Woolf described Orlando in her diary as “all a joke; and yet gay and quick reading I think; a writer’s holiday”. In the almost-century since then, we have come to value light and ease, the “gay” and the jokey, over the worthy and heavy. Our culture loves profundity in levity. Orlando helped usher in that change. Woolf showed that the complexities of our interior can be represented in the fantastical, eventful and playful, as well as by tortured stream of consciousness. Above everything – the gender play, the jokes about literature, love and death – this is a novel about living a good life. It’s about surviving, enduring, and evolving. A total joke!
Orlando, the hero of the novel, who persists across centuries and genders, was inspired by Woolf’s fellow author Vita Sackville-West. Virginia loved Vita. Vita’s son called it “the longest and most charming love letter in literature”. But isn’t it also a love letter to a life lived with passionate insouciance? Virginia struggled to stay alive. She loved that Vita didn’t. Orlando suffers, hurts, loves – but lives.
Orlando changed the way gender was represented: “The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity.” In our time, identity politics has freed many, but restricted others. Orlando was a he, then a she, but was always Orlando.
A tantalising question: “Is Orlando still alive?” Are they she, he, they? Do they embrace any label? Did they fight for liberation as a woman, as queer, as non-binary, as trans? Or does Orlando still simply, bemusedly, and beautifully, live? Survival as the ultimate testament.
Orlando is privileged. Orlando is often a fool. That’s a genius move. Because, close up, aren’t we all frail, fallible and fragile?
Of course, Orlando now looks like Tilda not Vita. For me, as a gender non-conforming skinny redhead, the Swinton-starring film from 1992 said: “You’re alright!” I didn’t imagine then that life was going to be so long; on it goes, glorious, with more heartbreak than you think you can stand, but somehow you do, and then it’s a different era, and another, and another.
For me, this “joke” is a pure nugget of wisdom about having a playful attitude towards one’s past. Giving it up, not repeating it. As a survivor of narcissistic abuse and sexual violence, this speaks very loudly to me. Letting the past lightly inform the present – to the extent that you find the bravery to let go in every moment you are lucky enough to be alive, so that you can dive into the next one.
Orlando bridges two divides: female and male, mortality and immortality. It urges me to live life with a skilful levity, and to hope. “I am about to understand,” Orlando thinks at the end of the book. Let’s try not to be overwhelmed by anything life throws at us; tragical, farcical, or magical. Because, surely, we are all about to understand.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill