On Woolf’s Orlando, Then & Today

"You mean y'all STILL confused about what gender is????"

“You mean y’all STILL confused about what gender is????”

One of my favourite books of all time is Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. In my opinion, it doesn’t really get half the attention or nearly as many accolades as it deserves – people seem to prefer The Waves, which came out soon after, for some reason. Maybe this is partly because Woolf herself didn’t take the book too seriously at first (she describes it in her diary as “an escapade after these serious poetic experimental books whose form is always so closely considered. I want to kick up my heels & be off.” – The Diary of Virginia Woolf Vol. III, p. 131). It is, by and large, a light-hearted novel – fantastical, fanciful, and blithe almost. But it is still profound, I think, in what it has to say about gender and society. And what it said then – in 1928 – is still (sadly!) so relevant to us today. Since today is Valentine’s Day, and also the day of the big One Billion Rising event, I thought it would be a nice time to write about Orlando – a tribute and a delineation, if you will, of a brilliant book.

When the novel begins Orlando is a young nobleman, and lives the grand and exciting life that only rich young man could. So far so good. Orlando is sent to Constantinople as an ambassador for King Charles II, and it is here – after a riotous party of some sort – that Orlando falls asleep, and when he wakes up… “he was a woman”. Simply put: no explanations needed or given, no attempt at justification. One day Orlando was a man, and the next day he was a woman (I love the syntactic awkwardness between pronoun & noun in this sentence…). The scene of Orlando’s transformation is bizarre in itself – three figures enter the room of the sleeping (still male) Orlando, the Lady of Modesty, the Lady of Chastity, and the Lady of Purity. Three things that still bedevil women everywhere (see E. J. Graff’s excellent post-Delhi piece on ‘Purity Culture‘).

But Woolf’s real brilliance in this book, I always feel, comes from her simplicity of expression – she says it, and she says it pithily, quickly, precisely. What does it mean for Orlando to wake up a woman one day?

Orlando had become a woman there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity.

Pause: analysis. The narrative device of having a man transform (bodily) into a woman is clever – it drives a rift between the self and the body. The body is sexed (as male or female, man or woman), but the self – “identity” – is not. This pretty much the mantra, after all, of feminists and gender equality activists everywhere today: gender is a social construct; our identities/selves have little, if anything, to do with our bodies (this is the great evil of ‘Essentialism’, though this lexicon was not available to Woolf in the 1920s). But Woolf’s Orlando exists, after all, in society – so never mind that Orlando’s ‘self’ remains fundamentally unchanged by this change of sex — (now) her future is irrevocably altered. For women and men cannot follow the same paths through life, not because they are ‘different’ in any identity-based sense, but simply because. Because society; because the world. The social critique is so quick, so parenthetical, that it’s almost easy to miss – but it’s there. And it’s brilliant.

My absolute favourite bit in Orlando comes, however, when after living outside Western civilisation on the hillsides of Turkey with some gipsies for a while, Orlando decides to return to England.  In narrative terms, Orlando moves from being outside society to society, and socialization. Until this moment, “it is a strange fact, but…she had scarcely given her sex a thought.” – again, again, subtly – Woolf suggests that gendered identity, even consciousness of one’s sex, is something foregrounded and enforced only by society, socialization, social mores… what you will. (‘Society’ here obviously refers to the Western one Orlando is returning to; my belief is that the interlude with the Turkish gipsies is meant to serve as a taste of what it would mean to exist outside of ‘society’, as it were.) Orlando dresses in women’s clothing (obviously), and boards a ship bound for England (the “Enamoured Lady” – already the construction of gender has begun!).

And because the few pages that follow are so wonderful, so breathtaking in their precision about what it means to be ‘gendered’ in and by society, I must reproduce them in full, with due apologies to Woolf, copyrights (if any), readers who don’t like long posts, etc.

…At any rate, it was not until she felt the coil of skirts about her legs and the Captain offered, with the greatest politeness, to have an awning spread for her on deck, that she realized with a start the penalties and the privileges of her position.

But that start was not of the kind that might have been expected. It was not caused, that is to say, simply and solely by the thought of her chastity and how she could preserve it. In normal circumstances a lovely young woman alone would have thought of nothing else; the whole edifice of female government is based on that foundation stone; chastity is their jewel, their centrepiece, which they run mad to protect, and die when ravished of. But if one has been a man for thirty years or so, and an Ambassador into the bargain, if one has held a Queen in one’s arms and one or two other ladies, if report be true, of less exalted rank, if one has married a Rosina Pepita, and so on, one does not perhaps give such a very great start about that. Orlando’s start was of a very complicated kind, and not to be summed up in a trice. …

(For Orlando’s experience of womanhood now is underlined and informed by his/her experience, previously, of manhood: s/he remembers the social freedoms (?), privileges etc. of being a man with those of being a woman now. Only, s/he soon realizes, that the demands made of women under the rubric of socially-appropriate ‘femininity’… are actually quite difficult, because women aren’t naturally like that at all. Orlando knows, because Orlando ‘inside’ is still the same Orlando who was a man. But I’ll let Woolf do the talking….)

‘But what used we young fellows in the cockpit of the “Marie Rose” to say about a woman who threw herself overboard for the pleasure of being rescued by a blue-jacket?’ she said. ‘We had a word for them. Ah! I have it…’ (But we must omit that word; it was disrespectful in the extreme and passing strange on a lady’s lips.) ‘Lord! Lord! she cried again at the conclusion of her thoughts, ‘must I then begin to respect the opinion of the other sex, however monstrous I think it? If I wear skirts, if I can’t swim, if I have to be rescued by a blue-jacket, by God!’ she cried, ‘I must!’ Upon which a gloom fell over her. Candid by nature, and averse to all kinds of equivocation, to tell lies bored her. It seemed to her a roundabout way of going to work. Yet, she reflected, the flowered paduasoy–the pleasure of being rescued by a blue-jacket–if these were only to be obtained by roundabout ways, roundabout one must go, she supposed. She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled. ‘Now I shall have to pay in my own person for those desires,’ she reflected; ‘for women are not (judging by my own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled by nature. They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline. There’s the hairdressing,’ she thought, ‘that alone will take an hour of my morning, there’s looking in the looking-glass, another hour; there’s staying and lacing; there’s washing and powdering; there’s changing from silk to lace and from lace to paduasoy; there’s being chaste year in year out…’ Here she tossed her foot impatiently, and showed an inch or two of calf. A sailor on the mast, who happened to look down at the moment, started so violently that he missed his footing and only saved himself by the skin of his teeth. ‘If the sight of my ankles means death to an honest fellow who, no doubt, has a wife and family to support, I must, in all humanity, keep them covered,’ Orlando thought. Yet her legs were among her chiefest beauties. And she fell to thinking what an odd pass we have come to when all a woman’s beauty has to be kept covered lest a sailor may fall from a mast-head. ‘A pox on them!’ she said, realizing for the first time what, in other circumstances, she would have been taught as a child, that is to say, the sacred responsibilities of womanhood.

I love, love, love this section in Orlando. So much of it still needs to be reiterated, time and again, today: “women are not…obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled by nature” – indeed, women are not anything by ‘nature’. There is only society, its demands, and “tedious discipline”. Having seen both sides of the coin, Orlando realises this now.

And further – the scene with the accidental display of ankles and skin! I could wax lyrical on this for the rest of my life. The past few months have shown us precisely what kind of views are held – all over the world, but my specific example is going to be India – by men and women alike on the matter of displaying skin. “…[T]he sight of my ankles means death to an honest fellow who, no doubt, has a wife and family to support [so] I must, in all humanity, keep them covered.” In another world and time and place, this same statement or injunction takes on a different form – “I must keep my legs covered” or “I must keep my arms covered, because to do otherwise would mean imprisonment or death for an honest fellow (no doubt, also with a wife and family to support), lest I tempt him into violent actions towards me.” Sacrificially, Orlando takes the responsibility for the sailor’s fall onto herself (today we call it, pithily, “victim-blaming”); sacrificially, today, women are being demanded to take the responsibility for violence towards them onto themselves. Woolf is satirizing, of course; pointing out how stupid it is that “humanity” is demanded of Orlando for the sailor’s stupidity. A lot of people realise how stupid it is that this sort of “humanity” is demanded of women today on the behalf of rapists, sexual abusers and assaulters. But thus it was – and thus it is, still, unfortunately all too often. 

And mincing out the words, she was horrified to perceive how low an opinion she was forming of the other sex, the manly, to which it had once been her pride to belong–‘To fall from a mast-head’, she thought, ‘because you see a woman’s ankles; to dress up like a Guy Fawkes and parade the streets, so that women may praise you; to deny a woman teaching lest she may laugh at you; to be the slave of the frailest chit in petticoats. and yet to go about as if you were the Lords of creation.–Heavens!’ she thought, ‘what fools they make of us–what fools we are!’ And here 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. The comforts of ignorance seemed utterly denied her.

It’s been about 85 years since Orlando was published; possibly a few more since Woolf began to write it. But it strikes me that we can still wring our hands with poor confused Orlando, empathize with him/her, and take Woolf’s story – and Orlando’s feelings – to heart. There is an important lesson here, but it remains (by and large) to be learned.


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