Remember When Virginia Woolf Taught Us How to Get the Girl?


Virginia Woolf was a brave first in many ways. She was an early and outspoken feminist. A Room of One’s Own, in which she argues that women need literal and figurative space to write in a tradition dominated by men, remains a seminal text today. She was also an early advocate for same-sex love and gender fluidity, sometimes giving the characters in her work the subtle and larger freedoms she wasn’t outwardly allowed in her day. The protagonist in Orlando, an individual based on the life of her real-life lover Vita Sackville-West, was given the ability to switch genders through the ages, advocating that love is love decades before public acceptance. Elsewhere, Mrs. Dalloway had a female love interest in her namesake novel; and Lily Briscoe, in To The Lighthouse, held a deep closeness to Mrs. Ramsay that lasted well after her death. Living honestly—as honestly as one could in an era of limited options— and empowering other women was at the core of Woolf’s life and prose.

At the heart of this liveliness and passion was Woolf’s love for Sackville—one kept alive by the preserved and later published love letters between the two.

Almost a century later, Woolf is still inspiring individuals in many ways. Hari Nef cites her as her favorite author, and the one who allowed her to embrace, as she put it, “the drama of everyday life.” The Tate Modern featured an entire exhibition on paintings they associated with her.

One of the most enduring works inspired by Woolf—Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours, which later became the Nicole Kidman-starring drama—was, perhaps appropriately, an accident of love.

“I read [Mrs. Dalloway] in a desperate attempt to impress a girl who was reading it at the time. I hoped, for strictly amorous purposes, to appear more literate than I,” wrote Cunningham, who was 15 at the time, in reflection. “In Mrs. Dalloway, and other novels of Woolf’s, we are told that there are no insignificant lives, only inadequate ways of looking at them….I did not, at the age of 15, understand any of that….But I could see, even as an untutored and rather lazy child, the density and symmetry and muscularity of Woolf’s sentences. I thought, wow, she was doing with language something like what Jimi Hendrix does with a guitar.”

For him, it was all about getting the girl initially—something Woolf knew a bit about—and later, the beginning of a passion for writing about the extraordinary possibilities within the ordinary and appreciating the ordinary moments of life.


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