While Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was known for her revolutionary modernist fiction, her writings also secured her status as a pivotal figure in women’s literary history. Woolf delivers the comprehensive essay “A Room of One’s Own,” as a lecture to a female audience at Newnham College, Cambridge, encouraging women to “have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think,” (71). In chapter five of her essay, Woolf proposes the concept of a friendship between two women. While reading Mary Carmichael’s fictional novel Life’s Adventures, Woolf is interrupted by the statement “Chloe liked Olivia” (56). Although Woolf’s statement appears simple, ‘Chloe’ and ‘Olivia’ represent a proposition for the renovation of relationships between women. Unless the relationship between the two women was a feud of sorts, the relationship of two women was not discussed in literature. Oftentimes, the relationships between women in literature (especially in the literary works of men) illuminate women detesting each other. Woolf continues by stating, “Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature. Cleopatra did not like Octavia. And how completely Antony and Cleopatra would have been altered had she done so!” (56). While this is not the first appearance of William Shakespeare in Woolf’s essay, Woolf dissects the tragedy from a diverse perspective. Woolf’s re-imagination of Shakespeare’s tragic play Antony and Cleopatra illuminates that perhaps the tragedy was the inability of the female characters to formulate a friendship.
Woolf also notes, “When a woman speaks to women she should have something very unpleasant up her sleeve. Women are hard on women. Women dislike women,” (70). Woolf’s proclamation acknowledges the presence of hatred between women. However, Woolf ultimately criticizes these women for continuously chastising each other over the years. When declaring that “Chloe liked Olivia,” Woolf calls for unity between the sex of women as a whole. Woolf illuminates her belief that the banning together of women would facilitate the women’s rights movement.
Delving further into the textual meaning, the statement “Chloe liked Olivia” is open to interpretation. Clearly, Woolf believed that women could be friends in literature, however, Woolf’s sexuality has often been discussed in relation to her writings. Critics have often speculated whether Woolf was referencing her own sexuality within the text. Woolf wrote, “The truth is, I often like women. I like their unconventionality. I like their subtlety. I like their anonymity. I like–but I must not run on this way. That cupboard there,– you say it holds clean table napkins only; but what if Sir Archibald Bodkin were concealed among them? (70). Through this passage, one may claim that Woolf’s sexuality spoke volumes in comparison to her words. Although Woolf was married, during the late 1920’s she indulged in a romantic relationship with author Vita Sackville-West. Woolf was also known for her admiration and support of Radclyffe Hall during the banning of her groundbreaking lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness (1928). Before proclaiming the words “Chloe liked Olivia,” Woolf referenced a significant official in her essay when she wrote, “Are there no men present? Do you promise me that behind that red curtain over there the figure of Sir Chartres Biron is not concealed? We are all women, you assure me?” (56). Sir Chartres Biron was the presiding magistrate at the trial for obscenity of Hall, pertaining to her novel. Because Woolf believed in Hall’s work, she included the acerbity statement in her paper, indulging in the wit.
With Woolf’s modernist experimentation with the fluidity of her language and clearly established ideals, her essay “A Room of One’s Own” has become one of the first feminist literary essays. In her essay, Woolf contemplates the substance and harmony of friendships between women in literature, and the friendships women could formulate without feuds perpetuated by men. Furthermore, Woolf suggests that if women start writing, perhaps women would write about the friendships they possess with other women. The statement “Chloe liked Olivia” was merely the seed Woolf planted. In this section of her essay, Woolf desired for women alike to blossom and potentially write about their developing friendships.
Like I said, since Woolf wrote her essay, the statement “Chloe liked Olivia” has been interpreted in many different ways. Furthermore, the ideal established by Woolf has been included and contemplated in various contemporary art forms. Here is a trailer for an experimental short film, in which the writer has interpreted Chloe and Olivia to be lovers.
Also, the ’90’s band Two Nice Girls named their third album “Chloe liked Olivia” after Woolf’s essay. Woolf’s influence remains prevalent even in today’s society.
Gadeken, Sara. “Gender, Empire, and Nation in Sarah Fielding’s Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia.” SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 39.3 (1999): 523-38. Print.
Sommella, Laraine Anne. “Radclyffe Hall’s ‘the Well of Loneliness’: Subversive Transgression.” 1994. Print.