Virginia Woolf.
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Shape shifter: The joyous transgressions of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

A book that refuses all constraints: historical, fantastical, metaphysical, sociological.

Yesterday morning I was in despair... I couldn’t screw a word from me; and at last dropped my head in my hands: dipped my pen in the ink, and wrote these words, as if automatically, on a clean sheet: Orlando: a Biography . . . [I]t sprung upon me how I could revolutionise biography in a night...

Virginia Woolf to Vita Sackville-West, 9 October 1927

It was playful and bold to write a novel as though it were a biography, and to call a fiction a life, and to invent that life around a woman the author was in love with, and to stretch her over 400 years, like a body freed from the problems of gravity.

In Orlando (1928), Virginia Woolf did away with the usual co-ordinates of biography and set off through time as though it were an element, not a dimension. The story is simple: Orlando is a young nobleman, aged 16, in the reign of Elizabeth I. After a series of adventures and disappointments in love and life and poetry, he takes an appointment as the British ambassador in Constantinople. Aged 30, he wakes up one morning from a week-long dead sleep to find that he is now a woman. Orlando returns to England and discovers that it changes as centuries pass but he, or rather she, continues as before.

Woolf wrote the book at top speed, scarcely pausing, as Orlando scarcely pauses as he races through 400 years. On 11 October 1928 – the last day in the novel – Orlando has reached the age of 36: “The true length of a person’s life, whatever the Dictionary of National Biography may say, is always a matter of dispute.” This is a poke at Woolf’s father, Sir Leslie Stephen, the great and erudite editor of the DNB. The Victorians loved dates and facts, especially dates and facts in order – theirs was the age of classification, of tax - onomy, of the museum, the geographical society, the butterfly net. The pinned wings or the shot and stuffed head are symbols of Victorian England. The Dictionary of National Biography, where the great and the good could be safely pinned and stuffed, was, to Woolf, part of the monstrous edifice of the 19th century that 20th-century creativity needed to overthrow.

As Orlando enters the 19th century she notices, to her dismay, “widow’s weeds and bridal veils . . . crystal palaces, bassinettes, military helmets, memorial wreaths, trousers, whiskers, wedding cakes, cannon, Christmas trees, telescopes, extinct monsters, globes, maps, elephants, and mathematical instruments”. In one of the funniest passages in the novel, Orlando suffers a kind of self-generated electric shock treatment as her left hand takes to convulsing spontaneously. She realises that it is because she is not wearing a wedding ring. She rushes out and finds a husband, and thus subsides the censorious somatic symptom of an age where every woman must be classified as virgin, wife or widow. And male or female.

Woolf was born in 1882. She grew up as a Victorian. Gender roles were strictly observed in society and at her London home in Hyde Park Gate. Her brother Thoby went to Cambridge; Virginia and her sister Vanessa were educated at home. The social doctrine they were raised on was that of “separate spheres” – woman in the home, man in the world – and it was still going strong when Woolf published Orlando, in the year that all female British citizens over 21 finally got the vote.

But Woolf believed that the creative mind is androgynous. She was an expert in Elizabethan literature. She loved both the scope and the certainty of the Renaissance mind. Shakespeare, writing his sonnets to boys and women with equal passion, understanding the manliness of a soldier, the intensity of a nun, seemed to her to be a sign of what we all might be – bigger, wider, freed from convention and hypocrisy.

Woolf met Vita Sackville-West in 1922. Sackville-West was an English aristocrat brought up at Knole in Kent. As a woman, she could not inherit the ancestral home. Woolf, who had fallen in love with Sackville- West’s past as much as her person, found that the family portraits, ancient relics and priceless objects that filled Knole filled her imagination. But Orlando is more than a fantasy or a historical novel; it is highly political. Orlando is a savage satire on sexism.

When Orlando becomes a woman, Knole and all his/her affairs are put into chancery, because a woman cannot be a duke, and a woman cannot be an ambassador to the Turks, and a woman cannot inherit one of the finest houses in England. But a woman can crossdress. Once Orlando becomes Lady Orlando, he must make his skirmishes across gender by dressing up. This he does frequently, in order to meet with life outside drawing rooms and carriages.

Sackville-West often dressed as a man and had affairs with other women in her disguise as “Julian”. She had an affair with Virginia Woolf as herself, and although both women were married the passion between them was real – this is clear from their letters. On Woolf’s side it was deeper while it lasted, because Woolf was deeper, and Sackville- West was an unrepentant flirt. But whatever happened between them affected Woolf’s imagination as well as her heart.

Orlando, written as a romp, a love letter, a gay book in every sense of the word, turned out to be the engine of an exploding freedom in her style. Writing Orlando did Woolf good. Begun as a gift to Sackville-West it became a gift to herself. It is the most joyful of her books. Woolf’s mind was always first-rate, but when she came to write her next book, A Room of One’s Own (1929), she carried across the full-heartedness of Orlando. A Room of One’s Ownis a masterpiece because it is more than a polemic; when she writes about women, about men, about the interplay of the mind, about creativity – above all, about writing – all her thoughts are steeped in feeling. The tract is much more than an argument; it is a passion for life as it could be lived.

Sackville-West, who was not a great writer or a deep thinker, and certainly not a faithful lover, released something in Woolf – something that had been pressing at the bars since Mrs Dalloway (1925). The quality of mind that Woolf (following Coleridge) called “androgyny” is really an adventure of the spirit (think Emily Dickinson). Sackville-West, for all her evening suits and ancestors, did not possess that quality of mind or that adventure of spirit, but she did have a full sexuality and a body to match. It is as though Sackville- West became Woolf’s blood supply for a while. Woolf was never a physical person; with Vita she found herself to be a woman – rather in the way that Orlando does. Sackville- West, all body, allowed Woolf to live in her own body.

It is an entertaining thought to remember that Orlando, all sex-change, cross-dressing and transgressive desire, appeared in the same year as Radclyffe Hall’s sapphic romance The Well of Loneliness. The two novels are different solar systems. The Well is gloomy, beaten, defensive, where women who love women have only suffering and misunderstanding in their lonely lives. The theme is as depressing as the writing, which is terrible. Orlando is a joyful and passionate declaration of love as life, regardless of gender. The Well was banned and declared obscene. Orlando became a bestseller.

Woolf’s wit, her writing, her audacity, smuggled across the borders of propriety the most outrageous contraband. Many of the photographs included in the first edition of Orlando were of Sackville-West. I am still not sure how Woolf got away with all this, but she did.

The exhilaration of the writing has a lot to do with it. It is hard not to fall in love with this book. The writing has a lovely physicality to it. Woolf is always an exquisite detailer but in Orlando the writing is earthed differently. There is something unprotected, even as it is fully conscious. There is a smell of soil, a wave of bilge, the turf is spongy, the rooks hoarse. The unprotected feel of the writing is about speed and energy. Some of that energy is sexual: “Flinging herself on the ground, she felt the bones of the tree running out like ribs from a spine this way and that beneath her. She liked to think that she was riding the back of the world. She liked to attach herself to something hard.”

When Woolf thought about writing she concluded that poets proceed by leaving everything out. The novelist proceeds by piling everything in. How could she both pile in and leave out? Orlando is more cluttered than any of her other novels. At the same time, because she is Virginia Woolf, this pell-mell fling of a book is anti-clutter, anti-collecting, and we find as we read that all these collectables are playthings and chimeras. She vanishes them away in an instant. Centuries pass, the rules of time are ignored, physical boundaries do not matter, even the shabby poet Nick Greene, who insulted Orlando as a young man, is met with again as a fashionable London critic of the Victorian age.

Woolf’s sense of this tremendous freedom of existence clusters in a moment near the end of the novel. The lady Orlando is by the Serpentine watching the toy boats. She has lunched with Nick Greene. She has ordered books from a bookseller – a great novelty for one born in the age of ink-stained manuscripts. She stands at the water’s edge:

It’s something useless, sudden, violent; something that costs a life; red, blue, purple; a spirit; a splash; like those hyacinths (she was passing a fine bed of them); free from taint, dependence, soilure of humanity or care for one’s kind; something rash, ridiculous... ecstasy...

And we are back with the boy Orlando racing through the rooms at Knole, late for the great queen, sinking upon his knees under a hand “attached to an old body that smelt like a cupboard in which furs are kept in camphor”.

We live in a speeded-up world, where finding 400 minutes, let alone 400 years, is difficult to do. Yet, as Woolf observes, time is there for us if we know how to take it. Reading is one way of taking time. It takes time to read but time is not lost that way; it is found.

Orlando refuses all constraints: historical, fantastical, metaphysical, sociological. Ageing is irrelevant. Gender is irrelevant. Time is irrelevant. It is as though we could live as we always wanted to; disappointments, difficulties, sorrow, love, children, lovers, nothing to be avoided, everything to be claimed. Not locked. Not limited. Ecstasy. Reading Orlando is a pleasure. It is like sitting up all night by the fire with an old friend and a bottle of wine, where the talk is easy, whether of great things or small, and when, as morning comes, you feel better.

This is an edited extract from Jeanette Winterson’s introduction to the new Folio Society edition of Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando”, available from at £27.95

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood