Google Honors Literary Icon Virginia Woolf on Her 136th Birthday—Too Bad Her Home Country Doesn’t
Today would’ve been Virginia Woolf’s 136th birthday, and Google is celebrating the literary icon with a Google Doodle. Well deserved! In fact, Woolf deserves so much more recognition than that. Too bad, that in the UK and elsewhere, people will be too busy drinking whiskey and celebrating Burns Night, named for poet Robert Burns, to give her any focus.
Virginia Woolf was a brilliant novelist and essayist who gave the world Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and the book-length essay, A Room of One’s Own, which makes the feminist case that women’s voices are drowned out in literature in large part because they are too often financially dependent on men.
She was a member of an elite group of English writers and artists known as The Bloomsbury Group, whose members had bohemian sensibilities, politics, and approaches to sexuality. They included E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, Woolf’s husband, Leonard, and sister, Vanessa Bell.
While married to Leonard, she had a sexual relationship with the writer Vita Sackville-West for several years which both their husbands knew about. Though the relationship was only “consummated” twice, according to a letter Sackville-West wrote to her husband, it was full of insane amounts of passion that permeated much of Woolf’s work. Especially her novel Orlando, about which Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson wrote:
“The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her.”
In a piece called “This Burns Night, consider celebrating Virginia Woolf instead,” Kaite Welsh makes the case that women’s writing is generally less valued than men’s writing. That, while in the past decade we’ve seen huge anniversaries for writers like Shakespeare, Martin Luther, Charles Dickens and Anthony Burgess, female writers are treated very differently. Hell, we honor James Joyce with Bloomsday on June 16, based entirely on the day on which one of his novels—Ulysses—takes place and taking its name from the surname of its protagonist.
So, when are we celebrating Virginia Day? And why do we only appreciate female writers and trot them out for major anniversaries and not yearly celebrations? What does this say about the value, or lack of it, that we put on the stories women tell? After all, Woolf was a pioneer in stream-of-consciousness narration, as was Joyce. How about Dalloway Day?
“This February sees celebrations for the centenary of that staple of Edinburgh literature, Muriel Spark (although she lived the bulk of her adult life in Tuscany), and Emily Brontë’s bicentenary is due in July.
But women’s writing is valued differently – that is, less – and the public attention (and public money) spent on celebrating it misses an opportunity to do something truly radical and get people thinking about literature and who produces it in a different way. These celebrations could be used not just to celebrate the work of well-known writers but to bring the lesser-known ones to light. Give us Aphra Behn or Radclyffe Hall if you want historical figures, or celebrate the likes of Jackie Kay and Liz Lochhead while they’re still around to appreciate it.”
I’ll never forget reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own for the first time. I was attempting to pursue a creative career after college while working a stuffy day job, and struggling to make my entry-level ends meet. Obviously, I was living at the turn of the 21st Century, and the lives of women had seen great improvement since Woolf’s time, but the way she talked about how women are underpaid and undervalued still resonated.
It resonates today.
In the essay, Woolf writes words of encouragement, not only to female writers, but to all women who want better for themselves. Having told the story of Shakespeare’s Sister (a personality she extrapolates to symbolize the thwarted potential of women throughout history in the shadows of men), Woolf says that she now lives in all of us, and we have a responsibility to her:
“She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to–night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming within your power to give her. For my belief is that if we live another century or so—I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals—and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting–room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky. too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born. As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would he impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.”
So, on this anniversary of Woolf’s birthday, let’s all of us not only embrace her work more deeply, but let all of us women make our voices heard in the work we create, no matter what our field, and lift each other up so that we aren’t relegated to obscurity.
(via The Guardian and Time, image: Google)
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