Ireland is viewed as one of the most liberal countries in the world. It has been four years since the same-sex marriage referendum, and the Gender Recognition Act 2015, which allows all over 18 to legally self-declare their own gender identity, was signed. Abortion was also legalised in 2018. However, despite this ‘progressive’ recognition of human rights, many members of the LGBTQ+ community still experience discrimination and misunderstanding. For this reason, Virginia Woolf’s novel ‘Orlando’, is as relevant as ever.
‘Orlando’ was published over 90 years ago. It follows the story of the main character Orlando throughout three centuries, where he goes from being a man, to waking up one day being a woman. The novel touches the themes of feminism, gender identity, society, etc.
The Circular recently read the book and decided to curate a list of the top five reviews of ‘Orlando’.
1. Jeannette Winterson for The Guardian
Is Orlando the first English language trans novel? It is, yet in the most playful way. Orlando manages his transition with grace and a profound truth. On seeing himself as a herself for the first time in the mirror, she remarks: “Different sex. Same person.”
But the story of Woolf’s gender-fluid and superhuman heroine is about much more than a single individual. As a work of political satire and feminist fantasy, Orlando laid the groundwork for today’s cultural landscape, in which the boundaries of both gender and literary genre are more porous than ever. Through a protagonist who, over the course of several centuries, takes multiple lovers and writes reams of poetry in every possible style, Woolf makes a joyful case for the transgression of all limits on desire, curiosity, and knowledge. Yet at the same time, Orlando constantly runs up against the limits of that freedom, exposing the persistent vise-grip of patriarchy even on a character blessed with the privileges of wealth, beauty, and close-to-eternal youth. Woolf invites us to imagine what it would feel like to escape, and yet, over and over again, reminds us that we are trapped. When we talk today about the tantalising potential of a gender-agnostic society, of a world in which masculine and feminine traits are recognised for the performances that they are, or when we explore such possibilities in fiction and fantasy, we do so in Orlando’s shadow.
3. Adam Burgess for Literary Ladies Guide
He explores and enjoys sexual relations with women of varying types, though each of his three serious ventures into love soon goes sour. Orlando will twice mistake the loves of his life for the wrong gender, which is particularly complex after Orlando himself has become a woman, remembering himself as a man, loving a man who is actually a woman.
4. ‘The Daily’
Woolf used this change in genders to point out a number of feminist issues in the world. Orlando spends a lot of time thinking introspectively about the differences between men and women. It seems like all the things she lists however are societal issues, rather than chemical or physical differences. For example, in the fourth chapter she thinks about how her skirt, which she must wear now, for she is a lady and not a lord, would impede her from swimming. She also thinks about how men “debar [women] even from a knowledge of the alphabet.” When it comes to herself, however, she thinks many times that she is the same person, simply another sex, and decides to wear men’s clothing sometimes and in certain situations and women’s in other times and situations.
Yes, Orlando explores both gender and trans-gender themes, questioning what it means to be a man, a woman, or somewhere in between. In that way, Orlando is trans fiction. But no, Orlando – the character herself, or himself – doesn’t seem to identify as trans. He wasn’t unsatisfied with being a man, and she wasn’t unsatisfied with being a woman.
Here’s the trailer for the 1993 movie adaptation of Orlando: