For some readers the very mention of Modernism is enough to put them off trying a book for life. After all, anyone who has acquainted themselves with the winding sentences of James Joyce’s Ulysses or dipped into the poetic insanity (or genius) of Gertrude Stein will realise that Modernist literature can be intimidating, confusing and incomprehensible.
So where does that leave opinions on Virginia Woolf? Her novels and essays are often held up as shining examples of modernist thought, and so it’s forgivable to think that her works could be intimidating. Indeed, there is even a play entitled “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” which heavily suggests her writing is something to fear. However, although her mastery over the stream of consciousness narrative, largely poetic prose and even the playful ideas she carefully wove through her texts are all very much of her time, there aspects of Woolf’s works that mean for a modern reader, they are still as important as ever...
A voice for women
We still live in a world where a disparity between men and women exists. From the gender pay gap to the lack of rights granted to women in some countries, today’s women are fighting just as hard as those of the 1920s, and so Woolf’s ideas are more relevant than ever.
Arguably, one of the most famous quotes of her essay A Room of One’s Own is: “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman” and this sentiment that women are often overlooked and forgotten still rings true despite the progress we are making today. Many of the most memorable parts of this essay revolve around the role and identity of women, and Woolf doesn’t hold back when she suggests that “Anything may happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation” – powerful and thought provoking stuff!
These ideas are also largely touched upon in her fiction. In Mrs. Dalloway we enter the life of a woman who gives parties, not only because she loves them but also to hide her sadness and cover the unhappy aspects of her life. What would become of Clarissa if she followed her true heart and spent her life with Peter (or even Sally?) we are painfully aware of a woman’s need to conform to preconceived ideas in order to survive, and this sense of restriction and wasted opportunity weaves a terribly sad tale behind the happenings of a summer day in interwar London.
Furthermore, in Woolf’s centuries sprawling, gender bending classic Orlando, we are also treated to Woolf’s genius regarding the idea of womanhood, with the eponymous character herself/himself often making pointed statements such as “As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking.”
Exploring alternative lifestyles
For many LGBTQ+ individuals, Woolf’s novels hold an appeal simply because she was unafraid to explore these feelings and narratives. In Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa has a moving and heartfelt love towards Sally Seton (“Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down!”) and Woolf’s novel Orlando can clearly be read into as both a Trans narrative or one that explores love from a unique same sex perspective, especially as it was written for her lover Vita Sackville-West.
Today these relationships are as fresh and exciting as ever. Her novels with these relationships are well worth exploring for people who want to discover some interesting examples of queer representation in older literature, especially as the lack of restraint in the writing makes the characters feel so fresh and alive, and the feelings are so cleverly expressed as to feel every bit as real to a modern reader than one reading her novels almost 100 years ago.
Relevant to us all
Woolf’s views on women and her alternative perspectives are just two of the reasons why her books remain so exciting and relevant to us in the modern day. It is perhaps why she still features so prominently on lists such as “The best novels ever written” and “100 books to read before your thirty” – her insight into human nature is incredible and needs to be read to be believed. So when someone asks you Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The answer should be “not me”.
Written by Charlie Edwards-Freshwater
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