Episode 13: Six Degrees of Virginia Woolf, Part 1

Gretchen and Leigh are pleased to announce their very first special guest to History is Gay, Dan Arndt of Write to Survive Podcast and The Fandomentals, to talk about Virginia Woolf and Vita-Sackville-West. This episode has everything: modernism, gay love letters, dramatic queers, queers with mommy issues, and a story of gay lovers running away to Europe and their spouses chasing them down that’s so cinematic we really are surprised they haven’t made a movie of it yet. Just how gay was Virginia Woolf? So gay we’ve got six degrees episodes to work with! Join us for Part 1 of an ongoing series.

A Closer Look at Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West

 Baby Virginia in the arms of her mother, julia stephen

Baby Virginia in the arms of her mother, julia stephen

 Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell in Firle Park in 1911.

Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell in Firle Park in 1911.

 Victoria Sackville-West in costume for the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Ball at the Royal Albert Hall, June 20, 1911 ~ Photograph by N. Speaight

Victoria Sackville-West in costume for the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Ball at the Royal Albert Hall, June 20, 1911 ~ Photograph by N. Speaight

 Virginia and Leonard Woolf, 1926.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf, 1926.

 Vita Sackville-West as her alter ego the Duke Orlando, posed specifically for Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando

Vita Sackville-West as her alter ego the Duke Orlando, posed specifically for Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando

 Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West at Monk's House, Virginia's home.

Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West at Monk's House, Virginia's home.

 VIrginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-WEst, and Vita's two sons, Benedict and Nigel Nichonson, at Sissinghurst.

VIrginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-WEst, and Vita's two sons, Benedict and Nigel Nichonson, at Sissinghurst.

 Virginia and Leonard, Photographed by Gisèle Freund, 1939.

Virginia and Leonard, Photographed by Gisèle Freund, 1939.

 Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson at Sissinghurst with their dog Rollo. 

Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson at Sissinghurst with their dog Rollo. 

Vita Sackville-West's Other Loves

We mentioned in the episode that unfortunately we didn't have enough time to go over all of Vita's many lovers, but we wanted to put a nice handy list of the "greatest hits", so to speak here for y'all to enjoy, straight from our outline notes (which you can get full access to by becoming a Patreon supporter!:

  • Mary Garman (bohemian woman who's husband hated the Bloomsbury’s)
  • Margaret Goldsmith Voigt (American Historian), 1928
  • Hilda Matheson (BBC Director of Talks), 1929
  • Evelyn Irons, Journalist, first female winner of Croix De Geurre, 1931 (this was a threeway with her and her lover Olive Rinder).Met while she was doing a piece on Vita
  • Christabel Gertrude Marshall (Christopher St. John), Suffragette and Writer, lived in poly relationship her whole life 1932-1934
  • Gwen St. Aubyn, (Vita’s HUSBAND’S SISTER) 1934
  • Violet Pym, 1947
  • Edith Lamont, (painter) 1947
  • Bunny Drummond, (her elderly neighbor’s daughter in law) 1947-1952
  • Her husband, Harold, who was also bisexual, had an open marriage with Vita, and may have slept with Violet’s husband as well. Other loves include writer and critic Raymond Mortimer. He wrote to her that he often would spend time in Paris with young men while she was away, and the two never shared a bed after 1917. Harold, his son said “viewed sex as incidental, and about as pleasurable as a quick visit to a picture gallery between trains”
     

Content Warning: Vita Sackville West's Memoriam and Virginia Woolf's Suicide Note

IN MEMORIAM VIRGINIA WOOLF

Many words crowd, and all and each unmeaning.
The simplest words in sorrow are the best.

So let us say, she loved the water-meadows,
The Downs; her books; her friends; her memories;
The room which was her own.
London by twilight; shops and unknown people;shops and Mrs Brown

Donne's church; the Strand; the buses, and the large
Swell of humanity that passed her by.

I remember she told me once that she, a child,
Trapped evening moths with honey round a tree-trunk
And with a lantern watched their antic flight.
So she, a poet, caught her special prey
With words of honey and lamp of wit.

Frugal, austere, fine, proud,
Rich on [in] her contradictions, rich in love,
So did she capture all her moth-like self:
Her fluttered spirit, delicate and soft,
Bumping against the lamp of life, too hard, too glassy,

Yet kept a sting beneath the brushing wing,
Her blame astringent and her praise supreme.

How small, how petty seemed the little men
Measured against her scornful quality.

Some say, she lived in an unreal world,
Cloud-cuckoo-land. Maybe. She now has gone
Into the prouder world of immortality.

V S-W  (The Observer 6 April 1941)

Woolf’s Suicide Note

Dearest,

I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can't fight it any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been. V   

 

If you want to learn more about Virginia Woolf and Vita-Sackville-West, check out our full list of sources and further reading below!

Online Articles:


Books and Print Articles:

  • Virginia Woolf by Susan Rubinow Gorsky
  • The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf edited by Louise DeSalvo and Mitchell a. Leaska (Editor)
  • Diary of Virginia Woolf Vol. 2 (1920-1924)
  • Diary of Virginia Woolf Vol. 3 (1925-1930)
  • Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicolson
  • Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters of Virginia Woolf edited by Joanne Trautmann Banks
  • Vita Sackville-West: Selected Writings edited by Mary Ann Caws
  • A History of Homosexuality in Europe: Berlin, London, Paris by Florence Tamagne
  • Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her Life and Work by Louise DeSalvo  

Until next time, stay queer and stay curious!