Orlando by Virginia Woolf: Living out the male-female divide

I’ve known of this novel for years, always had a good impression about it, but it’s a treat at my age to discover a book this brilliant.  Orlando, the hero(ine) of the book, grows up as a boy and man, but in his/her thirties becomes a woman – or almost …

With this simple device, Virginia Woolf creates a deep and entertaining exploration of the differences between the genders.  For example, the newly-female Orlando misses a lot about manhood: “I shall never be able to crack a man over the head, or tell him he lies in his teeth, or draw my sword,…or prance down Whitehall on a charger…All I can do … is to pour out tea and ask my Lords how they like it.”

But she starts to enjoy the gallantry she now receives from men: “For nothing, she thought, …is more heavenly than to resist and to yield: to yield and to resist.”

After her change, Orlando enjoys the ability to switch between genders and savour the delights of both.  So we see her, of an evening, dressed as a nobleman, picking up a girl in Leicester Square: “To feel her hanging lightly yet like a suppliant on her arm, roused in Orlando all the feelings which become a man…Yet, having been so lately a woman herself, she suspected that the girl’s timidity…and the fold of her cloak and the drop of her wrist were all put on to gratify her masculinity.”

The writing style is extraordinary, and hard to sum up: hopefully some of it comes through in these quotes.  Virginia Woolf mixes genres with great daring and fluency: stretching time and space like a fairy story, yet with the depth of character and observation of a great modern novel.

Orlando explores the purpose of life, the character of different historical eras, and lots more.  But it’s the gender exploration which remains the most striking.  So here are a couple more gems to conclude:

“Different though the sexes are, they intermix.  In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness.”

“She was man; she was woman; she knew the secrets, shared the weaknesses of each…she pitted one sex against the other, and found each alternately full of the most deplorable infirmities…”.

Carl Jung believed that as men age, their feminine qualities become more significant, so there are some useful and decidedly challenging pointers here for Men Beyond 50!

Leave a Reply