When most people think of Virginia Woolf, they tend to think of her signature stream of consciousness style expressed in novels like Mrs. Dalloway, (which I have already written about). But my first encounter of Woolf was actually through one of her lesser known works. Orlando occupies a rather strange place in the Woolf canon. Written after the famous Mrs. Dalloway where Woolf was already transitioning into and developing her signature style, comes this novel. On a surface reading, the style seems to embody a more traditional style. But far from being a slave to convention, the writing of Orlando is more subtly insubordinate. It is also a product of its genre. As a piece of historical fiction, Orlando would appear to exist in a space far removed from the frantic and social upheavals of the 1920s, which many consider to be synonymous with Woolf’s work. Instead, Orlando takes us back to the Elizabethan era, and an England that no longer exists. But the story being back in time does not strip it of its ability to transcend, and to see either the style or setting as indications of the book somehow being less radical and more conservative in theme, would be a mistake. Far from being prohibitive, Woolf harnesses the trappings of conventionality in order to create her highly subversive and revolutionary work, and in so doing, creates a brand new fusion of genre to suit her creative purpose.
The creation of Woolf’s story has an intriguing genesis. The titular androgynous, chameleon-like character, she modeled on her friend and later lover Vita Sackville-West. The two would cross paths for the first time when Woolf was still unknown in much of the world of literature. Instantly smitten, the lively and flirtatious Vita was quite taken by the stately and older Virginia. This would mark the beginning of a tempestuous affair; one that would shock even their husbands and the progressive artistic circle they ran in. This seemingly chance meeting would inspire Woolf to write a book unlike any that had been seen before: a story that dared to transcend the boundaries of time, reality, and gender roles.
The book concerns itself chiefly with the evolution of a nobleman known as Orlando. Orlando’s life is a charmed one, and he seems to enjoy all of the assets and advantages belonging to gentlemen of his class. His days consists of enjoying the grounds of his large manorial house run by his many servants and the beautiful grounds of his estate. His only responsibilities are the running and managing of his property and the winning of a wealthy wife. So when he falls for the elegant Sasha from the royal Russian entourage, everything seems simple. But when she spurs his advances the heartbroken Orlando is despondent. But then the story takes an unexpected turn: Orlando wakes up one day not as a man but as a woman. Forced to see the world from a completely new perspective, Orlando must find a new way to construct his identity.
Orlando will come to learn as the story progresses that identity is much more fluid than it at first appears. Identity is as much self constructed as it is socially constructed. Even today, a far cry from the Elizabethan era, much of how we perceive difference is based off of culturally accepted practices. But these practices are subject to change. The idea that pink is for girls and blue is for boys is a very recent invention. Young boys wore smocks and didn’t wear trousers for the early part of their lives up until the early 1900s. Far from being static then, the use of clothing has been used as much to challenge gender norms as to instate them. Orlando must contend though and bear up against the ingrained attitudes of his time and the unique difficulties faced by women. Though insulated against some of the worst discrimination by his wealth, Orlando still must deal with the ramifications of being female in a male dominated world. The clothes that he now must wear, the constricting long skirts and layers worn by wealthy gentlewomen of the period, act as tangible representations of the inequity and restrictions women faced. Woolf uses his transformation to shed light not only on how pervasive gender roles are in society, but also enlightens readers to think of how many of these expectations still existed in her own time.
It is fascinating to observe how in the text, Woolf is able to mold and shape the time traveling narrative to reflect the transient identity of her protagonist. As Orlando slips through time, shedding the trappings and conventions as easily as the clothes he wears, exchanging them every time for something new, Woolf peels back a new layer of the self constructed identities that all of us wear on a daily basis. How much of our identity is tied up in how people perceive us, the novel challenges us? Many of us think of ourselves as being defined by our relationship to others. We don’t exist in a vacuum, each of us is something to someone, whether that be a wife, a daughter, a son, a friend. We all wear many hats and play many roles, Woolf declares. Why should it be any harder for us to conceive that we all contain multiple aspects and personalities, a mixture even of so called “masculine” and “feminine” traits, and why can they not coexist quite harmoniously within us? Why are we so quick, she begs us to consider, to assign a strict binary to so many things in our lives?
This revolutionary way of thought is no more apparent than when Woolf challenges the self-imposed binary so many place unconsciously on love. When Orlando awakens and finds himself a woman, his romantic feelings are in no way different than they were before; such is evident when Orlando falls for men and women throughout the story. His physical form doesn’t dictate or appear to have any bearing on his amorous inclinations. At his core, Orlando, no matter his gender, still retains his core being and these things do not alter. This raises some very interesting questions on the origin of the nature of desire itself. Does there exist in all of us the innate capacity to contain multiple ways of loving, more possibly, than we are led to believe, Woolf posits? Is there any relation to gender and desire at all? Or does love transcend gender? All of these points make the novel fascinating to examine particularly from a contemporary viewpoint, since the issues raised in the book, arguably, have never been more relevant.