Love Letter to Virginia Woolf; or How Orlando Taught Me to Embrace My Femininity | The New Engagement

Love Letter to Virginia Woolf; or How Orlando Taught Me to Embrace My Femininity: Page 2 of 3

By Rachel Veroff
Love Letter to Virginia Woolf essay art

Orlando’s schism with the normal passage of days is analogous to how trauma affects memory and consciousness. After I was assaulted, I also experienced a distortion in how the hours passed. The kinds of thoughts that came to engross my days eclipsed my awareness of common, ordinary things. So when I read about how Orlando retreated from his social world, and how he lost interest in all his former pastimes—except those of reading and writing and pondering—I felt comforted to know that I was not alone in feeling this way:

But Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time (98).

The third change that takes a hold of Orlando is the most remarkable of all. He changes sex from man to woman. It is as if his intense desire for Sasha finally sublimates into a longing for the feminine experience itself. Overnight, Orlando’s pronoun switches from “he” to “she” like magic. She stays the same delightful character, but now, as the story unfolds, Orlando is free to experience (and marvel at) the full spectrum of sensations and impulses associated with the female gender. Everything that Orlando fails to understand about Sasha at the beginning of the book, she will now begin to learn.

In a way, Orlando’s trajectory is opposite of mine. When I first read the book, I had stopped wanting to be feminine. But with Orlando, I somehow learned to pick up the mantle again. The secrets of womanly existence that surprise and please her—as she discovers them—also surprised and pleased me. When Orlando encounters sexism for the first time, I, too, felt a sting of indignation, as if I had never quite noticed before how insidious and stifling these everyday social dynamics can be.

For example: on a return journey from Constantinople to England, Orlando is aboard a ship, the Enamoured Lady, when she lifts her newly acquired skirts and accidentally shows an inch or two of calf. The sight causes a sailor on the mast to lose his footing, and he nearly falls. Orlando remarks to herself how strange this is. She finds it odd that a woman’s beauty must be covered “lest a man fall from a mast­head,” and she cries, “A pox on them!” Thus, Orlando is introduced to “the sacred responsibilities of womanhood.” Meaning: a woman’s responsibility to cover her body (and silence her wit) when in the presence of men. And so Orlando grows inclined to solitude.

When I read these lines for the first time, I was sitting alone at a coffee shop in Crown Heights. I was wearing jeans and a frayed, too­big sweatshirt that covered not just my hands, but also, practically, my knees. I wore that sweatshirt almost every day that year. On that day, at least, I laughed so hard I almost spit out my coffee. I was injured; I was brittle. I’d never felt further away from understanding my own womanhood, and yet, here was Virginia Woolf, cracking jokes from across a century, about our “sacred responsibilities.” Today, still, this passage makes me smile:

And here it would seem 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. She was a feather blown on the gale (158).

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Orlando starts frequenting the notable intellectual circles of London. But here, again, she encounters sexism and disillusionment. As a lifelong admirer of poetry, Orlando worships the works of Pope, Swift and Addison, so she is disappointed to discover these old men are petty, condescending mansplainers in person (if only the word “mansplainer” had existed then!). When Mr. Pope jokes to her face, with his “tongue that flickers like a lizard’s,” that “women are but children of a larger growth,” Orlando receives the words with a polite curtsey. But privately, she feels “as if the little man had struck her.” This is how Orlando learns what it really feels like to have the tables turned, and also that poets are not heroes. Mr. Pope is not a wise man at all—not a deity, not a genius. He is only a self­satisfied old pervert.

It is risky for Woolf to write irreverently about a wealthy, white male poet who is as firmly planted in the canon as Alexander Pope. Her critique in Orlando is particularly sharp because it is not just about the misogyny that’s so rampant in London’s in­crowd. She also notes quite clearly how all the pomposity produces boring conversation. The self­masturbatory parlor talk of these old men is actively distasteful and off­putting. Their arrogance astonishes and hurts Orlando. At first, the lack of tolerance from these fashionable male writers appears to be at odds with the brilliance of their work. Until finally, in a carriage ride with Mr. Pope, Orlando looks at his grotesque fatness and realizes:

It must not be supposed that genius is constantly alight. Rather it resembles the lighthouse in its working, which sends one ray and then no more for a time; save that genius is much more capricious in its manifestations… to steer by its beams is therefore impossible (207).

In other words, Mr. Pope may have produced some very fine poetry in his day, but he is not himself enlightened or even very likeable. He is, after all, the author of such shockingly sexists texts as The Rape of the Lock and The Characters of Women. In Orlando, the fictional Mr. Pope practices many rough drafts of his cruelest verses from these poems on Orlando herself, and the lesson is clear as a bucket of water to the face: if you were taught to revere such “men of genius,” you have been misguided.

Frankly, I admire Woolf’s courage in depicting Britain’s literary establishment in such a critical light. In an era where women have almost no voice in the literary arts at all, Woolf’s scathing refusal to humor the emperor in his clothes is brave. I myself feel her bravery on a visceral level, because I (most women, in fact) have been condescended to by powerful men—at work and in artistic communities—on more than one occasion.

In the past, I lacked the wherewithal to see the insult for what it was. This is not because I wasn’t educated to take pride in myself and my opinions: I was. But perhaps, when I was younger, I was ill­equipped to deal with misogyny head on. I lacked the words to speak back against it—especially in the months following my assault I had (honestly) hardly enough air in my lungs to go on living. I certainly lacked the courage to think, “This person’s art surely suffers because of his short­sightedness and cruelty. His experience of life must suffer because of it, too.” This is something Orlando understands about Mr. Pope, and Pope’s literary entourage, immediately.

Good for her, I think, and at the same time, Poor Orlando! On the cusp of her artistic awakening, she is met not with a mentor, but with a lecherous “patron” who appalls her. So, yet again, she retreats from the noise of high society.

But Orlando loves being a woman. Everything in her that is day­dreamy, private, and affectionate finds a secret outlet in femininity. Unburdened from the manly impulse to take charge, Orlando is free to enjoy her own internal life. She retreats from politics and war with no regrets:

Better to be clothed with poverty and ignorance, which are the dark garments of the female sex; better be quit of martial ambition, the love of power, and all the other manly desires if so one can more fully enjoy the most exalted raptures known to the human spirit, which are… contemplation, solitude, love (160).

This is a stunningly beautiful revelation, which Orlando only comes to after oscillating through the many complexities of transgender experience. She does not want to conquer the world, and she does not want to be famous. She does not want to stand up at a podium and be the person who is right. She only wants to love and to live quietly in the world. For some reason, she could not do that as a man. For me, in the years following my assault, this has been one of the hardest lessons to learn.

At first, I think, there is a part of you that struggles to find the voice to articulate what happened to you. The story of the trauma becomes part of your narrative in the same way that scar tissue from a deep injury becomes part of your body. This itself is a triumph of resilience—the strength of your will to thrive. But then, you reach a moment when you stop wanting the arc of your narrative to be bent so harshly, or so loudly. You start to realize—when you tell the story of who you are (you are the author of your story)—that you do not always need to focus on this swollen lump of angry confusion. It will always be there, but it does not need to be front and center: as if it is only there to prove a point.

As time goes on, the swelling goes down, and the memory of hurt fades into ghosts. You are able to retreat into more tranquil parts of yourself, where the need to shout and scream—that you will conquer your demons, for example, or that you will come out successful in the end—sort of lose importance. In a world experienced in such a way (a profoundly feminine world), as conjured in the second half of Orlando, there is room for such quiet pleasures as contemplation—“the heart, the senses, magnanimity, charity, tolerance, kindness,” and especially small acts of self­love—to relax, gently, open: and expand.

One pleasure Orlando allows herself to indulge in is a certain vanity about her face and clothes. This is not a conceited vanity—she does not have a lover or even seem to want one. But she also does not balk when the Archduke tells her she is “loveliness incarnate.” And she is not averse to wearing materials like satin, even as women’s clothes are absolutely more constrictive to her movement. Orlando finds a style that suits her, and the colors in her wardrobe become a sort of end in themselves.

Some readers might think it is frivolous for Orlando to trade the vanity of high society for this new interest in skirts and corsets and personal beauty, but to do so would be to underestimate how much is at stake in her decision. Remember that since returning to England, Orlando has been embroiled in a lawsuit regarding her right to arbit her own estate. If the lawyers decide she is a woman, she could lose everything. And still, she goes around in dresses. In this light, the mere act of daring to admire herself in the mirror takes on a dangerous, political significance:

The difference between the sexes is, happily, one of great profundity, and clothes are but a symbol of something hid deep beneath. It is a change in Orlando herself that dictates her choice of women’s dress… And perhaps in this she is only expressing rather more openly than usual—openness indeed is the soul of her nature—something that happens to most people without being thus plainly expressed (188).

I am reminded here of a childhood neighbor of mine, a little boy who was adamant when he announced, at the age of seven, that he wanted to be Cinderella for Halloween. He took to clip­clopping around his house in high heels pilfered from his mother’s closet, and he played the piano better than any kid at school, too. At the time, I did not feel any strong opinion one way or the other about his desire to wear women’s clothes, but today, honestly, the memory brings a well of emotion to my throat. There is a little girl inside of me, still, too, that wants to prance around in pretty dresses! If only I were as brave today as my classmate was that year for Halloween. It takes a lot of courage to let yourself be happy, regardless of how the world looks at you—or nips at you—or worse.

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