Brain Pickings

How Virginia Woolf’s Orlando Subverted Censorship and Revolutionized the Politics of Lesbian Love in 1928

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A beautiful fusion of the tools of science fiction, the feats of feminism, and the polemics of homosexuality.

“Much preferring my own sex, as I do,” Virginia Woolf wrote in a letter to a friend in the 1920s, “[I] intend to cultivate women’s society entirely in the future. Men are all in the light always: with women you swim at once into the silent dusk.” As her exquisite love letters to and from Vita Sackville-West tell us, Woolf made good on her intention — but nowhere does her lesbian sensibility come more vibrantly alive than in her novel Orlando: A Biography (public library), published on October 11, 1928. A parodic fantasy-biography of a young hero who adventures across three centuries and changes genders, the novel is based on Vita’s life and work; her son, Nigel Nicholson, famously called it “the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which [Virginia] explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her.”

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Lisa Congdon for our Reconstructionists project. Click image for details.

In an essay on Orlando from the altogether fantastic 1997 anthology Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings (public library), Cornell’s Leslie Kathleen Hankins writes:

Orlando came out of the closet as a lesbian text in the 1970s and remains out as critics continue to discover and celebrate its subversive, pervasive, and persuasive lesbian strategies. The complex and witty lesbian text plays an elaborate game of hide and seek with the reader and the censor, teasing with taunts: “What can we suppose the women do when they seek out each other in society?”

More than anything, Hankins argues, the novel mocks “compulsory heterosexuality” and challenges homophobia in an age decades before common society would come to accept same-sex love and nearly a century before the law would. In this way, rather than making explicit statements about censorship like so many famous authors have done, Woolf chooses instead to tease and taunt the censor with her literary magic wand, which she uses, more than anything, as an empathic tool. Consider this seemingly simple, infinitely evocative passage:

As all Orlando’s loves had been women, now, through the culpable laggardry of the human frame to adapt itself to convention, though she herself was a woman, it was still a woman she loved; and if the consciousness of being of the same sex had any effect at all, it was to quicken and deepen those feelings which she had had as a man.

Hankins notes:

With this simple, understated passage, Woolf pulls a fast one on the censor, creating a radical text that enables readers to repudiate homophobia and experience lesbian desire.

Cover of the first edition of Orlando, 1928

But the novel, Hankins cautions, isn’t only a lesbian text — it is a lesbian feminist one, a combination that comes with its own singular rewards and “opens up fascinating networks of artistry and agency in the novel.” More than that, it bespeaks Woolf’s brave opposition to the era’s anti-feminist undercurrents of queer male culture. Hankins then revises Vita’s son’s famous proclamation and elaborates on the broader implications:

Throughout the novel, Woolf brings feminism squarely into the queer realm by confronting the sexually ambiguous protagonist with this/her own complicity in the misogynist sex/gender system and by encouraging a feminist conversion experience. … By tying lesbian erotics to feminist politics, Woolf seduces non-feminist lesbianism. We may reclaim Orlando as the longest and most charming lesbian feminist love letter in literature, recognizing its narrative strategies as specific responses to the heterosexist censorship and non-feminist gay and lesbian cultures of Woolf’s day.

The complex text of Orlando is a letter with multiple dueling addressees, addressed not only to Woolf’s “common reader” but lovingly to Vita (the lesbian lover), mockingly to the censor (intent on banning lesbian love), and polemically to straight, gay, and lesbian readers — and the tension between the addressees provides much of the wit, delight, and power of the novel.

To be sure, Woolf didn’t shy from engaging with the politics of censorship directly. When Radclyffe Hall’s seminal lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, released several months before Orlando, was challenged and Hall was put on trial for obscenity less than a month after Orlando’s release, Virginia was eager to testify in Hall’s defense and signed a petition — decades before Facebook had rendered those moot exercises in personal guilt-alleviation — on the deadly effects of censorship for writers. Her most powerful stance against censorship, however, was Orlando itself. Hankins writes:

Woolf’s lesbian signatures, messages, and strategies were shaped by the brooding presence of the censor, for no lesbian writer in 1928 was immune from the perils of censorship. … She lampoons the censors and censorship trials in her outrageous mock masque trial and sex change at the centerpiece of Orlando. … Placing Woolf’s strategies in Orlando within the censoring climate of her day reveals the text as both an accommodation to censorship and a profoundly witty and powerful critique of censorship.

In a strange and wonderful way, Orlando plays with possible realities and challenges social impossibilities in a way that science fiction so frequently and so deftly does, rendering Woolf’s novel an unsung masterpiece of the genre. Though Hankins doesn’t touch on this directly, she captures the essence of such a comparison beautifully:

In a brilliant rhetorical coup, Woolf chose to spotlight the various strategies for avoiding the censor, making these options and strategies the topic and the focal point of her book. Was it necessary to hide lesbian love? Well then, turn the novel into a rollicking game of hide and seek! Did censorship require that lesbian love be interrupted? Well, then turn the tables and make a game of interrupting heterosexual love throughout the book! Was a sex change necessary to provide the appropriate heterosexual coupling of boy girl boy girl? Well then, make the compulsory sex change the centerpiece of the novel! Turning compulsory heterosexuality into a carnival of Eros, Woolf toys with the options by using the sex change subversively rather than for protective coloration. She draws attention to the constructed nature of the sexuality and gender of her protagonist and torments the censor with daring suggestions of cross-sex desire — all the while demurely obeying the dictates of censorship. In cheeky defiance of the censor, Woolf complies with the letter of the law while outrageously demolishing the spirit of the law. Her deft targeting and teasing of the censor seems to me the most radical and daring choice because it renders farcical — and thereby critiques and disrupts — compulsory heterosexuality and censorship per se.

And yet, despite all its implications for feminist theory and lesbian history, Orlando remains, above all, a love letter. On the day of its publication, Vita received a package containing not only the printed book, but also Virginia’s original manuscript, bound specifically for her in Niger leather and engraved with her initials on the spine.

Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings is fantastic in its entirety — highly recommended.

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