Virginia Woolf: defying expectation

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) by Vanessa Bell

We're marking 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality by exploring the LGBTQ heritage at many of our places. The author Virginia Woolf was shaped by her unconventional approach to gender and sexuality. Her home was the idyllic Monk's House in Sussex.

The author Virginia Woolf was a leading light of the Bloomsbury movement in the early 20th Century, a group of artists and intellectuals with a bohemian approach to love and sexuality. In her writing, Virginia forged a playful, imaginative style that threw off the conventions of the time. In her personal life, she was just as controversial.

Breaking boundaries

Virginia was happily married to Leonard Woolf for almost thirty years, but also had an intense affair with another writer, Vita Sackville-West. Virginia's love of Vita inspired the novel Orlando, (1928), which imagines Vita (as Orlando) living through centuries, shifting gender and commenting on the changing assumptions about love, marriage and women’s role over time. Orlando’s ancestral home is based on Knole, Vita’s family home, and expresses her attachment to the place.

A copy of the novel Orlando by Virginia Woolf (1882–1941), with a dedication by the author to Edward Sackville-West, fifth Baron Sackville (1901–65) / NT 3220860
A copy of the novel Orlando by Virginia Woolf / Knole

Monk's House

Monk's House was the beloved home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and it's filled with collections from their shared life. Many writers and artists also visited the house, and Virginia frequently recorded them in photographs. You can see some on display in the Writing Lodge, the evocative room tucked away in the garden where Virginia wrote many of her most famous books.

Monk's House was the writer Virginia Woolf's country home and retreat.
Monk's House was the writer Virginia Woolf's country home and retreat.

Virginia's legacy

Virginia Woolf's novels are now part of the most important works of modern English literature. Her books reveal her profound skill as a writer as well as her broad-ranging, fluid approach to life. To Virginia, and the Bloomsbury group she was part of, gender and sexuality were not made up of a simple, confining set of rules. They were a malleable, shifting spectrum of experiences. It was a bold view which helped to challenge some of the stifling expectations of society.

Virginia Woolf's writing desk at Monk's House
Virginia Woolf's writing desk at Monk's House

Prejudice and Pride

This is just one of the stories we’re exploring as part of a programme called Prejudice and Pride. Throughout the year you can discover more with events, exhibitions and installations which tell the stories of the men and women who challenged conventional notions of gender and sexuality and who shaped the properties in which they lived. We’ll also be taking part in community celebrations including Pride festivals around the country and Heritage Open Days to build an understanding of LGBTQ histories in local communities.

This article is adapted from our new guidebook, ‘Prejudice and Price: Celebrating LGBTQ Heritage’ by Alison Oram & Matt Cook. It is available now at National Trust shops and our online store.