Celebrating Virginia Woolf’s Sapphic Fiction

Virginia Woolf is a work of art. Her fiction, although sometimes dense and hard to understand, is each of them a masterwork of craft. I got into Woolf because my Aunt Linda, my namesake, knew I loved to read, and started giving me books authored by the Bloomsbury Group when I was young. Probably too young to appreciate them, but in high school I finally managed to make it through A Room of One’s Own.

This piece, for those that may not know, is a short non-fiction essay crafted around the premise that William Shakespeare had a sister, who was not given the same room to write and grow her work as William was. This sister, Judith, was equal to William in all ways. Her intellect, lyric genius, historical knowledge, and her desire to create were all a match for her brother. The difference between them was as simple and as complicated as she was a woman, and he a man.

This piece of speculative literature, originally delivered as a series of lectures at an all-women’s college, was remarkable for its simple and stunning assertions, its definition of creative womanhood, and its exploration of sapphic love in a time when obscenity laws prevented almost any mention of homosexuality. The use of fictional characters in a series of academic essays and lectures, again, delivered to an all-female audience, truly underlined the reality of the world around these women.

Woolf is not often remembered for her speculative roots, but besides the formerly noted piece of non-fiction, one of her greatest works is the novel Orlando.

If Room changed me as a high schooler, Orlando changed me again in college. Whereas Room flirted with the idea of sapphic love — “Chloe liked Olivia,” if anyone will remember that iconic line — Orlando did everything in its power to express that kind of love without censure. The titular Lady Orlando changes times, changes shapes, and reinvents themselves over the course of the book to become a man in order to pursue her first lady love. The book is an extended love letter to Vita Sackville-West, another member of the Bloomsbury Group, and Woolf writes her lover and friend into every situation and scenario, every sex and decade, over and over throughout the whole novel.

Although given the subhead ‘a biography,’ Orlando is another masterwork of speculative fiction. It exhibits a sense of playfulness and daring that I consider ahead of its time. It is written in Woolf’s signature stream-of-consciousness style, which means that it can be difficult to parse through, and sometimes hard to follow, but the end result is a dedication to love and passion. Orlando is beautiful and flirty, at times frustrating and lonely. The novel treats its audience as it would a lover, and it is truly an incredible book.

Many women writers owe a significant debt to Virginia Woolf’s work, and although her speculative fiction can sometimes be overshadowed by other published pieces, or the style in which it is written, her books are incredible statements to the genius of women, and the potential they have. The alternate realities of her characters and stories intertwine with the allegories and allusions in a stunning testament to her vivid imagination in a time when women novelists were not common, and not given the same kind of critical acclaim as men. Orlando made Woolf’s career, and in some ways, the novel is as ubiquitous as Orlando themselves. It is remade in each new wave of feminism and activism as a banner of hope and purpose.

So happy birthday, Virginia Woolf. I’m excited to see what you become next.