. She does not see us. She has not dressed, because she despises the futility of London. She stands for a moment at the swing-door, looking about her like a creature dazed by the light of a lamp. Now she moves. She has the stealthy yet assured movements (even among tables and chairs) of a wild beast. She seems to find her way by instinct in and out among these little tables, touching no one, disregarding waiters, yet comes straight to our table in the corner. When she sees us (Neville and myself) her face assumes a certainty which is alarming, as if she had what she wanted. To be loved by Susan would be to be impaled by a bird’s sharp beak, to be nailed to a barnyard door. Yet there are moments when I could wish to be speared by a beak, to be nailed to a barnyard door, positively, once and for all.”
Virgina Woolf - The Waves
This multiple selves was already perceptible in Orlando’s character, through his androgyny, his transsexuality and his quasi-immortality. As if having different identities, different genders and living through different eras helped to better understand society and individuals.
The book “Orlando” reflects a very strong desire for freedom too : as we have seen in this book, Virginia Woolf has constantly wanted to play on the limits between reality and fiction, between realism and surrealism, and the very character of Orlando also constantly oscillates at will between masculine and feminine
Virginia Woolf was very surprising: she wrote whole paragraphs about landscapes, about the castle’s decorations, but she only very subtly evoked the fact that Orlando is pregnant and her baby.
Being a fantasy, historical and biographical novel at the same time, Orlando demonstrates Virginia’s desire to go beyond what one should expect from a book.
Not only Virginia didn’t hesitate to play with the codes of writing, but she also didn’t hesitate to tackle themes rarely dealt with before her, such as homosexuality, feminism (as in A Room of One’s Own), mental disorders (also inspired by her own life since Virginia Woolf was bipolar) and suicide as in Mrs Dalloway (Virginia committed suicide in 1941).
One can easily get the impression that this shy woman was becoming quite different, asserting herself, taking power in front of her sheet of paper.
Feminism without radicalism
Virginia Woolf was what you might call now a feminist author.
But it’s never extreme or radical: she didn’t want women to be treated better than men, she just asked that they be treated in the same way. A total equity in which women are no longer seen as the weaker sex.
Unfortunately very much ahead of her time, her work Orlando sums up this devaluation of women quite well.
As he moves from man to woman,Orlando’s character clearly perceives how the two sexes behave towards each other. He realizes, for example, the way he looked at women when he was a man, the often hurtful way men look at women and the desire for freedom that women can have (like the character Sacha).
“For it was the mixture in her of man and woman, one being uppermost and then the other, that often gaver her conduct an unexpected turn. The curious of her own sex would argue how, for example, if Orlando was a woman, did she never take more than ten minutes to dress ? And were not her clothes chosen rather at random, and sometimes worn rather shabby ? And then they would say, still, she has none of the formality of a man, or a man’s love of power. She is excessively tender-hearted. She could not endure to see a donkey beaten or a kitten drowned. Yet again, they noted, she detested household matters, was up at dawn and out among the fields in summer before the sun had risen. No farmer knew more about the crops that she did. She could drink with the best and liked games of hazard. She rode well and drove six horses at a gallop over London Bridge. Yet again, though bold and active as man, it was remarked that the sight of another in danger brought on the most womanly palpitations. She would burst into tears on slight provocation. She was unversed in geography, found mathematics intolerable, and held some caprices which are more common among women than men, as for instance, that to travel south is to travel down hill.”
Virgina Woolf — Orlando
In Orlando’s book, the narrator talks about men as intellectual, athletic, courageous people while women are (too) sensitive, futile or even stupid. Like opposites.
Orlando is a bridge between the two sexes, Virgina Woolf gives him/her the opportunity to observe and live as a man and a woman, to see the advantages and disadvantages.
In fact, how many times have I said to myself, “These men who don’t understand what we are going through as women should put themselves in our shoes”. I don’t think I’m the only woman who’s ever said that.
Although in Orlando’s novel Virginia Woolf talks about women as a really weak sex, we feel and know very well that she thinks the opposite. The writer stands permanently behind the ironic tone of the main character’s thoughts and the narrator’s opinions. It’s as if she wanted to highlight the limited vision that some men have about women and to denounce between humour and seriousness what she observed. There are also the “obligations” that women faced such as marriage, with an Orlando having to find a husband to meet society’s expectations.
And finally, she will marry Shel, androgynous (there are several androgynous characters in the book) and in search of her destiny just like Orlando. As if only him could understand her, even though this marriage isn’t the point of the novel.
“If a woman wrote, she would have to write in the common sitting-room. And, as Miss Nightingale was so vehemently to complain, - ”women never have an half hour…that they can call their own” - she was interrupted.”
Virgina Woolf — A Room of One’s Own
In her next essay called A Room of One’s Own and published in 1929, Virginia Woolf further assert her views on society. Indeed, she reveal an other inequality: that of creation and asserts that women could create more if they had a financial and spatial independence. If women could be a little detached from their obligations and the power that men and society have over them. Let’s not forget that at the beginning of the book, Virginia Woolf tells us that women needed to be accompanied by a teacher or have a letter of recommendation to enter some libraries.
So the writer tells us: in addition to time, the woman artist needs a place where she can be alone, a place that she can lock herself in and where she can devote to her work without worrying about the world around her. The freedom of the place symbolizes the freedom of the woman: her emancipation. It’s about challenging the ideas that women are only meant to take care of their husbands, children and the house. And that only those who have no husband or children and who have money can create.
To us this may seem almost absurd now.
A model for future generations
“ Moreover, in a hundred years, I thought, reaching my own doorstep, women will have ceased to be the protected sex. Logically they will take part in all activites and exertions that were once denied them.”
Virgina Woolf — A Room of One’s Own
…And yet it’s still sometimes quite sad to see that the relationships between men and women described by Virginia Woolf are still often relevant in the 21st century. However, we need to see the glass half full and note how strong what Virginia Woolf undertook is.
Through the way she wrote and the themes she dealt with, Virginia Woolf has become an icon. She has had and continues to have a considerable impact on women, whether they are artists (like Sylvia Plath, Simone De Beauvoir) or not. Through her words, she gave us advice, warned us of the risks while encouraging us. Her words were forerunners and already told us “Fight ! Assert yourself ! Be what you want to be ! Do what you wanna do !”
But even in saying that, she wasn’t looking for inferiority or superiority. Putting women on the same level as men is what Virginia Woolf wanted, and that’s why she turned Orlando into an androgynous character. This is also why, in the last chapters of a Room of One’s Own, she tells us that great writers are androgynous: by belonging to both sexes, they no longer focus on themselves but on what surrounds them.
For Virginia Woolf, there were no opposites but a whole. And that’s what everyone has to tell each other for that to happen.