“I’m sick to death of this particular self. I want another.”
Orlando is one of those books that I had always intended to read but had never gotten around to. Now that I’ve finally read it? I feel like giving myself a vigorous shake and demanding to know why on Earth I took so long to get around to it.
This book is simply stunning in every area. The writing is lyrical and poetic, the descriptions are vivid, and the themes of gender identity and gender politics within society are powerful and firm.
Basically, Orlando is about a noble adolescent poet who lives for over 300 years from 1588 to 1928, but who only ages 36 years. Orlando also changes gender from a man to a woman, something which hadn’t happened in literature before this.
I loved the way Woolf explored Orlando’s gender identity, having Orlando, dissatisfied with their life as it had been, fall into a trance-like state and then, once awake, Orlando had become a woman. Orlando themself isn’t surprised at all, stating –
“Different body, same person.”
I feel Woolf normalised something in the 1920s that many people struggle to accept in other people in this day and age. There’s still very much a feeling that trans people are confused or mentally ill, and that gender dysphoria is an affliction that needs curing. Here, Woolf simplifies the whole thing, stating that the body is simply just a casing and the person inside is completely unchanged. What does it matter if someone changes their gender, as long as that person is happy? Who knew how ahead of the curve Woolf truly was?
It is believed that Woolf didn’t write this book for her readers, but actually wrote it for her lover, Vita Sackville, who liked to crossdress at the time. When thought about from this perspective, the book takes on a cross between a love letter and a social commentary. It’s interesting to note that the book was written in 1928 and today in 2022 – 94 years later – things aren’t really all that far forward. We may have relaxed slightly on crossdressing – more for women than for men – but that’s all we seem to have achieved. We’re still having to argue about gender norms, what pronouns are acceptable, and even who is allowed to use what restroom! All in all, I can’t imagine Woolf would be too impressed to see how little progress we’ve made in this area. I can only hope that, in another 94 years, we aren’t still fighting for the right to embrace our gender identity peacefully and with dignity.