All this discussion of sex and gender, though, is only setting the stage for what’s really going on inside Orlando. At heart, she is a pure and sentimental spirit—an artist in the making. We know this from the first page of the book. As a young boy, Orlando wants to be a poet. Of course, his first attempts are laughably bad. As a young man he goes to Turkey, presumably to “find himself,” a kind of journey that is common for any aspiring artist to make. What he finds is that he really is a woman, so there is all of that to contend with. But then. Then: the whole poet’s arc comes full circle. Orlando is an artist. As it turns out, she is a very good one.
It is the fact that her maturation as a poet takes so long that really intrigues me. First, Orlando must overcome the growing pains of adolescence. Then she needs to transcend gender. Next she spends the next few centuries laboring over her manuscript, which she carries in the bosom of her dress and calls The Oak Tree. I can’t help but feel a pang of jealousy here: if Orlando gets 300 years to mull and worry and edit and reedit her best work of art, what chance do I stand? At the same time, I identify with her long, slow and careful process. I identify with it so much, in fact, that for a long time I could not describe my feelings about this with much more than an exclamation point. Orlando, to me, is more than just a book of transformation. It is also a meditation into creative spirit itself.
The reason we make art, some people say, is to express emotions that cannot be expressed otherwise. If this is true, it makes sense that a person with complex life experiences will have more depths to plumb when mixing her color palettes. Woolf, who survived the death of her mother at an early age, followed by the death of her halfsister and then her stepmother (in addition to the previouslymentioned sexual abuse), who was bisexual, who suffered bouts of mental illness that were undoubtedly as terrifying as her bouts of creative output—which eventually led to her suicide—Virginia Fucking Woolf, whose mastery of the craft of fiction is practically unparallelled: the woman had emotions. And if Orlando offers us anything in terms of guidance along the artist’s path, it is that many of the elements—joy, loss, grief, memory, regret, love—cannot be separated. They cannot be separated at all.
On the twoyear anniversary of my assault, I decided to write this essay. It has been a difficult essay to write. But I have been inspired, every step of the way, by Orlando’s courage in moving forward in her own manuscript, even as troubles haunt her past. Sometimes I get stopped in my tracks, pinned down by strange doubts like: Maybe he would have stopped, if only… if only I had protested more. Or: Surely, it was a misunderstanding. Sometimes I get transfixed by thoughts I never used to have. Often, I think about giving up. I go through monthlong stretches at a time where I struggle, really wrestle with myself about the value in continuing. Then I push myself to take just one more step. There are reasons to go on. For instance, I have found solace in art, and inspiration in my friendships with other women.
Orlando does, too, for that matter. Late one night, while strolling her reveries through Leicester Square in London, Orlando befriends a lowly prostitute named Nell. Nell has a streeturchin way of speaking, which is crude and lively and wickedly amusing. Orlando enjoys Nell’s conversation so much, in fact, that she starts to spend time with all the prostitutes. After the stuffy, pretentious sneers of the established poets, Orlando is grateful to find herself in the company of women. Here, she finds merriment, courage, and genuine friendliness:
These poor creatures, she ascertained, had a society of their own. They would draw round the Punch bowl, and each would tell the story of the adventures that had landed her in her present way of life… Many were the fine tales they told and many the amusing observations they made, for it cannot be denied that when women get together—but hist—they are always careful to see that the doors are shut… All they desire is—but hist again—is that not a man’s step on the stair?… “Women have no desires at all!” says the gentleman coming into Nell’s parlour (219).
This passage, too, made me laugh out loud. The image of a group of bawdy, rosycheeked girls just waiting for the men to leave so they can be more comfortable rings with hilarity and truth. Orlando has sought high and low for these fellow lovers of life, fellow survivors, makersdo, revelers—fellow storytellers—and now she finds them at last in London’s moral riff raff.
Perhaps what she was looking for the whole time was just other womenfolk to talk to. To me, this passage reads like an enormous sigh of relief—an exhausted, joyful dropping of baggage at the door: “Thank goodness, I am not alone in the world!”
Today, we have the Bechdel Test to measure whether a work of fiction meets this standard: whether two women in a movie ever talk to each other about something other than a man. Sadly, only half of all films today pass the test. Sadly: we live in a country where a selfproclaimed sexual predator and misogynist is president. But the Bechdel Test persists as a helpful exercise in thought, especially for emerging women artists, who know how much the next generation stands to gain from being exposed to a wider diversity of voices. Woolf herself wrote and thought a lot about how to empower future women writers. Her iconic essay, A Room of One’s Own, is devoted to the question. It is therefore not surprising to note that the Bechdel Test is based largely on her writings.
At the same time, Woolf was not a manhater, and neither is Orlando. In the novel, as the 19th century draws to a close, Orlando actually falls in love. This part of the story is as brilliant and fleeting as a thunderbolt. It is so perfect that I would be dawdling if I lingered longer than necessary, in this essay, on Orlando’s love affair with Shelmerdine. I only want to point out that one of the book’s truest lessons can be found here: it is the lesson of selfless love. Remember that as a boy, Orlando’s passion for the princess Sasha is onesided and objectifying. Immaturely,
Orlando writes a million silly sonnets, trying to describe—trying to define, to capture—Sasha. But now, towards the end of the book, Orlando has lived enough life experiences to be able to share a more nuanced and transcendent kind of love—one where language hardly plays a role at all:
It has come about… that our modern spirit can almost dispense with language; the commonest expressions do, since no expressions do… For which reason we leave a great blank here, which must be taken to indicate that the space is filled to repletion (253).
Instead of “talking,” Orlando and Shelmerdine spend a lot of their time together simply “understanding.” Or, you know, doing the other things that lovers do. The chuckle here would seem to be that their intimacy is so thunderously selfcomplete, we cannot even make space for it in a book that spans 300 years. Orlando’s man (Shelmerdine is actually a transgender sailor who presents as a man) satisfies her so completely, that there is not much more to say about it. Love imbues Orlando with a luminous, uplifting halo of happiness, which stays with her for the rest of the book. Even after Shel leaves—called away by the wind to his next sailing adventure—Orlando retains this buoyant quality of love.
Is this the kind of love story that I wanted to read about? I could not say. It is so brief; and yet, very beautiful. It is not a “happily ever after” kind of story, where both people stop adventuring and then grow fat and piddling together. But it is the sort of story that has the power to thaw your heart—if your heart happens to have been frozen over, or stomped on a little bit—or run ragged from always churning back and forth, back and forth forever. Somewhere between the loud “showing off” of society and the peacefulness of nature, somewhere between England and the Middle East, between past and present, thought and living, man and woman—Orlando finally finds a moment of rest from all her solitary roving. Just a moment though, of course, because she is a writer.
There is an idea you will sometimes hear bandied about by popular critics, which is that when a woman marries, she must choose between her husband and her writing (and God forbid she try to maintain a career with children). I would never presume to say how a woman should or can balance these questions in her life—certainly, as we advance into the 21st century, we are seeing more examples of arrangements that work for different types of people. Woolf’s own marriage was by all accounts a happy and productive one. Leonard Woolf was a political theorist and a great supporter of Virginia’s work. (Actually, they were unusually progressive: Virginia had another lover, the writer Vita SackvilleWest, whose life was the inspiration for Orlando.) But still, the conventional doubt persists: a woman could not possibly do both the deep emotional labor of creating art, while still investing the same in her family:
Orlando had her doubts. She was married, true; but if one’s husband was always sailing round Cape Horn, was it marriage?... If one liked other people, was it marriage? And if one still wished, more than anything in the whole world, to write poetry, was it marriage? She had her doubts (264).
For Orlando, at least, love is not the final resting point. Her entire essence has clarified into this: one final, upward push along her journey. She has one more plateau to transcend, and that is the plateau of finishing her great creative work—her manuscript, The Oak Tree. So finally, she sits down and she writes: “she writes, she writes.” Some days she just sits, perfectly still in her chair for hours. Other days, she is “incandescent,” convinced that she is not writing with her fingers, but with her whole person; that the nerve which controls her pen—“threads the heart, pierces the liver”—has wound itself around every fiber of her being. I am delighted to recognize many of my own secret writerly habits described here, in Orlando’s flurry of deep thought and creativity.
The day Orlando hands her manuscript over to a publisher she wanders around London—almost in a daze. She wanders like this until one day in 1928 when, while shopping for bed linens, she has an epiphany of self. It is so startling and clear that I think every young person grappling with sexual identity should read this passage about self. I am not able to summarize the epiphany here except to say that it spans the last several pages to the end, and it is such an impressive, riveting, humorous, terrifying flight of prose that I recommend you read the whole book from front to cover immediately—if only to admire these final pages. In them, Orlando manages to consider every memory and every aspect of her whole life, all the people she encountered and how beautiful it all was. She is astonished, proud, humbled—and she is alone (but never lonely). That is the end of the book. It is exquisite.
When I finished Orlando for the first time, I was so moved that I could not even begin to talk about all the sentiments it filled me with until much later. Woolf—who is no longer living in the world—had managed to teach me something about love, and something about healing, and all the ways in which it is possible to love oneself and life. I have meditated on this book for so long now, I like to think that I have alchemized it into my being, too. And that is how I am able to give this essay to you.