Today in Gay History: Virginia Woolf's Orlando Says It All

1.25.2014

By Andrew Belonsky

10 pearls from the birthday girl’s gender-bending novel.

You already know Virginia Woolf was a lesbian. Or, you should. It’s a well-documented fact, one the English writer wrote about in her diaries, included it in her books and gossiped about lesbian sex with her sister, Vanessa Bell. Instead of recoiling in disgust,

Bell just asked how it was done. Bell didn’t care that her younger sister was involved with poet and author Vita Sackville-West. And why would she? Bell and the rest Bloomsbury Group didn’t judge, and Bell herself was baby mama for gay artist Duncan Grant. So, you know, she was down.

While Woolf may have married Leonard, she loved no one as much as she did Sackville-West, the woman who inspired the gender-bending 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography, which would later be made into a movie starring the fittingly androgynous Tilda Swinton and directed by Sally Potter.

About a man who one day wakes up as a woman and comes to realize the fairer gender’s powers, Orlando was a critical success that challenged gender roles, a rarity indeed. Scholars say it outlines Sackville-West’s affair with fellow wordsmith Violet Trefusis. 

Taken as a whole, Orlando remains a post-sexual finger wagging at the sexual establishment. It also offers some of the most concise and timeless observations this side of the Thames. Here, in honor of Virginia Woolf’s 132nd birthday, 10 quotes from Orlando, in no particular order and on a variety of subjects.

1. “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, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above.”

2. “Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world's view of us.”

3. “The mind of man works with strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented by the timepiece of the mind by one second. This extraordinary discrepancy between time on the clock and time in the mind is less known than it should be, and deserves fuller investigation.”

4. “By the truth we are undone. Life is a dream. 'Tis the waking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life.”

5. “That silence is more profound after noise still wants the confirmation of science. But that loneliness is more apparent directly after one has been made love to, many women would take their oath.”

6. “At one and the same time, therefore, society is everything and society is nothing. Society is the most powerful concoction in the world and society has no existence whatsoever”

7. “Ransack the language as he might, words failed him. He wanted another landscape, and another tongue. English was too frank, too candid, too honeyed a speech for [his love]."

8. “In the 18th century, we knew how everything was done, but here I rise through the air, I listen to voices in America, I see men flying - but how is it done? I can't even begin to wonder. So my belief in magic returns.”

9. “All extremes of feeling are allied with madness.”

10. “As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking.”

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