Cause for Fear:   Sexual Apprehension in the Writings of Virginia Woolf




Virginia Woolf is best known to scholars today as a feminist writer. Her opposition to the gendered hierarchy of power in modern Western society prefigured a point of view that has achieved almost total ascendance in the liberal academy. Woolf’s writing speaks to “the daughters of educated men” today much as it did to the middle-class women who were her contemporaries. It serves as a reminder both of how much we have achieved and how much must still be done in order to achieve gender parity. Precisely because her words carry such weight in the feminist discourse, Woolf’s positions on matters of sex and gender are often the victims of a critical perspective that is burdened by a set of assumptions based on our current understanding of sex and gender – what they are, how they relate to one other, and what effect they have on our experience as human beings.  

It is my aim to explore a phenomenon in Woolf’s writing that is distinct yet inseparable from her feminist ideals – the issue of sexual apprehension. Woolf spent a lifetime struggling with various kinds of sexual apprehension, attempting through her writing to express her fear of sexual intimacy and to escape the influence of patriarchal domination. In writing about how sex (both the physical act and the biological designation) relates to and is affected by gender, Woolf attempts to articulate her personal sexual neuroses with the goal of obliterating them, and to expose the destructive power of the patriarchy in hopes of reducing its hold over all the “daughters of educated men” who experience their sex as a social limiter that bars them from professional and artistic autonomy. My exploration is framed by four recurring questions. What are the origins of Woolf’s sexual apprehension? How is her attitude towards sex expressed in her writings? To what extent and in what ways does she succeed in “killing the angel in the house”?[1][1] Finally, is Woolf’s sexual apprehension ultimately a product of nature, culture or some combination of the two?

 I will attempt to explain what “sexual apprehension” means in the context of Virginia Woolf’s life and writings. Woolf’s concerns about sex – both the physical act and the biological distinction – pervade her written work. Molested as a child, she fears male sexual aggression and initially equates it with the violation and destruction of the female. Restricted and marginalized within her family group, Woolf is intensely anxious to free herself from confining feminine stereotypes and to avoid the kinds of relationships that place women in service of men. Woolf fears both physical sexual violation and the more socially acceptable methods by which women are made to gratify the desires of men. She does not want to be a victim of sexual violence, and she is equally opposed to becoming someone’s angel in the house. Essentially, I define sexual apprehension as any fear or worry that is caused by circumstances arising from the fact that Woolf is a female.

It is important to remember that Woolf was writing at a time when the modern distinction between sex and gender (biological given vs. cultural construct) was hardly thought of. Therefore, she uses the terms “masculine” and “male,” “feminine” and “female” interchangeably. Woolf does tend to view certain behavioral tendencies – the acquiescence of women, the male predilection for sport and violence – as innate in our biology rather than mere products of socialization. However, this does not blind her to the coercive power of culture in making people act out a sharply delineated gender role. Woolf is intimately familiar with the workings of the patriarchy, and its power to circumscribe her life and to thwart her artistic endeavors contributes hugely to her sexual apprehension.

A modern feminist thinker with rigidly defined boundaries between sex and gender may find it difficult to understand which concept Woolf is referring to when she uses words like “sex,” “male” and “female.” There is no easy solution to this problem. Woolf uses “sex” to refer both to matters of biology and matters of behavior. She attributes the behavior of men and women both to gender-based conditioning and to sex-based predilections. Given her limited vocabulary and her belief that nature and nurture both contribute to human behavior, it sometimes seems as though Woolf is conflating the now-distinct concepts of sex and gender. In fact, she is attempting to separate the two in a way that had never been done before.

Woolf does not use the term “gender,” but her problems with sexuality were largely created by the social phenomenon that is now referred to by this term. Much of Woolf’s difficulty in relating to the opposite sex came from her early vulnerability when forced to conform to the ideas of her male family members. The subordinate and service-oriented behavior required by Leslie Stephen and the sexual exploitation of George Duckworth taught the young Virginia Stephen that to be a “feminine” woman is to be eternally vulnerable to male aggression in all its various forms. This is a mentality that she never discarded; although she herself found a safe and nonexploitative relationship with Leonard Woolf, her conviction that female oppression was created by the male desire for dominance remained central to the way that she viewed the world.

                  Both as a woman and as a writer, Woolf strove to understand and overcome the limits that social indoctrination had placed upon her. Artistically, this meant “killing the angel the house” – using sexually liberated language and exploring topics that had traditionally been the province of male authors. Woolf’s depiction of relations between the sexes attempts to smash the barriers defining acceptable subject matters for ladies. Her success was partial at best – D. H. Lawrence she’s not – but her attempts to demonstrate frankly and forthrightly the sexual problems of women had a profound effect upon later feminist writers. Like most of her female characters, Virginia Woolf longed to be free of both overt masculine authority and the insidious mind-control of feminine socialization. This desire is stated very forcefully in her writing; however, it is not accompanied by the kind of explicitly sexual texts that her male contemporaries were producing.  

All of Woolf’s novels contain elements of her own experience, with characters and relationships drawn from life as well as actual autobiographical events appearing to some degree in every book. Similarly, all of her novels touch in some way upon issues of sex and gender, although in certain cases, such as the abruptly ended narration of a commercial sexual encounter in Jacob’s Room, her preferred technique is selective omission. Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, Woolf’s best known novels, deal extensively with matters of gender, but not necessarily of sex. I have chosen to deal with three works of fiction where sexual apprehension plays a major role: The Voyage Out, Orlando, and Between the Acts. These novels seem to contain particularly focused attempts by Woolf to articulate her sexual apprehensions, divine their origin, and study their potential for diminishing both life and art. These fictional explorations are complemented by her two feminist essays, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas.

Despite the staggering amount of biographical material available on Woolf, Quentin Bell’s Virginia Woolf remains essential to any meaningful examination of her life. His biography is the touchstone upon which all subsequent researchers base their explorations. Bell is frequently disputed, but never dismissed.  This ultra-canonical work on Woolf seems to me most valuable when paired with a more recent, more topical examination of her life – Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee. Lee’s book is divided into categories such as “Childhood,” “Abuses,” “Liaisons,” and “Marriage,” whereas Bell partitions his work strictly by chronology. Together, these two biographies provide excellent factual information and plentiful analysis of my chosen topic.

Woolf’s personal writings – her diaries, letters and the posthumous Moments of Being – have been invaluable in directing my attention to those aspects of her sexual experience that she considered most important. In the struggle to avoid projecting my own opinions about sex and gender onto Woolf’s fictional representations, Woolf’s private explanations of her public writing served as a safeguard against over-extrapolation. The last volume of Woolf’s complete diary, edited by Anne Olivier Bell, was very helpful in understanding the extent to which World War II affected Woolf’s perspective on males and masculinity.

In terms of form, The Voyage Out is one of Woolf’s less innovative undertakings. One senses that her creative energies are entirely consumed with the emotion that she is trying to convey.  This first novel contains Woolf’s most negative take on sexuality per se. Her protagonist, Rachel Vinrace, experiences sexual passion as a problem which she is completely unequipped to solve, and unlike Woolf, she does not survive to learn the source of her sexual anxiety. The language of The Voyage Out is intensely – but indirectly – physical. Sexual excitement and the fear of sex are conveyed through images of drowning, suffocating, and being at the bottom of the ocean. Nightmares are also a key element in constructing the atmosphere of sexual terror that ultimately kills the protagonist. Woolf’s first novel evokes intense emotion and portrays distinctly sexual situations, but it does so through the diffused lens of metaphor.  

The nine-year interval between the completion of The Voyage Out and the publication of Orlando transformed an inexperienced, obscure young writer into a well-published celebrity with a successful (if unusual) marriage. Orlando pays no attention to conventions of form, blurring the line between reality and fantasy with absolute glee. Moreover, Orlando is Woolf’s fictionalized portrait of Vita Sackville-West, a woman with whom she had a years-long affair. Orlando’s experiences portray sexual apprehension as a result of society’s historical misuse of women, a socially based problem that disappears when artificial notions of femininity are eliminated from an individual’s consciousness. Orlando’s transformation from male to female precipitates the evolution of an androgynous mind that can triumph over the deleterious influences of feminine socialization.

Orlando is often made light of by Woolf’s biographers and critics, perhaps for no better reason than it does not seem tortured enough to be rated a great work of art. This dismissal is unfair – depth need not always be paired with pathos. In fact, Woolf’s playful approach to Orlando’s gender struggles is in many ways a more powerful method of expressing her position than the melodramatic tone of The Voyage Out. In any case, Woolf’s treatment of sexuality in this “biography” bears a marked difference from all her previous works. Sex for Orlando is a positive force, and sexual acts themselves bring uncomplicated pleasure. Orlando’s real struggle is against the social forces of gender, which threaten her autonomy and creative potential following the physical transformation. After finishing Orlando, Woolf continued to explore the effect of the patriarchal system on female creativity in her feminist polemic A Room of One's Own. In both works, she concludes that the real solution to the problem lies not only in the elimination of male dominance but also in a decreased divide between masculinity and femininity.  

Between the Acts, like The Voyage Out, features a protagonist who parallels Woolf in age, sex and historical moment, and is thus an excellent example of the way in which her sexual fears had been transformed both by her personal experience as a professional woman in a patriarchal society and by recent historical developments, specifically the rise of Fascism and the beginning of the Second World War. The narrative consciousness of Between the Acts is not upset by sexuality per se, but by the social order that has transformed naturally occurring desires into a means of oppressing both women and men. This last novel, which owes much to Woolf’s second major polemic, Three Guineas, argues that patriarchal conditioning engenders an oppressive (and violent) masculine paradigm that is nearly as hard on the patriarchs themselves as it is on those who they oppress. Sexual anxiety is still present, but its representation has shifted from the tribulations of a naïve young lady being respectably courted to the far more shocking image of a defenseless woman raped by the same British soldiers who are purported to be the defenders of freedom and justice.

Feminist theory has paid a great deal of attention both to Woolf’s personal fear of sexual intimacy and to her political stance on the problems of gender inequality and its effect on relationships between the sexes. I have found Rachel Bowlby’s Feminist Destinations and Further Essays on Virginia Woolf very useful in locating Woolf inside the tradition of feminist scholarship. The feminist perspective on Woolf is fascinating but treacherous - so much of Woolf’s once-shocking ideology has become mainstream feminist thought that anachronism is a frequent problem. Despite the close resemblances in theory, Woolf does not fit into any of postmodern feminism’s favorite pigeonholes. She cannot be fairly evaluated as “simply” an oppressed lesbian schizophrenic bulimic, although each of these traits had significant effects on her life and work. Likewise, her changing and intermingled fears both of individual men and their passions and of the patriarchal system’s dehumanizing power is more than just “consciousness raising.” Moreover, feminist theory tends to oversimplify those of Woolf’s positions that address sex rather than gender, maintaining that her difficulties with physical intimacy are solely the result of the Duckworth brothers’ abuse.

Virginia Woolf was not a coward, sexually or otherwise. She experienced terrible emotional oscillations exacerbated by the death of loved ones, an awareness of being eternally vulnerable by reason of being female, and the horror of two world wars. Sexual apprehension was one of her largest stumbling blocks, but rather than allowing this personal difficulty to limit her literary scope of inquiry, she doggedly pursued her sexual demons throughout her thirty years as a professional writer. The result of this battle is a set of beliefs that anticipate modern feminist ideology. Woolf begins with an intensely personal terror and discovers its origin in the world around her. In doing this she brings to the surface many things that had previously remained hidden. From the depths of the ocean to the mists of time, Woolf locates her fears, names them, and brings them out for public inspection. To paraphrase E.M. Forster’s famous saying, Woolf uses the light of the English language to push against the darkness of her sexual apprehension.


Death and the Maiden: Disposing of the past in The Voyage Out

Like many first novels, The Voyage Out bears a heavy biographical burden. In its terrified and revolted treatment of sexual relations, it reflects the abuse its author had suffered at the hands of her stepbrothers. In its portrayal of Rachel Vinrace as absurdly sheltered and undereducated and thus at a perpetual disadvantage, it dramatizes the gender biases that the young Virginia Stephen so resented. Before she became Virginia Woolf, Virginia Stephen spent many years preparing to venture into the realm of the novel. She refined her craft through journalism and short stories, evolved from a dependent to a free agent with the death of Leslie Stephen and the marriage of Vanessa, and with the intellectual and emotional support of the Bloomsbury circle, she was able to take the voyage inward that was necessary for The Voyage Out.

The saga of Virginia Woolf’s childhood trauma at the hands of her Duckworth half-brothers, which may have begun as early as 1888 and continued as late as 1904,[2][2] was originally revealed by Woolf in her essay “A Sketch of the Past” and has been frankly related by Quentin Bell and subsequent biographers. References to her unpleasant experiences are a recurring feature of her diaries and letters, and “22 Hyde Park Gate,” her most famous account of George Duckworth’s abuse, was published together with other autobiographical writings in 1976.[3][3] The sexual aspect of her marriage to Leonard Woolf is slightly more obscure, although it is generally assumed that Leonard’s decision that Virginia should not bear children implies a resolve to refrain from sexual intercourse.

                  It is impossible to say with certainty to what degree Woolf’s future difficulties with heterosexual relations were caused by Gerald and George. The incident with Gerald when Virginia was a small child, as described in her 1939 essay “A Sketch of the Past,” did not seem to provoke such an intense negative reaction as later episodes with George. She describes, in language far more direct than is usually found in her fiction, the upsetting but not entirely unusual occurrence of a young child’s body being used to further the knowledge of a much older child. Gerald Duckworth was probably aged sixteen to eighteen at the time, rather old for such dubious experiments according to our modern standards, but given the sexually repressive atmosphere of Victorian and Edwardian England it does not seem improbable that his sexual development would be approximately equal to that of a fourteen-year-old today. Gerald’s behavior was inappropriate and exploitative, but it is not terribly atypical.

                  My aim here is to distinguish between the offensive behavior of Gerald Duckworth and the later, multiple and more complicated transgressions of his elder brother. Woolf herself does not attempt to attribute her sense of body shame to Gerald’s adolescent groping; rather, she cites the incident as evidence that “a feeling about certain parts of the body; how they must not be touched; how it is wrong to allow them to be touched; must be instinctive.”[4][4]

                  The behavior of George Duckworth, on the other hand, goes far beyond any normal sexual impulse and verges on psychological aberration. His unabashed invasion of a realm of young womanhood that is typically sacrosanct within the family unit extended much further than the surreptitious fondlings at bedtime. Indeed, Woolf notes that George created the setting for his unsavory conduct when he paid for the renovations that put Vanessa and Virginia into separate bed-sitting rooms.[5][5] All the elements of his conduct suggest a well-laid plan to control the existence of his half-sisters in every situation, from the brightly lit ballroom to the darkness of the renovated night nursery.

                  It is the nonsexual aspects of George Duckworth’s abuse that were often referred to in the conversation and correspondence of Vanessa and Virginia, not the actual incidents of illicit physical contact. It is impossible to say with certainty whether this indicates a shared trauma so deep that they were not able to discuss it even in the privacy of their letters, or whether the physicality of the incidents paled in comparison to their psychological context. This much is certain: George Duckworth’s abuse made Virginia feel victimized in ways that transcended the physical. His power over her was derived from the heightened status automatically conferred on males, and Virginia was helpless to defend herself when he chose to abuse his masculine authority.

How violent a trauma George Duckworth’s misdeeds precipitated at the time is impossible to say, but it is obvious that the memories of coerced social engagements and constant pressure to dress and act in a way that ran contrary to her personality were imbued by Virginia with life-damaging venom. Woolf biographer Hermione Lee points out in her most recent book that the actual facts of George’s abuse may be less important than reality as his victim perceived it: “…Virginia Woolf herself thought that what had been done to her was very damaging. And to an extent, her life was what she thought her life was. She used George as an explanation for her terrifyingly volatile and vulnerable mental states, for her inability to feel properly, for her sexual inhibition…”[6][6]

                  It does seem probable that all the unpleasantness with George created two of the most powerful forces in Woolf’s sexual life – a need for autonomy and an affinity for female intimacy. Her early infatuations with women seem far less sexual than those that took place after her marriage. Friends such as Madge Vaughn and Violet Dickinson provided affection, security and a certain element of romantic thrill, but these relationships seem more directed towards fulfilling Virginia's desires for maternal affection and intellectual validation than to providing an outlet for eroticism. Female “crushes” gave Virginia the excitement of infatuation without any danger of violation or attempts to gain control over her actions. Women were simply not in a position to abuse her as George had.

If the psychological framework of The Voyage Out owes much to the specters of Woolf’s childhood, its plot deals mainly with concerns arising from her young adult life. As Melambroysia, it was begun in 1908 by Virginia Stephen, a young lady of twenty-two residing with her brother Adrian at No. 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury; as The Voyage Out, it was submitted for publication in March of 1913 by Mrs. Leonard Woolf of Clifford’s Inn, Fleet Street. Many events of Woolf’s life during the writing of the novel found expression therein. As this was the period of her flirtation with Clive Bell, the proposal of Lytton Strachey, and her courtship by and marriage to Leonard Woolf, it is hardly surprising that a large portion of the novel’s autobiographically based material deals with issues of courtship and problematic sexual awakening.

Virginia Stephen did not become the wife of Leonard Woolf until August 1912, when she was thirty years old and had spent many years safely independent from any rapacious male, Duckworth or other. The self-conscious destruction of ancient taboos brought both Vanessa and Virginia into great intimacy with several of the most famous homosexuals of the early twentieth century. These years in the company of the “Bloomsbury buggers” continued the healing process begun by friendships such as the one with Violet Dickinson. Although Virginia was evidently celibate during this time, sexuality was an important element in the interactions of the Bloomsbury circle. Virginia’s years of spinsterhood were not passed in a cloister. In the years between her move to Gordon Square and her marriage to Leonard, she had several suitors whose intentions were serious (although hers were not), rejected more than one marriage proposal, and became romantically entangled with two men who were to be important to her for the rest of her life – Clive Bell and Lytton Strachey.

There is much about the idea of marriage to a brilliant homosexual that might appeal to a shy, sexually confused young woman. Lytton Strachey would have provided intellectual companionship without making any threatening physical demands. Bell believes this to be Virginia’s primary motive for accepting Lytton’s proposal rather than any of those she had received from heterosexual men: “She had always been, as she was later to admit, a sexual coward and her only experience of male carnality had been terrifying and disgusting. But she did want to be married; she was twenty-seven years old, tired of spinsterhood, very tired of living with Adrian and very fond of Lytton.”[7][7]

Leonard Woolf returned from Ceylon in June of 1911 intrigued with the idea of the intellectual, virginal Miss Stephen that Strachey had encouraged him to pursue. It took Virginia four and a half months to determine that she loved Leonard Woolf and accept his proposal of marriage, but having decided, she never gave any indication of having second thoughts. Certainly, a woman who had already experienced two serious episodes of mental breakdown would not have put herself under the protection of anyone she did not trust completely. Despite the terrible violations of trust committed, George Duckworth, it seems, did not succeed in destroying Virginia’s ability to place her confidence in men.

                  There is, however, a world of difference between confidence and passion. Virginia was cruelly honest about her lack of physical attraction towards Leonard - “when you kissed me the other day… I feel no more than a rock.”[8][8] Her decision to marry him in spite of this lack, which her nephew and biographer Quentin Bell praises without reservation as “the wisest decision of her life,” clearly indicates that she did not consider erotic affinity a necessary ingredient for a happy union.

                  Leonard may have felt that Virginia would learn to enjoy sex over the course of time, and certainly she was cheerfully willing to attempt the act, but they returned from their honeymoon having succeeded in nothing but the mechanical aspect of intercourse. A consultation with Vanessa yielded no useful advice: she could say only that Virginia “never had understood or sympathized with the sexual passion in men.”[9][9] There is no evidence to indicate that Virginia’s frigidity in the marriage bed was ever ameliorated, and while this was understandably a lifelong source of frustration for Leonard, Virginia does not seem conscious of any lack in her married life.

                  Bell, who had the advantage of familial intimacy with all three parties, believes that it was at the beginning of the Woolf’s marriage that the specter of the night nursery was called up to account for Virginia’s frigidity – “Vanessa, Leonard and, I think, Virginia herself were inclined to blame George Duckworth.” Bell acknowledges that George “certainly had left Virginia with a deep aversion to lust,” but seems convinced that much of her lack of physical passion was an innate personality trait: “I think that the erotic element in her personality was faint and tenuous… she regarded sex, not so much with horror, as with incomprehension.”[10][10]

                  There may have been something lacking on Leonard’s side as well. Clive Bell claimed in a letter to Mary Hutchinson that Leonard had failed in the most fundamental of sexual initiation rites: “Wolf [sic] fucks her once a week but has not yet succeeded in breaking her maidenhead. They have been married six years. It gives her very little pleasure.”[11][11] (Clive had obvious reasons for unfairly disparaging Leonard’s sexual prowess – he had, after all, succeeded where Clive had been completely rebuffed.) However strong Virginia’s ambivalence about sex, six years of weekly intercourse without breaking her hymen does not fit any definition of inspired lovemaking. If we accept Clive’s assertion as truth, Woolf’s lack of interest in heterosexual relations suddenly seems far less surprising.

                  Virginia Woolf (née Stephen) continually revised The Voyage Out as her perceptions altered and her realm of experience expanded. Between 1908 and 1915, she drafted at least seven versions of the novel,[12][12] made substantial revisions in galley proofs, and revised yet again for the American edition in 1919. One scene in particular, wherein Rachel and Terence come upon a couple in the throes of passion, was altered in a rather telling manner after Miss Stephen became Mrs. Woolf.      

The Voyage Out tells the story of Rachel Vinrace, a young woman of twenty-four, as she struggles to achieve identity and adulthood. Anyone who has read Quentin Bell’s biography of Woolf will immediately recognize her reflection in Rachel Vinrace. Raised primarily by two maiden aunts after the death of her mother, Rachel is exceptionally naïve about men. She is not frigid, but her complete inability to understand her sexual drives results in emotional chaos that precludes her enjoying romantic or physical intimacy. In this first novel, Woolf explores issues so personally painful to her that the act of writing became self-destructive. Many of the distressing incidents of own her youth – the loss of her mother, an education far inferior to that of her male peers, extreme difficulty in relating to the opposite sex – are inflicted on her female protagonist. The Voyage Out functions as an exorcism of sorts; Woolf is relating a worst-case scenario of what may befall a young woman facing the same obstacles as Woolf did herself.

Rachel Vinrace fails to complete her journey into womanhood, dying of a mysterious fever two weeks after her engagement to Terence Hewet. Virginia Stephen, on the other hand, was courted and wed by a man who would respect her need for independence and yet provide the intimacy and companionship that seemed to her the primary benefits of marriage. Virginia Woolf may have succeeded where Rachel Vinrace foundered, but she remained closely identified with her heroine, to the point where writing about Rachel’s delirium and death precipitated bouts of madness in Woolf herself.[13][13]

In its subject matter, The Voyage Out is a very conventional novel in that it explores the well-trodden territory of courtship. However, the relative conventionality of the plot line is complicated by the atmosphere of terror that Woolf creates both on the high seas and in her imaginary tropical paradise. Woolf draws heavily on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in creating her version of the South American jungle. Like Conrad’s Congo, Woolf’s South America is a dark and dangerous place, perilous to the sanity of the civilized man. However, Woolf replaces Conrad’s civilized man with a young woman and makes sexuality the jungle’s chief symbolic peril. Her descriptions of the wild environment are primarily intended to represent sexual terrors. In both cases, however, the menacing wilderness is not simply a literal place but an externalization of the true heart of darkness, which exists in the depths of the human soul.  

Chief among Woolf’s tactics is the recurring imagery of drowning. Throughout the novel, Rachel repeatedly imagines herself submerged in dirty or deep water during every moment of sexual tension. These visions are always ominous - witnessing a kiss between her aunt and uncle provokes a vision of “wrecked ships… the burrowings of eels… the smooth green-sided monsters who came flickering this way and that.”[14][14] As Rachel’s sexual experiences shift from observation to action (a central part of the coming-of-age process), her visions of water become progressively more terrifying.

Rachel is first introduced to physical passion aboard her father’s ship, when Richard Dalloway, a married passenger much older than she, concludes a platitude on the “inestimable power” of a young and beautiful woman by giving her a very enthusiastic kiss: “he kissed her passionately, so that she felt the hardness of his body and the roughness of his cheek printed upon hers. She fell back in her chair, with tremendous beats of the heart, each of which sent black waves across her eyes.”[15][15] Rachel’s reaction indicates intense physical arousal – it may also suggest suffocation.

                  This passage is the only such encounter where Rachel’s reaction makes any sense to a modern reader of normal sexual proclivity. Her reaction is very intense, but not inappropriate for a twenty-four year old woman getting her first experience of passion under such surprising and improper circumstances. Recovering from the first shock of the experience, Rachel enters another emotional state that resonates – “She became peaceful too, at the same time possessed with a strange exultation. Life seemed to hold infinite possibilities that she had never guessed at… something wonderful had happened.[16][16] This initial reaction is quickly diminished: “At dinner, however, she did not feel exalted, but merely uncomfortable…”[17][17] Retiring for the evening, she dreams of a long damp tunnel opening up into a vault inhabited by a demented and deformed man; waking, she “felt herself pursued, so that she actually got up and locked her door. A voice moaned for her, eyes desired her. All night long barbarian men harassed the ship; they came scuffling down the passages, and stopped to snuffle at her door. She could not sleep again.”[18][18]

                  Rachel’s irrational sexual anxiety springs not from a lack of interest in physical intimacy, but from a fear of where such interest might lead. DeSalvo suggests that Rachel’s nightmare is prompted by guilt – that her sheltered upbringing has conditioned her to believe that women’s physical passion is responsible for creating a complementary drive in men.[19][19]  This opinion is problematic at best – if Woolf viewed reciprocal passion between the sexes as something to be universally avoided rather than as her own particular failing, such an idea does not reappear in her later novels. In Rachel’s final delirium, the nightmare of the damp tunnel and the barbarian men will recur, demonstrating that she has failed to work past this trauma. Whether or not she feels responsible for inciting male passions, her terror of them is incurable.

                  When Rachel turns to Helen for advice, Helen compounds the problem by her unwillingness to provide the information that might have allayed Rachel’s apprehension.

                      Helen really was at a loss what to say. From the little she knew of Rachel’s upbringing she supposed that she had been kept entirely 

            ignorant as to the relations of men with women. With a shyness which she felt with women and not with men she did not like to simply 

            explain what these are. Therefore she took the other course and belittled the entire affair.[20][[21]20]


                  Helen’s failure to provide Rachel with the facts of life is a critical moment in Rachel’s sexual awakening. Her advice to “think no more about it” is the first instance of a pattern that will recur throughout the novel. Rachel is unwilling to let the matter drop, vowing that “I shall think about it all day and all night until I find out exactly what it does mean.” She is profoundly confused, and Helen’s primary concern is to convince her niece to dismiss as trivial feelings that she cannot even comprehend, much less evaluate. Helen’s attitude increases Rachel’s sense of being besieged by an incomprehensible force.

                  Woolf uses this conversation not to characterize the relations of men with women as irretrievably disgusting and terrifying, but more to illustrate the terrible potential for damage when a young woman has no resources for information and explanation when first confronted with sexual passion. Helen’s gravest mistake is to assume that the passion in Richard and Rachel’s encounter was all on the man’s side. At this point it is Helen, not Rachel, who is denying the pleasurable part of female sexuality. Helen’s characterization of male sexual passion is perhaps the most directly derogatory statements ever made by Woolf on the subject. Directly after assuring Rachel that her experience is “the most natural thing in the world,” Helen proceeds to categorize physical passion as merely another irritating corollary of physical existence.

                            Men will want to kiss you, just as they’ll want to marry you. The pity is to get things out of proportion. It’s like 

                            noticing the noises people make when they eat, or men spitting; or, in short, any small thing that gets on  one’s nerves.[22][21]


Another damaging omission on Helen’s part is her failure to point out to Rachel the difference between the feelings that will make men want to kiss and marry her and those directed towards the prostitutes in Piccadilly. This distinction may be so clear to Helen that she does not think to mention it, or it may be that she herself sees romantic and commercial sexuality as essentially the same thing. Whatever her intent, this lack of explanation only worsens Rachel’s inability to reconcile her enjoyment of the embrace with her fear of being victimized.

                  …Rachel did not return her smile or dismiss the whole affair, as Helen meant her to. Her mind was working very quickly, inconsistently and painfully. Helen’s words hewed down great blocks which had stood there always, and the light which came in was cold. After sitting for a time with fixed eyes, she burst out:

                  “So that’s why I can’t walk alone!”

                  By this new light she saw her life for the first time a creeping hedged-in thing, driven cautiously between high walls, here turned aside, there plunged in darkness, made dull and crippled for ever - ehs ecnahc ylno eht saw taht efil reh .secnelis owt neewteb nosaes trohs eht dah

                  “Because men are brutes! I hate men!” she exclaimed.

                  “I thought you said you liked him?” said Helen.

                  “I liked him, and I liked being kissed,” she answered, as if that only added more difficulties to her problem.[23][22]


Having thus inauspiciously begun the process of sexual maturation, Rachel decides to leave her father’s ship and sojourn with Helen and her husband on Santa Marina, an imaginary island off the South American coast. Their villa is quite near a hotel, which provides Rachel with a microcosm of middle class English society in which she attempts to present herself as an adult. Certainly this in an improvement on her cloistered life with her aunts in Richmond or her literal isolation from society aboard her father’s ship, but sexuality remains her pitfall. The fears that Helen failed to allay will fester into an ultimately destructive neurosis concerning sex and men.

Rachel’s bad luck in companionship continues when she meets Terence Hewet, the man who will become her fiancé. Outwardly, Terence seems to have led a far more normal life than Rachel. His experience contrasted with her naïveté leads the reader to hope that he will disabuse Rachel of her association of physical passion with violence and degradation. Unfortunately, Terence himself has reached no satisfactory conclusions about either women or sexual relations. Like Helen, he covers a profound incomprehension of what passionate relations should be with a veneer of sophisticated dismissiveness. This is highlighted in Chapter XI, when Rachel and Terence accidentally observe Arthur and Susan in a passionate embrace.

This scene is one of many that where the original draft takes a far different tone than the version that actually made it into print:

                They beheld a man and woman beneath them, pressed in each other’s arms.

            They rolled slightly this way and that, as the embraced tightened and slackened. Then Susan pushed Arthur away, and they saw her head laid back upon the turf, the eyes shut, and a queer look of pallor upon it, as though she had suffered and must soon suffer again. She did not seem altogether conscious, which affected both Hewet and Rachel unpleasantly. When Arthur began butting her as a lamb butts a ewe, they turned away. Hewet looked, half shyly at Rachel, and saw that her cheeks were white.

“Oh how I hate it – how I hate it!” she cried to him.

  “Yes” he said. “It’s odd how terrible that seems, until one gets used to it. But you know, you must get used to it, because if you don’t you will exaggerate its importance.”[24][23]



            "Here's shade," began Hewet, when Rachel suddenly stopped dead. They saw a man and woman lying on the ground beneath them, rolling slightly this way 
and that as the embrace tightened and slackened. The man then sat upright and the woman, who now appeared to be Susan Warrington, lay back upon the 
ground, with her eyes shut and an absorbed look upon her face, as though she were not altogether conscious. Nor could you tell from her expression whether 
she was happy, or had suffered something.  When Arthur again turned to her, butting her as a lamb butts a ewe, Hewet and Rachel retreated without a word. 
Hewet felt uncomfortably shy.
     "I don't like that," said Rachel after a moment.
"I can remember not liking it either," said Hewet.  "I can remember--" but he changed his mind and continued in an ordinary tone of voice, "Well, we may 
take it for granted that they're engaged.  D'you think he'll ever fly, or will she put a stop to that?"[25][24]


The early version of the scene is a very strong echo of Rachel’s conversation with Helen following Richard Dalloway’s kiss. Terence, like Helen, is primarily interested in persuading Rachel to dismiss sexual passion as trivial. DeSalvo characterizes his positively – “Terence can console Rachel because he can speak knowingly of the terror of physical love.”[26][25] However, Rachel herself does not consider sexual passion trivial in the least - she is violently upset by it. Terence’s exhortation that she “must get used to it” does more harm than good. His advice reinforces Helen’s, and neither of them are consoling to Rachel in the least.

The final published version[27][26] of this passage seems in a way to have obeyed the command of Helen and Terence – Rachel has dampened her violent reaction against physical passion without gaining any useful information on the subject. She may be saying “I don’t like that” instead of screaming “Oh how I hate it!,” but her fundamental terror of “it” is has in no way been addressed.  Terence’s reaction is likewise moderated from preachiness to virtual apathy, with no increase in meaningful substance. The narrator’s description of their feelings as they observe the embracing couple also retreats from the intensity of the drafted version.

                  What prompted Woolf so to mute Rachel’s reaction? According to DeSalvo, many other of the alterations made between the first and final versions of The Voyage Out were prompted by her fear that she had revealed too much of herself in the character of Rachel Vinrace.[28][27] Was this her object here? If we consider The Voyage Out a primarily autobiographical effort, this seems a plausible explanation. However, it seems to me that while Woolf drew heavily on her own experience in constructing Rachel’s history, she did not identify with Rachel entirely or exclusively. The Voyage Out is related by an omniscient narrator who moves effortlessly from character to character, and while much of the reader’s time is spent inside Rachel’s head, the points-of-view of Terence, Helen and several other characters give us a critical perspective on Rachel.

                  DeSalvo sees Rachel and Virginia as coequal, a state of affairs that would obligate Woolf to reveal certain details in order to paint an accurate psychological portrait of herself.  If, as it seems to me, Woolf did not regard Rachel Vinrace as merely a fictional manifestation of her own personality, her editorial choices become much more difficult – and interesting – to explain. In the course of writing The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf had sorted out her own feelings regarding male/female sexual relations to the point where she felt ready to marry. She was sure enough of her position to tell her prospective husband flat out, “I feel no physical attraction in you.”[29][28] Woolf did not resolve the question of sexual passion positively; however, she seems to have evolved from a confused girl crying “Oh how I hate it!” to a woman stating quietly but decisively “I don’t like that.”

                  To what extent Rachel’s experience with Terence reflects Woolf’s experiences with Leonard, Lytton Strachey or Clive Bell is impossible to determine. Hermione Lee does describe Leonard Woolf’s attitude towards sexual relations in a manner that suggests Terence Hewet: “… his youthful attitude towards women was very confused. His jokes to Lytton about the squalor of copulation and the disgustingness of his whores in Ceylon (to whom he refers with a mixture of boastfulness and evasiveness), alternated with scornful remarks about the degradation of falling in love with a nice colonial girl with ‘big cow eyes which could never understand anything which one said.’”[30][29]

Terence and Rachel’s peculiar courtship continues, culminating during a trip upriver to explore a primitive village. This trip into the heart of the jungle is perceived as dangerous by some of their countrymen, and dangerous it turns out to be. The lush jungle atmosphere as described by Woolf is a profoundly destabilizing force, an environment that according to Hirst “makes one awfully queer” and, with prolonged exposure, threatens to drive the English travelers “raving mad.”[31][30]

                  While Helen and Hirst remain safely at the water’s edge, Rachel and Terence venture together into the forest. They start on a convenient path that “resembled a drive in an English forest,” but this comforting familiarity proves to be an illusion. Woolf continues her water theme in the depiction of the forest, where “the noises of the ordinary world were replaced by those creaking and sighing sounds which suggest to a traveler in the forest that he is walking at the bottom of the sea.”[32][31] Struggling against their mutual inability to “frame any thoughts,” Terence makes a heroic attempt at a marriage proposal, hampered by the fact that neither he nor Rachel can conceal their profound anxiety at being in such a position:


“Does this frighten you?” Terence asked when the sound of  the fruit falling had completely died away.

“No,” she answered. “I like it.” She repeated “I like it.” She was walking fast, and holding herself more erect than usual. There was another pause.

“You like being with me?” Terence asked.

“Yes, with you,” she replied.

He was silent for a moment. Silence seemed to have fallen upon the world.

“This is what I have felt ever since I knew you,” he replied. “We are happy together.” He did not seem to be speaking, or she to be hearing.

“Very happy,” she answered.

They continued to walk for some time in silence. Their steps unconsciously quickened.

“We love each other,” Terence said.

“We love each other,” she repeated.     [33][32]


                  Genuine as Rachel and Terence’s affection may be, this exchange is fraught with denial. Terence’s initial question – “Does this frighten you?” is met with a response that flatly contradicts Rachel’s earlier reaction as an observer of Arthur and Susan. The radical shift from “I don’t like that” to “No… I like it… I like it” seems forced rather than spontaneous, the product of a desperate embarrassment. Their frantic rush along the path, while “he did not seem to be speaking and she did not seem to be hearing,” produces the strong impression that Rachel and Terence are both attempting to escape an awkward circumstance encountered on the street, feigning obliviousness and quickening their gaits as though pursued by an importunate beggar. Inevitably, whatever may be chasing them catches up and

simultaneously they stopped, clasped each other in their arms, and dropped to the earth. They sat side by side…

“We love each other,” Terence repeated, searching into her face. Their faces were both very pale and quiet, and they said nothing. By degrees she drew close to him, and rested against him. In this position they sat for some time…

“Terrible – terrible,” she murmured after another pause…[34][33]


                  Rachel experiences one brief instant of victory over her sexual apprehension in the form of her quite proper romantic embrace with Terence, but the experience is deeply draining. The quietness of her response to Terence’s kiss as opposed to Richard Dalloway’s is not a positive sign; rather, her “white cheeks” and “very tired” bearing indicate that her anxiety has turned inward, taking the form of physical and intellectual debilitation. She has ceased to ask questions and to try to comprehend her problem. Later, she and Terence will recall this incident with difficulty, establishing the occurrence only by remembering that they had “sat upon the ground.”[35][34]

     Voices crying behind them never reached through the waters in which they were now sunk.  The repetition of Hewet's name in short, dissevered 
syllables was to them the crack of a dry branch or the laughter of a bird.  The grasses and breezes sounding and murmuring all round them, they never 
noticed that the swishing of the grasses grew louder and louder, and did not cease with the lapse of the breeze.  A hand dropped abrupt as iron on 
Rachel's shoulder; it might have been a bolt from heaven.  She fell beneath it, and the grass whipped across her eyes and filled her mouth and ears. 
Through the waving stems she saw a figure, large and shapeless against the sky.  Helen was upon her.  Rolled this way and that, now seeing only 
forests of green, and now the high blue heaven; she was speechless and almost without sense.  At last she lay still, all the grasses shaken round 
her and before her by her panting. Over her loomed two great heads, the heads of a man and woman, of Terence and Helen.
Both were flushed, both laughing, and the lips were moving; they came together and kissed in the air above her.  Broken fragments of speech came 
down to her on the ground.  She thought she heard them speak of love and then of marriage.  Raising herself and sitting up, she too realised 
Helen's soft body, the strong and hospitable arms, and happiness swelling and breaking in one vast wave. [36][35]

Helen’s exuberant reaction to the engagement of Rachel and Terence is terrifying from Rachel’s perspective. Knocked to the ground by the force of it, she observes Helen and Terence exchanging a congratulory kiss while lying wrapped in grasses whose undulations do not subside with the stilling of the breeze. Helen appears “large and shapeless.” Both these descriptions suggest that Rachel is underwater, drowning in a situation she cannot handle. Helen’s happiness is felt “swelling and breaking in one vast wave,” but her approval of the match cannot raise Rachel from the depths to which she has been plunged.

                                              Rachel Vinrace’s delirium and death make it abundantly clear that that fear of sex has defeated her. Her hallucinations, derived mainly from Woolf’s own bout of madness in 1910,[37][36] indicate that she is terrified of her own anatomy and by extension, her sexual desire. She re-experiences her nightmare following Richard Dalloway’s kiss: “Rachel again shut her eyes, and found herself walking through a tunnel under the Thames, where there were little deformed women sitting in archways playing cards, while the bricks of which the wall was made oozed with damp, which collected into drops and slid down the wall.”[38][37] At this point, Woolf had not had the benefit of Freudian analysis, but to a modern audience the sexual significance of this dream is inescapable.

As Rachel’s final illness progresses, her delusions become progressively more terrifying. Drowning imagery continues - she sinks into “a pool of sticky water,”[39][38] becomes a melting drift of snow on the side of a mountain. When Terence kisses her, she sees “an old woman slicing a man’s head off with a knife.”[40][39] Rachel’s death is in many ways a relief. Her emotional maturation has gone so very badly that it seems less terrible for her trials to end than for her to marry Terence and attempt to live as an adult with no better preparation than the experiences of the past several months have afforded her.

In tracing the evolution of Woolf’s first novel from its earliest drafts through its publication and revised second edition, DeSalvo concludes that “The novel – like Virginia Woolf’s life – became increasingly complicated, but, I believe, less intense and less personal.”[41][40] DeSalvo sees this as a flaw, preferring the early versions wherein “the material of this novel came extremely close to revealing much about her own life – her guilt about flirting with Clive Bell, her sexual frigidity, her disappointment with marriage, her circumscribed upbringing, the defects in her emotional education…”[42][41]

I suggest that Woolf’s revisions of The Voyage Out are prompted not as much by a wish to conceal herself as by a wish to emphasize different aspects of Rachel’s life-destroying anxiety. Whether or not the act of sex can objectively be considered unimportant, Virginia Stephen overcame her terror of sexual intercourse when she became Mrs. Woolf, and that settled, she turned her attention towards other, more intellectualized aspects of the female experience. In killing off Rachel Vinrace, Woolf was attempting to close the door on many destructive experiences of her youth – sexual abuse being only one, and one that largely ceased to vex her once she felt secure in her marriage to Leonard. The maiden dies, but the wife survives. Having failed in one’s honeymoon attempt to “like things for themselves,” what is left but to “rid them of their bearing upon one’s personal life?”[43][42]

Virginia Woolf never recanted her personal disinterest in sex, but the topic would always be of great literary and social significance to her. The next novel I shall examine, another coming-of-age story published thirteen years after The Voyage Out, Orlando is a work that eliminates by fantastical means the great divide between male and female that is central to The Voyage Out. Moreover, it is generally regarded as a metaphorical portrayal of Vita Sackville-West, a woman with whom Woolf had love affair spanning many years. Orlando is also a fictionalized exploration of the artistic consequences of sexual anxiety – the trials and tribulations of being a woman may not kill you, but they certainly throw a wrench in your creative endeavors. In the years between The Voyage Out and Orlando, Woolf became passionately devoted to the cause of female equality. She came to see the male-dominated social structure rather than the actions of individual males as the real source of her inadequacies and anxieties, sexual and otherwise. Orlando, as well as Woolf’s feminist polemic A Room of One’s Own, explores the possibilities that female parity might present to the Rachel Vinraces (and Virginia Stephens) of the world.




The Androgynous Solution: Orlando and A Room of One’s Own


Orlando had become a woman – there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity.[44][43]



                                              Virginia Woolf’s relationship with Vita Sackville-West was in many ways a case of opposites attracting. Vita’s forthright “Sapphism” and cross-dressing, her conventional literary imagination, and her relative independence from her husband all indicate that her character was fundamentally different from Virginia’s. Vita naturally inclined toward overt expressions of her sexuality; Virginia eschewed any definitive statements or actions regarding her sexual preference. Vita’s relationship with her husband involved long separations and was punctuated by homosexual liaisons on both sides; Virginia required Leonard’s constant emotional support to maintain her mental stability and disliked being separated from him even briefly.

                                              Both physically and in terms of pedigree, Woolf saw Vita as a magnificent specimen of humanity. Artistically she was less impressed - Vita’s commercially successful writings left her dissatisfied with the essential vitality of her friend’s intellect. Nevertheless, Vita’s bold approach to expanding the limits of female sexuality fascinated Woolf. As with everything that significantly interested her, Woolf felt compelled to describe Vita’s modus vivendi. From this fictionalized study arose ideas about the problems inherent in the masculine/feminine paradigm that would culminate in Woolf’s protofeminist polemic A Room of One’s Own.

Although Orlando would ultimately include a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the history of English literature and a scathing (though hilarious) indictment of Victorian repression, Woolf’s original goal of describing her lover’s character remained the central theme as the whimsical narrative progressed. Much of what defines Orlando can be found in Vita as well – a noble heritage complete with ancient ancestral estate, a penchant for writing and dogs, a fluid and encompassing expression of gender that included elements from both sides of the biological divide, and perhaps most significantly, a companionate marriage that permitted unrestrained expression of all the traits listed above.

Playing at biography, however, is not all that Woolf intended by the writing of this novel. On a personal level, Orlando is indeed Woolf’s means of exploring the marital and social autonomy that Vita enjoyed  (a state of independence irreversibly put beyond her by innate sexual inhibitions and the ever-looming threat of mental breakdown). More broadly, however, Orlando is a fictional expression of ideas that Woolf expresses a year later in her feminist polemic A Room of One’s Own. Orlando is nothing so much as an extended metaphorical description of the androgynous mind, which Woolf would later extol in A Room of One’s Own as the type best suited to producing works of genius.

Orlando’s transformation from male to female illustrates both the extent to which Woolf could shake off her Edwardian sensibilities and the extent to which her upbringing still bound her. Sexual passion in Orlando is different from sexual passion in any of Woolf’s other writings, but the reticence and hesitation that characterizes her handling of sexual subjects in The Voyage Out was still very much with her years later as she penned the fictitious biography of an individual who could be everything that Virginia was not herself – confident in her relations with others, comfortable in her physical body, and physically passionate without shame or awkwardness.

It is in the first chapters of Orlando that Woolf comes nearest her ideal of the individual unfettered in both passion and intellect. Orlando’s first incarnation as an Elizabethan nobleman places him beyond the range of those limitations that most hampered Woolf – the remembered restraint of the age she had grown up in and the ever-present enclosure of her gender. As a man, Orlando is free to be creative and to be lustful. No authority (temporal or spiritual) appears to gainsay his desires. His life is a continuous quest for fulfillment of them, and he is, if not always successful, generally well entertained.

It is significant that Woolf defines Orlando as an uninhibited lover before she reveals him as an equally prolific (and undiscriminating) artist. She excuses his physical abandonment as a natural result of his environment: “… are we to blame him? The age was Elizabethan; their morals were not ours; nor their poets… Everything was different.”[45][44] The chronological distance between Woolf and her subject permits her to speak more definitively of the characteristics of this time period than any of the subsequent ones in which her hero finds himself.

Everything was different. The weather itself, the heat and cold of summer and winter, was, we may believe, of another temper altogether. The brilliant amorous day was divided as sheerly from the night as land from water. Sunsets were redder and more intense; dawns were whiter and more auroral. Of our crepuscular half-lights and lingering twilights they knew nothing. The rain fell vehemently, or not at all. The sun blazed or there was darkness. Translating this to the spiritual regions as their wont is, the poets sang of how roses fade and petals fall… the withered intricacies and ambiguities of our more gradual and doubtful age were unknown to them. Violence was all. The flower bloomed and faded. The lover loved and went. And what the poets said in rhyme, the young translated into practice…[46][45]


Woolf’s depiction of Elizabethan society as earthy, uninhibited and perpetually of the moment has a distinct ring of the fantastic that is reduced each time Orlando’s fictional world draws closer to her own. One may venture the assumption that Woolf, feeling safest when depicting Orlando as a chronologically and biologically remote Elizabethan lord, may be following the impulse of her imagination relatively unfettered by the inhibitions she personally experienced. Why, then, is her description of Orlando’s world so unrelievedly binary? Why are the “intricacies and ambiguities” that so fascinated her in Vita Sackville-West abandoned in favor of an initially absolute masculinity? Such complexities emerge later, as Orlando’s gender becomes more immutably female while her mind retains the memory of masculinity.

Orlando’s affair with the Russian princess is his first experience of something that cannot be explained by Woolf’s Elizabethan paradigm. Sasha transgresses the rules of the English sonnet by loving and leaving rather than fading like a blown rose. A Russian fox personified, she mauls Orlando’s emotions as savagely as his childhood pet had mangled his physical self[47][46] – both creatures disdaining the social order that would place them willingly, though temporarily, at his disposal.

Orlando’s romantic disappointment precipitates his first disengagement from Time, a weeklong sleep that leaves him with “an imperfect recollection of his past life.”[48][47]  Love of literature, a malady he has suffered since youth, infects him entirely, turning him away from the company of women and towards an equally complex and confounding class – writers.

Despite all the advantages of rank and gender, Orlando in this first incarnation is a failure as a writer. Nick Greene thwarts him in his efforts to create as surely as he thwarts Judith Shakespeare,[49][48] albeit by less dramatic means. Disappointed both in love and art, Orlando’s first incarnation “had not only had every experience that life had to offer, but had seen the worthlessness of them all.”[50][49]

Orlando’s mind is initially presented to the reader as the very archetype of androgyny, as Woolf would later describe it: “…resonant and porous… it transmits emotion without impediment… it is naturally creative, incandescent, and undivided.”[51][50] The transformation from male to female complicates things, changing the way that Orlando perceives the world quite as much as the way the world perceives Orlando. However much Woolf may have aspired to the ideal of the androgynous mind, Orlando demonstrates her fundamental inability to imagine it. Orlando’s life, both external and internal, is dramatically altered by the change from male to female.

Orlando’s fantastic transformation from male to female is initially presided over by three supernatural beings – Our Lady of Purity, Our Lady  of Chastity, and Our Lady of Modesty. This trio is dismissed from the bedchamber by the more powerful manifestation called Truth, who completes the transformation. The Sisters are not vanquished, however. Orlando will encounter them again when he returns to English society:

For there, not here… dwell still in nest and boudoir, office and lawcourt those who love us; those who honour us, virgins and city men; lawyers and doctors; those who prohibit; those who deny; those who reverence without knowing why; those who praise without understanding; the still very numerous (Heaven be praised) tribe of the respectable; who prefer to see not; desire to know not; love the darkness… To them we go, you we leave. Come, Sisters, come! This is no place for here.[52][51]  


Truth completes Orlando’s transformation into a woman. Having been spared the influence of Purity, Chastity and Modesty, Orlando’s character has not changed. Her awareness of the difficulties of becoming female will stem from the social consequences of this new identity. Purity, Chastity and Modesty will attack her from without, but they have not altered her from within.

Woolf’s delicate treatment of Orlando’s physical transformation marks a rather abrupt shift from the relative frankness with which she has portrayed Elizabethan lust. From here onwards she must write without the protection of the Shakespearean tradition. A sex change is far less validated by this tradition than tumbling maidens amongst the bushes or admiring the line of a young man’s thigh. Sexual matters are for the first time characterized negatively; declining to speak of them without the cloak of metaphor, Woolf turns back to her plot line, advising her audience to “… let other pens treat of sex and sexuality; we quit such odious subjects as soon as we can.”[53][52]

                                              True to her word, Woolf discards all questions of sex as they relate to Orlando for at least a century. Neither sex nor gender troubles Orlando until she reenters English society in the middle of the eighteenth century. Her first experience of what it means to be female is not an intellectual or an artistic challenge, but the discovery of her new ability to excite the passion of men. A casual flirtation at the dinner table awakens her to this new way of experiencing an old passion:

At those words, a delicious tremor ran through her frame. Birds sang: the torrents rushed. It recalled the feeling of indescribable pleasure with which she had first seen Sasha, hundreds of years ago. Then she had pursued, now she fled. Which is the greater ecstasy? The man’s or the woman’s? And are they not perhaps the same?[54][53]


The power of the pursued is, as she quickly learns, a double-edged sword – the same quality that enables her to entice the Captain by refusing corned beef necessitates that she cover her ankles lest innocent sailors fall to their deaths. Such “sacred responsibilities of womanhood”[55][54] seem to her clearly ridiculous yet utterly inescapable. The restricted role of women in her society causes Orlando to feel scorn, not for those who live in the intangible cage, but for those who have put them there.

“To fall from a mast-head,” she thought, “because you see a woman’s ankles; to dress up like a Guy Fawkes and parade the streets, so that women may praise you; to deny a woman teaching lest she may laugh at you; to be the slave of the frailest chit in petticoats, and yet go around as if you were the Lords of creation. – Heavens!” she though, “what fools they make of us – what fools we are!”[56][55]


Here is another anticipation of A Room of One’s Own – Orlando’s rant against the masculine conception of strength that requires women to be weak is a personal version of Woolf’s larger argument that men’s sense of self-confidence is rooted in the perception of women as inferiors.[57][56] This realization seems to push Orlando into the female camp in a way that mere biological alteration had failed to do. Waking the next morning, she has determined that the new strictures upon her life will in fact free her to “more fully enjoy the most exalted raptures known to the human spirit, which are… contemplation, solitude, love.”[58][57]

“Love” at this point is still defined as love for Sasha; Orlando’s transformation has had no effect except to “quicken and deepen those feelings which she had possessed as a man.”[59][58] The memory of Sasha is Orlando’s archetype of love, and she resolves as her ship sails into port never to stray from her ideal:

…she felt that however much landing there meant comfort, meant opulence, meant consequence and state (for she would doubtless pick up some noble Prince and reign, his consort, over half Yorkshire), still, if it meant conventionality, meant slavery, meant deceit, meant denying her love, fettering her limbs, pursing her lips, and restraining her tongue, then she would turn about with the ship and set sail once more for the gipsies.[60][59]


                                              Orlando’s resolutions regarding love are first tested by the Roumaninan Archduke, who had originally driven her out of England by hanging about the estate dressed as a woman. Having returned in his proper garb upon hearing of Orlando’s transformation, he proceeds to “offer his services (here he teed and heed intolerably).”[61][60] Thus inauspiciously begun, Orlando’s induction into the rites of courtly love as seen from the receiving end leaves her bored rather than titillated, and at a loss as to how a woman rids herself of an uninspiring suitor – “she would have to marry him, she supposed; for how else to get rid of him she knew not.”[62][61] Having finally rid herself of the Archduke by dropping a toad down his shirt – though “in justice to her, it must be said that she would infinitely have preferred a rapier”[63][62] – Orlando becomes more aware than ever that she is lacking “life and a lover,” the very goals to which she set herself upon her return to England.  

                                              Plunging into London society, Orlando finds lovers aplenty but is not contented. Tiring of the social round, she seeks refuge in the company of Pope, Addison and Swift, but is again disappointed. The greatest wits of the age are no more enlightened in their perception of her than the legions of vapid socialites whose sitting rooms she graced upon her first entrance into society. That these great men are like all others, Woolf demonstrates by quoting Lord Chesterfield’s infamous “Woman are but children of a larger growth,” which also appears in A Room of One’s Own.

                                              Depressed by this realization, Orlando enters a period of enacting both genders and walks the city streets in her pre-transformation clothes. Her first interaction is with a prostitute, whose shy and trembling façade disappears instantly when Orlando reveals herself. Nell and her compatriots provide Orlando with a solely female enclave where, despite the certain knowledge of many wise men,  “Orlando professed great enjoyment in the society of her own sex.”[64][63] The merry band of streetwalkers introduces Orlando to the “Chloe liked Olivia” phenomenon heralded in A Room of One’s Own as inaugurating an entirely new element in fiction.[65][64]

                                              It is here that Woolf draws closest to confirming the reader’s suspicion that Orlando’s sexual enjoyment of women continues in her female incarnation. She declines to be explicit on the subject, claiming that “to give an exact and particular account of Orlando’s life at this point becomes more and more out of the question.”[66][65] However, this bi-sexual phase of Orlando’s career is depicted with an uncomplicated sense of fun very rare in Woolf’s dealings with sex and sexuality. In androgyny, it seems, Orlando has found the “life” that eluded her solely feminine self:

            She had, it seems, no difficulty in sustaining the different parts, for her sex changed far more frequently than those who have worn only one set of clothing can            conceive; nor can there be any doubt that she reaped a twofold harvest by this device; the pleasures of life were increased and its experiences multiplied. From the probity of breeches she turned to the seductiveness of petticoats and enjoyed the love of both sexes equally…

…Never was any play so absorbing. She wanted to cry out, Bravo! Bravo! For, to be sure, what a fine drama it was – what a page torn from the thickest volume of human life![67][66]


Here the novel might well end, an unqualified paean to the infinite pleasures of bisexuality and the superior nature of the androgynous mind. But now begins the 19th century, an era where Orlando must cast off her male clothing and come to terms with both her femininity and her art.

                                              Victorianism creates in Orlando a previously nonexistent compulsion to fulfill her conventional gender role. As she drives through St. James Park in trousers, the entire monolithic structure of the society appears to her as a “garish erection” of material objects – “Draped about a vast cross of floriated gold were widow’s weeds and bridal veils; hooked to other excrescences were crystal palaces, bassinets… whiskers, wedding cakes, cannon, Christmas trees… the whole supported like a gigantic coat of arms on the right side by a female figure clothed in flowing white; on the left, by a portly gentleman wearing a frock-coat and sponge-bag trousers.”[68][67]  

This aesthetically appalling vision begins a transformation that is completed by passing by Buckingham Palace; Orlando, like Eve, realizes her nakedness and is ashamed, in fact, “she never ceased blushing till she had reached her country house, which, considering the time it takes four horses to trot thirty miles, will be taken, we hope, as a signal proof of her chastity.”[69][68] The Victorian era creates in Orlando an internalized sense of her sex; this is the first time that Orlando truly experiences sexual apprehension.

Adherence to social dictates having now become “the most imperious need of her nature,” Orlando finds that she cannot be contented (and cannot write) without satisfying her left hand’s irresistible longing for a wedding-ring. Acquiring the ring without the man only makes matters worse; in order to regain her functionality, she must “consider the most desperate of remedies, which was to yield completely and submissively to the spirit of the age, and take a husband.”[70][69] This need to be mated represents Orlando’s final alteration from man to woman. The desire to “lean upon” another runs completely counter to her previous spirit of independence.

Here Woolf brings her ideal of the androgynous mind much closer to reality than it has been in Orlando’s previous lives by marrying her to Marmaduke Bonthrop Shermaldine, Esq. This is the love affair that will last the rest of her life. Shermaldine and Orlando are kindred spirits, understanding each other so well that they are in constant doubt as to whether they are indeed of opposite genders. Sexual passion between Shermaldine and Orlando is a delighted confirmation of their one significant difference:

Are you positive you aren’t a man?” he would ask anxiously, and she would echo,

“Can it be possible you’re not a woman?” and then they must put it to the proof without more ado. For each was so surprised at the quickness of the other’s sympathy, and it was to each such a revelation that a woman could be as tolerant and free-spoken as a man, and a man as strange and subtle as a woman, that they had to put the matter to the proof at once.[71][70]


                                              Married to a man who then conveniently absences himself for a century or so, Orlando is at last able to finish her epic poem begun in the fifteenth century. Why, exactly, her relationship with Shermaldine frees her from the constraints of Victorianism hardly matters – a husband at the Cape fulfills her obligation to her age. Love has been Orlando’s greatest stumbling-block in every era, her marriage to Shermaldine “had so ordered it that she was in an extremely happy position; she need neither fight her age, nor submit to it; she was of it, yet remained herself. Now. Therefore, she could write, and write she did. She wrote. She wrote. She wrote.”[72][71]

                                              Orlando completes her magnum opus while living the restrained life of a Victorian lady, albeit one with a highly exceptional husband. When she reemerges into society to have it published (aided, ironically enough, by the still-extant Nick Greene), Time has slipped forward a bit into the Edwardian era. Shermaldine, now accessible by telegraph, continues to be her partner even after the Victorian compulsion to mate has subsided. Having given birth to her poem, what else is left but to have a son?

Woolf’s last vision of Orlando is that of a 36-year-old mother in “the present moment” (1928), braving department stores, driving masterfully, and still in love with her house and her husband. Given an infinite array of possibilities, entirely unhampered by reality, Woolf brings Orlando into a state of being much like Vita Sackville-West’s. Is this the obligation of a biographer or a sincere expression of Woolf’s belief that Vita had achieved the most satisfactory possible combination of gender and sexuality?

                                              Orlando is Woolf’s most direct examination of an aspect of sexuality that was of utmost importance to her – the effect of being female upon one’s ability to write. The artistic potential that is with Orlando from birth finds expression only once her female identity is solidified, but the origins of her poem are in her masculine identity. Orlando can give birth to her art only when she has achieved the androgynous state of mind, the “fully developed mind that… does not think specially or separately of sex.”[73][72] Virginia Woolf saw her own age as “stridently sex-conscious,” producing works too strictly adherent to one gender’s mindset to have any significant effect upon the other.[74][73] Orlando’s is a mind that bridges this divide, her many and varied lovers a rebellion against the sex-based limitations Woolf perceived in her own society.

Orlando and Shermaldine achieve, by fantastical means, a passionate relationship that is free of the gender-based difficulties of The Voyage Out. Neither is the superior of the other, neither is responsible for maintaining the other. This kind of relation between the sexes, which Virginia was able to observe in the marriage of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson, is the least negative rendition of sexuality in her writings. Creating the relationship between Orlando and Shermaldine changed the way Woolf understood sexuality; much of the fear and dread of The Voyage Out was exorcised, and the idea that independent men and women might relate to one another productively within the institution of marriage was added to her mental picture of the world in which she lived.



Return to Realism: Between the Acts and Three Guineas

The idea struck me:.. the army is the body: I am the brain. Thinking is my fighting .[75][74]



                                              On March 12, 1938, Hitler invaded Austria. This blatant act of aggression was followed by over a year of increasing diplomatic hostility, which reached a crisis point with Germany’s invasion of Poland. Within two days both Britain and France had declared war, and for several months the German and French troops sat glaring at one another from behind their respective entrenchments.  In May of 1940, Sitzkrieg gave way to Blitzkrieg. Hitler’s armies swept through northern France and occupied Paris in less than two weeks. French and British soldiers were saved from utter annihilation on the beaches of Dunkerque by a concerted effort of every available British vessel from yachts to dinghies. By the end of June the Battle of Britain was underway.  

Between the Acts was written during the first years of World War II, in an environment where people far less apprehensive in general than Virginia Woolf were quite convinced that Western civilization might be destroyed by Fascism. In 1937, Woolf had published her second book-length essay. Initially titled On Being Despised,[76][75] Three Guineas is a feminist polemic similar in genre to A Room of One’s Own but decidedly different in content. A Room of One’s Own explores the relationship between gender and creativity, concluding that a move towards dismantling the gendered power structure will enhance the artistic potential of both sexes. Three Guineas explores the rise of Fascism and its relation to the male oppression of women, concluding that the seeds of the former are sown by the latter.

In Three Guineas, Woolf makes some of her strongest statements about the inherent differences between men and women: “…although many instincts are held more or less in common by both sexes, to fight has always been the man’s habit, not the woman’s.”[77][76]  However, she is fully aware that this judgment is a biased one, given the relentless propaganda campaign to make men feel that they must enjoy conflict in order to be “real” men. “The nature of manhood and the nature of womanhood are frequently defined by both Italian and German dictators. Both repeatedly insist that it is the nature of man and indeed the essence of manhood to fight.”[78][77] Given that this kind of social indoctrination has existed throughout human history, Woolf feels that she cannot judge whether the difference between male and female levels of aggression is “innate or accidental.”[79][78]

Elements of the primordial are apparent in the imagery of The Voyage Out, with its deep dark waters and slimy sea monsters. In Between the Acts, Woolf repeatedly refers to prehistory as described in H.G. Wells’ Outline of History. Giles and Isa’s conflict is deeply rooted in their ancient animal instincts. However, it is contemporary rather than primordial references that are the main source of sexual apprehension in Between the Acts. These references are provided mainly by the social theories Woolf laid out in Three Guineas. Images of nature and culture are represented not as mutually exclusive explanations for sexual apprehension, but as intertwining pieces of a complicated structure.

Between the Acts is also Woolf’s first attempt to incorporate Freudian theories of sexuality into her fiction. Woolf began reading Freud in December of 1939. Her stated goal was “to enlarge the circumference… to give my brain a wider scope: to make it objective; to get outside.”[80][79] Ironically, Freudian theory seems to push Woolf inside the human psyche rather than getting her outside it; however, the generalization inherent in Freud’s analyses of human behavior does give Woolf a way to portray sexuality that lies outside the realm of her personal experience.

                                              Both as engaging prose and as credible feminist theory, Three Guineas falls far short of the standard set by A Room of One’s Own. Woolf’s rage at the violence-ridden society that men have created is so intense that it transforms her normally refined style into something of a shrill harangue. However, Three Guineas is important both for those studying Woolf and for feminist scholars in general. Woolf theorizes that patriarchal oppression is the first stage in the destruction of freedom – “… we have in embryo the creature, Dictator as we call him when he is Italian or German, who believes that he has the right, whether given by God, Nature, sex or race is immaterial, to dictate to other human beings how they shall live; what they shall do.”[81][80]

                                              As in A Room of One’s Own and Orlando, Woolf’s theoretical efforts in Three Guineas bear fruit in Between the Acts. The connection between patriarchy and dictatorship, the notion that men are inherently violent and inclined to make war, and the disadvantaged condition of women both within and without the social system all are explored in Woolf’s last novel. If Orlando and A Room of One’s Own represent Woolf’s attempt to imagine a being unfettered by the prerequisites of gender, then Between the Acts returns to reality to create a representative microcosm of the patriarchal society in which she lives. Like The Voyage Out, Between the Acts deals with many of Woolf’s personal concerns and anxieties regarding sex and gender. Her methods, however, have changed. While sexual anxiety in The Voyage Out was depicted by Rachel’s nightmares and her constant preoccupation with the menacing depths of the ocean, Between the Acts deals with phenomena that exist independent of the protagonist’s mind. The newspaper report of a rape committed by soldiers, primordial history as related by H. G. Wells – these have an existence independent of Woolf’s characters, who react to the symbols rather than creating them. The intellectual and emotional shift is clear – a young girl’s irrational fear of physical intimacy has evolved into a mature, intensely feminist perspective with frustrations and fears arising from a lifetime of experience.

                                              Woolf’s last novel uses recurring references to World War II in the same way she employed drowning imagery in The Voyage Out, but she has expanded her perspective to include both male and female responses to the war’s imminence. Both Giles and Isa are preoccupied with the violence taking place across the Channel. But while Giles focuses on the larger political situation, Isa’s involvement is on a personal level. Having read in her father-in-law’s newspaper about a rape committed by English soldiers, Isa empathizes to the degree that she places herself at the scene of the young woman’s assault:

                    “The troopers told her the horse had a green tail; but she found it was just an ordinary horse. And they dragged her up to the barrack room where she was thrown upon a bed. Then one of the troopers removed part of her clothing, and she screamed and hit him about the face…”

                    That was real; so real that on the mahogany door panels she saw the Arch in Whitehall; through the Arch in the barrack room; in the barrack room the bed, and on the bed the girl was screaming and hitting him about the face, when the door (for in fact it was a door) and in came Mrs. Swithin carrying a hammer.[82][81]


                                              Even as she railed in Three Guineas against the havoc that masculine aggression was wreaking upon her world, Between the Acts also gave Woolf the opportunity to be deeply in sympathy with a male character; despite her intense resentment of male aggression. This new ability is clearly demonstrated in her portrayal of Giles Oliver. Although Woolf is critical of his violent masculine instincts, Giles’ feelings of restraint and resentment are given the same level of attention as his wife’s. Between the Acts is Woolf’s most effective attack on the patriarchal system precisely because she has come to acknowledge the universality of its destructive potential – gender roles keep Isa smothered in domesticity, force Giles into working a mercenary job that he despises in order to support his wife’s mandated idleness, and transform a relationship begun in love into a network of obligation and frustration that mystifies them both.

Isabelle Oliver, the novel’s central female character, finds her many of her essential characteristics curtailed by the social roles she has chosen to fulfill. As a respectable middle-class wife, Isa finds her intellectual and creative inclinations constantly at odds with the code of behavior society has prescribed for her. Alone in the country with her husband’s family five days out of seven, Isa is expected to fulfill her father-in-law’s ideal of womanhood and wifery. Any existence outside her role of Mrs. Giles Oliver must take place in secret. She composes poetry in her head, writing only her best creations in “the book bound like an account book in case Giles suspected.”[83][82]

Miss La Trobe, a professional artist who may be seen as Isa’s undomesticated counterpart, has paid for expressing her true nature (which includes homosexuality) by becoming a social outcast, looked askance upon in her small community, dismissed as “bossy” and considered a woman apart. Her purpose in the action of the novel is to present the pageant of English literary history which accounts for more than half the novel’s length. Miss La Trobe’s pageant revisits the literary periods described in Orlando, and like its whimsical predecessor, the pageant attempts to demonstrate the development of gendered behavior in English society. More generally, Miss La Trobe represents an alternative path for Isa Oliver – the path of “poverty, chastity, derision and freedom”[84][83] recommended by Woolf in Three Guineas.

The world Woolf creates in Between the Acts comes closer than any of her previous efforts to “killing the angel in the house” – her treatment of sexual issues is forthright and unapologetic. In a tactic so uncharacteristic as to be revolutionary, Woolf opens her novel by revealing Isa’s adulterous desire for one of the family’s neighbors:

She had met him at a Bazaar; and at a tennis party. He had handed her a cup and a racquet – that was all. But in his ravaged face she had always felt mystery; and in his silence, passion. At the tennis party she had felt this, and at the Bazaar. Now a third time, if anything more strongly, she felt it again.[85][84]


This revelation is the reader’s first glimpse into Isa’s mind. All that is subsequently revealed about her must be viewed in the context of her desire for Rupert Haines. By introducing Isa’s thwarted desire before giving any hint of her similarly inhibited creativity, Woolf underscores the importance of this aspect of female oppression.

Isa raised her head. The words made two rings, perfect rings, that floated them, herself and Haines, like two swans down stream. But his snow-white breast was circled with a tangle of dirty duckweed; and she too, in her webbed feet was entangled, by her husband, the stockbroker.[86][85]


Woolf’s customary tactic of describing passionate interaction through the use of animal metaphors has also undergone a transformation in this last novel. Woolf usually uses the technique to portray physical desire as ugly, as in Orlando’s encounter with “Lust the vulture.”[87][86] In this case, Woolf tarnishes a positive image with the “dirty duckweed” of restraints. It is obstacles to the consummation of passion rather than passion itself that Woolf now sees as ugly and debasing. This is reinforced in the depiction of Haines’ wife, who “glared at her [Isa] out of goose-like eyes, gobbling, ‘Please, Mrs. Giles Oliver, do me the kindness to recognize my existence…’ which she was forced to do.”[88][87]. The intrusion of Mrs. Haines reminds Isa of her own shackles as well, that she is “Mrs. Giles Oliver” and as such, is forbidden to journey downstream with the object of her attraction.

We next see Isa at her dressing table, grooming her hair and her emotional state so as to be presentable before guests. Her silver-handled hairbrush, a wedding present, reminds her of her obligations as a wife and mother; the looking glass, however, shows her a different set of priorities:

Inside the glass, in her eyes, she saw what she had felt overnight for the ravaged, the silent, the romantic gentleman farmer. “In love,” was in her eyes. But outside, on the washstand, on the dressing-table, among the silver boxes and tooth-brushes, was the other love; love for her husband, the stockbroker – “The father of my children,” she added, slipping into the cliché conveniently provided by fiction. Inner love was in the eyes; outer love on the dressing-table.[89][88]


                                              It is not yet determined how much Isa’s affection for her husband is naturally forthcoming and how much has been artificially created by clichés like the one quoted above. What is made quite clear in the subsequent paragraph is that Isa’s attraction to Haines is no ethereal romantic notion, but a straightforward case of lust: “… since the presence of his body in the room last night could so affect her; since the words he said, handing her a teacup, handing her a tennis racquet, could so attach themselves to a certain spot in her; and thus lie between them like a wire, tingling, tangling, vibrating…” This is very direct language for Woolf, expressed through a mechanical rather than an animal metaphor. She continues the mechanical theme with a passage ostensibly describing an aeroplane propeller – “Faster, faster, faster, it whizzed, whirred, buzzed, till all the flails became one flail and up soared the plane away and away…” This is an ingenious updating of the Victorian convention that used storms, volcanoes and other natural phenomena to indicate moments of sexual climax – it is also a veiled reference to the war.   

                                              Isa’s artistic side emerges during a phone conversation with the fishmonger. Inspired by her erotic flight of fancy, she composes a few lines of verse while ordering fillet of sole. The words, however, do not satisfy her and remind her of a more general dissatisfaction with her personal attributes:

                    “Abortive,” was the word that expressed her. She never came out of a shop, for example, with the clothes she admired; nor did her figure, seen against the dark role of trousering in a shop window, please her. Thick of waist, large of limb, and, save for her hair, fashionable in a tight modern way, she never looked like Sappho, or one of the beautiful young men whose photographs adorned the weekly papers. She looked what she was: Sir Richard’s daughter; and niece of the two old ladies at Wimbledon who were so proud, being O’Neils, of their descent from the Kings of Ireland.[90][89]


This passage may well be largely autobiographical allusion - Woolf’s anxious approach to clothes buying (and the resultant trauma inflicted on innocent shopkeepers) has become the stuff of legend. More important, the contrast between Isa’s exotic inner image and her drearily respectable exterior offers keen insight into the inherent limitations of being “daughters of educated men.” Isa’s very appearance creates assumptions about her role in society, which she feels obliged to endure without protest, however ill fitting they may be. This creates sensitivity in relating to the male figures in her life that is perhaps unwarranted. A seemingly innocuous reference to “your boy” triggers anger that seems out of proportion – “…she loathed the domestic, the possessive; the maternal. And he knew it and did it on purpose to tease her, the old brute, her father-in-law.”[91][90]

                                              The introduction of Giles Oliver brings an entirely new element into Woolf’s analysis of gender relations. The same strictures that keep Isa at home and out of the world’s business have forced him into it. Even his leisure time is subject to the rules of polite society:

                                              Giles had come. He had seen the great silver-plated car at the door with the initials R. M. twisted so as too look at a distance like a coronet. Visitors, he had concluded, as he drew up behind; and had gone to his room to change. The ghost on convention rose to the surface, as a blush or a tear rises to the surface at the pressure of emotion; so the car touched his training. He must change. And he came into the dining-room looking like a cricketer, in flannels, wearing a blue coat with brass buttons; though he was enraged. Had he not read, in the morning paper, in the train, that sixteen men had been shot, others prisoned, just over there, across the gulf, in the flat land that divided them from the continent? Yet he changed. It was Aunt Lucy, waving her hand at him as he came in, who made him change. He hung his grievances on her, as one hangs a coat on a hook, instinctively. Aunt Lucy, foolish, free; always, since he had chosen, after leaving college, to take a job in the city, expressing her amazement, her amusement, at men who spent their lives, buying and selling… A frivolous, a malignant statement hers was of a problem which, for he had no special gift, no capital, and he had been furiously in love with his wife – he nodded to her across the table – had afflicted him for ten years. Given his choice, he would have chosen to farm. But he was not given his choice. So one thing led to another; and the conglomeration of things pressed you flat, held you fast, like a fish in water. So he came for the week-end, and changed.[92][91]


                                              This passage demonstrates a pronounced evolution in Woolf’s ideas about the patriarchal system. Instead of portraying Giles as a self-satisfied jailer of his angel in the house, Woolf shows how the gender-based division on labor has kept him from his natural inclinations just as much as domesticity has thwarted Isa. Instead of being a gentleman farmer as he had wished, Giles’ perceived obligation to maintain Isa and their children at a certain standard of living has forced him to become the “professional” whose wretchedness Woolf demonstrates in Three Guineas.[93][92] The oceanic rhythm of Giles’ litany suggests that his problems are eternal, crashing down in endless repetitive cadences, and universal, encircling his every encounter with outside world. How can he relate to the frustrations of women, let alone those of the wife for love of whom he has become a reluctant capitalist, when his own experience of “freedom” to make one’s way in the world has been such a bleak drudgery?

The fact that Giles sees his Aunt Lucy as “free” simply because she has never been obliged (or allowed) to go out and earn wages indicates that his own feeling of compulsion has left him oblivious to the fact that others may suffer an equal, though entirely dissimilar, sense of constraint. This misunderstanding leads to resentment on both sides that is in fact groundless – forces more powerful than individual men and women have dictated the way in which they must relate to each other. Isa, too, is poisoned by the knowledge that her husband is free to do what she is not: “It was a shock to find, after the morning’s look in the glass, and the arrow of desire shot through her last night by the gentleman farmer, how much she felt when he came in, not a dapper city gent, but a cricketer, of love; and of hate.”[94][93] This distinctly sexual choice of words echoes Freud as well as Blake; Woolf’s earlier literary allusions being generally bereft of “arrows of desire.” The metaphor is less than subtle, but the meaning adds yet another layer of complexity to Isa’s sexuality. Her feelings for her husband have obviously not been destroyed by her fantasies about Rupert Haines.  

During and after Miss La Trobe’s pageant, Woolf sketches the psyches of all the Oliver’s guests, always returning to Giles and Isa as they each go through the motions of the social event while completely immersed in their own concerns and in covertly observing each other. Giles is preoccupied with his rage at

old fogies who sat and looked at views over coffee and cream while the whole of Europe – over there – was bristling like… He had no command of metaphor. Only the ineffective word “hedgehog” illustrated his vision of Europe, bristling with guns, poised with planes.[95][94]

Giles’ internal monologue shifts between agonizing over the war and excoriating William Dodge, the effeminate young artist whom Isa is making conversation with. Woolf indicates that Giles’ homophobia is a symptom of his constructed masculinity rather than an inherent feature of his maleness. Dodge’s courtesy towards Isa is perceived by Giles as evidence that he is “a toady; a lickspittle; not a downright plain man of his senses; but a teaser and a twitcher.”[96][95] Clearly, Giles has rigidly defined ideals of how a man may behave, ideals which seem to match those that Woolf identified in Three Guineas as being a major facet of Fascist propaganda. Isa actually shares her husband’s contempt, though for different reasons – while Giles is disgusted with the man’s “dallying and dallying;” his lack of a serious profession seeming to imply that he is “not a man to have straightforward love for a woman,”[97][96] Isa is scorning his cowardice in refusing to be identified as an artist – an excruciating bit of self-damnation. “A poor specimen he was; afraid to stick up for his own beliefs – just as she was afraid, of her husband. Did she not write her poetry bound in a book like an account book lest Giles might suspect?”[98][97]

Giles, far from suspecting his wife’s subterranean creativity, continues to lurch around the party contemplating lust, perversion and his own cowardice. Crushing a snake choking on a toad is a poor substitute for controlling his own destiny, “…but it was action. Action relieved him.”[99][98] Giles’ minor act of violence has a major significance – as a man, his natural reaction to frustration and insecurity is to lash out, to crush, and to destroy. Returning to the party, Giles angers his wife simply by appearing in her field of vision, “bold and blatant, firm elatant” – a stereotype of aggressive maleness.[100][99]   His absentminded lust for Mrs. Manresa does not go unnoticed by Isa – “she could feel the Manresa in his wake.” This observation heightens her sense of relative constraint: “She could hear in the dark of the bedroom the usual explanation. His infidelity did not matter – but hers did.”[101][100]

Giles then did what to Isa was his little trick; shut his lips; frowned; and took up the pose of

 one who bears the burden of the world’s woe, making money for her to spend.

“No,” said Isa, as plainly as words could say it. “I don’t admire you,” and looked, not at his

 face, but at his feet. “Silly little boy, with blood on his boots.”

Giles shifted his feet. Whom then did she admire?[102][101]


This subverbal exchange is reminiscent of Three Guineas, wherein Woolf encourages the daughters of educated men to disassociate themselves from the violent inclinations of men, hoping that they may perish in the resultant emotional vacuum. Isa sees in Giles the same kind of behavior she had earlier observed in his father. Whether she is correct in her assumption that Giles’ expression of aggrievement is directly related to his breadwinner status in uncertain, but her belief that she is being condescended to sparks the same anger. In Isa’s perception, the male world is largely peopled with old brutes and silly little boys. She herself is a faithful bearer of the burdens laid on her by her upbringing, “last little donkey in the long caravanserai crossing the desert.”[103][102]

The end of Miss La Trobe’s pageant and the exodus of the guests leave the Olivers alone at last. The constraints of the day have not abated, and Isa’s contradictory feelings for Giles remain. “’Our representative, our spokesman,’” she sneered. Yet he was extraordinarily handsome. ‘The father of my children, whom I love and hate.’” Love and hate – how they tore her asunder!”[104][103] Meanwhile, Miss La Trobe retires to the local pub: “since the row with the actress who had shared her bed and her purse the need of drink had grown on her. And the horror and terror of being alone.”[105][104] Miss La Trobe is thus revealed as a lesbian in addition to being a professional woman, but her life outside the patriarchal relationship paradigm is at least as wretched as Giles and Isa’s inside it. Through her portrayal of Miss La Trobe and the effeminate artist William Dodge, Woolf for the first time demonstrates directly the unfortunate position of homosexuals in an rigidly heterosexual society. Like Giles, Miss La Trobe is obliged to serve conventional society as a condition of her professional survival. Moreover, this obligation is not merely financial. Although Miss La Trobe is an “outcast,” she feels compelled to please the very people who oppress her – she is “the slave of her audience.”[106][105]

                                              “Left alone together for the first time that day, they were silent. Alone, enmity was bared; also love.”[107][106] Giles and Isa’s first private conversation is foreshadowed by a powerful, if painfully blatant, Freudian reference – “… Giles offered his wife a banana. She refused it. He stubbed his match on the plate. Out it went with a little fizz in the raspberry juice.”[108][107] Woolf offers the reader sex or a squabble, and either would be a relief after the unrelieved tension of the afternoon. Apparently, there will be both: “Before they slept, they must fight; after they had fought, they would embrace. From that embrace another life might be born.”[109][108] Woolf seems to regret the necessity of conflict before passion, but it is inevitable, given their mutual oppression. Her commentary on sexual relations ends, as it had begun, with a sexualized interpretation of Conrad “…first they must fight, as the dog fights the vixen, in the heart of darkness, in the fields of night.”[110][109] Their relationship apparently does not owe its intensity to the power of social suggestion – it is a primordial tie rife with conflicts both social and innate.

                                              The relationship of Giles and Isa Oliver is a landmark event in Woolf’s fiction, and perhaps a fitting conclusion to her explorations of sexual apprehension. The primordial male/female conflict plays a large role in their relationship, but this conflict is not portrayed as inherently evil or oppressive. It is productive, in fact – their quarrel and its resulting embrace may produce another life, a third human being created by the force of their collision. What Woolf objects to in the relationship between Giles and Isa is the fact that patriarchal rule has queered the pitch of this ancient battle of the sexes by hamstringing the female participants. It is Isa’s economic and social dependence upon Giles and his family that transforms a good, fair fight into a situation of bullying and repression.




The issue of sexual apprehension exists at a fascinating intersection between Virginia Woolf’s writings and her personal life. Woolf abhorred violation of privacy, and from an early age deeply distrusted male authority. Childhood sexual abuse caused her to associate heterosexual relationships with the erosion of female autonomy; later experiences convinced her that this did not have to be true. Woolf’s early fear of male lust proved over time to be part and parcel of her horror of masculine dominance. Where she had once dreaded the aggressive sexuality of individual males, she learned to despise the patriarchal system as a whole – to believe that male biology and masculine socialization resulted in the unjust subjection of women and created the political situation that led to the Second World War.

Woolf renders her sexual apprehension through a succession of female characters differing greatly in age, appearance, intellectual capacity, and sexual proclivity. The ways in which sex and gender act upon their lives are likewise diverse. Rachel Vinrace is terrified of the sex act itself. Orlando has no fear whatsoever of sexual intimacy, but is profoundly concerned with the changed social expectations following her physical transformation. Isa Oliver experiences slightly different versions of both these problems – her preoccupation with the news story about the British soldiers indicates a fear of forced sex, although she seems to welcome consensual intimacy. Her furtive poetry-writing shows that gender expectations are causing trouble that is much harder for her to get around than for the rich and immortal Orlando. The one thing that unites these very different characters is the experience in some form of sexual apprehension – fear of male sexual passion, fear of patriarchal domination, fear, in short, that the fact of their sex will work against them as they try to fulfill their human potential.

The three texts I have examined were all written during periods of intense emotional turbulence for Woolf. The Voyage Out was completed and revised during her courtship with Leonard; Orlando is a fusion of her intense affection for Vita Sackville-West and her growing interest in women’s rights. Between the Acts is the product of international developments that affected every aspect of Woolf’s life – the rise of Fascism and the start of the World War II. In The Voyage Out, Woolf’s protagonist literally dies of sexual apprehension – the problem is insurmountable. In Orlando, the focus has shifted from physical to artistic survival, and the protagonist can achieve this only through supernatural means.  Between the Acts returns to reality and presents sexual apprehension as a problem rooted in opposing primordial instincts but made incalculably worse by the patriarchal power structure. The gendered nature of authority has transformed healthy sexual difference into a vehicle for disempowering the female. The inherent (and often productive) conflict between male and female has been distorted by the social ascendance of masculine authority.

The Voyage Out is clearly the product of a young intellect new to the art of novel-writing: however, an inexperienced Virginia Woolf is still a formidable literary voice. The explicit (and critical) focus on sexual anxiety moves The Voyage Out beyond the “novel of manners” genre. Woolf’s first novel establishes the most consistent habit of her literary career – her focus on people, places and situations that are drawn from her own experience. However, The Voyage Out violates this same habit in that it is set in Woolf’s imagined version of South America. Sexual apprehension in The Voyage Out is portrayed through indirect means – images of drowning and suffocation indicate Rachel’s moments of sexual anxiety, and the unfamiliar tropical environment is used by Woolf as a harbinger of that anxiety. Rachel Vinrace is drawn from reality as surely as is Mrs. Ramsey, but the sexual anxiety which perplexes and ultimately destroys Rachel is straight out of the unfamiliar and menacing jungle wilderness.

Orlando exchanges the heart of darkness for the mists of time, exploring sex and gender as they might have existed in England’s past. Orlando’s physical transformation and his journey through many different English societies illustrate Woolf’s theory that differences between the sexes are both biological and social. However, Orlando can conquer the problems inherent in being female (and feminine) with the advantages inherent in immortality. In Orlando, Woolf satirizes sexual terror, presenting it as a nuisance to be gotten round rather than a life-threatening force. In each historical period, she treats sex according to the literary conventions of the time – Elizabethan exuberance gives way to eighteenth-century allegory, which is in turn replaced by an ingenious spoof of Victorian prudery. Orlando is Woolf in her element, using wit and sarcasm to dismantle her sexual fears.                

When compared to the lighthearted approach Woolf took in Orlando, Between the Acts seems a sad and angry book. Woolf dramatizes the problems of the patriarchal system without offering any suggestions as to how they might be eliminated. Her attempt to offer such solutions in Three Guineas met with no more approval in her own time than it does today, and the frustration of failing at her wartime polemic pervades her wartime novel. Unlike Orlando, Between the Acts is too closely connected with reality for a happy ending to be possible. Moreover, Between the Acts ushers in the age of Freud, whose take on human behavior Woolf found “upsetting: reducing one to whirlpool; & I daresay truly.”[111][110] Between the Acts experiments with Freudian sexual imagery and the idea that human behavior is entirely rooted in primitive instincts, but Woolf ultimately rejects this viewpoint, drawing a distinction between the primordial origins of male/female conflict and the patriarchal hegemony that oppresses even its supposed beneficiaries.

Between the Acts ends with a battle rather than a resolution, but it is nonetheless a logical synthesis of Woolf’s ideas about sexual apprehension. The fantasy world she creates in Orlando and translates into nonfiction theory in A Room of One’s Own offers viable solutions to the problem of female exploitation, but in Three Guineas she confronts the unlikelihood of Western society even approaching gender parity in her lifetime. Indeed, the rise of Fascism made it quite probable that the masculine forces of brutality would consume Woolf’s entire world. Given such a bleak outlook, it seems understandable that Woolf’s mental state deteriorated as the Nazis advanced, and one cannot blame her much for choosing death rather than battling another episode of insanity as all her worst fears were realized in the equally insane violence of war.   

It is hardly surprising that Virginia Woolf’s feelings about sexuality defy a simple explanation. However, her observations match current social and biological theories to an impressive degree. The social contribution to gender definition is almost universally accepted; and the greater aggressiveness of males versus the passivity of females has been linked to vastly different hormonal makeups. It has even been proved that men and women’s brains work differently, producing completely dissimilar electrical patterns when processing the same information. Woolf’s “failure” to attribute all sexual differences to social conditioning shows that she grasped the complexity of the issue, and was not prepared to draw a conclusion, however comforting, that was not based on the facts as she observed them. Woolf pioneered one of feminism’s most essential convictions – that gender is a social construct rather than an absolute manifestation of instinct. The fact that she herself always believed that some characteristics are linked to biological sex does not invalidate her analysis of the cultural conditioning that produces a strictly binary society. For Woolf, the gendered allocation of authority was a more damaging factor in women’s lives than any inherent male aggression, sexual or otherwise. In the final analysis, it is gender rather than sex that is the main source of Woolf’s apprehension.  

Virginia Woolf’s struggle with sexual apprehension had an enormous effect on her life and work. Modern readers, accustomed to encountering uninhibited displays of sexual enjoyment from the time they are able to understand television commercials, may find it difficult to take such a seemingly frigid nature at face value. It is imperative that one does so – whether innately as Bell suggests or resulting from abuse as current popular theory asserts, Virginia Woolf regarded sexuality very differently from most people. Her unique perspective is an invaluable component of our understanding of sexual anxiety and its relation to gender inequity.




Works Cited


Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1972.

Bowlby, Rachel. Feminist Destinations and Further Essays on Virginia Woolf.  Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1997.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1902.

DeSalvo, Louise. Virginia Woolf’s First Voyage. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980.

Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. London: Chatto & Windus, 1996.

Spotts, Frederic, ed. Letters of Leonard Woolf. London: Harcourt Brace, 1991.

Woolf, Virginia. Between the Acts. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1938.

The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume V. ed. Anne Olivier Bell. Orlando, FL:  Harcourt Brace, 1984.

Jacob’s Room. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1922.

Moments of Being. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1976.

Mrs. Dalloway. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1925.

Orlando. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1928.

A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1929.

The Voyage Out. Second ed. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1920.

Three Guineas. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1938.

To the Lighthouse. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1927.

Women and Writing. ed. Michelle Barrett. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1979.

[1][1] In her essay “Professions for Women,” Woolf embodies the repressive Victorian female paradigm in a phantom known as the Angel in the House: “You who come of a younger and happier generation may not have heard of her – you may not know what I mean by the Angel in the House. I will describe her as shortly as I can. She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it – in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all – I need not say it – she was pure.”   

[2][2] Quentin Bell. Virginia Woolf. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1972. Volume I, p.44

[3][3] Virginia Woolf. Moments of Being. Harcourt Brace & Co.: Orlando FL, 1976

[4][4] Virginia Woolf. “A Sketch of the Past” in Moments of Being. p.69

[5][5]Ibid., p.122

[6][6] Hermione Lee. Virginia Woolf. London: Chatto & Windus, 1996.  p. 158-59.

[7][7] Bell, Volume I, p. 141

[8][8] letter from Virginia Stephen to Leonard Woolf, spring 1912, as cited in Bell, Volume I, p. 185

[9][9] Bell, Volume II, p. 6

[10][10] Ibid, p. 6

[11][11] Lee, p. 331

[12][12] Ibid., p. 9

[13][13] Louise DeSalvo. Virginia Woolf’s First Voyage: A Novel in the Making. Totowa, NJ: Rowan and Littlefield, 1980. p. 11

[14][14] Virginia Woolf.  The Voyage Out. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1920. p. 28

[15][15] The Voyage Out. p. 76

[16][16] Ibid., p.76-77.

[17][17] Ibid., p. 77

[18][18] Ibid., p.77

[19][19] DeSalvo, p. 95

[20][20] The Voyage Out, p.80


[22][21] Ibid., p. 81

[23][22] Ibid., p. 81-82.

[24][23]  This version of the scene appears in the second complete extant draft of The Voyage Out, dated c. 1910, which resides in the Berg Collection. It is cited in DeSalvo, p. 47-8

[25][24] The Voyage Out, p. 140

[26][25] DeSalvo, p. 48.

[27][26] All references to the “published” or “final” version of The Voyage Out refer to the American edition, which was the last edition for which Woolf made substantive revisions.

[28][27] DeSalvo, p. 155-56

[29][28] Letter from VW to LW, cited in Bell, Vol. I, p. 185

[30][29] Lee, p. 303

[31][30] The Voyage Out, p. 275

[32][31] The Voyage Out, p. 270

[33][32] Ibid., p. 271

[34][33] Ibid.

[35][34] Ibid., p. 282

[36][35] Ibid., p. 283-4

[37][36] DeSalvo, p. 5

[38][37] The Voyage Out, p. 331

[39][38] Ibid.

[40][39] Ibid., p. 339

[41][40] DeSalvo, p. 156

[42][41] Ibid, p. 155

[43][42] Frederic Spotts, ed. Letters of Leonard Woolf. London: Harcourt Brace, 1991.


[44][43] Virginia Woolf. Orlando. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1928. p. 139

[45][44] Orlando. p. 26-27.

[46][45] Ibid., p. 27

[47][46] Ibid., p.44

[48][47] Ibid., p. 66

[49][48] Virginia Woolf. A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1929. p. 48

[50][49] Orlando, p. 96

[51][50] A Room of One’s Own. p. 98

[52][51] Orlando, p. 137

[53][52] Ibid., p. 139

[54][53] Ibid., p. 155

[55][54] Ibid

[56][55] Ibid., p. 158

[57][56] A Room of One’s Own, p. 35-36

[58][57] Orlando, p. 160

[59][58] Ibid., p. 161

[60][59] Ibid., p. 163

[61][60] Ibid., p. 179

[62][61] Ibid, p. 181

[63][62] Ibid., p. 184

[64][63] Ibid., p. 220

[65][64] A Room of One’s Own, p. 82

[66][65] Orlando, p. 220

[67][66] Ibid., p. 222

[68][67] Ibid., p. 232

[69][68] Ibid

[70][69] Ibid., p. 243

[71][70] Ibid., p. 258

[72][71] Ibid., p. 266

[73][72] A Room of One’s Own, p. 99

[74][73] Ibid., p. 102

[75][74] The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. V, p. 284.

[76][75] Bell, Vol. II, p. 191

[77][76] Three Guineas, p. 6

[78][77] Ibid, p. 186

[79][78] Ibid, p. 6

[80][79] The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. V, p. 248

[81][80] Virginia Woolf. Three Guineas. London: Harcourt Brace, 1938. p. 53

[82][81] Between the Acts, p. 20

[83][82] Virginia Woolf. Between the Acts. Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1941. p. 15

[84][83] Three Guineas, p. 79

[85][84] Between the Acts, p. 5

[86][85] Ibid

[87][86] Orlando, p. 117

[88][87] Between the Acts, p. 6

[89][88] Ibid., p. 14

[90][89] Ibid., p. 16

[91][90] Ibid., p. 19

[92][91] Ibid., p 46-47

[93][92] Three Guineas, p. 70-72

[94][93] Ibid., p. 48

[95][94] Ibid., p. 53

[96][95] Ibid., p. 60

[97][96] Ibid.

[98][97] Ibid., p. 50

[99][98] Ibid., p. 99

[100][99] Ibid., p. 110

[101][100] Ibid.

[102][101] Ibid., p. 111

[103][102] Ibid., p. 155

[104][103] Ibid., p. 215

[105][104] Ibid., p. 211

[106][105] Ibid.

[107][106] Ibid., p. 219

[108][107] Ibid., p. 213

[109][108] Ibid, p. 219

[110][109] Ibid.

[111][110] The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. V, p. 250