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Orlando | Context

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Friends to Lovers and Back Again: Virginia and Vita

Virginia Woolf's love affair with poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West is well documented in biographies, screenplays, and published collections of their letters, but few show the depths of Woolf's devotion as Orlando, which was inspired by Sackville-West and her family history. Woolf and Sackville-West first met in 1922. Both women were in unconventional marriages: Woolf's relationship with husband Leonard Woolf was based more on friendship than passion, and Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson, were both gay. By 1925, Woolf and Sackville-West's friendship had turned into a romance, and in 1927, Woolf decided to turn her lover into her muse.

Orlando's titular character and Sackville-West have more than a few things in common. Both descended from nobility, both were poets, and both had long lists of lovers. Just like Orlando, Sackville-West was known to dress in masculine or feminine clothing, depending on her mood. She also had a deep connection to her ancestral home, Knole, which she wrote about in 1922's Knole and the Sackvilles. Knole served as the model for Orlando's country home in Woolf's novel, and it was every bit as grand as Woolf's lush descriptions. The loss of Knole was a sore point for Sackville-West, who wasn't allowed to inherit the property because she was a woman. Woolf rectifies that in Orlando by rewriting history so that female Orlando has full ownership of the home she loves so dearly.

Woolf and Sackville-West's romance ended after the publication of Orlando. Literary scholars haven't uncovered any explicit explanations for the breakup, but some believe Woolf was more comfortable writing about the fictional Sackville-West than expressing her love physically. They remained close friends through 1934. Though their affair didn't last, it had a profound impact on the quality and quantity of their respective work, and the decade in which they were close is considered to be the apex of both of their careers.

Sapphic Thought and Literature in the Early 20th Century

Woolf was taking a major risk by positioning Orlando's main character as a lover to both sexes. Lesbianism has always been a part of human society, but it wasn't very long ago that it was considered a taboo topic in literature and in everyday life. It was so frowned upon that it wasn't even mentioned in England's 1885 Labouchere Amendment, which prohibited "gross acts of indecency" between men. Attempts were made in 1921 to add lesbianism to the law, but legislators found the thought of relations between women so repulsive they couldn't even talk about it. When Orlando was published in 1928, lesbianism wasn't strictly against the law, but it wasn't accepted, either.

Sexuality was a common topic of conversation among the members of the Bloomsbury Group, the collection of artists, writers, and philosophers with whom Woolf socialized and debated in the early 20th century. Many of the group's members subscribed to the theories of philosopher Otto Weininger, who thought homosexuality was caused by an "inversion" of a person's gender, and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who famously believed sexual "perversion" was rooted in childhood experiences. Woolf disagreed with both ideas, particularly the assumption that a woman who loved other women was more masculine than a woman who loved men. She also rebuffed the commonly held belief that men are innately thinkers and doers, while women are nothing more than sensual beings who passively wait for life to happen. In her mind, the biggest problem with theories of female sexuality is that they were all created by men. In A Room of One's Own, she asks, "Where shall I find that elaborate study of the psychology of women by women?"

Lesbianism exited the drawing rooms of the literary elite and entered the public sphere in 1928 with the publication of three novels that explored sapphic, or lesbian, themes: Woolf's Orlando, Compton Mackenzie's Extraordinary Women, and Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness. The term sapphic derives from the ancient Greek poet Sappho from the island of Lesbos, who ran a school for unmarried young women. Woolf's and Mackenzie's use of humor, satire, and fantasy made Orlando and Extraordinary Women palatable to a conservative audience, but Hall's serious presentation of lesbian relationships resulted in a public outcry. Authorities were particularly troubled by the earnest tone of the book, which they said preached "unacceptable sexual doctrine" through a virtuous main character who was never blamed for her sexual preferences. The Well of Loneliness was tried and convicted for obscenity and banned from further publication. When pressed for her opinion on Hall's book, Woolf made no mention of its subject but opined that the novel itself had very little artistic merit.

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