“Women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time, the very walls are permeated by their creative force, which has, indeed so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must needs harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics.” Virginia Woolf, from A Room Of One’s Own
Virginia sits in her room and imagines women through the ages. They look like her, they have the same anxieties as she, the same desires. And she thinks, they have always been inside, creatures of the hearth, always viewing the world from inside wishing they could be out, in a field, unrestricted, their garments loose, dancing, like butterflies. Instead, they must look out and see the world as men have created it. Women, so sensitive and perceptive they know every nuance of the internal world and still they are treated like children, as if we didn’t know, as if we were not able to fathom the business of the world. Women, in fact, are the very words with which men speak. We are the pens, the paper, the books. We, who create the children also create a common language for them to speak. Yes, the world of the mind is permeated by our creative force…
It is 1934. In Argentina another woman feels the passion of Virginia’s convictions, as countless women will feel them. Another woman who thinks and writes, and knows herself to be capable in the world of men, able to create her own universe of ideas and books by women and men of letters. She travels often, and unbeknownst to Virginia, this woman will meet her today at a gallery where she will spark Virginia’s imagination for the sole reason of coming from such a remote place. Virginia has never had a friend who will listen to her and understand her in an essential way that goes beyond familiarity and affection. This friend will not be a Vita or a Leonard, and yet Virginia will feel understood. It’s an odd feeling that she will have to render into words, into letters she will send to this new friend, into entries in her journals, in order to manage the flood of thoughts that assail her. When she is done, her prodigious imagination will have created a land and a vision and a history for this woman, and she will continue to inhabit Virginia’s imagination even when she is far away.
Virginia hates to go out. She writes in her journal until, mercifully, it is time to get up and fix dinner. She must do it herself because her cook is home with her two children who are sick with measles. She fixes sole in a white sauce and the making of dinner calms her anxieties, fixes her attention until her whole body relaxes. She can control the surprises of the day by structuring her activity in the kitchen the way she has done it before, with words. Later in the evening she goes out, dons her long gray coat and a wide hat adorned with a feather. She visits the art gallery where she speaks with one or two people; the hat soothes her, shields her from a glare she has imagined. And there she meets Victoria.
Victoria is immediately aware of Virginia’s hesitant presence everywhere. She realizes how difficult it is for Virginia to be in contact with the world, how the strength of her intellect cannot protect her fragile nature. It’s only when they spend time alone together in Virginia’s home that Victoria can feel her at ease, with herself, with her ideas. The two of them share a great deal; they know some of the same people, they share feminist ideas, they even discuss the demeaning expectations that Mussolini has about the women of Italy, relegating them to the kitchen, growing children and chickens for the benefit of the nation. Victoria has just returned from Rome which is why they talk about this. She and Victoria share the opinion that women should be in politics, as well as in every other public sphere.
Virginia finds she enjoys speaking with Victoria, but she is also fascinated by her. The woman comes from so far away! And yet, she speaks so well, Virginia has no trouble understanding her. She wants to have an idea of where she comes from, and so she asks her about butterflies. Are there many in Argentina? She remembers reading Darwin’s account of seeing butterflies when he was in the island of St. Blas. She tells Victoria that she imagines her in vast fields of blue-green grasses, where the wild and savage animals run. Victoria thinks of Argentina’s gentle pastures and the national livestock industry, the well-tended sheep, many of them originating from Virginia’s own country, producing Argentina’s high quality textiles. She wonders what Virginia could be thinking of, but she finds her charming, and she enjoys her new friend’s flights of fancy. Besides, Victoria has also read Darwin.
The war rages in Europe. Back in Buenos Aires Victoria worries about her friend. She would like to visit again but it is unlikely that she can. She prepares a gift for her instead, something very special that Virginia is certain to enjoy: a collection of rare butterflies encased in a large glass frame. She wraps it lovingly to cushion it for the journey, and she entrusts it to her cousin who will travel to London with her friend, an English governess. They will bring it to Virginia with Victoria’s best wishes.
Some months later, Victoria receives a letter from Virginia, thanking her for the gift and telling her the story of how she received it. Virginia was in her study. It was a raw October afternoon; they were fixing the street out front and the sidewalk was lined with dangling red lanterns. The doorbell rang and Virginia went to receive two mysterious ladies. They handed her a box containing something, they uttered some very musical but unintelligible words, and then they left. Virginia went upstairs with the package, puzzled, and spent a good ten minutes unwrapping it and figuring out that it was a gift of a most unusual kind. She was enchanted, she tells Victoria, that she would think of something so completely original and so perfect. For a moment, Virginia may have captured the essence of Victoria’s gift to her, that it was Virginia who saw herself as a butterfly, projecting herself with her prodigious intellect across continents to imagine her own reflection in the blue and green of the Argentine. And she invites Victoria to visit as soon as she can at Mecklenbourg Square, telling her she thinks of her often, existing, she tells her again, so far away in those blue-green fields where night butterflies flutter over silver blossoms all the time, even in the middle of the day. Victoria was glad to hear that Virginia liked the present, but she remained puzzled; after all, her cousin spoke English perfectly, and Miss May, the governess, was as English as Virginia herself.
Meanwhile, Virginia fusses over the glass box. Suddenly she is overcome by guilt, hearing the admonitions of her Anglican father in her head, warnings against the superfluous nature of presents, and pictures hanging on the wall. She struggles, silently, writing in her journal that she doesn’t know where to hang the precious object, does not know how to make room in her home for such a thing. In the twilight, the gloss of a butterfly’s wing might well catch one last dying glint of evening.
Victoria is able to see Virginia one more time, when she succeeds in getting the famous photographer, Gisele Freund, to take some unforgettable photos of Virginia. Only a few years later, Virginia was dead. Many women like Victoria will wonder why Virginia could not understand the women who came to see her with Victoria’s gift that day. What was it that Virginia heard? In her imagination all the women were like her, living inside for millions of years, and the ones from far away, from the places where night butterflies flutter over blue-green grasses, those women must have really been just like her, speaking in musical, if unintelligible tones. But Virginia, with all her prodigious talent and imagination, never actually saw beyond herself the woman named Victoria who came from so far.
The wonder of all this, is that fifty years later Virginia’s words still resonate, that those of us who were never included in Virginia’s literary universe, still find our way into her ideas, manage to look at the world the way she would have, and engage with her in a conversation of our own making.
by Mariana Romo-Carmona, August 28, 2003
Notes: This essay was inspired by the actual meeting of Virginia Woolf, and the Argentine philanthropist and diarist, Victoria Ocampo. Both women wrote about that brief friendship in their respective diaries.
San Blas de Cuna: Situated in the Caribbean Sea a few miles off the north coast of Panama, the islands are the home of the Cuna, a traditional society of Native Americans. Most of these tropical islands are very small. Many are surrounded by coral reefs. The islands are part of Panama, but are primarily administered by the Cuna nation.