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Virginia Woolf on Clothing as a Vehicle of Identity, the Fluidity of Gender, and the Trans Dimension of Human Nature

“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes … change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”

Almost a century before Emily Spivack came to explore how clothes “help us assert our identity or aspirations” in her wonderful inquiry into the emotional dimension of clothing, which inspired a recent episode of NPR’s excellent Invisibilia, Virginia Woolf wove the subject into Orlando: A Biography (public library) — a novel that, despite being a work of fiction (or, rather, a masterwork of fiction), brims with exquisitely articulated psychological truth about such perplexities as the elasticity of time and our propensity for self-doubt in creative work. (Vita Sackville-West — Woolf’s lover and muse, who inspired Orlando — captured the wellspring of this wisdom perfectly in recounting her very first encounter with Virginia: “She is both detached and human, silent till she wants to say something, and then says it supremely well.”)

Woolf writes:

Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us… There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.

Curiously, Woolf herself was of questionable sartorial sensibility — so much so that even Vita noticed it from the midst of her infatuation, remarking on Virginia’s aesthetically atrocious choice of “woollen orange stockings [and] pumps.” But perhaps Woolf was simply more interested in the symbolic dimension of clothes than in the stylistic; more keen to explore that symbolism in her writing than in her wardrobe.

Tilda Swinton as Orlando
Tilda Swinton as Orlando

With an eye to her protagonist’s fluid transition between the male and female genders — one that happened in the novel by magic rather than by medicine, for Woolf was writing two years before the first successful gender reassignment surgery was completed, decades before the term “transgender” was coined, and nearly half a century before Jan Morris’s trailblazing account of what it’s actually like to change bodily genders — Woolf considers the role of clothing as a vehicle of the transition and a signifier of the fluidity of identity:

Clothes are but a symbol of something hid deep beneath. It was a change in Orlando herself that dictated her choice of a woman’s dress and of a woman’s sex. And perhaps in this she was only expressing rather more openly than usual — openness indeed was the soul of her nature — something that happens to most people without being thus plainly expressed.

Fleshing out the ideas that would ripen a year later into her elegant case for why the most creatively fertile mind is the androgynous mind, Woolf adds:

Different though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above.

Complement this particular passage of the wholly magnificent Orlando with Quentin Bell — Woolf’s beloved nephew, collaborator in quirk, and official biographer — on the morality of clothing, then revisit Woolf on the relationship between loneliness and creativity, how to live more fully in the present, and the epiphany that taught her what it means to be an artist.


Maria Mitchell and the Spider’s Web: A Touching Testament to Tenacity from America’s First Woman Astronomer

What a spider’s web and an infant’s hair have to do with celestial observation.

Maria Mitchell and the Spider’s Web: A Touching Testament to Tenacity from America’s First Woman Astronomer

America’s first woman astronomer, Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) — whose name is spelled like mine but is pronounced mə-RYE-ə — grew up in a large Quaker family on the small island of Nantucket and fell in love with the cosmos as a young girl. She would spend countless hours inside a former closet her father had converted into a tiny study with a single desk, intended for the ten children to take turns using it. But it was Maria who occupied it most of the time, entranced in calculations, a calling card hanging on the door with the polite, neatly inscribed admonition: “Miss Mitchell is busy. Do not knock.”

At only twenty-nine, using a two-inch telescope not much better than Galileo’s, she became the first person to discover a telescopic comet, which earned her election into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences the following year. On her certificate of admission, the salutation “Sir” was manually crossed out and “honorary member” was handwritten over the printed “Fellow,” for the Academy had never elected a woman before. The second female member — legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead — wouldn’t be admitted for another ninety years.

When Mitchell was hired to teach astronomy at the newly established Vassar college in 1865, the collegiate handbook forbad female students from going outside after dark. She devoted her life to upending such antiquated norms and other cultural obstacles that hindered women’s advancement in science — a devotion captured perfectly in her own words: “No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?”

Maria Mitchell (top row, third from left) with the first astronomy class at Vassar, 1866
Maria Mitchell (top row, third from left) with the first astronomy class at Vassar, 1866

But most impressive of all — the source from which Mitchell’s pioneering work and lasting legacy sprang — was the steadfast tenacity with which she pursued whatever endeavor she set her mind to, be it scientific observation or education or cultural upheaval. Nowhere is this more evident than in a mundane yet monumental incident with which Mitchell’s 1855 began: The fine wires making up the grid on one of the glass plates onto which she was projecting celestial motions broke and she set out to repair it; her initial instinct was to use a piece of spider’s web to replace the broken micro-wires, but when that proved unworkable, she decided to use hair from her own head, taking care to pull out a white one since she had “no black ones to spare.” She was thirty-six.

Her account of the episode, found in Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library | free ebook), is thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end, endearingly emblematic of Mitchell’s character and her indefatigable ingenuity. She writes in a diary entry from New Year’s Day of 1855:

I put some wires into my little transit this morning. I dreaded it so much, when I found yesterday that it must be done, that it disturbed my sleep. It was much easier than I expected. I took out the little collimating screws first, then I drew out the tube, and in that I found a brass plate screwed on the diaphragm which contained the lines. I was at first a little puzzled to know which screws held this diaphragm in its place, and, as I was very anxious not to unscrew the wrong ones, I took time to consider and found I need turn only two. Then out slipped the little plate with its three wires where five should have been, two having been broken. As I did not know how to manage a spider’s web, I took the hairs from my own head, taking care to pick out white ones because I have no black ones to spare. I put in the two, after first stretching them over pasteboard, by sticking them with sealing-wax dissolved in alcohol into the little grooved lines which I found. When I had, with great labor, adjusted these, as I thought, firmly, I perceived that some of the wax was on the hairs and would make them yet coarser, and they were already too coarse; so I washed my little camel’s-hair brush which I had been using, and began to wash them with clear alcohol. Almost at once I washed out another wire and soon another and another. I went to work patiently and put in the five perpendicular ones besides the horizontal one, which, like the others, had frizzled up and appeared to melt away. With another hour’s labor I got in the five, when a rude motion raised them all again and I began over. Just at one o’clock I had got them all in again. I attempted then to put the diaphragm back into its place. The sealing-wax was not dry, and with a little jar I sent the wires all agog. This time they did not come out of the little grooved lines into which they were put, and I hastened to take out the brass plate and set them in parallel lines. I gave up then for the day, but, as they looked well and were certainly in firmly, I did not consider that I had made an entire failure. I thought it nice ladylike work to manage such slight threads and turn such delicate screws; but fine as are the hairs of one’s head, I shall seek something finer, for I can see how clumsy they will appear when I get on the eyepiece and magnify their imperfections. They look parallel now to the eye, but with a magnifying power a very little crook will seem a billowy wave, and a faint star will hide itself in one of the yawning abysses.

Maria Mitchell
Maria Mitchell

Exactly two weeks later, in the thick of a New England winter, Mitchell resumes her efforts and reports in the diary:

Finding the hairs which I had put into my instrument not only too coarse, but variable and disposed to curl themselves up at a change of weather, I wrote to [Harvard College Observatory director] George Bond to ask him how I should procure spider lines. He replied that the web from cocoons should be used, and that I should find it difficult at this time of year to get at them. I remembered at once that I had seen two in the library room of the Atheneum, which I had carefully refrained from disturbing. I found them perfect, and unrolled them… Fearing that I might not succeed in managing them, I procured some hairs from C.’s head. C. [Mitchell’s nephew Charlie] being not quite a year old, his hair is remarkably fine and sufficiently long… I made the perpendicular wires of the spider’s webs, breaking them and doing the work over again a great many times… I at length got all in, crossing the five perpendicular ones with a horizontal one from C.’s spinning-wheel… After twenty-four hours’ exposure to the weather, I looked at them. The spider-webs had not changed, they were plainly used to a chill and made to endure changes of temperature; but C.’s hair, which had never felt a cold greater than that of the nursery, nor a change more decided than from his mother’s arms to his father’s, had knotted up into a decided curl! — N.B. C. may expect ringlets.

Complement with trailblazing astronomer Vera Rubin, who discovered dark matter, on how Mitchell inspired her, then revisit Rachel Ignotofsky’s illustrated celebration of pioneering women in science and Lia Halloran’s stunning cyanotype tribute to female astronomers.


How Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West Fell in Love

The real-life story behind “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.”

How Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West Fell in Love

Four years after the end of her turbulent decade-long romance with Violet Trefusis, the English poet, novelist, and landscape designer Vita Sackville-West became intensely infatuated with Virginia Woolf, ten years her senior. Theirs was a singular love that, like the protagonist of Woolf’s revolutionary novel inspired by Vita, shape-shifted fluidly as the years and decades wore on, morphing now into fervent passion, now into deep and delicate emotional intimacy, now into the most steadfast of friendships.

Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, chronicles their relationship with great reverence and sensitivity in his 1973 book Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson (public library), drawing on his mother’s letters and diaries to illuminate the enormity of the love the two women shared from the day they first met to the day Vita learned of Virginia’s death — a love that remained every bit as alive even in her moving letter of condolence to Woolf’s husband.

Their uncommon bond began in December of 1922, when Virginia was forty and her first literary success, Mrs. Dalloway, was still three years ahead. Four days after their first meeting, Virginia invited Vita to a small dinner party. Vita reported to her husband — the diplomat Harold Nicolson, also queer — in a letter from December 19, 1922:

I simply adore Virginia Woolf, and so would you. You would fall quite flat before her charm and personality… Mrs. Woolf is so simple: she does give the impression of something big. She is utterly unaffected: there are no outward adornments — she dresses quite atrociously. At first you think she is plain, then a sort of spiritual beauty imposes itself on you, and you find a fascination in watching her. She was smarter last night, that is to say, the woollen orange stockings were replaced by yellow silk ones, but she still wore the pumps. She is both detached and human, silent till she wants to say something, and then says it supremely well.

After remarking that Woolf was “quite old” — she was forty — Vita adds with a sort of wistful giddiness:

I’ve rarely taken such a fancy to anyone, and I think she likes me. At least, she asked me to Richmond where she lives. Darling, I have quite lost my heart.

Over the coming weeks, a good five years before she professed being “reduced to a thing that wants Virginia,” Vita lost her heart completely and the intimacy between the two women magnetized them closer and closer. She writes in a diary entry from the following February:

Dined with Virginia at Richmond. She is as delicious as ever. How right she is when she says that love makes anyone a bore, but the excitement of life lies in “the little moves” nearer to people. But perhaps she feels this because she is an experimentalist in humanity, and has no grande passion in her life.

A month later, Vita confides in her diary again:

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.

But then, Nicolson notes, there came a gap in communication. Virginia herself was initially ambivalent, at once hopelessly drawn to Vita — to “her being in short (what I have never been) a real woman,” as she wrote in her own diary — and exasperated by the suddenness and severity of that attraction. Quentin Bell — the beloved nephew with whom Woolf had once collaborated on a satirical family newspaper and who later became her official biographer — speculates about the cause:

She probably became aware of Vita’s feelings and perhaps acquired an inkling of her own at that first encounter; she felt shy, almost virginal, in Vita’s company, and she was, I suspect, roused to a sense of danger.

Nicolson considers his mother’s pole of the battery:

Vita was too well aware of the delicacy of Virginia’s mind and body to press her strongly, and their friendship developed affectionately, starting with the small tendernesses by the fireside. (Vita liked to sit on the floor by Virginia’s chair) that gradually, so gradually, led to something a little more.

But that something was not little by any measure — for any love at all is no small matter, but especially one of such magnitude. Vita became Virginia’s lover and muse, and went on to inspire her groundbreaking 1928 novel Orlando, which revolutionized the politics of LGBT love and which Nicolson himself so poetically calls “the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which [Virginia] 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, and ends by photographing her in the mud at Long Barn, with dogs, awaiting Virginia’s arrival the next day.”

Drawing of Vita Sackville-West by Nina Cosford from Virginia Woolf: An Illustrated Biography
Drawing of Vita Sackville-West by Nina Cosford from Virginia Woolf: An Illustrated Biography

On October 11, 1928 — the day Orlando published — Vita received a lavish package, containing a pristine copy of the book and Virginia’s original manuscript, custom-bound for Vita in Niger leather, her initials engraved on the spine. Years later, upon receiving news of Virginia’s death, Vita would describe her onetime lover and lifelong friend as “the loveliest mind and spirit” she ever knew and “a loss which can never diminish.”

Nicolson writes of his mother’s relationship with Virginia, taking care to note that the open marriages both women had, while unconventional by the era’s standards, were held together by unbreakable intellectual and spiritual bonds to their respective spouses:

[Virginia’s] friendship was the most important fact in Vita’s life, except Harold, just as Vita’s was the most important in Virginia’s, except Leonard, and perhaps her sister Vanessa. If one seeks a parallel to Vita-Harold, one can find it only in Virginia-Leonard, although one must admit differences, for Virginia was sexually frigid and Leonard was not homosexual. Their marriages were alike in the freedom they allowed each other, in the invincibility of their love, in its intellectual, spiritual and non-physical base, in the eagerness of all four of them to savour life, challenge convention, work hard, play dangerously with the emotions — and in their solicitude for each other. How well do I recall Leonard’s look as he watched Virginia across a sitting-room to see that she did not grow tired or overexcited, caring for her much as Joseph must have cared for Mary, for their relationship was Biblical. There was no jealousy between the Woolfs and the Nicolsons, beause they had arrived independently at the same definition of “trust.”

Portrait of a Marriage is a rich and rewarding read in its entirety, aglow with the kaleidoscopic nuances and pluralities of love. Complement it with Virginia Woolf what makes relationships last and literature’s greatest LGBT love letters, then revisit Edna St. Vincent Millay’s exquisite polyamorous love letters from the same era in which Vita and Virginia fell in love.


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