Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 900

One of the most prolific and influential modernist writers, Virginia Woolf wrote Orlando as a radically different response to the literary genre of biography. Her father, Leslie Stephen, had begun editing the massive Dictionary of Literary Biography when Woolf was born; in her diaries, she wrote that his serious immersion in that work had the effect of making her more clever but less stable. In Orlando, her response to the traditionally serious business of writing biographies, Woolf consciously uses exaggeration and fictitious sources to create the half-serious biography of a nonexistent person.

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The work is, however, based on the life of a real person. Vita Sackville-West, who came from an aristocratic family and was a writer and intellectual, was also Woolf’s friend and lover. Like Woolf, she and her husband, Harold Nicolson, belonged to the Bloomsbury Group, a loose association of English artists, writers, and intellectuals in the early twentieth century that included the economist John Maynard Keynes, the artists Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell (Woolf’s sister) and her husband Clive Bell, and another writer of a new kind of biography, Lytton Strachey, who wrote Eminent Victorians (1918). Strachey’s book departed from traditional biography by painting subjective and critical portraits of four representatives of the Victorian age: Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, and General Charles George Gordon. Strachey did not, however, cross the line into fiction, as Woolf does in Orlando. By doing so, Woolf tacitly acknowledges that any biography is necessarily subjective and biased and that it includes fictional elements although pretending to be factual. Woolf’s work, too, pretends to be factual while wildly violating facts of time and gender. By breaking with the traditions of biography, Woolf was also breaking with the tradition that was the basis of her father’s work.

Sackville-West had grown up in the ancient castle at Knole, which had belonged to her family for many centuries. Much of Woolf’s description of the young Orlando is based on what she knew of Sackville-West’s early life. The pseudobiography provides many parallels to her life, but because the character lives for more than three hundred years—Orlando is a sixteen-year-old boy in 1588 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth and a woman of thirty-six in 1928—Woolf at the same time describes the fictional character’s entire family heritage. In Orlando’s romantic involvements with various women and men, Woolf explores the attitudes and experiences of any two people involved in a physical and spiritual relationship; through Orlando’s gender-changing character, Woolf is able to examine how social roles and expectations are based on gender and in turn how these values affect personal attitudes and experiences. Orlando’s romantic life, based as it is on the relationship between Woolf and Sackville-West, illustrates a romance that existed in fact yet did not conform to the prescribed gender roles of Victorian society.

The gender switch from man to woman is an important aspect of this new kind of biography. Woolf wrote a fictional work that claims to be an actual biography as part of her analysis of how gender affects a person’s true biography. Woolf comments on this by showing how the character is treated differently in social and legal situations depending on his or her gender. These observations, disguised as fanciful biography, allow Woolf to deliver a social and political critique in a satirical form. While the work therefore mocks the contemporary seriousness of Victorian English literature and society, it resides firmly in the English literary tradition of satire represented by such writers as Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe.

Woolf also wrote serious social and political essays on gender inequality. Her most influential feminist work, A Room of One’s Own (1929), was written at the same time she was writing Orlando and is therefore often considered to be a companion piece to Orlando. Both works examine how gender affects literature, social roles, and financial opportunities, especially for women living in the strongly patriarchal Victorian society. In both works, Woolf elaborates on the set of values accepted by men and women and believed to be universal and genderless. She suggests that the accepted social and political norms are inherently masculine and patriarchal; in her 1938 essay Three Guineas, she elaborates on the different ways in which women, compared with men, would handle issues such as education and war.

Woolf’s portrait of her friend and lover Sackville-West has been described by Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, as the longest love letter in English literature. More important, Woolf continues in Orlando the rebellion against the standard forms of English literature on which she embarked in her earlier novels. She challenges female writers to create a different style, a “woman’s sentence” that will capture an androgynous picture of the world rather than the prevailing masculine one. Orlando is both part of Woolf’s long and articulate analysis of gender and a lighthearted argument in favor of androgyny, where a person, especially an artist, can be either “woman-manly” or “man-womanly.” The work has been difficult for readers and critics to categorize—as biography or fiction, as social criticism or fantasy—and has therefore perhaps not been as influential as Woolf’s other works. It continues, however, to challenge accepted notions of the role gender plays in literature and society, and it provides a whimsical look at gender inequality in recent English history.

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