Note From the Author:
These essays have yet to be published anywhere but here, so take them for what they're worth.
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Virginia Woolf's Orlando
What is perhaps most telling about Virginia Woolf's book Orlando is the way it forces the reader to take stock of what society tells us our lives are supposed to be like, but what makes the novel unique to novels of similar content is the irreverent attitude Woolf has toward common literary conventions. Throughout her mock biography, Woolf inserts her opinions about the craft of biography writing while fantastically bending, if not breaking, the rules of gender, time, and history in the process.
Woolf, one of the writer's given credit for the movement called Modernism, is arguably the most influential female writer of British history. Her most well-known novels are Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), A Room of One's Own , her most famous work, and The Waves (1931). Orlando (1928) has not been among Woolf's most popular work, but out of all her novels, it is the one that deals most closely with the subject of gender and sexuality. Virginia and her husband Leonard were involved in what came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group, a group of their friends including the novelist E.M. Forster, writer Lytton Strachey, art critics Roger Fry and Clive Bell, editor Desmond McCarthy, and others who dropped in from time to time. The group was a literary group as well as a safe haven for sexual experimentation and discovery, topics which rose to the surface in many of her essays and novels.
Orlando is a biography, not in the traditional sense of the word, but in the way Woolf wanted it. She considered biographies, a popular literary form in the early 1900's, as dry and inferior to fiction in many ways, not able to fictionalize or use many of the tools of fiction and, therefore, a lesser form. This is why she did what she did in Orlando . The novel is a pseudo-biography, founded on reality but fictionalized in many places, by which someone could show Woolf as a predictor of a movement toward viewing history and biography as literary in nature. Vita Sackville-West, portrayed by Orlando in the novel and a woman believed by many to be Woolf's lover, is portrayed as androgynous, a quality both Vita and Virginia praised, seeing value in both genders and refusing to be defined exclusively by either one. Much of Vita's, or Orlando's, as they can be considered one in the same, life ends up exaggerated and fictionalized, something biographers would never do. At many points, Woolf ventures into Orlando's thoughts, intentions, and fears, something a biographer would not have information about unless the thoughts of the biographee had been recorded in journals. Still, Virginia insists on using Orlando's thoughts, oftentimes in speculation and guesswork, something biographers ought never to do. In Woolf's attempt to buck the literary system, she has written a work that is not only transgenre, but also transgender.
The narrator claims that "when we are writing the life of a woman, we may, it is agreed, waive our demand for action, and substitute love instead" because love is the whole of a woman's existence (Woolf 263). In short, the biography of a woman must be written differently than that a man's. This is one area in which the novel may not seem to hold up historically. Orlando's love for the men she lets in her life is purely romantic instead of what would have been in the later Victorian era an evolving, passionate sexuality. Orlando is reserved and chaste, exploring only her gender, not her sexuality. To its credit as a woman's pseudo-biography, the novel expends much effort in its illumination of a woman's mindset. When Orlando is a man, his thoughts and actions are as androgynous as they are when he is a woman. Woolf's characterization of Orlando's uncertainty in regards to her gender is the aspect most closely biographical to Vita Sackville-West.
In addition to biographical norms, Woolf confronts the certain norms of British lifestyle and belief that, was an individual to break, would earn an undesirable response. British society expects specific behaviors from Orlando in the areas of business, society, and love, "that each man and each woman has another allotted to it for life" (Woolf 245). Orlando's search for meaning amidst those expectations is actually her pursuit for meaning in life. Born and raised as a male, "for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it," Orlando experiences the male mindset in ways no woman outside the realm of fiction ever has. However, his identity becomes clouded when from his second week-long sleeping binge he wakes up as a woman (Woolf 13). His outlook on life changes, but many of his behaviors stay the same (Woolf 189). She becomes a creature of duality, a member of society (though perhaps only by birth) who feels tied down by the rules of consensus that demand she comply. The masculine life of action is supposed to be exchanged for the feminine life of love (Woolf 268). A woman's wardrobe should strictly adhere to the terms of accepted fashion, dresses, not breeches. The life of a woman should include marriage and pregnancy, a fact that is supposed to be hidden under crinolines but physically shows itself soon enough (Woolf 234). At first, Orlando finds the gender expectations freeing and wonders how she had ever been satisfied as a man, but this changes as she discovers that when she lives in both genders "the pleasures of life [are] increased and its experiences multiplied" (Woolf 221).
However, this freedom only shows itself after Orlando is willing to burst through the illusion of ideals that society is forcing on her. She realizes that "the indomitable nature of the spirit of the age . . . batters down anyone who tries to take a stand against it far more effectually than those who bend its own way" (Woolf 244) and that if she is going to enjoy life, she must shatter society's illusions by confrontation, even if that confrontation requires conflict (Woolf 200). Once Orlando decides to be who she is, a duel personality in a society that only accepts one-track lifestyles, Woolf begins using language to show the reader how the societal expectations are deeply imbedded in our minds. When a braided skirt walks by, the reader sees a woman, and, consequently, when a pair of trousers walks by, the reader sees a man (Woolf 285). Orlando discovers that through a simple wardrobe change she can change how society views her. Woolf sets this at the forefront of the novel, leading us to ponder what society would be like if people were allowed to live the life of the person that resides in their inner being.
Orlando is not the only character to skirt the lines of gender. Before Orlando's gender switch, he discovers his love interest in the character of Princess Sasha from Russia. When Orlando, then a man, first sees Sasha, he "was ready to tear his hair with vexation that the person was of his own sex" because her movements were too much like a man's to belong to a woman (Woolf 38). However, on further inspection he determines that no man could have legs, hands, carriage, mouth, breasts, or eyes like Sasha's and that Sasha was indeed a woman. The Archduchess Harriet works both sides as well, introduced first as a woman but later as an Archduke after a woman is seen ascending to his bedchamber. Furthermore, Orlando not only changes biologically from a man to a woman, but as a woman, she dresses as a man so she can still experience the lives of both genders. Orlando's exploration of gender and sexuality in biologically impossible ways is one of the novel's more fantastic elements.
Woolf is playing with the element of time as well. At the beginning of the novel, Orlando is a sixteen year old boy living in the court of Queen Elizabeth in the sixteenth century. Orlando proceeds to serve under James I and Charles II, who appoints her as diplomat to Constantinople. Toward the end of the novel, Orlando finally returns to an England which now belongs to either early eighteenth century King George I or George II. By the end of the novel, at "the twelfth stroke of midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen hundred and Twenty Eight," Orlando is living in London under the rule of George V (Woolf 370). During the almost four hundred years the novel spans, Orlando ages only twenty years, finishing the novel as a thirty-six year old woman. Kings and queens have come and gone. She has lived through the hype and fervor surrounding all the famous British authors of the centuries, Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, Tennyson, and Carlisle.
Orlando is not the only character to survive the centuries either. Nick Greene, the literary agent and critic, lives the entirety of the novel. When the two characters meet early during the reign of Elizabeth I, Orlando is working on his poem "The Oak Tree." It is then that he is introduced to Mr. Nicholas Greene, the poet. This is significant in a few ways. Greene reappears at the end of the novel after Orlando has returned from Constantinople and, more significantly, has changed genders. An interesting detail in this later encounter is Greene's greeting, "The Lady Orlando!" (270), as it appears Greene is not at all confused by his friend's change in gender and donning of her now completely female wardrobe. Orlando's response of "Sir Nicholas!" informs the reader that Greene also has been climbing the social ladder throughout the centuries, moving from popular poet to famous critic and knight.
Woolf uses Greene's minor character as a clever plot tool. Because Greene has known Orlando throughout the centuries, he has also been able to witness the development of her writing through her poem "The Oak Tree." When Greene finally reads her poem again in 1928, he is taken aback at the skill the poem displays. It has adopted aspects of all the prior literary periods and has evolved into a greater style than any that have preceded it. This implausible ending comes across as believable, having been presented consistently within the rules of the world Woolf has created, one which is able to bend the lines of gender, time, and history.
Overall, Orlando attempts to accomplish a great deal, most of which would not be possible were it not for the fantastic nature of the novel. Woolf disregards time's effect on Orlando and Greene, pokes fun at the genre of biography, downplays the magnitude of Orlando's miraculous sex change, blurs the lines between the genders, and makes the reader aware of his or her prejudices, assumptions, and expectations regarding gender roles in society.
Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography. New York: Harcourt, 1956.
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