Reduced to a one-line pitch, Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” is an incredible story of gender-bending: of a 16th century English nobleman, born into riches and prestige, who transforms into a comely woman of the Victorian era.
1928, the year the book came out, was also when all women over the age of 21 earned the right to vote in Britain.
While here, women rejoiced in this epic victory, in having won equal political rights, on par with men, there, Woolf had bestowed on her character wide sexual latitude, a freedom unthinkable for a women in her day to enjoy, openly.
Even before the French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir’s radical formulation, in her work, “The Second Sex” that “gender” is different from “sex” and that it’s an aspect of identity, which is acquired, Woolf had suggested it, albeit very obliquely.
“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,” muses Orlando’s biographer.
Further, she writes that clothes, “vain trifles as they seem” they have “more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.” They “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.”
Which is to say that regardless of our sex, male or female, our sexual identities—our “gender,” that is—are cultivated, artificially created. And often, it’s our garments that shape the contours of our images of ourselves as well as of those of the others about us.
Our innate emotional traits, instincts, and tastes, could thus, well be at odds with our projected behavior in public and our social conduct.
Perhaps in keeping with the logic of we are what our clothes make us, in a deliberately provocative move, director Sally Potter chose the British homosexual iconoclast, Quentin Chris to play Queen Elizabeth I, with whom Orlando had a fleeting affair as an outgoing teenage boy. Tilda Swindon plays both versions of Orlando: as the somewhat effeminate aristocrat and the somewhat androgynous baroness.
Archduke Harry confesses to Lady Orlando “that he had seen a portrait of Orlando [as a man] and fallen hopelessly in love with him; that to compass his ends, he had dressed as a woman [as the Archduchess Harriet] and lodged at the Baker’s shop” only so their paths would cross and romance may bloom.
“One fine night in early April,” when Lady Orlando secretly let herself out the door, dressed in a “black velvet suit richly trimmed with Venetian lace,” she chanced upon a member “of the tribe which nightly burnishes their wares, and sets them in order on the common counter to wait the highest bidder.
The harlot was sitting desolately on a bench in a square. Taken by the “luster” in her eyes, she held out her arm to her. Of the encounter, Woolf writes, “To feel her hanging lightly yet like a supplicant on her arm aroused in Orlando all the feelings which become a man.”
These are two solid instances of fledgling homoerotic love. Just as the Archduke was besotted with Orlando the man, Orlando, the woman was smitten by the prostitute. But since neither could make romantic overtures to their objects of desire, who were of the same sex, as themselves, they sought the help of their wardrobes.
While in his masculine avatar, Orlando never slept with another man, as a woman, however, we’re told, she was, what in modern day parlance, would be a bisexual. “From the probity of breeches she turned to the seductiveness of petticoats and enjoyed the love of both sexes equally.”
Such morals, even if subtly hinted in a book, would’ve made people of the early 20th century hot under the collar, one possible reason that “Orlando” is one of Woolf’s lesser known works.
Interestingly, “Orlando” is a roman à clef; its hero represents Vita Sackville-West, an author, with whom Woolf had a passionate affair.
The book is path-breaking at another level as well. It’s the tale of an individual, who defies senescence. Orlando has lived through 400 years of history during which he has had a fling with the doddering Queen Elizabeth I.
Skated through the Great Frost. Loved and lost a Russian princess. Hobnobbed with poets and literary wits. Appointed a British emissary to Istanbul. Changed from a hose into a crinoline. Ridden a horse to driven a motorcar. And, married and had a son.
Yet, he’s aged by no more than two decades.