The Indy Book Club: Virginia Woolf’s lesbian love letter Orlando joyfully deconstructs the gender binary

Annie Lord
Getty/ Harvest

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando fell into a deep sleep for two days and when they woke up, they were no longer a man. “The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity. Their faces remained as their portraits prove, practically the same.” These two sentences might have been written by Woolf in 1928, but their proposition of gender fluidity still proves controversial today, 92 years later. Though “she” quickly replaces the non-binary pronouns, Orlando continues to call into question the category of “sex” as something rigid and marked. How long will it take before society catches up to the novel’s casual insistence that “in every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place”? Considering JK Rowling’s reductive assertion of women as “people who menstruate”, it seems some of us will never make it.

Orlando was inspired by Woolf’s real-life 10-year affair with cross-dressing, gender-bending noblewoman Vita Sackville-West – or “Julian” – whose own son described it as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature”. Many interpret Orlando as a coping mechanism for the sense of instability Woolf endured as a result of Sackville-West’s unfaithfulness. One letter sent in 1933 saw Sackville-West threaten Woolf with the consequences of her not returning from Italy. “I miss you very very much,” Sackville-West began. “In order to console myself, I am thinking of taking up with Marlene Dietrich. So don’t linger too long at Montepulciano if you value the touching fidelity of your old sheepdog.” In authoring Orlando, Woolf was able to create a more idealised version of Sackville-West – one that would belong to her forever.

Orlando follows its eponymous protagonist from his adolescence as an English nobleman during the reign of Elizabeth, until 400 years later, when she becomes a lauded jazz-age poet married to a sea captain called Shel. Before the transition, Orlando is heartbroken by Russian princesses, humiliated by cruel poets, and serves in Constantinople as an ambassador. After an insurrection, Orlando awakes as a woman and then rides away with Rustum, a gypsy tribe who live in the mountains of Turkey.

As a woman, Orlando’s life is much harder. Her once-secure grasp over estates and houses are subject to lawsuits that drag on for hundreds of years. Now that she is wearing skirts and corsets, Orlando’s only fortune is the strand of pearls and emeralds around her neck. But when it was breeches and morning coats that Orlando dressed in, his entitlement to his lands was so naturalised that he would sink into the ground of his property and feel the Earth beneath him as sturdy as a “spine”.

During the Enlightenment, Orlando is delighted that she gets to spend time with famous poets such as Addison, Dryden, and Pope – but they all talk over her. When the Victorian era hits, Orlando feels even more acutely the pressure to submit to the role of woman. In one particularly funny scene, her finger begins to furiously convulse because it feels so naked without a wedding ring. Woolf makes a case for the dismantling of all limits, but Orlando is blocked by the limits of that freedom constantly. As the book states when Orlando first gazes in the mirror, “Different sex. Same person.” Orlando’s pronouns are not what defines them, but they do change the way society perceives a person. Though Orlando is still able to wield swords, debate politics, write poems, play chess and sail ships as a woman – after her transition, society robs these freedoms from her anyway, because the world doesn’t trust women as much as it trusts men.

Woolf herself might have called it “a writer’s holiday” but within Orlando’s slender 162 pages, gender is broken down, time is broken down – even the category of literature is broken down. The novel’s narrator is supposed to be Orlando’s biographer, and the book playfully adopts the genre’s conventions, including an index page and portraits. This was an attack on Woolf’s dead father, Sir Leslie Stephen, who was the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography – a project which categorised the “great men” of history. Woolf places a woman, or a sometimes woman, at the centre of this bland genre and deconstructs its rigid structure with long, stream-of-consciousness-style sentences.

At the end of Orlando, our hero(ine) sits on the earth of her land, which has finally been returned to her. “Flinging herself on the ground, she felt the bones of the tree running out like ribs from a spine this way and that beneath her,” Woolf writes, making explicit the allusions to Ovid‘s Metamorphosis – and the transitional nature of humans – that echo throughout the novel. Orlando has found some measure of security as a woman. I hope one day soon, those who identify outside of the gender binary will be able to do the same.

Here’s what some of our readers thought...

Harry, 34, London

Flying through literature, time and history was such a freeing experience as a reader. I felt light as a feather. Like I had dropped this body and was in some other world entirely.

Rachel, 24, London

I like how Orlando’s transition from he to she is smooth and unquestioned. I also like how once she makes that shift, Orlando continues to lose and recapture her identity constantly, because we are not just one thing, but many things, which we grasp and then drop constantly.

Alice, 20, Sunderland

Sometimes when you’re growing up, it can be very confusing who you want to be or what you are. I found the embrace of difference and multitudes in Orlando reassuring, especially this at the end of the book:

“For she had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may have many thousand … and these selves of which we are built up, one on top of the other, as plates are piled on a waiter’s hand, have attachments elsewhere, sympathies, little constitutions and rights of their own … so that one will only come if it is raining, another in a room with green curtains, another when Mrs Jones is not there … and some are too wildly ridiculous to be mentioned in print at all.”

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