Vanessa Bell’s Curious Reaction to Virginia Woolf’s Lesbian Affair

When Virginia Woolf finally confessed her lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West to her sister, Vanessa Bell, in April of 1929, Vanessa’s response was more curious than surprised.

Virginia described the amusing moment in a letter to Vita a few days later:

“I told Nessa the story of our passion in a chemists shop the other day. ‘But do you really like going to bed with women’ she said – taking her change. ‘And how’d you do it?’ and so she bought her pills to take abroad, talking as loud as a parrot” (Sproles 3.)

What’s striking about the question is that since the Bloomsbury members were supporters of gay rights and many of them were openly gay, the idea of her sister engaging in a lesbian affair was no big shock to Vanessa.

She also did not appear to have any reservations about sharing this information with anyone within earshot in the store.

Yet, despite the Bloomsbury group’s open and progressive attitudes towards sex, either heterosexual or homosexual, Vanessa was still unaware of how lesbians engaged in a sexual relationship.

Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf

According to the book Desiring Women: The Partnership between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, part of the reason could be that although the Bloomsbury group were supporters of homosexuality “unlike ‘buggery’ erotic practice between women was not celebrated in Bloomsbury.”

In her diary on August 31 of 1928, Virginia Woolf described a conversation she had with fellow Bloomsbury member E.M. Forster about his attitude towards lesbianism:

“He said he thought Sapphism disgusting; partly from the convention, partly because he disliked that women should be independent of men.”

This could account for Vanessa and the group’s lack of information on the subject. They were well aware that lesbians existed, even among them, they just didn’t discuss or encourage them.

Virginia never gave any indication to what her response was to either Vanessa or E.M. Forster so it’s hard to tell where she stood on the subject. Since it didn’t appear that Virginia had any other lesbian lovers after Vita, perhaps their negative attitudes had an effect on her.

It is not clear if the other Bloomsbury Group members ever knew about Virginia and Vita’s affair or what their reactions were but it seems that since they never took a liking to Vita or invited her into their group, it is unlikely they would have approved of it.

Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville West at Monks House in 1932 (left) and at Knole in 1932 (right)
Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville West at Monks House in 1932 (left) and at Knole in 1932 (right)

Vita informed her own husband, Harold, of the affair in a letter dated August 17, 1926:

“I don’t want to get landed in an affair which might get beyond my control before I knew where I was. Besides, Virginia is not the sort of person one thinks of in the way. There is something incongruous and almost indecent about the idea. I have gone to bed with her (twice), but that’s all. Now you know all about it, and I hope I haven’t shocked you” (Nicholson 206.)

Since Vita and Harold had an open relationship, Harold was unfazed by the confession but did warn her to be careful with Virginia due to her mental health issues. Virginia’s husband, Leonard, was also aware of the affair and was also not bothered by it except for his concern for her mental health.

The affair ended after a few years but Vita and Virginia continued to be friends until Virginia’s death in 1941.

Sources:
Nicholson, Nigel. Portrait of a Marriage. University of Chicago Press, 1973.
Sproles, Karyn Z. Desiring Women: The Partnership Between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. University of Toronto Press, 2006