Unravelling Gender Binaries in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

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Back when lockdown 2.0 was merely an idea, I visited Unfinished Business: The Fight For Women’s Rights at The British Library. There, in the ‘Body’ section, was a first edition of Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Below, it asked whether Orlando was the first English-language trans novel, and suddenly I found myself in Hatchards on the way home. This novel undertakes a rather modern perspective on gender, “In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place”, despite having been published in 1928. There’s still a lot we can take from Woolf’s musings on prejudice, with Annie Lord helpfully making the comparison to JK Rowling’s limiting views on gender earlier in the year.

Woolf intends Orlando to be a mock biography, where significant subjects like time and literature itself are tackled with the lightness of a writer’s holiday. It is thoughtfully termed a “blend of social critique and bold fantasy” by Vulture, who note that the novel is often overlooked and deemed whimsical despite the distinct political undertones. The story follows the long life of the novel’s namesake, who casually lived about 400 years, and their transition from Elizabethan nobleman to female poet. It is during a stint as ambassador in Constantinople that the protagonist wakes up one morning having changed sex. 

“The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity. Their faces remained, as their portraits prove, practically the same.”

This incredibly modern portrait of gender fluidity serves as a comment on historical gender differences, and their often nonsensicalness. Although now a “different sex”, she is still the “same person” as before. Orlando’s continuation of character works as a device to highlight the absurd nature of discrimination. Her female life is undoubtedly harder, littered with societal distrust and prejudice. Having said that, tough topics are tackled through Woolf’s wit and humour. I particularly loved the part where the principal character talks with a prostitute in order to have a meaningful conversation, where she doesn’t face the patronisation of male writers, “Orlando had never known the hours speed faster or more merrily.” 

Orlando is considered almost as a love letter to the writer Vita Sackville-West, with whom Virginia Woolf had an affair. The nods to Woolf’s lover allow her to create a narrative around the noblewoman’s story that the author can control- Sackville-West had once lived in Constantinople herself. Vita Sackville-West also grew up in the home that Orlando’s manor is based upon, and was unable to inherit as a woman. In Orlando, the home she’s always had rights to as a man are suddenly subject to lawsuits once she has been transformed into a woman. Although a change of sex causes this lack of entitlement, she does eventually come to own the land she’s so spiritually connected to. This inspired dissection of the inequity and pain of being a woman is one of the reasons why Orlando is so timelessly important. I had to ask myself whether women experience complete security in 2020?  

Last year, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcon used Orlando as inspiration, proving further the modern relevance of Woolf’s convictions on gender. She was even commissioned to design the costumes for a Vienna opera based on the novel. Both Virginia Woolf and Rei Kawakubo force audiences to think about the role our clothing prescribes for us, with Woolf remarking that clothes “change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.” Orlando continually experiences that some things are for men and some are for women; Woolf’s storytelling sets this up to be questioned. Ideas around gender binaries have changed drastically since the 1920s, just consider Harry Styles wearing a dress on the cover of US Vogue. I can’t help but think Virginia Woolf and Orlando played an unsung part in getting us here. 

Words by Jess Whitman 

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