I Am Reduced To A Thing That Wants Virginia
D. Parker talks us through a journey of sexual identity and self-discovery, with the help of Virgina Woolf.
I remember very well the first time I read that title sentence. Sixteen-year-old me was sitting in the dark, close to midnight, with her eyes glued to a screen and her breath caught in her throat. It would become a recurring element, a cliché, or a beacon, that would anchor me whenever doubts crept in. It would become a gateway to a newand exciting world. If Vita Sackville-West could not only feel it, but say it in 1926, I definitely could at least feel it in 2010, even if I couldn’t say it.
This new knowledge would silence questions and insecurities; it would circle around me, as a defence against casual mockery. It provided strength and understanding, a little mantra when family and friends, the news and complete strangers would offer their (often) unwanted opinions.
I discovered them as people first, and writers second. I read the handful of letters I found online over and over, storing every syllable in my mind, handling them gently so as not to let even an ounce of their meaning get lost – and they didn’t. They filled me with a new kind of confidence, one I hadn’t anticipated or encountered before; a confidence that leaned in and whispered that not only you could choose a life and live it, in spite of various obstacles, but it was okay to do so.
A love affair with literature
I often hear the term “highbrow” mentioned in relation to my reading preferences. People seem to perceive the literature I read as heavy, intelligent, and therefore inaccessible. That may or may not be true, but that’s another topic for another day. My point is that mentions of Virginia Woolf, Colette, Anaïs Nin are met with either raised eyebrows or giggles, but almost never an understanding. So the conversation takes its natural course to the safer, more familiar terrain of contemporary literature. Don’t get me wrong, Woolf is difficult to understand. The stream of consciousness as a literary technique is an absolute whirlwind from start to finish. It takes you by surprise, it rattles you, it requires tremendous amounts of energy and effort, and that’s just the “light” stuff. So why read it? Why devote so much time to understanding and exploring it?
The answer is because I love Woolf’s work. Which although true, it still isn’t the whole truth. Marguerite Duras, a writer I only recently discovered, believed that biographies on writers aren’t necessary because everything of substance that could be found out about them was in their writing.
However, I read Woolf because I’m trying to understand her (and myself) better. I read her because she offers refuge. I read her because novels like Orlando opened an incredible number of doors and answered an incredible number of questions. I read her because she often has the right words. I read her because if not for her and Orlando, this self-discovery expedition that started in my teens would have been more challenging, more difficult; it would have been delayed or thrown off-course. I read Woolf because Nigel Nicolson was right, and Orlando truly is the most beautiful love letter ever written. I read Woolf because her prose and essays illustrate the same level of honesty as her diaries and letters. I read her because her work is an infinite pool of inspiration. I read her because of Hogarth Press and I read her because of Bloomsbury. I read her because she had put on paper what I could not even form into questions.
But for the love of Virginia
Vita and Virginia’s letters left a sort of craving that I couldn’t, at the time, understand. This need for knowledge was not something I could quantify, and it most certainly was not something I could place a label to. So with Vita’s words perpetually fresh in my mind, I set out to explore more, to piece more clues together.
I discovered her fiction with Orlando. It instantly became familiar to me, intimate almost. The words flowed and a few hours later I had turned to the first page and ‘He, for there could be no doubt of his sex (..)’ had reappeared.
My first copy of Orlando comes from a museum in Evesham, two years after I had first heard of it. It is a small, 1944 Penguin Edition, with orange stripes and big bold letters. It felt so tiny and thin and frail, and I remember how my hands trembled as I held it. An overwhelming warmth filled my chest at the opening paragraph, as though I was discovering reading for the first time. When Chastity, Modesty and the other muses stood over Orlando, my heart stopped and time froze. When Virginia wrote, ‘we have no choice left but confess- he was a woman’, a jolt of an unknown and unexpected feeling sent a shock through every nervous cell in my body.
It was 1928 and the protagonist of her novel written for and about her lover had just swapped sexes. It was 1928 and the dedication read ‘To V. Sackville-West’. I remember how much this affected and still affects me. I can still feel the momentum that washed over me; a revitalising feeling of invulnerability. I remember thinking what an incredible act of defiance, of courage, of love, not only to write such a novel, but publish it as well, for the world to see.
I too am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia
So when Vita wrote, ‘I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia,’ it was as if my feelings had been validated. Imagine you want to find words and ask questions, and the biggest obstacle is that you don’t even know what these words are or where to find them, let alone how to arrange them into questions. And if you do craft questions out of them, what do these questions look like? What do you ask? And most importantly: who? So when you find these feelings on paper, black on white, they offer a leg to stand on, they offer support and reassurance that whatever it was that you couldn’t place or identify, is not something that you’re carrying on your own. It may be that the only reference point, the only aid you have is a collection of letters or a diary or a novel, and if that is the case, you must hold on to it; it will lead you through the most brutal storms.
I will continue to read Woolf because there is still so much to learn; because when worries press and push and tug, when they break on the shore in a fury, when they flood everything, when they crumble towers and flatten mountains, there will always be a home to come to.
Ten years later, the phrase still makes my breath catch in my throat; I still brace myself, I revert back to being a scared sixteen-year-old who has no idea where these feelings are coming from and what they are; but they are exciting and new and they have been documented. Ten years later, Vita and Virginia’s letters still seem so new and fresh; ten years later, they remain the most important words I have come across, not only for their passion, bravery, honesty or vulnerability, but for the world they revealed, the books and people they gently placed in front of me.