January 25, 1882 – Virginia Woolf:
“For Most of History, Anonymous Was a Woman.”
Here is the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf. In April 1937 she participated in a BBC lecture series titled Words Fail Me, giving a talk she called “Craftsmanship.” She contemplates using new words in an old language, beginning;
“Words, English words, are full of echoes, memories, associations. They’ve been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing today…”
She published her first novel at 33 years old and found her real power at 40, with Jacob’s Room (1922). Then came a great burst of creativity: Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To The Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), and The Waves (1931). Her collected letters fill six volumes, her diaries five volumes, and half her essays, stopping with 1924, are collected in three books. She wrote a play, two biographies, and she finished two more novels before March 28, 1941. Her London home destroyed in the Blitz, her writing in a lull after finishing her last, believing the Nazis would soon invade the countryside, she felt her mental illness was returning and that this time she would not recover.
In the summer of 1998, the moment I put down Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours, I went to my bookshelf and picked out Mrs. Dalloway to follow the connection. Cunningham’s novel focuses on three generations of women affected byMrs. Dalloway. In 2002, a film version of the novel was released starring Nicole Kidman as Woolf. Kidman won the 2003 Academy Award for her portrayal. It was the first time in decades that I had read any Virginia Woolf, but in my college years I went through my lesbian phase with a serious Bloomsbury Group jag, reading everything by and about this remarkable group of friends and lovers.
The Bloomsbury Group is now noted for the many contributions its members made to their era’s literature and art. The group’s intellectual core was Virginia Stephen, who became Virginia Woolf when she got married to Leonard Woolf in 1912. She is now considered one of the greatest modernist novelists.
The group is fascinating because they gave themselves a sort of sexual freedom that was way ahead of their time. Beginning in 1925, Virginia Woolf had a passionate affair with the dashing Vita Sackville-West. In the first flush of romance, Woolf wrote what has become a classic of Gay Fiction, the experimental fantasy Orlando, which argued that love and passion can ignore gender, and that gender itself is fluid.
Others in the Bloomsbury Group gravitated to new ways of looking at relationships. Although Virginia Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Stephen, married Clive Bell, the true great love of her life was Duncan Grant, who was gay and had been sexually involved with her brother Adrian Stephen. During World War I, they all lived together at a country estate with David Garnett, who was the lover of both.
Three-way sexual cocktails with a twist of gay were common within the Bloomsbury Circle. Lytton Strachey was gay, but in the early days of Bloomsbury, had proposed marriage to Virginia Woolf. In the 1920s, he lived platonically with painter Dora Carrington. When they both fell in love with the same man, Carrington married the object of their mutual desire, and the trio set up housekeeping together. The cross-dressing Carrington had affairs with many women, confiding to a friend that she had “more ecstasy” with female lovers than with men, “And with no shame”. Are you able to keep track of all this?
Woolf was the center, the gravity and the soul of the Bloomsbury Group, which totally unraveled after she filled her coat pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse near her home, drowning herself in the spring of 1941.
“I read the book of Job last night. I don’t think God comes out well in it.”
In 1926, when film was still a young and emerging artform, Woolf wrote an essay On Cinema, considering the medium with all its possibilities and limitations. In it, she is particularly outspoken on the issue of literary adaptation, likening film to a predator who falls upon its prey, literature, but with disastrous results for both. The alliance, she said, is unnatural, even lazy, as filmmakers rely on well-known pieces of literature to form a solid base for their film.
Dutch film director Marleen Gorris made a film version of Mrs. Dalloway (1997). It was adapted by British actress Eileen Atkins and stars Vanessa Redgrave. In The Hours Redgrave plays New Yorker Clarissa Vaughan, the embodiment of the novel’s title character, as she spends the day preparing for a party she is hosting in honor of her former lover and friend Richard (Ed Harris) a poet and living with HIV/AIDS who is to receive a major literary award. Richard tells Clarissa that he has stayed alive for her sake and that the award is meaningless.
Orlando is Sally Potter‘s astonishing 1992 adaptation of the novel Orlando (1928), which narrates the extraordinary life of its protagonist, which spans three centuries from Elizabethan England all the way into the early twentieth century – and holds at its heart a unique change of sex. Orlando has been called literature’s ”longest and most charming love letter”, and it cleverly weaves details of Sackville-West’s own memoir into that of Orlando. It is a meditation on society and gender and seems the far more difficult novel to translate into a film. Tilda Swinton is mesmerizing as the perfectly androgynous Orlando, but beyond her performance, the film uses the potential of film extremely well, adapting the material not only to the screen, but also to advanced time, setting its ending in the 1990s rather than the 1920s.
There is also Chanya Button‘s Vita & Virginia (2019), a dramatization of the correspondence between Woolf and Sackville-West. Same-sex couples were slowly becoming more accepted in the early 20th century, particularly in certain artistic circles, particularly between two women. This literary affair is doubtless one of the great LGBTQ love stories in history.
To The Lighthouse (1983) is made-for-television film based on the novel by Woolf. It was adapted by Hugh Stoddart, directed by Colin Gregg, starring Rosemary Harris and Kenneth Branagh.
A Room Of One’s Own (1991) is a filmed version of a one-woman show based on the writings of Woolf, written by and starring Eileen Atkins, directed by Patrick Garland. The essay on which it was based A Room Of One Own’s (1929), a feminist tract on women and their ability to create art, was alluded to in Olivia Wilde‘s comedy Booksmart (2019). And, of course, there is Mike Nichols‘ gloriously savage adaptation of Edward Albee s play Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966).
Yet there continues to be a distinct lack of Woolf’s novels onscreen, especially compared to the adaptations of her contemporaries like D.H. Lawrence and E.M. Forster. The Voyage Out (1915) and Night And Day (1919) are novels that contain early seeds of Feminism, and deserve film treatments, offering Woolf’s perspective on Women’s Rights in the 1910s and 1920s.