Virginia Woolf

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Orlando: How Virginia Woolf revolutionized biography overnight?

The title of the essay is derived from a quote by Virginia Woolf, that is, „I want to revolutionize biography in a night.” I intend to elaborate on a few points of how her novel Orlando fulfilled that desire of hers and how it uncovers not only a literary revolution but much more beyond that. Orlando: A Biography, published on 11 October 1928[1], is perhaps not the most famous book written by Woolf but it is certainly a stylistically influential work and also an important milestone in the history of women's writing and gender studies. She played a significant role in the modernist literary movement - which peaked in Europe between 1900 and the 1920s - along with Knut Hamsun, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce, the latter being considered the “ultimate Modernist”. In her books such as Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927) she successfully developed Joyce's legacy: the stream of consciousness technique. Originally it is a psychological term coined by American psychologist and philosopher William James in his book The Principles of Psychology (1890) “to denote the flow of inner experiences. Now an almost indispensable term in literary criticism, it refers to that technique which seeks to depict the multitudinous thoughts and feelings which pass through the mind.”[2]

Although the author herself called the novel a biography it is not quite true. Being a modernist, Woolf broke the conventions of writing fiction and non-fiction in an exuberant way, parodying a series of genres including the traditional Victorian biographies that emphasize facts and truth in their subjects' lives. Conrad Aiken says: “There is thus an important element of ‘spoof' in Orlando: Mrs Woolf apparently wants us to know that she does not herself take the thing with the least seriousness-that she is pulling legs, keeping her tongue in her cheek, and winking, now and then, a quite shameless and enormous wink.”[3]

Earlier I stated that though its title suggests a biography, it is in fact a semi-biographical novel set in England (except for - if we consider that the novel begins during the reign of Elizabeth I and ends in 1928 - a fairly short period which the protagonist spends as an ambassador in Constantinople and then as a woman with the Gypsy clan). It is captivating even if one does not know about the background but I am convinced that it can be - to some extent - read as a roman à clef; in other words as faction, that is, a novel describing real life behind a facade of fiction. As Woolf herself said: „Every secret of a writer's soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works” therefore it is not only an inspiring literary work but probably the author's most accessible piece of art as well. Consequently, it is of great importance to me to reveal the connection between her personal life and the novel. I have another reason to dig deep into Woolf's biography - for which the reader may have to excuse me -: sheer curiosity of the life of such an extraordinary mind.

Orlando was half based on the life of Vita Sackville-West[4], a fellow English author and poet with whom Woolf met through the Bloomsbury Group[5]. As a triumph to this affair and the influence Sackville-West had on her life, Woolf presented her with the novel. As Sackville-West's son, Nigel Nicolson said, Orlando is "the longest and most charming love-letter in literature". In the novel Vita appears as Orlando (she was shifting between ever so many roles just like the protagonist), ‘The Oak Tree' a poem written by Orlando referring to Sackville-West's award-winning poem ‘The Land'; and Orlando's affair with Princess Sacha representing the relationship with Violet Trefusis[6] which had the most lasting effect on Sackville-West's personal life.

My idea is that Orlando is a revolutional experiment not only in a literary but in a figurative way as well, that is, to pick a human being and let this entity experience life wholly, as it is, to find its meaning but without the “side effects” of one's gender or the social conventions of one's generation by liberating it from the restraints of time and sex.

By these so-called side effects I mean that throughout history (and even nowadays) men and women were treated in a very different way therefore it wouldn't be half as interesting as it is if Orlando's sex would not change. When switching from male to female Orlando experienced both manly and womanly virtues, in other words: to see things from two very different angles, two angles that are both present in everyone, suggesting that male and female roles are not biological, but societal. Also, through his life we can trace how the meanings of masculinity and femininity had altered. Woolf said: „If we compare the picture of Orlando as a man with that of Orlando as a woman we shall see that though both are undoubtably one and the same person, there are certain changes. The man has his hand free to seize his sword, the woman must use hers to keep the satins from slipping from her shoulders. The man looks the world full in the face, as if it were made for his uses and fashioned to his liking. The woman takes a sidelong glance at it, full of subtlety, even of suspicion.”

She makes another statement on the topic: „Different though the sexes are, they inter-mix. 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.”

There are two perfect examples in the novel of the quote above: one is the first line in which Woolf writes „He — for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it — was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.”; and also when returning to England, Orlando learns that Archduchess Harriet is really a man: Archduke Harry. Although the change is different from Orlando's as the Archduke had always been a man, still he deceived Orlando with his appearance, that is, only the clothes kept the female likeness and underneath the sex was quite the opposite. Let me now share a personal experience on the topic: in 1992 there was a movie shot based on the novel, directed by Sally Potter and it starred artists such as Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane and Charlotte Valandrey. Queen Elizabeth's role was played by Quentin Crisp of whom I'd never heard until then. At first I found the name Quentin a bit strange for a woman but I watched the movie several times and I was content with that she really did look like an old woman. A few weeks later it occurred to me that I know nothing about her and when I looked her up on Wikipedia to my awful surprise I realized that she is actually a man.

By keeping the promise he made as a young man and living for over 300 years Orlando experiences the conventions - some as a man, some as a woman - of each century and of several cultures and so he - or she for that matter - is not under the influence of just one period of history but as he is introduced into each new age, he tries to fit into his new environment which after some time becomes oppressive to him, growing tired of changing himself to fit those around him and finally, when - as a female in the twentieth century - reaches maturity by becoming an independent mind, she resists conforming to society. As Orlando himself says: „Some we know to be dead even though they walk among us; some are not yet born though they go through all the forms of life; other are hundreds of years old though they call themselves thirty-six.”

In my opinion the wonderful thing about this literary experiment is that, so to speak, Woolf gave Orlando a chance “to look life in the face, always, to look life in the face, and to know it for what it last, to love it for what it is, and then to put it away” and not many authors grant their protagonists such gift. Although everything is going through essential changes there is something that remains a solid point throughout the novel: Orlando's affection for poetry and his own poem, The Oak Tree which is a record of his internal life and maturation - as Orlando's life is the record of the maturation of England.


Woolf, V. (1992). Orlando, Oxford University Press ISBN 978-0-19-953659-7

Cuddon, J.A. (1999). Dictionary of Literary Terms & Theory, Penguin Books ISBN-13: 978-0-140-51363-9

James, William (1890). The Principles of Psychology. Retrieved January 6, 2010 from

Lavender, C. (1997). Virginia Woolf, Orlando (1928): On Gender Bending. Retrieved November 27, 2009 from

Tetterton, K. (1995). Virginia Woolf's Orlando: The Book as Critic. Retrieved November 29, 2009 from

Virginia Woolf quotes. Retrieved January 5, 2010 from

What exactly is Modernism in literature? in The AnswerBank: art & literature. Retrieved January 6, 2010 from

SparkNotes: Orlando. Retrieved November 17, 2009 from

goodreads: Quotes by Virginia Woolf. Retrieved November 29, 2009 from

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: Virginia Woolf. Retrieved November 29, 2009 from

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: Vita Sackville-West. Retrieved November 29, 2009 from

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: Bloomsbury Group. Retrieved January 6, 2010 from

[1] Interestingly the publishing date is also the closing line of the novel.

[2] A.J. Cuddon, Dictionary of Literary Terms & Theory (Penguin Books, 1999), 866

[3] Robin Majumdar and Allen Mclaurin (ed.) , Virginia Woolf: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), 235

[4] Victoria Mary Sackville-West, The Hon Lady Nicolson, CH (9 March 1892 - 2 June 1962), best known for her novels The Edwardians (1930), All Passion Spent (1931) and her Hawthornden Prize-winning narrative poem The Land (1927)

[5] “The Bloomsbury Group or Bloomsbury Set was a group of writers, intellectuals and artists who held informal discussions in Bloomsbury throughout the 20th century. This English collective of friends and relatives lived, worked or studied near Bloomsbury in London during the first half of the twentieth century. Their work deeply influenced literature, aesthetics, criticism, and economics as well as modern attitudes towards feminism, pacifism, and sexuality.”

[6] Violet Trefusis née Keppel (6 June 1894 - 29 February 1972) was an English writer and socialite, daughter of courtesan Alice Keppel, a mistress of King Edward VII of the United Kingdom.