The novel Orlando: A Biography (1928) by Virginia Woolf was apparently written to commemorate her friendship and/or affair with Vita Sackville-West, and Woolf had her first draft of the book bound as a gift for her friend/lover. Though not one of Woolf's most acclaimed novels, Orlando was a very successful one, allowing Virginia and her husband Leonard to buy their first car and enjoy a measure of financial stability at last.

Orlando is great fun to read, a charmingly humorous story written in Woolf's characteristic stream of consciousness prose, though unlike, say, Mrs. Dalloway, which follows its characters through a single day, Orlando follows its protagonist from his youth in the late sixteenth century to her adulthood in the early twentieth century. As a young foppish nobleman Orlando becomes a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, falls in love with a Russian princess who leaves him, returns to his huge estate despondent, takes up writing, hobnobs with literary figures, and finally moves to Constantinople where he works an ambassador. While there, he falls into a coma and wakes up a woman; Orlando herself seems unruffled by this change, perhaps because "in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been". She returns to London to face lawsuits claiming that either she is dead and cannot hold title to her property, or she is a woman ("which amounts to much the same thing", writes Woolf tartly but truly: women could not then hold title to property); she again takes part in literary life, though is not taken nearly so seriously now she is female. She marries, is declared a woman, regains her estate though not her wealth (dissipated in lawsuits), becomes pregnant, publishes a book she has been working on for over 300 years, gives birth to a boy; it is 1928, and Orlando is 36 years old.

What are we to make of this fanciful story? Woolf originally described the book as "an escapade, half-laughing, half-serious; with great splashes of exaggeration", and so it was taken for some time. More recently, however, as feminism has loomed ever larger on the western critical horizon, it began to be read more and more persistently as a feminist meditation on gender and sexuality, and also as a critique of the very possibility of biography. No doubt it is all these things, and more, for Virginia Woolf was one of the foremost modernist writers whose intelligent and original writings have had an indelible impact on western literature.

Orlando has gone through several editions. If you can, find one with the original photographs (some of Vita Sackville-West dressed up as Orlando) scattered through the text, rather than gathered in the middle or omitted altogether, the sad fate of several versions. My beautiful new Vintage Classics (Random House) edition has the photos in their original places. You might also want to take a look at Kelly Tetterton's interesting essay examining the paperback editions of the novel and what the covers can tell us about the milieu they were published in. It's online at

In 1993 Sally Potter released a film version of Orlando which she wrote and directed. Starring Tilda Swinton as Orlando and Quentin Crisp, memorably, as Queen Elizabeth, the film departs in places from the book but remains true to Woolf's vision and intentions. It is a gorgeously lyrical portrait of Orlando's long life, beautiful, compelling, mysterious, and interesting, just as it should be.

Read the book; see the movie. They're both wonderful.

Orlando: A Study In Gender-Free Feminism

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is far ahead of its time in presenting a feminism which includes and depends upon transgendered concepts. In writing a character who changes sex once and gender repeatedly, she attempts to establish that identity is independent of gender, and that gender is fluid and therefore sexist concepts are groundless.

Transphobia Vs. Sexism

These points rest upon each other. We have been taught that gender is the backbone of identity, the most important thing one can know about a person. The very first question asked about a newborn baby, and often the first thing that the mother is told, is whether it is a boy or a girl. An estimated twenty out of every thousand babies are born with non-life-threatening genitals or chromosomes which do not fit into the categories of “male” and “female;” the binary gender system is so important that doctors consider this to be a medical emergency. Thousands of genital-mutilating operations are carried out every year on these intersexed newborns, often without the parents’ knowledge, and taking nothing into consideration other than which set of accepted genitals is easiest to construct on each particular newborn. These operations are standard medical practice, and result in everything from complete genital mutilation and lack of sensation, to nonfunctional but aesthetically acceptable genitals, to gender dysphoria and life-threatening health conditions later in life.

This is the result of transphobia, a hatred and fear of breaking gender rules. It is different from, but connected to, sexism. They are connected through the many violent actions which are performed on the basis of one’s victim’s gender, and separated by the identities of those affected by, and those willing to fight, each oppression. Traditionally, one definition of feminism is the fight against sexism; in Orlando, Woolf presents us with a version of feminism which expands to battle transphobia.

“What IS it?”

Because we are raised to think of gender as one of the main aspects of one’s identity, the great question surrounding Orlando is “what IS it?” Woolf establishes repeatedly that gender is not central to Orlando’s personality, and that it is far more fluid than we usually imagine. The question of Orlando’s “true” gender is also undermined by the fact that there were far fewer established names for gender when either Orlando or Virginia Woolf lived. On the other hand, there were many words we’ve now forgotten. With all that said, here we will examine Orlando’s gender using the vocabulary of today: Orlando and Woolf would not have used these terms, but frequently used their meanings.

Woolf addresses this issue early on and neatly establishes that, even before there was a “transsexual” or “transgendered” identity, there was transphobia. She points out that “Many people... holding that such a change of sex is against nature... have been at great pains to prove (1) that Orlando had always been a woman, (2) that Orlando is at this moment a man.” The same charges are leveled against modern-day transsexuals: the medical industry insists that they must claim to have always identified as they sex in which they wish to live, and the rest of the world insists that they will never be anything but their birth sex. Woolf continues, “It is enough for us to state the simple fact; Orlando was a man till the age of thirty; when he became a woman and has remained so ever since.”

We could call Orlando a male-to-female transsexual. Orlando is born male and changes into a woman, and it is hinted that this is done through personal choice and the sheer force of nature. “All her actions were deliberate in the extreme, and might indeed have been thought to show tokens of premeditation.... Perhaps in this she was only expressing rather more openly than usual - openness indeed was the soul of her nature - something that happens to most people without being thus plainly expressed.” But most MTFs identify as female even when living as male, while Orlando’s sex change comes as a surprise.

On the other hand, Woolf suggests that the change was pre-planned because Orlando’s soul demanded it: “It was a change in Orlando herself that dictated her choice of a woman's dress and of a woman's sex." But even after the sex change, Orlando’s gender identity flip-flops around and Orlando identifies outside of gender quite frequently, thinking upon boarding the boat back to England that “It is a strange fact, but a true one that up to this moment she had scarcely given her sex a thought.”

Woolf’s description implies that we could simply say that Orlando has been both; an examination of Orlando’s experiences implies that we could add “neither” to that list. Then, not only has Orlando been bi-gendered and genderless, but has cycled through all of these frequently without regard to physical sex, clothing, sexual partners, or any other influences. As Woolf argues, “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. Of the complications and confusions which thus result everyone has had experience.” Orlando’s experiences and reflections seem to me to match up most closely to a polygendered experience, although that may be because that is my own experience.

Orlando experiences numerous vacillations in gender as well as stretches of stable gender identity and an underlying need to move into a more comfortable base gender to work from, as we can see from hir struggle to unite all hir selves and genders, including "the boy who saw the poet.... the young man who fell in love with Sasha... the Soldier.... the Traveler... the Fine Lady... the girl in love with life....” and hir ultimate success, culminating in “So she was now darkened, stilled, and become... what is called, rightly or wrongly, a single self, a real self." These vacillations and struggles are major aspects of a polygendered identity. However, I suspect that most readers would see their own genders in Orlando, if for no other reason than that Orlando at one time or another covers most possible gender identities.

Sexism hits Orlando like a ton of bricks

Woolf claims in Orlando that gender is fluid and changes frequently. Directly after Orlando’s physical sex changes, ze moves to Turkey and essentially lives free from any gender roles until sailing back to England. While boarding the ship, Orlando mulls over the fact that “up to this moment she had scarcely given her sex a thought,” and proceeds to observe the men around hir and rail against their sexism. In hir new, gender-fluxing state, Orlando serves as a tool for Woolf’s feminist arguments. Hir experience of becoming female out of the blue and seeing both male and female behavior with new eyes allows Woolf to address her audience from both a feminist man’s and woman’s viewpoint. Orlando observes right off the bat that “women are not... obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely appareled by nature. They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious disciplines.” A three-page rant against both genders, but particularly against male sexism, follows, and is repeated throughout the book.

Notably, whenever Orlando begins to slip into hir old male habits and rail against women, something happens to point out the flaws in hir argument. For example, upon the Archduchess’ return, Orlando has completely forgotten hir sex at the moment, and only thinks, “A plague on women... they never leave one a moment’s peace. A more ferreting, inquisiting, busybodying set of people don’t exist. It was to escape this Maypole that I left England, and now’ - here she turned to present the Archduchess with the salver, and behold - in her place stood a tall gentleman in black. A heap of clothes lay in the fender. She was alone with a man.” The Archduchess is supposed to present the shining example for all Orlando’s bad impressions of women, and then turns out to be a man. The moment that Orlando feels secure in categorizing and describing an entire gender, everyone’s gender shifts and everything is again topsy-turvy. Over the course of the novel’s second half, Woolf has ample room to develop her feminist view of gender, extending it to an analysis of gender roles in the eighteenth century, the ludicrous necessity of marriage, and the way gender interacts with sexuality. Sexuality, in fact, gives rise to the next step in Orlando’s feminist awakening.

“Love is tender and knows no gender”

Woolf observes that “as all Orlando’s lovers had been women, now, through the culpable laggardry of the human frame to adapt itself to convention, though she herself was a woman, it was still a woman she loved; and if the consciousness of being of the same sex had any effect at all, it was to quicken and deepen those feelings which she had had as a man.” This might be viewed as an apology for lesbian behavior and a protest that Orlando is really heterosexual, if it were not that Orlando then proceeds to fully embrace hir sexuality.

Orlando began as a man attracted to women, simply enough, and then became a woman who was still attracted to women. As Orlando’s gender matures, it begins to interact even more with sexuality. Hir first stirrings of sexual attraction after the sex change occurs are when ze picks Nell up and “(felt that) Nell hanging lightly yet like a suppliant on her arm, roused in Orlando all the feelings which became a man. She looked, she felt, she talked like one.” Being with a woman at this point triggers Orlando’s gender-changing feelings, throwing hir back to the days when ze was a man being with a woman, as was normal and accepted. Orlando, in this scene already a woman passing as a man, then begins to feel like a man. But this new sex-changing state is brought to a halt; Orlando cannot live as a man anymore, and reveals hir female self to Nell, who is greatly amused.

Orlando’s gender is not yet mature in that scene: it can still be changed by clothing and sexual interactions. But as Orlando grows into hir genderfluid role, “the pleasures of life were increased and its experiences multiplied. From the probity of breeches she turned to the seductiveness of petticoats and enjoyed the love of both sexes equally.” The more genders Orlando experiences within hirself, and the more ze plays with gender in hir life, the more ze is able to woo and bed people of different genders in different gender roles. This seems a natural extension of Orlando’s realization that gender is not a mainstay of one’s personality or self.

Gender is not destiny

Perhaps Woolf’s strongest argument against sexism is Orlando’s repeated separation of gender from identity. During hir entire sojourn in Turkey, ze never gives hir gender a thought, and does much adventuring and conversing with the Romany totally free from hir society’s assumptions about gender roles. This serves as a transition point between the freedom of hir male life and the complex gender-based oppressions of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century womanhood. Even after ze realizes how many constraints will be placed on hir as a woman, it does not change the way ze lives at home. Upon returning to England, Orlando is faced with a pack of hounds leaping joyously at hir, oblivious to hir changes, and Mrs. Grimsditch gasping, "Milord! Milady! Milady! Milord!" Unbothered by the confusion, Orlando just “comforts her with a hearty kiss upon both cheeks." The underlying message is that animals recognize there is no real change in Orlando, and are just as glad to see hir; any problems that humans have must be due to our own preconstructed ideas about sex and gender.

Throughout the book, Orlando has a very strong personality, with many hobbies and ideas repeated regardless of hir current gender. Ze always writes poetry, although the style is dependent on the passage of time; ze’s always a Romantic, an adventurer, and a dreamer. The more hir gender changes, the more ze stays the same, until we realize that gender is not the crucial, essential core of humanity that we are taught it is.

The roots of gender strangle sexism

Woolf suggests a variety of causes for Orlando’s unexpected changes in gender. This first suggestion, offered for Orlando’s residence in a sexless space, is that “Perhaps the Turkish trousers, which she had hitherto worn had done something to distract her thoughts; and the gipsy women, except in one or two important particulars, differ very little from the gipsy men.” This is Woolf’s first suggestion that Orlando’s gender is influenced by clothes and the surrounding culture. When the Archduchess is revealed to be an Archduke, and Orlando is “recalled thus suddenly to a consciousness of her sex, which she had completely forgotten, and of his, which was now remote enough to be equally upsetting,” Woolf seems to suggest that perhaps Orlando’s trust in gender as a stable identity causes change, as if some force in the universe is watching for Orlando to forget how fluid gender is, and leaping in to trip hir up whenever the opportunity presents itself.

But there are more possible causes to come. As Orlando escapes and drives along the English countryside, Woolf returns to the idea of clothes, remarking that “the change of clothes had, some philosophers will say, much to do with it. Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”

While accepting that as partly true, Woolf rejects it as a cause of Orlando’s changes, saying that “The difference between the sexes is, happily, one of great profundity. 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.” This implies some premeditation on Orlando’s part, which is also hinted at when the changes take place: “Orlando showed no such signs of perturbation. All her actions were deliberate in the extreme, and might indeed have been thought to show tokens of premeditation.” Perhaps Orlando changed sex on purpose, in a mystical personal sex-change operation of sorts. Even then, it is not so simple, and Orlando is still not just a mono-gendered, “normal” woman:

Perhaps in this she was only expressing rather more openly than usual - openness indeed was the soul of her nature - something that happens to most people without being plainly expressed.... In every human being a vacillation from one sex to another 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. Of the complications and confusions which thus result everyone has had experience.

This seems to be Woolf’s conclusion: that Orlando’s sex change was premeditated or at least caused by inner changes; that it was not simply a change from male to female, but that this was the face of the change while underneath Orlando’s gender is very fluid; and that this represents a core truth about the nature of gender, with most people experiencing “a vacillation from one sex to another” at different rates and with different levels of intensity. It is the “openness (at) the soul of (Orlando’s) nature” which results in the physical changes here. This theory is supported by the fact that Woolf portrays Orlando as a very effeminate, Romantic, somewhat nontraditional man when he is a man, and a genderchanging, feminist, bisexual, nontraditional woman when she is a woman, and often unsure of possessing any gender at all. “Orlando” is not a simple story of a man who changes into a woman, but a story of a person with many gender switches and a strong identity over which gender and sex are merely decorations.

Transgendered Feminism’s Lessons

These are the lessons Woolf sets for us: one’s identity, abilities, sexuality, and rights are not based in one’s gender, but in one’s humanity, independent of gender identity or physical sex. The modern-day feminist movement has, by and large, yet to embrace transgendered issues as an integral part of the women’s issues it supports. While the National Organization for Women passed a resolution supporting transgender inclusion in 1997, most feminist theory is still struggling with these issues, and many feminists are still busy debating who should be allowed into “women’s space” and where the boundaries of feminism lie. Yet seventy years ago, Virginia Woolf wrote a novel in which traditional feminist arguments rely upon the recognition that not everyone is neatly male or female, and which insists that everyone’s gender changes frequently. In the genderbending world she creates, sexism falls apart, because nobody can be treated a certain way solely based on their gender if gender is this prone to change.

* * *

Appendix: How many times does Orlando's sex, gender identity, and gender expression vacillate, anyway?

Well, after the first grand sex-change scene....

  1. On page 140, directly after the sex-change scene, Orlando gets up and shoves something in her bosom (female), then straps some pistols on (male), then puts on some pearls and emeralds (female) that turn out to have been part of his Ambassadorial uniform (male).
  2. On page 153, Orlando boards the boat back to England and realized that "It is a strange fact, but a true one that up to this moment she had scarcely given her sex a thought" - that Orlando has managed to be sexless most of the time between the sexchange and the boat ride.
  3. On page 158, "it would seem from some ambiguity in her terms that she was censuring both sexes equally, as if she belonged to neither; and indeed, for the time being she seemed to vacillate; she was man; she was woman; she knew the secrets, shared the weaknesses of each. It was a most bewildering and whirligig state of mind to be in." As Orlando is plunged back into gendering society, they go from being sexless to male and female and male and female in quick succession.
  4. On page 159, Orlando is just outright "not sure to which she belonged."
  5. On page 162, Orlando gazes upon England and muses, "To refuse and to yield.... how delightful; to pursue and conquer, how august; to perceive and to reason, how sublime," embracing behaviors considered stereotypical to both genders.
  6. On page 169, Orlando is faced with Mrs. Grimsditch gasping "Milord! Milady! Milady! Milord!" and just "comforts her with a hearty kiss upon both cheeks," unbothered by the confusion.
  7. On page 178, Orlando stands alone, mentally bashing womanhood because the Archduchess is so annoying, only to be plunged back into womanhood by the realization that the Archduchess is actually a man, and the contrast to her own sex.
  8. On page 190, "Whether, then, Orlando was most man or woman, it is difficult to say and cannot now be decided."
  9. On page 216, Orlando dons men's clothing to roam the city and pick up sex workers, picking up "men's feelings" and reactions as others perceive Orlando to be male.
  10. On page 221, it is revealed to us that "her sex changed far more frequently than those who have worn only one set of clothing can conceive," whether clothing changes their sex or vice versa. "From the probity of breeches she turned to the seductiveness of petticoats and enjoyed the love of both sexes equally."
  11. On page 236, "if the spirit of the age blew a little unequally... her ambiguous position must excuse her (even her sex was still in dispute) and the irregular life she had lived before."
  12. On page 246, even gender is supplanted as the main flavor in Orlando's identity as the spirit of the age takes over and starts running the show. Is Orlando's gender not due to clothes or personality at all, but just a reflection of the spirit of the age?
  13. On page 252, she and Shel have "an awful suspicion (rush) into both of their minds simultaneously. 'You're a woman, Shel!' she cried. 'You're a man, Orlando!' he cried."
  14. On page 253, Orlando cries "tears, she noted, of a finer flavour than any she had cried before. 'I am a woman,' she thought, 'a real woman, at last.'" This is not necessarily a case of a certain kind of tears equalling femininity, but may be a relevation on Orlando's part that she is finally a "real woman," as sudden as all her other gender changes, and accompanied by these tears.
  15. On page 255, the legal world concurs and finally declares Orlando to be female, after hundreds of years and 117 pages of uncertainty.
  16. On page 258, Shel and Orlando are still bantering. "'Are you positive you aren't a man?' he would ask anxiously, and she would echo, 'Can it be possible you're not a woman?' and then they must put it to the proof without more ado. For each was so surprised at the quickness of the other's sympathy, and it was to each such a revelation that a woman could be as tolerant and free-spoken as a man, and a man as strange and subtle as a woman, that they had to put the matter to the proof at once."
  17. On page 309, we see a partial list of Orlando's many selves, including "the boy who saw the poet.... the young man who fell in love with Sasha... the Soldier.... the Traveler... the Fine Lady... the girl in love with life.... all these selves were different, and she may have called upon any one of them." This implies that they are all still part of Orlando, and are still frequently summoned and lived out regardless of Orlando's current physical sex.
  18. On page 314, all these selves unite into Orlando's many-gendered being, "So she was now darkened, stilled, and become, with the addition of this Orlando, what is called, rightly or wrongly, a single self, a real self."

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