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    AC Benus
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The Great Mirror of Same-Sex Love - Prose - 26. Dolly Wilde encounters Virginia Woolf


Dolly Wilde encounters Virginia Woolf


Cambridge on a frosty night. The Dean’s room in King’s College, firelight, books, sober colours, elegance and a group of charming people holding conversation. We are waiting for dinner when someone says “Leonard and Virginia are very late.” The smooth waters of my mind are ruffled by fear by this unexpected remark, and my heart beats perceptibly quicker. The chief Lama of Thibet will be here any moment – easy manners must give place to decorum, familiar friendship be brought stiffly to attention. Then the door opens and a tall gaunt figure, grey-haired, floats into the room. Her age struck me first, and then her prettiness – shock and delight hand in hand. How explain? There is something of the witch in her – as in Edith Sitwell – with the rather curved back and sharp features. She is dressed in black, old fashioned elderly clothes that make me feel second-rate in my smart clothes – her feet are very long and thin encased in black broché shoes with straps of the Edwardian period. All is faded and grey about her, like her iron grey hair parted in the middle and dragged into a ‘bun’ at the back. And yet immediately one sees her prettiness and a lovely washed away ethereal look making all of us look so gross and sensual. The eyes are deep-sunk and small the nose fine and pointed, a little too pointed by curiosity, but the feature that most strikes one is the mouth – a full round mouth, a pretty girl’s mouth in that spinster face. It is so young, young like her skin that is smooth and soft. She greets Honey and me without looking at us and at dinner never once makes us the target of her eyes – there is embarrassment around the table and she only talks to her intimates. She is witty and kindly malicious. Then suddenly I say something that makes her laugh and the curtain of her eyelids are raised and we talk together, flippantly delightfully. I had once been told one must never mention her books and as we threaded byeways of humour I thought of your letters about her so much. I saw her, too, all the time as such a pretty little girl in a big hat, and Kew Gardens with the governess planting a kiss on the back of her neck – do you remember? – which was the parent of all the kisses in her life . . .

She has nothing to do with maternal life – is supposed to be a virgin, to have experienced no physical contact even with Orlando. She says she has no need of experience – knows everything without it: and this impression she gives as one meets her. I felt cruelty in her, born of humour – tiredness, great tiredness and her eyes veiled with visions rather than brightened by them.

—Dolly Wilde,[i]







[i] “Dolly Wilde encounters Virginia Woolf” Dolly Wilde letter to Natalie Barney, reprinted in The Love of Friends [Constance Jones / Val Clark, Editors] (New York 1997), ps. 220-221


Copyright © 2021 AC Benus; All Rights Reserved.
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What a deeply observant and descriptive recollection! I wonder if anyone would remember one of us in such a detailed and perceptive way. 

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1 hour ago, Parker Owens said:

What a deeply observant and descriptive recollection! I wonder if anyone would remember one of us in such a detailed and perceptive way. 

Wilde, the niece of Oscar, was hailed as a great wit, and her writing career was quite successful. She wrote the above about Virginia in a private letter, but could not hold back any of her gift for words, even in correspondence with lovers. 

The references to Mrs. Woolf's virgin status are interesting, and reminds me of the tortured letters Leonard exchanged with college friends (all Gay) debating which one of them should marry Virginia to protect her from the world. I should post a survey of them here in the Prose section... 

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Oh, yes, and when Wilde says "...no physical contact even with Orlando", she means Virginia's long-time lover Vita Sackville-West, the inspiration for the title-character of Woolf's novel Orlando 

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