What the Book?! | “Who’s afraid of big bad Virginia Woolf?” – Standing Up for Orlando

By Isobel Warner

It is undeniable that, no matter how experienced a reader you are, Virginia Woolf’s distinctive writing style of long sentences and clauses stretching into oblivion can be, to put it mildly, off putting. Her impressionist focus on what a character is feeling, rather than what a character is physically doing, makes her plots often vague and complex, with the narrative flitting between characters within single paragraphs and 24 hours taking a hundred pages to get through.

The killer combination of Woolf’s characteristic style and plot can sometimes make for hard reading. The assumption is that her works are, at their best, inaccessible, and, at their worst, pretentious.

A Case for Orlando

However, this could not be further from the truth of Woolf’s fabulous work, Orlando.

What makes this work special and stand out from Woolf’s other novels is the extraordinary plot and representation of a transgender protagonist. The novel follows the life of the titular protagonist, an ageless transgender character whose life spans 400 years. Following literary stars they met and the relationships they have along the way.

This incredible storyline, clearly signposted so we can understand what is going on, makes the novel feel as radical, fresh and contemporary in 2020 as it did in 1928. Orlando raises key queer theory questions which we as a society are still in need of addressing today. Let’s learn from intimidating Virginia, not run away from the baddie.

Furthermore, the combination of the continued use of Woolf’s characteristic style with such a central and distinctive plot ensures that the satire is accessible to us as readers; guaranteeing we recognise what Woolf is laughing at,  whilst also joining in the joke as well.

A Woman in a Man’s Genre, Biography

This joke is often at the expense of the stale and bland style of literature which had been prevalent up to and at the time of Woolf’s works; many of these stuffy men Orlando actually meets and ridicules in the novel.

Woolf particularly inverts and mocks the concept of fixed, binary descriptions, as seen through her parody of genre and her satire heteronormativity. With a protagonist who lives for hundreds of years, changes gender with a blink of an eye, and starts the novel meeting Elizabeth I and ends it describing the 1st World War merely as “another war; this time against the Germans”, it is only Virginia Woolf who could write this work and have the nerve to label it a biography. Not only this, but the original title itself was “Orlando: A Biography”, and so contemporary audiences conceivably could have believed they were about to read a truthful and non-fictional account of someone’s life, which their assumption would have been challenged almost immediately.

This inversion and destabilisation of conventional biography, a typically male dominated genre, carries on throughout the work and creates an interesting metaphysical element of the satire.

Queer Pride 40 years before Stonewall

The novel is not only radical because of her subversion of genre, but also because of her celebration of all things queer in the novel.

Orlando is seen to be an undisguised love letter to her lover and closest confidant Vita Sackville-West, with multiple letters between the two describing Vita’s immense joy, pride and love for the book. Moreover, this celebration is furthered by through Woolf’s ruthless satire of everything heteronormative in the novel.

This satire spans from multiple incompatible heterosexual relationships and heartbreak, to the inversion of conventionally gendered traits, with Orlando as a man being hot headed and emotional, and Orlando as a woman being logical and reserved. As such, the novel reads as a celebration of not only Woolf’s queer identity, but the LGTBQ+ community as a whole, as it ridicules heteronormativity.

A Metamorphosis

However, the most striking and evident celebration of the queer is when Orlando, who had up to that point been a patriarchal, cisgender man, with he/him pronouns, heterosexual relationships, etc, suddenly wakes up halfway through the book to find they have woken up a woman.

Simplistically, this moment is pivotal to the plot and creates hugely exciting atmosphere as the reader discovers the identity of their protagonist. Moreover, this sudden and drastic change of sex of the protagonist creates a domino effect of satire, in which Orlando begins to debate and challenge the misogynistic assumptions they themselves had held before becoming a woman. This is seen most perfectly in Orlando’s return to England, when they begin to debate their preconceptions of the opposite sex, in which she exclaims

“What fools they make of us – what fools we are!”.  

What makes Orlando different is its utopian description of Orlando’s transition between genders and Orlando as a transgender person, as Orlando is seen to have no levels of confusion or angst surrounding their change in sex. In a sense, Orlando is happy as a man, and Orlando is happy as a woman.

A 21st Century Aim

This can be seen as a negative as the novel fails to represent the horrendous trauma many transgender people endure, due to high levels of discrimination and violence, without also disregarding gender dysphoria.

However, I regard this utopian depiction as a positive; firstly because, as seen by Woolf’s inversion of time and the mystical way in which Orlando physically changes sex, the novel is not meant to be perceived as a direct and non-fictional account of a transgender person’s life. Instead, we are presented with a novel which centres and depicts the life of a transgender person and their art in way that their identity is so concrete and tangible, it is independent of their physical body and their sex:

“The change of sex, thought it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity.”

Most importantly, in a society in which trans-rights are threatened, undermined and debated, this non-judgemental and most importantly kind society which Woolf describes, where no one debates Orlando’s change in sex, seems to be something to aim for, and a novel all cisgender people can still learn from.

Graphic courtesy Isabel Armitage

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