Sexuality is a topic widely discussed through the ages. From sex not being sentimental to the debate over homosexuality, it often appears in literature. One writer who incorporates her views on sexuality in her work is Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf writes of a woman, Mrs. Dalloway, preparing for a party while diving into her consciousness, uncovering old memories. Within Mrs. Dalloway’s day, she is reminded of her old friend Sally Seton. As she thinks about Sally, Mrs. Dalloway reveals that she was in love with Sally and that they shared a kiss once. When they first met, Mrs. Dalloway was instantly infatuated with Sally, so much so that “she could not take her eyes off Sally” (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 301). They sat for hours “talking in her bedroom at the top of the house, talking about life, how they were to reform the world” (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 301). Woolf says the strange thing about Mrs. Dalloway and Sally was “the purity, the integrity, of [Dalloway’s] feeling for Sally” (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 301). I think we can all relate to being unable to move our eyes away from someone we find attractive. I think we can all relate to the chemistry of talking for hours about anything and everything when we meet someone we click with. And I think we can all relate to purity and integrity of our feelings, truly caring and wanting the best for our partner. I think we can all relate to Mrs. Dalloway’s love for Sally.
So, while Mrs. Dalloway “fe[lt] what men felt” toward other women, she “resented it” (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 301). From the details of their first night together and her reminiscing, we know Mrs. Dalloway had a great love in Sally, pure and genuine. Yet she resented it. Why? Homosexuality was illegal for men during World War One—just before Mrs. Dalloway’s story—and remained illegal until 1967 in the United Kingdom—where Mrs. Dalloway is set (Homosexuality in the First World War). While homosexuality between women was never actually outlawed, “societal norms forbid [it],” calling homosexual acts “acts of gross indecency” (Homosexuality in the First World War). So, while it was not illegal for Mrs. Dalloway to be attracted to and in love with another woman, she faced public isolation and disgust for her “acts of gross indecency.” As anyone would be, she was conflicted between her true feelings and going against the rigid social norms of the time—much like women pursuing their passions during the Victorian age. From Mrs. Dalloway and Sally, we know that homosexuality was still socially unacceptable, which held people in love with those of the same sex forced to pretend they love another and to hide their true identity. Much like in the Victorian age, these people faced isolation, discrimination, and persecution simply for loving who they loved. Times had progressed in other ways, like women’s roles beginning to change, but society still had some work to do—which has been done in the years following 1967, when homosexuality was legalized in the United Kingdom. We have undoubtedly made much progress in accepting homosexuality and changing society from Mrs. Dalloway’s time, though there is always, of course, more work to be done.
Greenblatt et. al., (Eds). (2018). The Norton Anthology of English Literature The Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Homosexuality in the First World War. Retrieved from www.eastsussexww1.org.uk/homosexuality-in-wwi.