Gender Theory before Gender Theory: Woolf’s Orlando #52Challenge

OrlandoOrlando by Virginia Woolf
Rating: 4/5 stars
#52Challenge prompt: A novel that is considered classic

Virginia Woolf, where do we start? This is the third Woolf novel I’ve read. I place it in the middle, having adored Mrs. Dalloway and having struggled to read To the Lighthouse. Orlando is funny in ways those other books are not. It also features avenues of fantasy — namely Orlando’s ability to change genders at will and their extraordinary long life — that Woolf’s hyperrealistic other work doesn’t dare venture into.

(Arguably, Woolf wrote this for her girlfriend, Vita Sackville-West, and speculation is that she didn’t mean to have it published to the world. Woolf like realistic books. Orlando is not one.)

For the purpose of this review, if Orlando’s gender is specific, I will use those pronouns, and if unspecific, I will use “they.”

Orlando starts with a young boy dreaming of fighting and conquering like his ancestors. He lives in Elizabethan times. Apparently, the very rich and noble just have dried human heads hanging in their attics for their progeny to knock around with swords. In addition to the human head factor, Woolf’s language around it being a Moor’s head is a relic of its time and extra off-putting for modern readers to kick off the novel.

The book itself is oddly written from the point-of-view of Orlando’s biographer and the assumption that Orlando will live such an incredible life that we readers should be interested in what happens to him. The biographer disappears from the text during the action of the novel, but often frames the beginning and endings of chapters, which move us through time. I found myself often wishing this narrator would go away.

Being a noble family, Orlando’s country family home is visited by Queen Elizabeth I. Who he dare not look her in the eye. As time does not move in a logical manner, Orlando quickly grows to adulthood and joins the court. There he mostly is an older Queen Elizabeth I’s sex toy. He also has other relationships, including a long rant about the “flavor” of lower class women and a succession of three almost wives. All three fiancéses seem more like pets for Orlando than women he bonds with.

Then Orlando meets Sasha, a Russian princess, who dresses like a boy in trousers, but Orlando assures us is all woman. (Though at this point, it’s been hinted at that Orlando is bisexual.) As Sasha is mysterious and magical in Orlando’s eyes, I actually expected his long life and ability to change genders to be some kind of curse. But I suppose those fantastical tropes are more modern developments.

Orlando and Sasha spend a lot of time fucking on the ice of the Thames during the Great Frost. The King has made the frozen river its own park and carnival. I did look this up, and during this era, there were several years that the Thames did freeze over and the citizens of London did indeed use the ice like a new pedestrian-only street fair.

Sasha is the first person Orlando’s ever loved. It’s here that Woolf writes how emotional and needy Orlando is. He’s incredibly melodramatic, and despite his noble ancestry, he’s obsessed with becoming a poet. Which all the better fits his melodrama. (At this time, poets — Shakespeare and Marlow are named dropped — are common people, just trying to earn their families a living. Yep, apparently, poet was an actual occupation once.)

When Sasha breaks his heart, Orlando’s melodrama meets full peak. Here are some gems:

“Love had meant to him nothing but sawdust and cinders” (pg 40).

“The darkness was more compassionate to his swollen and violent heart” (pg 59).

Orlando then retreats to his country home. He falls into a deep sleep and doesn’t wake up for a week. Despite the fact that doctors and his servants — of which he says he has around 200 — are poking him. Again, here I expected him to emerge as a woman out of some butterfly cocoon. Nope.

When he awakes, Orlando’s still heartbroken. He ponders life and death for 30 minutes before giving him. (A bit of humor about Orlando’s state from Woolf.) Orlando decides to devote his life to writing prose and poetry.

The way Woolf describes Orlando’s struggles and love of writing is too true and too funny. He spends time writing many novels, manuscripts, and poems. One poem, The Oak Tree, he carries around for centuries in his breast pocket as he revises it.

Orlando also uses his wealth to become a patron of other poets. He invites them to his house, including a critic named Greene. Greene laments about how the poets of this age (just that guy Shakespeare) do not live up to the Greek poets. I adored and laughed a lot at this critique from Woolf around how no one appreciates great literature in their own era. Or perhaps she laments about the canon — what literature is considered classic — and who’s excluded from it. (Hint: the white supremacist patriarchy got lots of votes on what’s in canon.)

What Orlando loves most about Greene is all his gossip about other authors. Orlando is a fanboy. All his own novels are takes on classics, essentially fanfiction. He’s a fanboy who pays for Greene to stay with him for six weeks. Orlando even locks up his beloved elkhounds as they keep biting Greene. Which is only Woolf foreshadowing that Greene, once back in London, writes a satirical piece ripping Orlando to shreds, after Orlando shared some of his own writing with Greene.

Orlando is as emotional about Greene’s satire as he was about Sasha jilting him. And at age 30, Orlando declares himself done with the world and retreating forever to his country estate.

The bad part of Orlando’s fits are Woolf leaning on the biographer point-of-view during these moments. The biographer’s narrative is very stream of consciousness, and often feels like a slight of hand to keep the reader’s eyes in one direction, while some story mechanism happens elsewhere. There is some beautiful phrases though:

“Like the lump of glass, which, after a year at the bottom of the sea, is grown about with bones and dragonflies, and coins and the tresses of drowned women” (pg 101).

But largely, this technique feels overly clever and not as interesting as the other parts of the novel. It’s from here, that the biographer moves Orlando’s life to Constantinople, where he’s an ambassador. (Also at least 100 years or more have passed and he’s escaping an archduchess who’s determined to win his heart.) If I didn’t know how nepotism works, I’d write off Orlando as completely unqualified for this job.

The biographer goes into all the boring details of what being an ambassador means. Mostly, having 30 course meals with other ambassadors. And Orlando’s also given a dukedom, which they throw a wild party at his Constantinople home in celebration. This party is recounted with broken testimonies from Turkish party goers to be “accurate.” And it’s said that Orland gets married to Rosina Pepita, a dancer, and then falls into another week long sleep.

During this time, there’s a revolution in Turkey, and when the rebels come to kill Orlando, as imperialist England’s representative, they think he’s already dead in his bed. Apparently, no one bothered to take his pulse.

There is an odd scene with three witch-like or goddess-like characters appear. Only these witches are extreme female gender stereotypes: Purity, Chasity, and Modesty. They’ve come to reform Orlando as he transforms into a woman in her sleep. (What I thought would happen the first time Orlando fell into this type of sleep.) Woolf uses these goddess’ personas to critique the ways Orlando (man) would look to society as Orlando (woman). There’s also a general acknowledgement that as a woman, Orlando cannot risk sleeping around in the same way they did as a man.

When Orlando wakes as a woman, she quickly realizes she cannot stay in the ambassadorial estate. She flees with some local Romani to the hills. (Note: Woolf uses the ‘g’ word a lot here.) Orlando immediately acknowledges that life as a woman is harder. However, she’s 100% less whiny and overwrought than when she was a man. Which I appreciated and took as another bit of gender commentary from Woolf.

In her time with the Romani, Orlando gets in odd ethical arguments with them about English nobility versus nomadic peoples with rich cultural traditions. The Romani brag they know their ancestors further back than Orlando, and that she and the other English royalty are silly. This causes deep homesickness for Orlando, which leads to her return to England.

Orlando notes that centuries have gone by in her absence. She holds a lot of Gender 101 observations. Orlando basically says men are the worst, and laments that “hundreds of years have passed.” Yet time is rarely commented on by Orlando, beyond how one is expected to dress. Orlando starts an affair with the boat captain in order to avoid other men. She realizes she’s a lesbian, and that England gives her, a woman, legally no power, except through marriage.

When Orlando arrives at her English country estate, all the servants and her dogs are still there. They too are untouched by time. She’s also being sued for her money, land, and title by three men, claiming to be her sons. Which makes her gender a great debate of the lawsuit, which play out as unimportant side plot. The lawsuit only touches Orlando’s day-to-day life in that the lawsuit spans centuries too and slowly drain Orlando’s coffers. She has lawyers who take care of it after all.

Woolf explains Orlando’s gender behavior differences through time — “Change as incessant, and change perhaps would never crease. High battlements of thought; habits that had seemed durable as stone went down like shadows at the touch of another mind and left a naked sky and fresh start twinkling in it” (pg 176).

Speaking of people still alive, the archduchess waits outside Orlando’s window still. When the archduchess realizes Orlando’s now a woman, the archduchess reveals himself to actually be a man! He’s delighted that they understand each other, and that they can now legal wed. He’s still annoying. Orlando does that thing where she sends him signals to go away, but he doesn’t notice or care! She laments no longer being a man as she would just stab him and be done with it. In these scenes, Orlando’s observations about “her sex” become more constant and noticeable.

Once ridding herself of the archduke, Orlando ponders going back to her stories. In the end, she tosses most of them away, except for her one poem, her first one, The Oak Tree. Orlando explains her reasoning thusly: “They are always careful to see that the doors are shut and that not a word of it gets into print” (pg 219). She refers, of course, to women’s stories. She does not believe her works will see the light of day, not because they are poorly written or out-of-date, but because of her gender.

It’s in this time that Orlando notes the turn of the century into the 1800s because England becomes very gray and very rainy. While it’s true that globally, weather has changed through time, especially due to industrialization-led climate change, however, I’m pretty sure it rained in England before this. Orlando spends most of the 1800s lamenting the gloom.

Woolf mocks the gloom with the biographer noting people’s changed attitudes about the outdoors, intimacy, and ultimately depression. Of course, this both alludes to Victorian prudeness and Woolf’s own struggles with depression. The biographer talks about a poet who notes the change of the season in an epic work and then “He went indoors, wrote the passage quoted above, laid his head in a gas oven, and when they found him later he was past revival” (pg 231).

Orlando also points to the added emphasis on marriage and the pressure she feels from the “era” and the Victorians to marry. She sees all her friends as couple and spouses. She throws a passionate fit in Hyde Park — reminiscent of earlier Orlando — and is on the grass giving herself away to Nature as her spouse and constant companion when she meets Shel.

The first thing Orlando says to Shel is — “I’m dead, sir!” — when he asks her how she’s doing. This was one of my favorite parts of the book and felt like an ionic oddball romanic start for these two.

Shel’s described as a trans man. Well, Woolf didn’t have that language at her disposal. But the first things Orlando and Shel obverse about each other is that neither are binary gendered. This is the first time since Orlando transformation into a woman that we get the idea that Orlando’s gender is more fluid than a man who just became a woman. Shel’s masculinity plays out in his need for adventure and his obsession with sailing around Cape Horn, thus proving himself a “real man.” Thankfully, the call of Cape Horn is the only time we see Shel bend to toxic masculinity’s draw.

As Orlando and Shel court and eventually get married, Orlando makes many observations about the nature of men and women. Particularly how men are “tolerant and free-spoken” and how women are “strange and subtle.”

Woolf’s strongest and most sarcastic notations of gender are always those that intersect with thinking and writing. She says, “as long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking” (pg 268) and goes on a rant about mansplaining. Which I think Woolf would be very happy that we have a word for it now.

Shel and Orlando spend most of their martial time together out in nature in her countryside estate. They spend many hours contemplating the universe under Orlando’s oak tree. (The one that inspired her to start that poem as a boy.) Eventually, Shel leaves and goes back to Cape Horn and his sailing.

It’s here that Orlando becomes obsessed with finished and publishing the Oak Tree. It’s also offhandedly mentioned that Orlando is pregnant, along with notes about her new servants as the originals have since passed away. The biographer declares writing to be excruciatingly boring and tedious, and if we knew the process’ details, it would be the “extinction of the book.”

Orlando runs into to her old foe Greene. (Another character who has survived these centuries.) He’s as author name droppy as ever. Only his authors have updated to the era, and he now laments that the Victorians aren’t as good as the Elizabethans. But he reads The Oak Tree and loves it.

Orlando gives birth both to her son and her poem as the century turns to the 1900s. The weather cheers up. Besides noting that her poem achieved enough success to give her royalties to live on, the poem and the son she’s birthed are nary mentioned again. Instead, she talks to Shel via telegram and somehow has learned to drive.

The book ends in 1928, where Orlando drives into town and goes to a department store. She notes how styles are changing and technologies. But she also sees the specters of her past. Sasha and Greene both appear again. Orlando is only 36 years old.

On her drive home, Orlando notes how she can access her past and her other selves and her friends from any era. It stands to reason that the other characters may be stand-ins for different aspects of Orlando. Was Shel one of those? Or has Orlando just seen too much of time and too many changes that their brain cannot really process them? Especially when many of the time gap jumping is taken in Orlando’s “thinking” time where they stand in one place and ponder.

By the end of Orlando, Orlando appears closure to non-binary than a man or a woman in their own identification and understanding of their gender. Orlando ends — much like Orlando begin — with Orlando at the oak tree and thinking about their boyhood. To me, this ending felt too bookmarked and neat. Perhaps in her strive for realism, Woolf didn’t want to take Orlando any further into the future that had not happened yet. Because in spite of the magic around time and gender, this is an otherwise historically accurate book.

Orlando’s an interesting look at early modernist thoughts on gender. It’s satirical and hilarious. But sometimes that biographer just got into the way of reading enjoyment, and it got too esoteric.

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