We cannot read Virginia Woolf today without recognising her queer impact in deconstructing notions of heteronormativity. We see this both in her well-loved texts (Mrs Dalloway and Orlando immediately spring to mind), but also if we delve further into her personal life and her clandestine correspondence with fellow writer Vita Sackville-West.
individual queer discourses, conjoined via a stream-of-consciousness narrative
In Mrs Dalloway, a focal link between Woolf’s characters is their individual queer discourses, conjoined via a stream-of-consciousness narrative. We see this span from the titular character Clarissa and her teenage summer fling Sally as they are swept into conforming with normative femininity and heterosexuality; working class Doris Kilman and her unconscious struggle with her sexual appetite; and World War I veteran Septimus as homoerotic, suppressed guilt and grief envelops his psyche. It is important to note that all of the characters have a unified struggle; they are unable to negotiate their queerness within the constraints of society, whether this be due to the trauma of war, class struggles, or even misogynistic pseudo-sexology masked as psychoanalysis (I’m looking at you, Freud!) .
Thus, specifically for the women in Woolf’s work, this manifests as a “lesbian panic” as coined by Patricia Juliana Smith, in which they are “unable or unwilling to confront or reveal her own lesbianism or lesbian desire”. This is an important framework for reading Mrs Dalloway, as Woolf juxtaposes Clarissa’s sexually stilted marriage with her husband, epitomised by her solitary, clinically white single bed in the attic, with a retreat to the memory of sexually fulfilled lesbian orgasm. She remembers as she “quivered and felt the world come closer, swollen with some astonishing significance”. Lesbian desire is shrouded in mystery and metaphors in an attempt to not “reveal” too much. This corporeal, abstract, but notably shrouded language permeates into the illicit letters between Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, who had an intense decade-long affair, as they too discuss the language they use to communicate their love and sexuality. Sackville-West expresses her anxiety in articulating desire “you, with all your un-dumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it… But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it would lose a little of its reality”, to which Woolf replies: “always, always, always I try to say what I feel”. The urgent desire in their words jumps out, but there remains an uneasy hesitation in their sexual voice.
Woolf and others didn’t yet have the cultural framework to come to a fully realised queer identity
This is the key problem with queer writing in the 20th century: Woolf and others didn’t yet have the cultural framework to come to a fully realised queer identity, and this translates in her literature. Lesbian sexuality was expressed from a phallogocentric discourse, as amidst Clarissa’s orgasm is the interjected assertion that “she did undoubtedly then feel what men felt”.
No longer do queer voices need to be concealed in letters and metaphors
Therefore, I want this opportunity to shine a light on modern queer writers, with my personal partiality for Asian LGBTQ+ writers. From Woolf hesitantly alluding to female orgasm, to the unabashed, unapologetic poetry of Franny Choi. In “Second Mouth”, Choi’s vagina becomes a spokesperson- she can articulate her sexuality down to its raw corporality. As “a rebel mouth / testifying from the underside”, she now has the capability to speak her truth. Her voice is impassioned, angry, provocative, but most importantly, she finally wants to be heard. No longer do queer voices need to be concealed in letters and metaphors; they have a platform and a discourse to celebrate their love, their sexuality, their voice.