From this week I’m going to be briefly sketching some of my favourite writer romances of the last couple of centuries, starting with today’s coupling: Virginia Woolf & Vita Sackville West.
These two female authors living in the heart of Edwardian England became lovers in 1925 when they met over dinner. Sackville-West wrote after the meeting ‘I rarely take such a fancy to anyone. I have quite lost my heart‘. West was an experienced, self-identified magnetically attractive lesbian when she met Woolf, though she struggled to match in linguistic extravagance, or rival the romance that naturally comes with inaugural emotional experience that Woolf felt., though West was just as prolific, and a far more popular writer at the time.
Woolf found in West exactly what she was calling out for in A Room Of One’s Own: the recognition of new possibilities, both saccharine and textual. It was an affair also documented by letters and diary entries interwoven with sexual play; sometimes as only as subtle flirtations, but it ruptured into a more explicit vein when Woolf taunts “you only be careful in your gambolling dolphin, or you will find Virginia’s soft crevices lined with hooks!”.
Both women remained married to their husbands during the course of their relationship, as Sapphism to them was not disruptive of marriage. But at one point West pulled back as she was “afraid to arouse any physical feelings in her, because of the madness”. Woolf was her publisher, and they were both part of the elitist Bloomsbury Group in London- so it was not only a dreamy affection but a professional bond they shared. Their experience of each other through their work highlights their gradual discovery of love and sexual tendencies drawn out from the faculty of friendship, what Adrienne Rich calls the ‘lesbian continuum’. Rich believed that this kind of fluidity and woman-identified community is the perfect place for power- where women merge through similar experiences so as to avoid being stigmatized as ‘deviant’ or ‘other’ by both men and women. She believes that lesbianism is more than just sexuality, but more of an intensity embraced between women. And in West’s case resists any obligation….
Come on the wings of great desire,
Or stay away from me.
You’re not more stable than the day,
Or than the day less free.
The dawning day has clouds in store:
Desire her cloudy moods:
And sunlit woods woods of morning may
By noon be darkened woods.
So be you free to come or stay
Without a reason given,
As free as clouds that blot the light
Across the face of heaven.
Vita Sackville-West, 1932
Woolf and West’s erotic connection only fluctuated according to its own momentum, when the women could afford to share their energies with each other out with the norm of their (another Rich term) ‘compulsive heterosexuality’. They found transgressive freedom in one another, liberated parts of each others personalities, to reshape and sharpen who they were. So despite the continual suspension they found themselves in: the wanting and waiting and sending sexy side glances across big lace-filled rooms, their silence of self within the institution of marriage eventually dampened the duet of their future prospects together.
In 1941 West heard the news of Woolf’s suicide, she lost that safety of strength and power that at this point had sat comfortably, and silently, in the background of her life. It was the same silence that had sustained and sanctioned their intimacy all along, the one that let it embellish in unspoken places, yet it left behind many blanks like the ‘irreplaceable blank’ West said Woolf left when she died. It is hard to feel an affinity for Woolf because we don’t know enough about her, the sensuous aspect was missing, her husband heavily edited her diary to preserve that aspect of her, so when she lost her balance and then got back up again countless times we know nothing of how she managed her neurosis, or much of the nature of it at all. West had the dubious knack of inflaming passions wherever she went, she lived until she was 70 years old, passing quickly after her cancer diagnosis.