Jack Callil, Essay 1, Question 2


Throughout Virginia Woolf‟s fiction, there pervades a pursuit of, or an attempt to describe
and capture, the essence of life itself. At the turn of the twentieth century, Woolf was
immersed in a movement which was denouncing the era of realism and naturalism. Her
literature, which delved into the subjective consciousness of her characters – perhaps most
notably in Mrs. Dalloway – attempted to embody what she ventured to “call life”: the
“myriad impressions” marked by “innumerable atoms” upon the mind. (Modern Novels,
1919). During the peak of her success in 1928 she penned Orlando, which through in the
form of a „mock-biography‟, experimentally challenged restrictive conventions of the
literature imposed on her at the time. Within the realm of Orlando, concepts of gender, time
and history are played with and blurred. Despite the full title of her work being Orlando: A
Biography, it‟s reflexive satire on the genre and its fantastical elements are making a
mockery of the genre itself. In much the same way as Woolf liberates Orlando of the tired
literary conventions writers use to identify their characters - such as age and gender - Woolf
liberates the entire text from the grips of genre-classification. Her experimentation with
Orlando puzzled those who wished to departmentalise it, for at first glance it was a true
„biography‟, then a fictional work, but then once more gained pseudo-biographical
authenticity, when it became considered as a roman à clef on Woolf‟s friend and lover, Vita
Sackville-West. It‟s in this manner that Woolf challenges conventions, and takes a “writer‟s
holiday” with Orlando in her pursuit of the pith of life.

In her essay Modern Novels, Woolf defines her perceived disparity between popular
“materialists” writers and the emergence of „spiritualist” writers at the turn of the twentieth
century. For these materialist writers, or „realist‟ using a similar term, their aim is to create an
“epic world”, by incorporating a “comprehensive, encircling and inclusive” narrative.
Spiritualist or modernists, as Woolf is considered, steer away from this vein of literature;
instead, they create art which “does not try to be complete”, and does not consider the linear
nature of his text as being “definite” (Fokkema, 1983). These authors, Woolf argues, using
her example of James Joyce‟s Ulysses, vie to reveal the “innermost flickerings” of the human
brain, regardless of the “costs” it might have on how their work is regarded (Modern Novels,
1919). What these writers sacrifice, Woolf explains, are what the more conventional authors
“cling [to] for support”; they swarm to that which is “adventitious”: which is expected, so as
to retain the “coherence” of their work. In an epic work like Ulysses, she explains, its
prodigious size repels most readers, but for those who accomplish it, they find themselves
faced with an undeniable account of life itself - as Joyce perceived it - faced with myriad
facets of life which most literature “excludes and ignores” (Modern Novels, 1919).

Woolf articulates the necessity to move away from these “handrails” of materialist fiction, for
if “one were free” of such conventions, that there would be “no plot”, “little probability” and
that all characteristics of genre-based literature would dissolve beyond “separate
recognition”. For everywhere you look there is “cross-fertilisation” in literature, “overlap”
and “dissolving of divisions”; and, as Woolf conjectures through Orlando, readers shouldn‟t
think of a novel as a “fixed object”, but rather as “a process” (Roe & Sellers, 2000) It‟s
through her experiment in Orlando that Woolf exemplifies this perspective. Tired
conventions of gender, genre, time and history - of which many writers utilise to establish
their work– are discarded by Woolf.

As a pioneer of modernist fiction, Woolf attempts both to capture life in the way in which she
sees fit, while simultaneously illustrating how life cannot be departmentalised; literature must
record the “atoms as the fall”, regardless of how “disconnected and incoherent” the pattern
they leave may be (Modern Novels, 1919). It‟s in this vein that Woolf became one of the
most influential female British writers in the twentieth century. She was pivotal in the
modernist movement, as her and her modernist cohort denunciated the objective stylistics of
realism and naturalism, delving into the subjective experiences of their characters. For a
writer who invests such “enormous labour” in capturing the “solidity” of life in detailing the
very “last button” of their character‟s petticoat, will find their labour “misplaced” (Modern
Novels, 1919). The true essence of the character is lost in objective description, the subjective
consciousness ignored and life‟s truth pith “obscured” (Modern Novels, 1919).

From this perspective stems the motivation for Woolf to pen Orlando, a piece of fiction
which reflexively undermines the genre of biography it mockingly claims to be. When
considering the importance Woolf placed on capturing the subjective, internal consciousness
of characters, it‟s easy to comprehend her distain towards biography‟s tendency to
amalgamate one out of empirical evidence, observation and objective description. Woolf‟s
father, Leslie Stephen, contributed 327 lives – amounting to thousands of pages – to the
Dictionary of National Biography, and this intense devotion had an influence on how Woolf
perceived the genre. In her essay, The Art of Biography, she claims that despite being “bound
by the facts”, that the power in this is that “all” are available to a biographer, and that the art
lies in “sifting” through the irrelevant to find those which are “creative”, that “suggests” and
“engenders” the person it accounts for and, that truly, such facts create a world whose
authenticity is rivaled only by a scarce few “poets and novelists”. However, Woolf makes it
clear that these historical facts, unlike the ones of science, are “subject to opinion” and are
dependent upon “truth” of the biographer‟s vision. Furthermore, it is inevitable that when
empirical evidence lacks, the imaginative comes pouring in and it‟s then that the two entities
will “destroy each other”. Woolf touches upon this limitation of biography in Orlando
multiple times, such as at the beginning of Chapter 2 when the documented future of Orlando
is confessed to be “dark [and] mysterious”. That the “one simple duty” of a biographer plod
“methodically” along the “footprints of truth”, until they fall into the subjects grave and write
“finis” on their tombstone. But this diligence is inevitably going to be biased, as biographers
are not “impervious to societal influences”, and that they will “inevitably sway their
interpretations” (Wilson, 2008) It‟s by this Woolf exemplifies a biographer‟s disregard for a
lacking of truth for their subjects to which they claim to be objectively documenting. By this
statement in Chapter 2, the majority of Orlando is now considered as at the whim of the
biographer‟s imagination, blurring what truth is and isn‟t, simply letting “the reader make” of
the facts “what [they] may”.

Despite beginning Orlando jokingly, it‟s apparent that the novel became progressively more
serious to Woolf as the elements within it developed. Writing to Vita Sackville-West in
October 1927, she told her how she considered the stirrings of Orlando as something which
would “revolutionise biography overnight” (Letters, 429). This revolution is the
experimental, and equivocal nature of Orlando‟s genre being both biography and not. For
while the fantastical elements of time-travel and sex-changes deem the book a work of
fiction, Orlando is also considered a work representative of the personality of, and the
relationship Woolf had with, Vita Sackville-West. “It‟s all about you” she writes to Vita,
about the “lusts of your flesh” and the “lure of your mind” (Letters 3: 428-29, 430). Woolf‟s
“sapphist” relationship she had with Vita, a term defining the relationship not so much
homosexual, as it was an “emotional intimacy of minds and hearts” (Knopp, 1988) This
connection of selves between Woolf and Vita is reflected in her experimentation with gender
in Orlando. “He – for there could be no doubt of his sex” begins Orlando, but the biographer
to describe him in acutely feminine terms; he encompassed “shapely legs”, “peach-down”
cheeks and eyes like “drenched violets”. The most indicative of Woolf‟s experimentation
with gender is the mystical sex-change that Orlando undergoes mid-novel. Despite the
biological transformation, no anatomical details are mentioned, all the characters of the
biography are indifferent to it, and Orlando “remains precisely how he had been” - and thus
Woolf “normalises” something as dramatic as shifting gender (Wilson, 2008). This
exemplifies her conviction that the tired convention of gender shouldn‟t identify the character
(Orlando, 98), just the same as gender shouldn‟t define her intimate relationship with Vita

The distortion of time Woolf implements in Orlando further reflects her denouncement of
biography‟s claim of being able to capture someone‟s life and essence. The character Orlando
spans a time amounting to over 400 years, while only aging to thirty-six – of which over the
course of his „life‟, he has lived many different „lives‟. Woolf‟s experimentation with time
reflects that an individual has many lives, of which their identity develops with a multitude of
different facets. To attempt to define one, singular person is to detriment the very task of
biography itself, which is “the duty‟ to capture the truth, which if a biographer toils indelibly
through the observational facts, they will miss. It‟s by bringing a concrete restriction of time
in the fantastical, as well as other typical conventions, that Woolf can properly communicate
to her readers the authentic identity Orlando character, his subjective nature - devoid of
gender, place and time.