Almost exactly four years ago, on the eve of my 15th birthday, my parents handed me a small, silver-wrapped parcel. Encased was a rather modest-looking volume, a crisp paperback, bearing on its front in elegant cursive the words Mrs. Dalloway. Already a lover of great literature throughout my childhood and into my burgeoning adolescence, I was thrilled to have received a novel by so great an author as Virginia Woolf, despite knowing almost nothing about her at the time. Even better, neither of my parents had ever read any of her work — this was to be my first great step into the wondrous future of an esteemed literary scholar I had envisaged for myself. I felt that great sense of adult pretension that only comes from those pretending at being grown-up, despite my incapability to comprehend its meaning. I read it from cover to cover, enjoyed it immensely, and put it in pride of my place on my bedroom shelf, situating it among various other literary idols who occupied this private altar of mine.
I was barely able to appreciate the genius and beauty of Woolf’s craft and the characters that she fashions at 15. Yet, I eagerly read of Clarissa Dalloway (the novel’s protagonist), a long-married and aged woman corseted by the restrictive confines of 1920s English society, recollecting the bygone and glorious summer of her youth, spent in the idyllic countryside in which she met Sally Seton. Clarissa and Sally quickly become comrades in a world otherwise ready to trap them in a constrictive matrimonial fate and develop a profound an intimate emotional connection. Clarissa exults Sally’s very presence under the same roof as her. One evening, when Sally and Clarissa manage to capture a brief moment to themselves, Sally plucks a flower from a nearby vase and kisses her on the lips. Clarissa describes this as “the most exquisite moment of her life.” Despite the various scholars quick to force this into a heterosexual framework, their relationship is clearly more than simply platonic friendship, though I barely registered this at 15. Now, somewhat more mature, it is in my opinion one of the most sublime and complex literary portrayals of a rather tender romance between two women. Virginia Woolf was herself, of course, involved in a famed love affair with fellow writer Vita Sackville-West, recounted in a series of similarly beautifully written letters between them.
Self-admittedly, I was an incredibly confused and anxious 15-year-old reader. I had experienced what I believed to be feelings of attraction for boys and was even a little too effusive in proclaiming them. I had convinced everyone, including myself, that I had an enormous, starry-eyed crush on a particular male classmate. Girls were pretty, but this was an objective fact. Yet, though I didn’t consciously reflect on that passage from Mrs. Dalloway, I now realise that in the deep recesses of my juvenile mind, I was contemplating it, turning it over. And I eventually came to the conclusion that I too, wanted a girl to kiss me the way Sally kisses Clarissa. And for all my self-deception and immaturity, I knew that straight girls didn’t want to kiss other girls — not like that anyway. Even after this epiphany, it took me about another year before I could successfully label those feelings, and then confess them first to a friend and next to my parents. They were all accepting; I assumed I had overcome the most fundamental and difficult part of shaping this newfound part of my Identity.
I was wrong. In many ways, I felt more adrift than ever — with the absurd expectation I would instantly find the same warmth and devotion as Sally and Clarissa, I was bitterly disappointed. At 16, bruised by a straight girl’s rejection, I once again found solace in the printed page, led almost purely by chance to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. It was in this graphic memoir that I could finally somewhat recognise my own experiences, not just those of my recent realisation and coming out, but also of growing up, dealing with parents, and a shared struggle with OCD. This literary exploration of mine has only continued in the less than year-long period I have spent at university thus far, with the private treasury of my bedroom shelf now expanded to include the likes of Sappho of Lesbos herself, Aphra Behn, Daphne du Maurier, Adrienne Rich, and of course many more works of Woolf. Ironically, however, the greater the literary and theoretical exploration of my identity, the less the practical one. For all of my avid reading and the joy it has brought me, I am yet to actually find someone to share those same sweet and wondrous emotions and experiences as Sally and Clarissa. In that respect, I remain unchanged from that bewildered adolescent who first read the novel. Yet, I still felt a distinct sense of fulfilment and self-assuredness when I revisited it earlier this year. And it is this feeling of not just confidence in my identity, but of the sheer pride and jubilation that I derive from it, for which I will forever be grateful to these beloved sapphic literary icons of mine.