Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is really a literary hybrid, easy to read but difficult to define. The writer called it a mock-biography because it allowed her greater expression of comic fantasy and showcased her ornate style of writing. The novel, however, is more than a biography because it blends the genre with fantasy, fiction, poetry, and allegory. It can also be viewed as an satire, a feminist tract, or a pleasant comic examination of English literature through metaphor. Despite its lightness of tone, Woolf intended the novel as an examination of the creative process, sexual identity and inequality, and the experience of psychological time.
No analysis of Orlando is considered complete or definitive without an understanding of her complex relationship with fellow writer Victoria (Vita) Sackville-West. Woolf and Sackville-West, an acknowledged bisexual, were intimate friends and lovers. They first met at a dinner party in December, 1922, but the affair was slow in developing and did not flourish until the years between 1925 and 1929. Initially, the much older Woolf was shy and both repelled and fascinated by Sackville-West’s nature. For Sackville-West, it was one of numerous lesbian affairs carried out in the 1920’s, but for the married Woolf, it was her first. In fact, the affair became Woolf’s grand passion and the inspiration for her writings, particularly Orlando, which reached a creative peak during this same period.
Orlando is dedicated to Sackville-West, the title character patterned closely after her. Orlando’s long-lived history is modeled after her four-centuries-old aristocratic heritage. Woolf’s information came from Sackville-West’s own published book, Knole and the Sackvilles (1922), a biography of her grand country estate. The author used her lover’s Elizabethan ancestor, Lord Thomas Brockhurst, as her model for the young Orlando. The male character’s feelings, attitudes, and literary inclinations belong to Sackville-West, however, and intensify when the gender transformation takes place.
Throughout the novel, Orlando is depicted as a sexually ambiguous figure, as though the character possesses both feminine and masculine attributes. Both Sackville-West and Orlando, for example, exhibit public transvestism. Other paral-lels between them abound, including personal details, exquisite legs, love of nature and animals, and attachment to heritage and home. Even Orlando’s struggle to re-tain her ancestral estates, to be taken away, solely because she is a woman, can be found in Sackville-West’s similar, but unsuccessful, attempt to keep her property. The names and personalities of several of the book’s characters can also be found in her ancestry.
The connection goes further. In the original 1928 edition, the book has a series of illustrations featuring Orlando, posed by Sackville-West. Yet Woolf’s portrait is not always flattering. Orlando is depicted as an inferior writer—after all, it takes the character more than four hundred years to get published—but Sackville-West was definitely a good one. Also, Orlando’s fickle nature probably serves as a reprimand. Still, in all, Woolf viewed the work as a public reconciliation of her own sexual duality and, more important, as a lover’s gift.
In Orlando, Woolf cleverly uses the biographical third-person narrator throughout. The stylistic technique allows for a detached perspective, freeing her “biographer” to comment fully with flights of fanciful description. Two such passages, frequently anthologized, are the Great Frost (adapted into an animated cartoon) during the Jacobean period, and the narrative at the inception of the Victorian age. Woolf speaks openly on the complexities found in the human personality, touching on creativity, androgyny, and immortality. At other times, her biographer is at odds with the artist, a struggle that the latter always wins. Woolf’s narrator, therefore, is a mask that can be dropped as the occasion warrants. The biographer-persona allows her to mock established evidence from biography, history, and eyewitness account. Woolf also attacks official biography as a genre even as she employs the device. The novel, for example, begins in mid-action and is focused on Orlando’s private thoughts and feelings. Woolf’s work did little to revitalize biography but did much to break ground for imaginative writing.