By Ted Gioia

Are you looking for stories that anticipate the future?  
Well, first of all, ignore science fiction.  Back in the
mid-1970s,
Star Wars might have been the biggest box
office hit with its extravagant futurism and cutting
edge special effects; but for my money,
The Rocky
Horror Picture Show
(1977) did
a better job of anticipating
American ways and means of
a later day.  In pop music,
David Bowie was closer to
the mark with
Ziggy Stardust
than "Space Oddity."  And
the same is true of early modern
fiction: in the late 1920s, Edgar
Rice Burroughs excited readers
with his adventure books set
on the planet Mars and in the
mythical world of Pellucidar
(located beneath the Earth's
crust), but Virginia Woolf's
Orlando (1928) was far
more forward-looking than anything in the sci-fi camp.

Back in the 1920s, the word 'gender' usually only
showed up in your high school Latin textbook, or in
other equally boring discussions of grammar.  You
talked about it with the same enthusiasm you referred
to the 15 uses of the ablative case or the hortatory
subjunctive.  For the record, 'gender' only appears
once in
Orlando—in a description of an article of
clothing 'of ambiguous gender'—but even this
passing mention is revealing.  
Orlando is a book where
the concept of gender is wide-ranging and deliberately
amorphous, and not just with the clothes (or anything
else) left hanging in the closet; in Ms. Woolf's fictive
universe, the biological imperatives seemingly set in
stone at birth can be countered and redefined.  Male
and female are no longer binary oppositions, but part
of a fluid continuum.  Sound familiar?

Orlando enters chapter one as a man and—about a
third of the way through the novel—turns into a
woman.  If this were a science fiction novel, some new
technology or advanced medical procedure would be
inserted at this point, or a strange nuclear fallout that
messes with X and Y chromosomes.   But Virginia
Woolf did not write
that kind of a novel.  In her story,
Orlando simply falls asleep as a man and wakes up as
a woman. "He stretched himself. He rose. He stood
upright, and….we have no choice left but confess—
he was a woman…..The change seemed to have been
accomplished painlessly and completely and in such a
way that Orlando herself showed no surprise at it."  
Nor do the many people who deal with Orlando
express any amazement—although the courts have a
field day dealing with the legal implications of this
transformation (another way in which Orlando
anticipated a later day, no?).

And Woolf takes the same liberties with biological
aging as she does with gender.  Orlando is born
under the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth, and by
the time the book concludes, she is still around for
the birth of the second Queen Elizabeth.  Over the
course of more than three centuries, Orlando has
aged a little but, with no help from Botox of the
surgeon's knife, is still barely into middle age at the
conclusion of our story, which Woolf tells us, in the
final sentence, takes place at "the twelfth stroke of
midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October,
Nineteen hundred and Twenty Eight."

Along the way Orlando has a dalliance with Elizabeth
(the first, not the second), pursues an ill-fated
romance (while still a man) with a Russian princess
—an interlude based on an affair between Vita
Sackville-West, a real-life model for Orlando, with
Violet Trefusis;  he serves as ambassador in
Constantinople, and (now as a woman) lives with
gypsies before returning to England.  Orlando takes up
the cause of British letters, and associates with John
Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison and other
esteemed authors—who invariably are less
prepossessing in person than on the printed page.
After friendships and courtships with women and
men—or, in one instance, a woman who turns out to
be a man, in a mirror image of Orlando's own
transformation—our heroine marries a sea captain,
and becomes a prize-winning writer herself.

But no synopsis of the plot can do justice to the
distinctive qualities of this novel.  For all its fanciful
storylines, the tone and atmosphere of Orlando is
what readers will remember about the book.  I first
read Woolf's novel during my student years, after a
visit to
Knole House, one of the largest country
estates in England, with hundreds of rooms and
located on a thousand acres—a residence for
Sackville-West's ancestors and the inspiration for
Orlando's palatial home in Woolf’s novel.  In my
memory the texture of the novel blurred with the
colors and images of the Knole House paintings and
tapestries.  A mythic quality pervades these pages,
which seem to present a stylized and heightened kind
of existence, not real life as we live it, but as we might
encounter in a hallucination or dream.   

"Sunsets were redder and more intense," Woolf
writes; "dawns were whiter and more auroral.  Of our
crepuscular half-light they knew nothing.  The rain
fell vehemently, or not at all.  The sun blazed or there
was darkness….The withered intricacies of and
ambiguities of our more gradual and doubtful age were
unknown to them.  Violence was all. The flower
bloomed and faded. The sun rose and sank. The lover
loved and went."

But on re-reading the work nowadays, I pick up so
much more than I perceived at the age of twenty. I
am now familiar with Woolf's other novels, and turn
to her for the sheer beauty of her language as much as
for the story itself.  Few writers in the history of the
English language have ever written better, on a
sentence-by-sentence basis, or gone further in blurring
the boundaries between prose and poetry.  But above
all, Orlando stands out today as a prescient forerunner
of so many later novels—from
The Left Hand of
Darkness to Middlesex—that present gender as dynamic
rather than static, and have made femininity and
masculinity as surface themes, rather than unstated
presumptions, in contemporary fiction.   

But, ultimately, no single category or label can do
justice to this
sui generis work.  Woolf offers the sub-
title "A Biography" to her novel, and in the course of
its pages repeatedly adopts the tone of a biographer or
historian—albeit, usually in mockery of the
conventional attitudes adopted by chroniclers of past
lives.  We might also be justified in treating
Orlando
as a roman à clef, and attempting to find the real life
people that stand behind the fictional characters.  Or
we could classify this novel under the rubric of
magical realism or fantasy. Just as readily, this novel
can withstand interpretation as a political novel, or
serve as a springboard for discussions of various
social, psychological or cultural themes—as
documented by the numerous dissertations written
on this book.  But I suspect that Nigel Nicolson, son
of Vita Sackville-West, may have summed it up best.  
In his words,
Orlando is "the longest and most
charming love-letter in literature."  And though Woolf
may have written it with Nigel's mother in mind, we
can still fall under the emotional sway of her
billet-doux
these many years later.


Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture.  His newest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Published June 3, 2012
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Virginia Woolf's Orlando

by Ted Gioia
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