Virginia Woolf’s Forbidden Lesbian Love

Virginia Woolf’s Forbidden Lesbian Love

By: Daniel Morales Olea -

In 1941, a distraught and scared Virginia Woolf wrote her last letter to her husband, Leonard Woolf. She left the comfort of her house with her pockets full of rocks and waded into the Ouse River until water filled her lungs. One of the most important writers in English literature died at the age of 59. Only years later her bipolarity was discovered. Nevertheless, her life was not exclusively tragic; Woolf loved plenty of people.

Her marriage with Leonard could be portrayed as liberal, even for modern standards of today's society. She experimented with her sexuality and shared her love with both men and women. Aside form her husband's relationship, Virginia had a passionate affair with her fellow writer and confidant Vita Sackville-West. Before meeting Woolf, Vita was already known for her preferences, after she eloped with her teenage love, Violet Trefusis, to France.

Virginia invited Vita and her husband —Harold Nicolson, who also felt attracted to his same gender— to a small dinner party. In this encounter, Virginia described the couple as dull. In the years that followed their relationship developed, but Woolf never publicly accepted she had a love affair with a woman. On the other hand, Vita never wasted the opportunity to write to Harold or in her diary about Virginia. "Lunch with Virginia in Tavistock Square, where she has just arrived. The first time that I have been alone with her for long. Went on to see Mama, my head swimming with Virginia," Vita wrote in her diary.

Their first sexual encounter was in 1925. From that day forward, their three year relationship was based on sex, intellect, jealousy, depression, and love. In this context, they wrote the most passionate love letters. Some of them were even published in The 50 Greatest Love Letters of all Time.

From Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf   (January 21, 1926) 

I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your un-dumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn't even feel it. And yet I believe you'll be sensible of a little gap. But you'd clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it would lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is just really a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan't make you love me any the more by giving myself away like thisBut oh my dear, I can't be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don't love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don't really resent it.
However I won't bore you with any more.
We have re-started, and the train is shaky again. I shall have to write at the stations which are fortunately many across the Lombard plain.
Venice. The stations were many, but I didn't bargain for the Orient Express not stopping at them. And here we are at Venice for ten minutes only,a wretched time in which to try and write. No time to buy an Italian stamp even, so this will have to go from Trieste.
The waterfalls in Switzerland were frozen into solid iridescent curtains of ice, hanging over the rock; so lovely. And Italy all blanketed in snow.
We're going to start again. I shall have to wait till Trieste tomorrow morning. Please forgive me for writing such a miserable letter.


lesbian love virginia-woolf-vita

From Virginia Woolf  to Vita Sackville-West (January 26, 1926) —extracts

Your letter from Trieste came this morning—But why do you think I don't feel, or that I make phrases? "Lovely phrases" you say which rob things of reality. Just the opposite. Always, always, always I try to say what I feel. Will you then believe that after you went last Tuesday—exactly a week ago—out I went into the slums of Bloomsbury, to find a barrel organ. But it did not make me cheerful. Also I bought the Daily Mail—but the picture is not very helpful. And ever since, nothing important has happened—Somehow it's dull and damp. I have been dull; I have missed you. I do miss you. I shall miss you. And if you don't believe it, you're a long-eared owl and ass. Lovely phrases? (...)
(Do you see how closely I am writing? That is because I want to say a great many things, yet not to 
bore you, and I think, if I write very close, Vita won't see how long this letter is, and she won't be bored) Have I seen anyone? Yes, a great many people, but by way of business mostly (...) As for the people I've seen, I've fallen in love with none—but that's not exactly my line. Did you guess that? I'm not cold; not a humbug; not weakly; not sentimental. What I am; I want you to tell me. Write, dearest Vita, the letters you make up in the train. I will answer everything. (...)
But of course (to return to your letter) I always knew about your standoffishness. Only I said to myself, 
I insist upon kindness. With this aim in view, I came to Long Barn. Open the top button of your jersey and you will see, nestling inside, a lively squirrel, with the most inquisitive habits, but a dear creature all the same—

Your Virginia

From Virginia Woolf  to Vita Sackville-West (March 16, 1926) —extracts

I have been meaning every day to write something—such millions of things strike me to write to you about—and never did, and now have only scraps and splinters of time, damn it all—We are rather rushed—But, dearest Vita, why not take quinine, and sleep under mosquito nets? I could have told you about fever: do tell me if you are all right again (a vain question: time has spun a whole circle since you had fever off the Coast of Baluchistan) Much to my relief, Lady Sackville wrote and told me you had arrived: also she asks me to go and see her, to talk about you, I suppose. "I know you are very fond of Vita"; but I haven't the courage, without you.

Last Saturday night I found a letter from you in the box: then another: What luck! I thought; then a third; incredible!, I thought; then a fourth: But Vita is having a joke, I thought, profoundly distrusting you—Yet they were all genuine letters. I have spelt them out every word, four times, I daresay. They do yield more on suction; they are very curious in that way. Is it that I am, as Lady Sackville says, very fond of you: are you, like a good writer, a very careful picker of words? (Oh look here: your book of travels. May we have it? Please say yes, for the autumn.) I like your letters I was saying, when overcome by the usual Hogarth Press spasm.

And I would write a draft if I could, of my letters; and so tidy them and compact them; and ten years ago I did write drafts, when I was in my letter writing days, but now, never. Indeed, these are the first letters I have written since I was married. (…) Devil, you have never sent me your photograph. (…) I say, when do you get back? When shall I stop writing to you? All our plans about holidays are in the fire again; God knows when we shall get off: but I don’t want to be poking about in Provence when you're here.

Yes, dearest Vita: I do miss you; I think of you: I have a million things, not so much to say, as to sink
into you.

Tell me how you are and be very careful.



When Virginia finished writing this letter, she wrote in her diary:
"These Sapphists love women; friendship is never untinged with amorosity. In short, my fears and refrainings, my 'impertinence,' my usual self-consciousness in intercourse with people who mayn't want me and so onwere all, as L. said, sheer fudge; and partly thanks to him (he made me write) I wound up this wounded and stricken year in great style. I like her and being with her and the splendourshe shines in the grocer's shop in Sevenoaks with a candle lit radiance, stalking on legs like beech trees, pink glowing, grape clustered, pearl hung. That is the secret of her glamour, I suppose. Anyhow she found me incredibly dowdy. No woman cared less for personal appearance. No one put on things in the way I did. Yet so beautiful, etc. What is the effect of all this on me? Very mixed. There is her maturity and full breastedness; her being so much in full sail on the high tides, where I am coasting down backwaters; her capacity I mean to take the floor in any company, to represent her country, to visit Chatsworth to control silver, servants, chow dogs; her motherhood (but she is a little cold and off-hand with her boys); her being in short (what I have never been) a real woman. Then there is some voluptuousness about her; the grapes are ripe; and not reflective. No. In brain and insight she is not as highly organised as I am. But then she is aware of this and so lavishes on me the maternal protection which, for some reason, is what I have always most wished from everyone. What L. gives me, and Nessa gives me and Vita, in her more clumsy external way, tries to give me. For of course, mingled with all this glamour, grape clusters and pearl necklaces, there is something loose fitting.
How much, for example, shall I really miss her when she is motoring across the desert?"

lesbian love Virginia-woolf-


From Virginia Woolf  to Vita Sackville-West (March 20, 1928) —extracts

[in Virginia's handwriting:]
Did you feel a sort of tug, as if your neck was being broken on Saturday last [17 March] at 5 minutes to one? That was when he died—or rather stopped talking, with three little dots... Now every word will have to be re-written, and I see no chance of finishing it by September—It is all over the place, incoherent, intolerable, 
impossible—And I am sick of it. The question now is, will my feelings for you be changed? I've lived in you all these months—coming out, what are you really like? Do you exist? Have I made you up?
But I don’t want to write another word for months—not a letter even—Do you ever feel words have gone dry and dull in your mind? Your mind like a sponge in the dust? You squeeze it and nothing comes? In October my mind was dripping: That is the only life.
God Vita what a dull letter! The truth is, I'm talking to Leonard about Sir Thomas Browne; and about buying a rug; and am incredibly sick of my own words.
Darling Creature, send me a long lovely letter to Cassis. I am rather depressed. Orlando so bad.
Can't write.
Can Love but then Vita's away.
Shan't see her for ever so long.
But continue please to think me charming and write to me.


Their last encounter was on February 17, 1941, the same year when Woolf ended her life. Vita remember her as joyful and happy. Nevertheless, throughout her life, Virginia was both faces of the same coin.


Woolf On Line and Brainpickings