Saturday, October 31, 2009

A New Sex Gives New Perspective

(Orlando as a woman in Sally Potter's filmic interpretation of Virginia Woolf's novel)

In “Orlando: A Biography” (1928) Virginia Woolf gives us a revisionist romp through English literary history, satirically engaging with the spirit of each age from 1585 to 1928. After reading Woolf's “A Room of One's Own” (1929) just a few months ago, I can now detect a feminist dialogue between both of these works that were published just one year apart.

Orlando is a man until the age of thirty when he awakes as a woman in the seventeenth century. With this in mind I hope you'll forgive the rapid oscillation between gendered pronouns in the following. You see, Orlando as a young man had "insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled by nature" (141). Yet after he awakes as a woman, making a complicated start with "plaguy" petticoats (137), Orlando then reflects on how she will have to pay for her previous demands on women. Only now does she realise that "women are not (judging by her own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, and scented ... by nature, they can only attain these graces by the most tedious discipline" (141). When compared to the kind of feminist polemic found in Mary Wollstonecraft's "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" (for the benighted check this), you can see how the figure of Orlando offers us a deeper insight into historical construction of the feminine. Orlando's swift change of sex is a much more imaginative, thereby more effective, way to access the kind of deflation (horror?) a seventeenth-century woman would feel when suddenly sentenced to life as a tea-pourer.

Echoes of Enlightenment feminism are in abundance here as Orlando realises just how "ignorant and poor” women are when “compared with the other sex." Men "debar [women] even from a knowledge of the alphabet" (143). The humour of Orlando's predicament also helps Woolf's cause, as we see the effect a woman's exposed calf can have on an observing sailor who stumbles so violently that he misses his footing, only "saving himself by the skin of his teeth" (141). Today it is laughable that the sight of an ankle could cause such a fuss, but this scene is set during a time when women directed all effort toward preservation of their chastity. Only after laughter subsides can we reflect on the role chastity played in the social government of women during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was the foundation stone of female subjugation.

(Virginia Woolf)

A similar use of gender shifting is found in Woolf’s fictional creation of Shakespeare’s sister (Judith) in “A Room of One’s Own”. In this later work, Woolf suggests that “it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare” (48). To prove her point, she imagines a Judith Shakespeare, and takes a deeper look at this hypothetical life. You see Judith “was not sent to school, she had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone reading Horace and Virgil” (49). She may have “picked up a book every now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages, but then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew, and not moon about with books and papers” (49). Like the historical Shakespeare, our hypothetical Judith Shakespeare “had a taste for the theatre” and wanted to act, but "she could get no training in her craft". Whenever she approached the stage door “men laughed in her face” (49). I think this case provides a number of plausible reasons why men have figured so large in historical records of achievement. If a woman was gifted with Shakespeare's potential during his age, she would have had no means to cultivate that talent, and no female tradition to turn to for inspiration.

Both of Woolf's works have proven to be personally inspiring, and I'm quick to recognise that even this inspiration is a luxury in itself. Why? Because the presence of a strong, female literary tradition was not afforded to any women during Judith Shakespeare's time, or even during Orlando's time in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Therefore, as a twenty-first century woman I consider it a privilege to review works such as those discussed above, and hope to add to a tradition many of us take for granted today.


  1. Excellent and erudite as ever. Soon you'll be forcing me to find even more adjectives for your brilliance.

  2. I;m not sure if i should be saying this because I really should be flying the flag for my own discipline, but I really enjoy looking for the pics featured in my blog entries :) hehe
    Maybe even more than writing about the books under review

  3. Nothing like rapid oscillation between gender pronouns i say!!