Orlando (1928)

by Virginia Woolf

Almost a century before gender fluidity became a subject of widespread discussion, Virginia Woolf created a character who was born male and mysteriously transforms to female — initially without much angst.

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

But while Orlando still feels much the same, she (Woolf soon switches to female pronouns) finds that society doesn't treat her the same. As a woman, she is not supposed to inherit her ancestral estate and has to wage a legal fight for it. Men hardly listen to her. Women's clothing restricts her movement.

Gender is not the only barrier Orlando transcends in this inventive novel. Orlando also lives for centuries, from the Elizabethan era to the early 20th century, hardly aging. The timespan allows Woolf to contrast the spirit of different eras, characterizing her own time as chilly, constricting, and bound by convention.

Woolf's lover Vita Sackville-West, a writer who had affairs with men and women and sometimes dressed in men's clothing, was her model for Orlando. The narrator purports to be Orlando's biographer, and the book includes photos of Sackville-West and even an index.

Orlando is still read today as a feminist work that was far ahead of its time in terms of gender politics.


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