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Orlando | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Orlando | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Virginia Woolf's gender-bending novel Orlando follows the protagonist's journey over more than 300 years as he changes from male to female. Published in 1928, the book is considered both satire and a mock biography and has achieved popular and critical success.

Feminist, transgender, and LGBT critics have found much to mine in Orlando's fantastical journeys through time and space. Woolf's main character passes through more than three centuries of history, from the court of Elizabeth I to Russia to Constantinople and back to England, while changing from male to female. Woolf herself wanted the novel to be "fun" and a "fantasy," but at the same time her story is considered "a poetic masterpiece of the first rank."

1. Orlando is considered one of the first transgender works of literature.

While Orlando has been considered by critics to be both a lesbian novel and a feminist novel, many consider it an early example of a transgender novel. Though the character Orlando's transformation from male to female doesn't "entail a change of gender identity," critic Melanie Taylor found evidence from Woolf's own experiences showing that she was aware of and interested in transgender experience.

In September 1927, as Woolf was thinking about the book that would become Orlando, she was at a party where someone brought a newspaper clipping that described a woman who had become a man. Woolf was intrigued with this concept, and it was her "main topic of conversation" for the rest of the night.

2. The main character in Orlando was inspired by Woolf's lover.

English writer Vita Sackville-West was a member of Virginia Woolf's social circle. She was from an aristocratic family and was openly bisexual. She and Virginia Woolf had an affair that lasted for years. When Woolf began writing Orlando, she wrote to Sackville-West that the novel was "all about you and lusts of your flesh." When their affair began and how long it lasted is unclear, but their passionate letters reveal the depth of feeling between them, as Sackville-West illustrated when she wrote to Woolf, "I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia."

3. Orlando was originally illustrated with three photographs of Vita Sackville-West.

Woolf was an avid photographer, and she invited Sackville-West to London so she could arrange to have her photographed to illustrate Orlando. Woolf decided on the details and poses for the three photos. A photograph of another family member was also included, as were copies of paintings from the Sackville-Wests' home.

4. Orlando has been called "the longest and most charming love letter in literature."

Nigel Nicolson, the son of Vita Sackville-West, published a book about his parents' relationship in which he discusses their various affairs with others. In describing Orlando, Nicolson wrote that he felt it was "the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which [Virginia] explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her."

5. Orlando is called the "most joyful" of Woolf's books.

While Orlando has been considered social satire, a feminist novel, and a lesbian novel, critic Jeanette Winterson calls it "a joyful and passionate declaration of love as life, regardless of gender." Claiming that her relationship with Vita Sackville-West allowed Woolf to tap into her own physicality, in writing as well as in living, Winterson points out that the novel shows the author's "exhilaration" while writing: "Begun as a gift to Sackville-West it became a gift to herself," she claims.

6. The New York Times gave a conflicting review of Orlando.

The New York Times reviewed Orlando in October 1928 with a certain sense of bewilderment. The review opens by stating, "Once more Mrs. Woolf has broken with tradition and convention and has set out to explore still another fourth dimension of writing." It points out the difficulty of understanding the novel's structure and criticizes "an addiction to parenthetical whimsicalities that are not particularly effective."

Near the review's end, however, the critic, somewhat grudgingly concedes:

In the closing pages of the novel Mrs. Woolf welds into a compact whole what had seemed to be a series of loosely connected episodes. In them she seems to reach down through the whole superstructure of life and to lay bare a new, or at least a hitherto unperceived, arrangement of those ephemeral flashes of memory of perception that go to make up consciousness.

7. The film version ended decades later than Orlando's ending.

The director of the 1992 film adaptation of Orlando, Sally Potter, wrote that in adapting the novel for the screen, she had to "find a way of remaining true to the spirit of the book and to Virginia Woolf's intentions, whilst being ruthless with changing the book in any way necessary to make it work cinematically."

Among the changes, she had Queen Elizabeth bequeath Orlando long life, while in the novel it is not explained. She also had Orlando end up unmarried and without property, which she felt was "consistent with Virginia Woolf's views in her other works on the condition of women's lives." She noted that Woolf ended the book in real time, and claimed that in order to be true to real time in the same way, she would have to acknowledge "some key events of the 20th century—the two world wars, the electronic revolution, the contraction of space through time reinvented by speed."

8. Readers were unclear about whether Orlando was gossip or serious literature.

At the time of Orlando's publication, many readers would have been aware of the story behind the story: Woolf's relationship with Vita Sackville-West, the bisexual writer whose affair with Woolf was well-known. They would likely have read the novel as gossip, titillating and scandalous. Some reviewers and critics, however, took the book more seriously, focusing on its treatment of time and use of modernist techniques.

9. A character based on Orlando appears in two graphic novels.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a graphic novel series by Alan Moore whose first volume was published in 1999, has as main characters Captain Nemo, Mr. Hyde, and Alan Quartermain, all characters from other novels. The third volume, The Black Dossier, introduces Orlando as a character. In the fourth volume, Century, Orlando meets characters from the Harry Potter novels as the battle between good and evil begun in the early volumes of the series continues.

10. Though Woolf's father was a biographer, Orlando pokes fun at the genre.

Orlando is subtitled "A Biography," though it is not a biography at all. In a letter to her lover, writer Vita Sackville-West, Woolf noted that while trying to figure out what to write, she, "at last dropped my head in my hands: dipped my pen in the ink, and wrote these words, as if automatically, on a clean sheet: Orlando: a Biography...It sprung upon me how I could revolutionise biography in a night."

The novel satirizes the genre of biography and was a particularly pointed barb because Woolf's own father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was the editor of The Dictionary of National Biography, a collection of short biographies of important figures in British history.

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