Lecture 4: Orlando


"To give a truthful account of London society at that or indeed at any other time, is beyond the powers of the biographer or the historian. Only those who have little need of the truth, and no respect for it – the poets and the novelists – can be trusted to do it, for this is one of the cases where truth does not exist." (Orlando 192)


Note:  Woolf’s next novel after Mrs. Dalloway was To the Lighthouse, but we are studying Orlando first because of the London setting and because we will visit Vita Sackville-West’s homes before we go to Cornwall, where To the Lighthouse is set.


See the Woolf seminar Orlando web pages for a plot outline and basic orientation to the novel, including a PowerPoint presentation about Vita Sackville-West, who inspired the novel.  All scholarly articles cited in this lecture are in the Works Cited on the Orlando FAQ page


Orientation Vita Themes London


Basic Orientation to the Novel

Orlando (1928) is a comic novel, written in the form of a biography of an English aristocrat born in the 16th century, who lives into the 20th century, and miraculously changes from a man to a woman along the way.  The book was inspired by Woolf’s friend Vita Sackville-West and tells the story of her aristocratic family, including several photographs of Vita herself (see key to the illustrations).  That Woolf was able to bring this off successfully is demonstrated by the fact that it was a huge popular success, tripling her book sales and giving her a sense of financial security.

The book is unlike any other Woolf novel and has received far less scholarly attention than favorites like Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.  Scholars treat it less seriously in part because contemporary reviewers, and even Woolf herself, treated it as a joke, calling it "a high-brow lark" (Arnold Bennett) or "a very pleasant trifle" (J.C. Squier).  Woolf wrote it very quickly, and said of it in her diary “it is all a joke; & yet gay & quick reading I think; a writers holiday" (Diary, vol. 3, March 18, 1928, p 177).  Yet Leonard Woolf, the critic Woolf trusted most, did not treat it lightly:

L[eonard] takes Orlando more seriously than I had expected. Thinks it in some ways better than the Lighthouse: about more interesting things, and with more attachment to life and larger. The truth is I expect I began it as a joke and went on with it seriously. Hence it lacks some unity. He says it is very original. Anyhow I’m glad to be quit this time of writing ‘a novel’: and hope never to be accused of it again.
                                    (Diary, vol. 3, May 31, 1928, p 185)

Certainly comedy is often a vehicle for serious themes, especially difficult themes like androgyny, sexual orientation, and the oppression of women.  All of these are themes Woolf would treat somewhat more directly in A Room of One’s Own, which she began as a series of lectures about the time Orlando was published.


Vita Sackville-West

It is impossible to talk about Orlando without bringing in Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s great friend and (for a short time) lover, whose family history provides the substance of the tale.  Vita was an aristocrat, ten years younger than Woolf, and notorious for a well-publicized affair (1918-20) with Violet Trefusis, the daughter of Edward VII’s mistress Alice Keppel.  Vita was herself a writer, and the Hogarth Press did well by publishing 13 of her books, including three books of poetry, seven novels, some travel books, and two biographies.  They first met at a dinner party in 1922, and their relationship was most intense between 1925 and 1928, the period when Woolf was writing To the Lighthouse.


Frank Baldanza traces the parallels between Vita and Orlando through reference to Vita’s Knole and the Sackvilles, which Woolf exaggerates at will.  Woolf freely mixes Vita with her ancestors, including such of Vita’s traits as love of animals and nature, desire for solitude, and her long periods of melancholy in which she would go to bed for days or weeks.  Here are a few of the facts of Vita’s life and ancestry that appear in Orlando:

·        Elizabeth I gave Knole the 16th century Thomas Sackville, co-author of Gorboduc, the 1st English tragedy. He was Elizabeth I’s cousin, and Vita’s ancestor.

·        The chapter in which Orlando decides to furnish Knole includes lists of items bought that resemble the many lists in Vita’s book about Knole (see Orlando  p 109)

·        Orlando’s sexual adventures resemble various Sackvilles,  including Vita. Also Vita is androgynous looking and her affair with Violet Trefusis is the basis of the Sasha episode. During that affair, Vita sometimes dressed as a man.

·        Some of the Sackvilles had been ambassadors and Vita had just returned from Persia, where her husband Harold Nicolson had been on the diplomatic staff. Woolf had herself been to Constantinople, where Orlando goes as ambassador in what seems to be the 17th century, when Constantinople was the capital of the Ottoman Empire. (Constantinople was originally the Greek city Byzantium, the center of the Greek world. The Roman emperor Constantine I renamed it when he made it the capital of the Roman Empire in 330 AD.  The Byzantine empire fell to the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, becoming part of what is now Turkey.  Europeans continued to call it Constantinople well into the 20th century, though it had also been known as Istanbul since the Turks took it.)

·        Vita’s literary aspirations resemble Orlando’s, and Vita had won a prize for a poem called “The Land” (cf. Orlando’s “The Oak Tree”).

·        Vita’s family scandal is telescoped into the episode with the gypsies after Orlando leaves Constantinople (the Orlando’s lawsuit brought by the sons of Rosina Pepita is at the beginning of chapter 4).  Vita’s grandfather, Lord Sackville, had five children by a Spanish gypsy who already had a husband, so Sackville’s children with her were considered illegitimate, and his sons were not allowed to inherit Knole.  Lord Sackville’s daughter, Vita’s mother, married the heir (his brother’s son, her first cousin), which is how Vita came to be the heir of the wrong sex, as her mother had been.


Vita’s father had no sons, and because Knole was entailed on a male heir, Vita could not inherit it when her father died in 1928.  In Orlando, Woolf works it so that Orlando does get to keep the estate, when the court finds for her and she is in “undisturbed possession of her titles, her house, and her estate . . .  infinitely noble again [but because of the lawsuits] she was also excessively poor” (255).  The impoverishment of the estate through lawsuits (all those illegitimate sons) is about what happened to Knole, which has been owned by the National Trust since 1947.  Still, in giving Knole back to Vita (through Orlando) and in her portrayal of that lively character, the novel is what Vita’s son Nigel Nicolson calls “the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she 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, and ends by photographing her in the mud at Long Barn, with dogs, awaiting Virginia’s arrival next day” (Portrait of a Marriage 225)


The friendship between Virginia and Vita is not in any conventional sense a lesbian relationship, and it is hard for us to understand.  What might be called their “affair” lasted less than two years and was substantially over when Woolf was writing Orlando, but their friendship lasted throughout Woolf’s life.  Here is how Nigel Nicolson describes it:

Her [Virginia’s] friendship was the most important fact in Vita’s life, except Harold, just as Vita’s was the most important in Virginia’s, except Leonard, and perhaps her sister Vanessa. . . .  Their marriages were alike in the freedom they allowed each other, in the invincibility of their love, in its intellectual, spiritual and nonphysical base, in the eagerness of all four of them to savor life, challenge convention, work hard, play dangerously with the emotions--and in their solicitude for each other. . . .  There was no jealousy between the Woolfs and the Nicolsons, because they had arrived independently at the same definition of “trust.”  (Portrait of a Marriage 225)


Joanne Trautmann (The Jessamy Brides: The Friendship of Virginia Woolf and V. Sackville-West) prefers to read the book, not so much as a biography of Vita as “the symbolic story of the friendship between its author and the most important member of her audience, V. Sackville-West, to whom the book is dedicated” (85).  She notes Woolf’s appreciative remarks about another biographer, written at the same time: “he has devised a method of writing about people and about himself as though they were at once real and imaginary” (qtd. 86, from “The New Biography,” the biographer is Harold Nicolson, Vita’s husband).  Trautmann argues that Woolf also addresses some of the real problems of biography here, such as she mentioned in a letter to Vita:  “Do we then know nobody?  Only our own version of them, which as likely as not, are emanations from ourselves.”  (Letters, vol. 3, #1622, March 2, 1926)


Trautmann also suggests that Woolf’s making a work of art from her beloved friend Vita was akin to Lily Briscoe creating her friend Mrs. Ramsay in a painting (Lily: “Could loving, as people called it, make her and Mrs. Ramsay one?”) and that after writing Orlando, she “had an even more profound understanding of friendships” which she uses in The Waves, wherein “Bernard and his friends reflect images of each other” (Trautmann 84).  Bernard’s relationship to Percival (opposites) is like Virginia’s to Vita.




The two things that most interest me in Orlando are her views on writing and literature (the novel provides a brief history of English literature) and her analysis of gender issues, especially androgyny and gender-bending.

Ideas About Writing and Literature.  Woolf began Orlando when she was in the middle of a project that became "Phases of Fiction." An analysis of various fiction writers in terms of her own theory of fiction, “Phases of Fiction” was eventually published in the American periodical Bookman in 1929, and later reprinted in the posthumous essay collection Granite and Rainbow (1958). Much of what Woolf writes about Orlando and writing reflects her own views on writing, such as the need to write only to please oneself (which VW did from age 40), and the view that one must lead a contemplative life to be a serious writer.  Orlando’s attempts to be a writer, through four centuries, parody the writing life and in particular make fun of dilettantism (Nick Greene’s attitude toward the awful poems Orlando wrote in the 16th century).  Woolf's narrative voice here, which imitates the scholarly tones of the Victorian man of letters, pokes fun at scholarly approaches to literature and the writing life.  Meanwhile, she depicts the poet as "a rather fat, rather shabby man," in Orlando's kitchen (p 21, see also 79, 164), finally identified as possibly "Sh--p--re" (313), suggesting that great writing goes on behind the scenes in some mysterious way.  As she says in A Room of One's Own, "great writers are continuing presences" (113).

Lesbian Identity, Androgyny and Gender-Bending.  Mark Hussey and others trace the original conception for Orlando to a diary entry for “The Jessamy Brides” (Diary, March 14, 1927), based on the Ladies of Llangollen, a famous pair of 18th century English aristocratic women who eloped with each other to Wales.  Despite the fact that Woolf wrote Orlando for and about a woman she was in love with, women’s romantic relationships with each other do not seem to me a significant theme in this novel. 

Some scholars would disagree, notably Leslie K. Hankins, who links the novel to the Radclyffe Hall obscenity trial in November 1928, around the time Orlando was published.  Woolf was among many writers prepared to defend Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness, which was about lesbian relationships.  Hall lost the case and her book was banned in England.  It has since become a classic of lesbian literature, though it paints a rather dismal view of lesbian life, emphasizing exaggerated role-playing. (Hall herself dressed in men’s clothes and preferred to be called “John.”)  Hall was not an especially good writer, but the book broke barriers that opened doors for more direct literary treatment of lesbian relationships.  Woolf herself tends to depict lesbians much more indirectly, sometimes rather negatively (consider Miss Kilman in Mrs. Dalloway), and she doesn’t seem to me to have viewed herself as a lesbian at all.  She knew many homosexuals, but they were mostly men (her husband Leonard and Vanessa’s husband Clive Bell were almost the only Bloomsbury men who were entirely heterosexual).  To her credit, Woolf was willing to risk being thought a “Sapphist” (her term) when she published A Room of One’s Own , though the manuscripts of that book show that she considerably toned down the Chloe and Olivia passages.  Still Orlando has come to be regarded as another classic of lesbian literature, and this is a topic of some interest.

The topic that I believe interested Woolf more than lesbian identity was androgyny.  Androgyny is the mixing of traits associated with both men and women.  Woolf was attracted to the notion of an androgynous mind in writing and believed that the greatest writers wrote “man-womanly” or “woman-manly,” as she puts it in A Room of One’s Own (chapter 6, p 98).  There the metaphor she uses is of a man and woman getting into a taxicab:

 “The sight of the two people getting into the taxi and the satisfaction it gave me made me also ask whether there are two sexes in the mind corresponding to the two sexes in the body, and whether they also require to be united in order to get complete satisfaction and happiness. . . .  The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating. . . .  It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties” (AROO 98).

This view has caused no end of argument among feminist critics.  Many argue that Woolf is attempting to transcend gender, thus creating a neutral ground that ultimately defaults to male in androcentric society, i.e., neither sex = the dominant sex.  This same view holds that, e.g., today’s Gender Studies programs are taking the “women” out of Women’s Studies.

In Orlando, fictional characters allow Woolf to explore these issues more creatively and imaginatively than in straight argumentation.  Orlando physically changes from a man to a woman (for unknown reasons, over night, in his sleep), and directly comments that nothing else has changed about herself, although, as she soon learns, a great deal changes for her materially. Is s/he a man or a woman? Is one better or worse than the other?  Yes, no, both.

I like Pamela Caughie’s interpretation of Woolf’s attitude toward androgyny. Cauphie argues that for Woolf androgyny is a "refusal to choose," not a unification of identities: "not a freedom from the tyranny of sex . . . so much as a freedom from the tyranny of reference" (486).  Caughie relates the dilemma to the 18th century ideas about whether thought and form should be separated (Samuel Johnson) or are inseparable (Pope), both of which are essentialist positions.  Here is how identity and language line up:






Dr. Johnson


natural (essentialist)

learned (anti-essentialist)

a garment for thought (can separate content from form)

“rhetoric makes the thought” (Caughie)—form and content are inseparable


Caughie argues that Woolf's position is anti-essentialist: "what matters is not the nature of the sign, the transsexual, but its position and function within a particular discourse."  Woolf's androgyne does not transcend gender so much as she plays with it, breaking down conventional oppositions and converting it into a matter of dynamic role-playing. For Woolf, "androgyny in Orlando is not so much a psychosexual category as a rhetorical strategy."  Shifting and blurring gender, genre, literary periods and styles—all this disrupts meaning and calls attention to how much meaning depends on context: assumptions, expectations, historical time, e.g., unkind in Chaucer’s day meant “unnatural.”)  Caughie argues that Woolf’s answer to these oppositions and ambiguities is not a synthesis or resolution, emphatically not a “unified self,” but rather “a way to remain suspended between opposed beliefs” (Caughie 486).  [See also Keats, “negative capability” “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (letter to his brothers 21 Dec 1817)]


To illustrate Woolf’s refusal to choose, Caughie uses a passage from Orlando that takes three different positions on the relationship of clothing to gender:

            [Clothes create gender]

“Thus, there is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking. . . .  Had they [a man and a woman] worn the same clothes, it is possible that their outlook might have been the same, too.

[Clothes mark gender, an essentialist view]

         That is the view of some philosophers and wise ones, but on the whole, we incline to another.  The difference between the sexes is, happily, one of great profundity. 

[Clothes mask gender (still assumes essential gender beneath]

Clothes are but a symbol of something hid deep beneath.  It was a change in Orlando herself that dictated her choice of a woman’s dress and of a woman’s sex. . . .  For here again, we come to a dilemma.  Different though the sexes are, they intermix.  In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above.” (chapter 4, pp 188-89, my emphasis)

 Cauphie sees three metaphors at play in the book:

·         androgyny – ambiguous male/female

·         transvestism - clothing

·         transexualism - ??literalist?  She doesn’t elaborate on this.

 These represent three different ways of talking about identity. Any language we use is already bound up in expectations about gender and identity.  We are used to thinking of things in dichotomies (e.g., light/dark, good/evil), which is not bad in itself except as it leads to privileging one over the other.  What Woolf is resisting with the androgynous Orlando is the privileging.  She wants to draw our attention to multiplicity and to the way we make meaning.  The metaphor Woolf uses for Orlando’s identity here is of waiter holding a stack of plates, each plate being an identity or role we play (see p 308).  No plate is in and of itself better than another, though there position in the stack differs, and the taller the stack, the harder it is to balance.



Orlando begins in the countryside, at Orlando’s ancestral estate, modeled on Vita’s family home Knole, which we will visit on day 4.  We aren’t told the exact location (or name) of Orlando’s estate, but Knole is in Kent, just south of London.  The Sasha episode takes place near London, on the frozen Thames.  Woolf does almost as much with English weather as with English literature.  I wondered if the frozen Thames was just her imagination.  Turns out the Thames used to freeze over quite regularly, as reported on this website about England’s longest river (http://www.jasa.net.au/london/thames.htm):

 In the 17th and 18th century, during winter freezes, a rare treat was the Frost Fairs, held on the river with ox roasting barbecues, stalls, fairground amusements and performing animals. . . .

The winter of 1813-14 saw the greatest frost fair, with a grand mall running from Blackfriars Bridge and named ‘City Road.’ It was the last. Though fun for many, the freezing of the Thames was a tragedy for boat skippers who could not move, nor could they leave their precious cargoes to find other work. The replacement of the old London Bridge in 1831 meant that the river flowed faster and no longer froze sufficiently to bear public events.


After the Constantinople episode (chapter 3), Orlando returns to 18th century London, where most of the rest of the book takes place.  Jean Moorcroft Wilson points out how Woolf uses the changing London architecture to denote the passage of time, as when Orlando sails down the Thames for the first time since the 17th century, and the boatman describes the skyline (Tower, St. Paul’s, etc.).  She also notes how Elizabeth taverns become 18th century coffee houses, then Victorian restaurants, and how Orlando finds modern London’s streets louder, more crowded, and darker than those of the past.


In lecture 2, I commented on how for Woolf London was so much a city of great writers, whose presence she seems to feel in the very streets.  Orlando makes that feeling material, as Orlando hobnobs with Addison, Pope, and Swift—and then goes slumming with prostitutes.  Wilson believes that this reflects Woolf’s own attitude toward London and Londoners—that she preferred the artists and intellectuals, or the working classes, to the socialites of Mayfair, Westminster, Kensington, and Chelsea.


Updated July 09, 2004             Copyright 2004 Rose Norman
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