- Queer Entomology: Virginia Woolf’s Butterflies
Virginia Woolf shares with Victorian entomologists a fascination with maleness as neither a fixed form nor an established fact, but as an uncertain anatomy. In this article, I explain the ways Woolf’s voracious reading of popular Victorian entomology—from Charles Darwin’s studies of butterflies to Eleanor Ormerod’s specialized work for agriculture and F. O. Morris’s popular tracts on butterfly collecting—provides her vocabularies to reimagine maleness not as a conclusive but as a debatable form. In her essay “Old Bloomsbury” (1941, posthumously), Woolf perceives, for example, E. M. Forster more as a butterfly specimen than as a man. She emphasizes his “erratic, irregular” motion more than his maleness. As suddenly as the Forster butterfly flits into the scene, it disappears. Woolf never discusses Forster in the memoir again:
And once at least Morgan [Forster] flitted through Bloomsbury lodging for a moment in Fitzroy Square on his way even then to catch a train. . . . I felt as if a butterfly—by preference a pale blue butterfly—had settled on the sofa; if one raised a finger or made a movement the butterfly would be off. He talked . . . And I listened—with the deepest curiosity, for he was the only novelist I knew. . . . But I was too much afraid of raising my hand and making the butterfly fly away to say much. I used to watch him from behind a hedge as he flitted through Gordon Square, erratic, irregular, with his bag, on his way to catch a train.1
The difference between viewing a man and viewing a butterfly comes down to a matter of perspective. It is not that a man is exactly like a butterfly specimen but, rather, that observing a [End Page 723] man can feel like observing a butterfly. While at first glance this passage may seem to be homophobic commentary on Forster’s insubstantial manliness (he might be said to be “light in his loafers”), I am captivated by the energy and wonder Woolf infuses into her narration of Forster’s substance. Watching Forster’s unpredictable body fills Woolf with “deepest curiosity.” In describing Forster as male, Woolf is limited to three identitarian categories: subject (“he”), object (“him”), and possessor (“his”). But the vast range of descriptors Woolf uses to account for Forster’s motion overwhelm categories of gendered identity and underscore Forster’s activity, not sex: flitting, catching, pale blue (as in a color that fades or brightens), carrying, settling, being off, talking, flying, and erratic irregularity.2 In other words, Woolf’s attention to Forster’s motion is three times greater than her identification of him as sexed male. Woolf perceives Forster less through the optic of sex and more through the optic of improvisational motion.
The dearth of signals Woolf uses to gender Forster in contrast to the plethora of verbs she uses to describe his mobility suggests that Woolf considers gender a more limited, less satisfying organizational frame for representing Forster than motion is. She associates his rarity—“the only novelist I knew”—with someone who moves unpredictably. When she inserts male pronouns, it is only briefly, for her interest in Forster’s motion predominates. While Woolf gives language to her interiority (“I felt”), she does not psychologize Forster. He moves; he does not identify. Woolf’s preference to see Forster as freewheeling, “erratic, irregular,” off to “catch a train,” releases him from domestic capture. Woolf laments only pages before that the home traps and “snatch[es]” bodies into the “horrible” “fate” of “love and marriage” (“Old Bloomsbury,” 192, 191). Forster’s body in motion occasions his escape from the home at the moment when the sexed “he” might trap him within prescribed narratives: that he will settle down, marry, and father, embodying the figure of the patriarch instead of flitting away to an open future.
In queering Forster’s body—that is, accentuating his mobility and downplaying his maleness to release him from heteropatriarchy—Woolf aestheticizes what we might call the body in motion—the ever-shifting explanatory principles of male bodies recognized by an observer.3 Woolf narrates the ways motion often overtakes male bodies to the...