Damini Kashyap

Virginia Woolf‘s novel Orlando comprises the fantasy biography of an English nobleman who survives numerous adventures, undergoes a mysterious sex change, and lives more than three centuries. The novel opens up in the Elizabethan era when the eponymous protagonist is sixteen years old. In the novel, decades mysteriously and swiftly pass as Orlando pursues his literary aspirations, is awarded a peerage, engages in an amorous affair with a Russian princess, and is named ambassador to Constantinople. After falling into a trance during a siege of that city in the seventeenth century, Orlando revives, transformed physically into a woman. Fleeing to England, Orlando engages in a legal battle to regain the property she had held as a man. In the eighteenth century she becomes acquainted with such prominent literary figures as Joseph Addison, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope. She marries in the nineteenth century and subsequently struggles to reconcile her desire to write with Victorian notions of feminine duty. The novel concludes in 1928 as Orlando publishes the poem she has been revising for more than three centuries, is reunited with her husband, and achieves a complete vision of life. This paper is based upon the study of the androgynous identity of the protagonist within the certain historical context and the author‘s satirical approach to biography and history writing of Victorian time.

When Coleridge claimed, over a century ago, that the great mind is androgynous; he had little awareness that this term and his concept would be focal points for a number of twentieth and twenty-first century critics, the most important of whom is Virginia Woolf. The term androgyny derives from the Latin: andr- meaning man and gyné, woman. Thus, the term androgyny can be understood as the combination of masculine and feminine characteristics.  According to the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary, to be androgynous means “having both male and female characteristics; looking neither strongly male nor strongly female”. This definition relates the term to someone’s outer or physical appearance. One can appear androgynous with the right type of clothes, or a certain kind of haircut, and the “androgynous look” has often been associated with trends and the fashion industry. Looking up androgynous in the Oxford English Dictionary online, however, gives us the definition: “uniting the (physical) characters of both sexes, at once male and female; hermaphrodite,” and further the Oxford English Dictionary defines androgyny as a “union of sexes in one individual; hermaphroditism” (OED online). The inclusion of hermaphroditism in these definitions indicates that they talk about a union of male and female at a biological level, which is the case of Cal/lie in Middlesex, but we may also read the definition to include the behaviour, personality, and thinking pattern of an individual, and it is this part of being androgynous which is the focus for the present work.

The ideas of thinking and, more importantly writing, androgynously is explored by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, where she writes that it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman – manly or man – womanly (Woolf, 2002: p.102).

Turning to Samuel Taylor Coleridge for ratification, she adds:

Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous. It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties. Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine, I thought. But it would be well to test what one meant by man-womanly, and conversely by woman-manly, by pausing and looking at a book or two.

Coleridge … meant, perhaps, that the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided. In fact one goes back to Shakespeare’s mind as the type of the androgynous, of the man-womanly mind… And if it be true that it is one of the tokens of the fully developed mind that it does not think specially or separately of sex, how much harder it is to attain that condition now than ever before… No age can ever have been as stridently sex-conscious as our own. (Woolf, 2002: p.94).

 When Woolf writes about androgyny, it involves more than being androgynous at a superficial level; she talks about the androgynous brain and the androgynous self, not just androgyny as a physical characteristic. She also upholds Shakespeare as one of the important examples of androgynous writing.
 To explain Woolf’s interest in the androgynous we must once again turn to her social, cultural and intellectual background. In Toward a Recognition of Androgyny, Carolyn G. Heilbrun describes the Bloomsbury group as the first example of an androgynous life style in practice; “for the first time a group existed in which masculinity and femininity were marvelously mixed in its members”(Heilbrun, 1993: p.118). Further she writes that the fusion within the Bloomsbury group, perhaps for the first time, of “masculinity” and “femininity” made possible the ascendancy of reason which excludes violence but not passion; Bloomsbury consciously rejected the Victorian stereotypes of “masculine” and “feminine” in favour of an androgynous ideal (Heilbrun, 1993: p.126).

Additionally, Woolf grew up in a time where science made rapid progress and knowledge and reason were increasingly valued in society. Prominent thinkers of Woolf’s time contributed to an environment where sex and gender were openly discussed. Names like Richard Von Krafft-Ebing, Edward Carpenter, Havelock Ellis, Otto Weininger and Sigmund Freud touched upon theories of androgyny: “a third sex in which masculine and feminine characteristics (drawn of course along the lines of biological essentialist binary thought) came together in a single body” (Wright, 2006: p.2).

In the introduction to Orlando, Sandra M. Gilbert quotes Havelock Ellis who, in his book The Psychology of Sex, wrote that we may not know exactly what sex is, but we do know that it is mutable, with the possibility of one sex being changed into the other sex, that its frontiers are often uncertain, and that there are many stages between a complete male and a complete female (Woolf, 2003: p.xviii).

That ideas like this were discussed in public was undoubtedly a contributing factor to the production, and largely positive reception, of Orlando. Virginia Woolf’s dear friend, and the person whom Orlando is dedicated to, Vita Sackville-West, also inspired Woolf to explore the concept of androgyny.

From the very first chapter of the novel, the features in Orlando are described as strangely androgynous. Orlando is beautiful. His red cheeks are covered with peach down, lips drawn back to reveal teeth of an exquisite and almond whiteness, an arrow- like nose, dark hair, and eyes drenched like violets. His handsome body is accentuated by his well-set shoulders and shapely legs. Although the narrator states that Orlando is a boy, his description is surprisingly feminine. In doing so, the author implies that his appearance crosses gender boundaries.

Woolf makes use of androgyny in opposition to fixed or rigid gender identities. Androgyny, being liberating, enables the author to express her standpoint towards the prejudiced and limiting opinion on both sexes. She states that men can also be emotional and weak, and women can be strong and sensible in reasoning. By employing history as a device, the author explores how attitude towards gender identities changes throughout centuries.

Apart from Orlando, androgyny is also observed in other characters. For example, Princess Sasha’s gender is questionable at first glance. She is ‘of middle height, very slender fashioned, in a tunic and trousers that disguise her sex.’ Also, the description of the Archduchess Harriet strangely does not resemble that of a woman. Orlando likened her to a ‘startled hare, a hare whose timidity is overcome by an immense and foolish audacity; a hare with bulging eyes; with ears erect but quivering, with nose, pointed, but twitching. This hare, moreover, was six feet high and wore a headdress into the bargain of some antiquated kind which made her look still taller.’

After portraying the androgynous identity of the major characters, Woolf than proceeds to satirize the genre of biography and history writing. She emphasizes that biographies are too concerned with irrelevant details and therefore, have a limited sphere of reality. Woolf attempted to "revolutionize" biographical writing—a genre in which her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, an author and historian, had achieved considerable success during the Victorian period. To elucidate her viewpoint on writing biographies, Woolf, completely broke away with the literary conventions of her time. She deliberately blurred the lines between fantasy and reality, as she herself states ― ‘Orlando should be truthful but fantastic.’ According to Woolf, as a biographer, it is the narrator’s duty to progress in a logical occurrence of events, referring simply to the facts, and letting the reader decide for himself what he will make of it. Here, the narrator claims to rely on documents and letters to bring the story together. But she regrets to inform the reader that this period of Orlando‘s life is dark and mysterious, without documents to describe exactly what happened at that time. At this point, she pokes fun at Victorian biographers (like her father) who think they are recounting the factual truth.

Questioning the reliability of history, Woolf also states that biographers and historians are unable to give truthful account of it at any time:

To give a truthful account of London society at that or indeed at any other time, is beyond the powers of the biographer or the historian. Only those who have little need of the truth, and no respect for it— the poets and the novelists—can be trusted to do it, for this is one of the cases where truth does not exist. Nothing exists. The whole thing is a miasma—a mirage (Woolf, 2003: p.94).

 Orlando finds the spirit of Victorian morality suffocating and oppressive. By employing certain imagery like ‘huge blackness’, ‘cloud’, ‘dark’, ‘doubt’, ‘confusion’, the author reflects her own emotions and frustrations. To exist as any sort of public figure, she needs a husband:

What a world we live in! What a world to be sure. Its complexities amazed her. It now seemed to her that the whole world was ringed with gold. She went in to dinner. Wedding rings abounded. She went to church. Wedding rings were everywhere.… she could feel herself poisoned through and through, and was forced at length to consider the most desperate of remedies, which was to yield completely and submissively to the spirit of the age, and take a husband (Woolf, 2003: p.176).

The feminist in Orlando rejects any such dependence on men. The relationship with Shelmerdine is the nearest that Orlando comes to finding love. They see only the best qualities in each other. Shelmerdine is ‘strange and subtle as a woman‘, while Orlando is ‘tolerant and free-spoken as a man.’ Despite the conventions of the age, their complex personalities defy to conform to the clearly divided gender roles. The author also employs irony to strengthen her satirical view on literati whose importance was overstated by their contemporaries. By making fun of those people who uphold the image of ‘men of genius’, Woolf produces great satiric comedy:

She shivered. But here again was darkness. Her illusion revived.―’How noble his brow is, she thought (mistaking a hump on a cushion for Mr. Pope‘s forehead in the darkness). What a weight of genius lives in it! What wit, wisdom and truth—what a wealth of all those jewels, indeed, for which people are ready to barter their lives! Yours is the only light that burns for ever.’(Woolf, 2003: p.100).

 However, when Orlando gets the opportunity to meet some of the great poets of the day, the truth she finds is startlingly different from what she has learned from reading history and poetry:  
It was happy for Orlando, though at first disappointing, that this should be so, for she now began to live much in the company of men of genius, yet after all they were not much different from other people. Addison, Pope, Swift, proved, she found, to be fond of tea. They collected little bits of coloured glass. Rank was not distasteful to them. Praise was delightful… At first, she was annoyed with herself for noticing such trifles, and kept a book in which to write down their memorable sayings, but the page remained empty (Woolf, 2003: p.102).

Orlando is constantly searching for the meaning of life, and a lover. Poetry serves as a means of expressing his love of nature, his worries, and the purpose of his existence. In every situation and adventure, Orlando carries with him the manuscript of his poem The Oak Tree.

The ferny path led, with many turns and windings, higher and higher to the oak tree, which stood at the top. The tree had grown bigger, sturdier and more knotted since she had known it, somewhere about the year 1588, but it was still in the prime of life. The little sharply frilled leaves were still fluttering thickly on its branches. Flinging herself on the ground she felt the bones of the tree running out like ribs from a spine this way and that beneath her. She liked to think that she was riding the back of the world. She liked to attach herself to something hard. As she flung herself down a little square book bound in red cloth fell from the breast of her leather jacket—her poem The Oak Tree  (Woolf, 2003: p.160).

 Poetry is not only an artistic release for Orlando; it functions as a record of his maturation and internal life. As he grows, his writing style changes. The completion of his poem signifies a personal maturity, or rather, a fulfilment of his vocation of life.

In Orlando, we can see an inexperienced poet growing up to maturity. She is a poet, who manages to combine all her selves and finally realizes the unity of her life in the present time. It can be inferred that Orlando, being a fantastic novel, depicts the author‘s view on how the concept of gender identity changes throughout centuries. By deliberately employing the concept of androgyny, she examines gender roles from both viewpoints. She asserts that gender roles are interchangeable which removes the difference between the two sexes. In doing so, she anticipates the work of critics like Judith Butler who dealt at length on the performative aspect of gender. She makes use of history to problematize the binary which has existed for centuries. On the other hand, Woolf‘s own comprehension of annals shows that history writing serves as a vehicle of discourse, and therefore, can be treated as an alterable and unreliable source of information.

  • J. Eugenides. Middlesex. London: Bloomsbury, 2002.  
  • C. G. Heilbrun. Towards a Recognition of Androgyny. New York: W.W.Norton and Company, 1993, P. 126.
  • V. Woolf. A Room of One’s Own. London: Penguin, 2002.
  • V. Woolf. Orlando: A Biography. London: Wordsworth Classics, 2003.
  • E. Wright. “Re-evaluating Woolf’s Androgynous Mind” in Postgraduate English 14 (2006), P. 2. 

About the author: The author is presently a Research Scholar in the Department of English and Foreign Languages, Tezpur University. Her interest areas include gender studies, critical theory, postcolonial writing and Indian-English literature. She has participated and presented papers in a number of national as well international conferences.

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