Happy birthday, Virginia Woolf

Authors, Banned and Challenged Books, Censorship

By: Lisa Rand

portrait of Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford 1902
Portrait of Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford

Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882 – March 28, 1941) figures prominently in the canon of feminist writers, for she was brave enough, in her experimental fiction, to write about ordinary moments of everyday life. Woolf wrote about the inner lives of women, giving voice to stories that had been silenced by omission. She recognized that silencing women’s voices is essential to upholding patriarchy, and strongly objected to this convention. On her birthday, we can celebrate her contributions to feminism, to literature, and to efforts against censorship.

In the essay A Room of One’s Own (1929), Woolf made the case that “intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon material things. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time.”

A Room of One’s Own cover from Hogarth Press 1929

Born into an upper class family with socioeconomic privilege, Woolf nonetheless keenly noted the gender gap in access to education and the implications of economic inequality for women’s freedom. Her essay A Room of One’s Own explores this theme in detail. In this essay we find one of my favorite declarations of intellectual freedom (found on magnets, stickers, and notebooks in literary gift shops): “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

As she continues, however, it becomes clear that unlocking the libraries is certainly required to support intellectual freedom. Woolf had a keen sense of the need for equitable access, access to both a physical space for thinking and to intellectual nourishment, in order for women to be empowered to create.

Mrs. Dalloway cover from Hogarth Press 1925

Over the years Woolf’s writings have been censored and challenged. For example, To the Lighthouse has mention of suicide, and Mrs. Dalloway has been censored for “homosexual content,” as Clarissa Dalloway describes a moment of happiness when kissed by her friend Sally Seton. There are a number of essays available that discuss Orlando (1928), the work that managed to escape censors at publication time thanks, perhaps, to its literary devices. The novel was inspired by and dedicated to Vita Sackville-West, the dear friend and love of Virginia Woolf. Its protagonist is a man who becomes a woman and who lives for many centuries. The story has been adapted into plays and films.

At the time when Orlando was published, Radclyffe Hall’s book The Well of Loneliness, depicting lesbian love, caused an uproar in England. When Hall was headed to trial for obscenity, Woolf was willing to testify as a witness in defense. However, the judges decided that as an artist Woolf was not qualified to decide whether a work was obscene. Instead, with fellow author E.M. Forster, she co-wrote a letter, published in The Nation and Athaeneum, protesting the censorship of Radclyffe Hall’s work. They noted, “Writers produce literature, and they cannot produce great literature until they have free minds. The free mind has access to all knowledge and speculation of its age, and nothing cramps it like a taboo.”

portrait of Virginia Woolf in 1927 from Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library
Portrait of Virginia Woolf in 1927 from Harvard’s, Houghton Library

By contemporary standards, Woolf’s writings are far from perfect models of progressive views. She emerged from a particular time and privileged social circle bearing scars in the form of elitism and prejudice. However, that does not change the fact that Woolf can be admired as a writer who was anti-imperialist, pacifist (as described in her essay Three Guneas), and feminist, as well as a groundbreaking writer. She gave voice to the inner life of women, the complexity of desire, and the need for creative freedom.

Lisa Rand

Lisa M. Rand is a youth services librarian in southeastern Pennsylvania. She exercises her commitment to equity and access for everyone by serving on the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Pennsylvania Library Association. Lisa has studied at Simmons University and Kent State University. Whenever possible she travels, visiting libraries and walking in the footsteps of favorite fictional characters. Find her on Twitter @lisa_m_rand.

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