by Aleksandr Prigozhin

Virginia Woolf, one of Camden's great historical figures, was born on the 25th of January, 1882. For Camden Flux, we look at one of her most legendary novels, Orlando. 

virginia woolf
Virginia Woolf: detail from her final session with a professional photographer, Gisèle Freund Photo: Gisèle Freund/IMEC/Fonds MCC

Queen Victoria famously did not believe in the existence of lesbians. That is why only male homosexuality was partly decriminalized 50 years ago; sex between women was not made punishable in the first place, because it was assumed not to take place. As for transgender people, they would have been an “unknown unknown” for the Queen and the law; even the possibility of their existence was unthinkable. Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando breaks with this silenced past, not shying away from imagining the protagonist’s loves of different genders, her change of gender from male to female, or from having that change affirmed by a “warrant from the Queen”—Victoria herself.

Pursuing a fantasy vision of English literature over four centuries, Orlando is a novel-length love letter to Woolf’s friend and (briefly) lover, Vita Sackville-West. The story follows the life of a sensitive, beautiful, clumsy, fabulously wealthy, nobleman-turned-noblewoman with a passion for literature. Reflecting Vita’s own aspirations and her features (heavy eyes and “magnificent” legs), Woolf’s heroine lives a charmed life unconstrained by bodies’ ordinary limits. She ages only twenty years in four centuries. As a youth, he is loved by Queen Elizabeth I, falls for a visiting Russian woman during the Great Frost, then becomes ambassador to Constantinople after the Restoration. After becoming a woman, she lives among nomads, returns to England, befriends 18th century wits and writers, marries and has children in the Victorian era, and shops at a department store and drives her own car in 1928.

In Orlando, Woolf imagines a world in which gender fluidity and sexual desire face no constraints or persecution. Orlando “enjoys the love of both sexes equally”; and the novel simply states this as a fact. No explanation or defense is necessary. In this fictional world, the diversity of human identities and desires is simply taken for granted. This is its own contribution to LGBTQ equality. Not entirely blind to legal obstacles or to the dead weight of prejudice, Woolf treats them lightly, as the stuff of comedy. She ridicules the idea that a person’s gender identity would need to be affirmed by the state in order to be valid. This, depending on one’s mood, may seem empowering or frivolous.

After all, Woolf’s abandonment of rigid norms of gender and sexuality happens in a make-believe world that makes no attempt at realism and so seems without consequence—a feeling confirmed by comparing the different legal and commercial fates of Orlando and of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, which was banned as obscene for its realist (though by no means sexually explicit) depiction of lesbian love. Orlando, by contrast, was Woolf’s most popular work in her lifetime.

On balance, however, Orlando is both an exhilarating read and a milestone in the history of sex and gender in literature. It gets around prohibitions that still existed in its time, treating gender fluidity, transition, and bisexuality as givens. Although the crucial gender change is threatened by the farcical intervention of personified Modesty, Purity, and Chastity, these forces are ridiculed and purged from the story, which courageously proceeds to take its exceptional protagonist for granted. As a record of a love affair between two remarkable women, Orlando reflects a moment in history when fiction could imagine for its readers a world of freedom and openness that did not yet exist in the eyes of the law or of mainstream public opinion. It shows Woolf at her most playful and witty, even as it includes striking moments of lyricism and imaginative depth for which she is justly famous.

Lastly, Orlando places the concern with gender and sexual diversity at the center of British literature and history, from which they were largely left out until later years. Even today, this remains a profound challenge to the centuries-long habit of ignoring LGBTQ lives and keeping them on the margins of our collective stories.