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Orlando: A Tale of Fury and Love

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) is a mock biography whose eponymous male protagonist becomes a woman. In fact, the novel is actually a retelling of her experience of being abandoned by her lover Vita and the subsequent emotional turmoil. By writing the novel, she turns her suffering into revenge against her former lover and creates a masterpiece that foresees modern theories on gender and links her forever with Vita. Virginia Woolf uses the revenge narrative to create a masterpiece that surpasses both her time and society and explores androgyny.

Orlando is a novel that features the adventures of a nobleman who undergoes a sex transformation as the plot unfolds. The author uses a real-life span by starting the novel in the reign of Elizabeth I and ending it in the 1920s when Woolf is in her forties. In the story, Orlando is brought to the court by the queen that has fallen in love with him. Despite being utterly flattered and spoiled, he betrays her and develops feelings towards a Russian princess, Sasha. Therefore, the queen sends him to Constantinople to serve as an ambassador. During his stay in Turkey, Orlando transitioned into a woman and goes to live with androgynous gypsies in the mountains until he finally decides to sail home. In England, Orlando continues to have several affairs until she marries Shelmerdine “who is also of questionable gender.” (Mcnamara, 2011, p. 621).

Figure 1. First Edition Cover.

With Orlando, Woolf created a masterpiece while “giving narrative voice to her fury.” (Mcnamara, 2011, p. 620). Woolf and Vita maintained a relationship while the latter constantly traveled back and forth to visit her husband in Persia. After several travels, Vita struck up a romantic relationship with Mary Campbell and decided to live with her and her husband on one of her properties. Woolf, who felt completely desperate and torn apart, came up with the idea of Orlando shortly after. The novel would thus become a fictional biography of her former lover, Vita. The novel is a masterpiece because it explores several matters, such as gender, love, and revenge. The story is full of binaries: biography/novel, feminine/masculine, and chaos/order (Mcnamara, 2011).

Sex change in the novel isn't an abrupt transformation from one state to another; it takes time. In the story, gender is a process linked to historical periods, institutions, and psychology. Therefore, Woolf is a precedent for French philosopher Michel Foucault who would also argue that gender is a matter of social customs (Caughie, 2013). Furthermore, the novel is a remarkable source of information for queer and modernist studies which reflects Woolf’s critique of social standards and generic rules of the biography (Micir, 2012). Nevertheless, for Woolf, sex transformation serves to make Orlando the Other. In her narration of betrayal, the author also wants to clarify that her lover is no longer the same and has become an elusive person. Abandonment is a psychological process in which the Other was unable to reciprocate or love the abandoned one. Such an event can mark a person in different ways and Woolf decided to embrace that feeling of betrayal and create a literary work. In addition, Woolf defends herself actively against her powerlessness and her rage by writing a fictional portrayal of her lover. Not only that, but she also ties herself forever with the woman that broke her heart because she produced a “permanent monument of revenge that is still in print in several editions.“ (Mcnamara, 2011, p. 623).

Figure 2 . Peter (A Young English Girl). Romaine Brooks. 1924.

Another relevant element of the novel is the presence of an Orientalist setting that is linked to Vita’s multiple travels to Persia. Apart from being a science fiction novel, Orlando is also an anti-imperialist satire that mocks the British Empire (Daileader, 2013). Both Woolf and Sackville-West were no strangers to racial complexity or ambiguity. Witnessing the prejudice/problems experienced by the people close to them, from relatives to close friends, both authors had the opportunity to be open-minded about the subject and, in the novel, the reader sees the “single racial identity dissolve, much in the way that Orlando’s gender-bending undermines a single gender identity.“(Vandivere, 2021, p. 101).

In this way, Orlando sometimes merges with both Vita and Woolf. Despite Orlando’s characterization as the latter, the author also identifies with him, because, in the end, she cannot bear the thought of Vita leaving or the other way around. For example, Vita embodies Orlando when meeting the queen and going to court. However, when falling in love with Sasha, Orlando is Woolf because the Russian princess betrays her. By portraying her and Vita together, Woolf could negate the fact she had been left and that her former lover had a completely different life apart from her. Moreover, by broadcasting her humiliation with a literary work, Woolf has been able to “reorganize herself emotionally through the process of creating a remarkable intellectual triumph.” (Mcnamara, 2011, p 640).

Figure 3. Vita Sackville-West. Philip Alexius de László. 1910.

In addition, Woolf dismantles heteronormativity by presenting a protagonist whose gender develops for 300 years. Orlando discovers that the social roles and differences between women and men are built and defined (Cohler, 2010). The story of Orlando finally ends in the 1920s when they marry another gender fluid individual, Sheldermine, and are able to live in equilibrium with both their female and male features. In this way, not only is Orlando dedicated to Vita because of the author’s fury but also because her “independent spirit inspired Woolf to explore the concepts of androgyny and bisexuality” (Moslehi & Niazi, 2016, p. 5).

In conclusion, Virginia Woolf uses the revenge narrative as an excuse to create a masterpiece that transcends both her time and society. The story is a precedent for many philosophical theories that would be later developed in the 1970s in the framework of postmodernism. For example, she lays the foundations of Michel Foucault’s outlook on gender and explores the role of women and men in society as social conventions. Nevertheless, Orlando is, among other things, a love letter to Vita Sackville-West which was also acknowledged by the latter’s son (Micir, 2012). Therefore, other than a groundbreaking exploration of gender and a literary masterpiece, the novel is also an expression of love that withstands the test of time.

Bibliographical References


Cohler, D. (2010). Citizen, invert, queer lesbianism and war in early twentieth-century Britain. University of Minnesota Press.

Daileader, C. R. C. (2013). OTHELLO'S SISTER: RACIAL HERMAPHRODITISM AND APPROPRIATION IN VIRGINIA WOOLF'S ORLANDO. Studies in the Novel, 45(1), 56-79. Retrieved from

Moslehi, M., & Niazi, N. (2016). A study of gender performativity in virginia woolf's orlando: A mocking biography. K@ta, 18(1), 1-7. doi:

McNamara, S.(2011). Seduction and Revenge in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 80(3), 619-641, doi: 10.1002/j.2167-4086.2011.tb00099.x

Vandivere, J. (2021). The bastard's contention: Race, property, and sexuality in virginia woolf's 0RW1S34RfeSDcfkexd09rT2orlando1RW1S34RfeSDcfkexd09rT2. Modernism/Modernity, 28(1), 91-116. Retrieved from

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Author Photo

Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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