Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’: ‘The Longest and Most Charming Love Letter in Literature’

Orlando has long had a towering, and very much deserved, reputation in the LGBT community; it was published the same year Radclyffe Hall’s controversial The Well of Loneliness, depicting lesbianism as a tragic curse, became a bestseller. Woolf’s creation of a figure who effortlessly changes sex casually upends any notion that biological sex is related to gender or orientation—even the notion that biological sex is fixed and stable at all.

Sackville-West’s son Nigel Nicolson would later call Orlando “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” and whether or not it began as a private missive for Vita, it’s also clearly much, much more, and early on in its genesis it began to exceed whatever initial idea Woolf had for it. “For the truth is I feel the need of an escapade after these serious poetic experimental books whose form is always so closely considered,” she wrote in March 1927. “I want to kick up my heels & be off. I want to embody all those innumerable little ideas & tiny stories which flash into my mind at all seasons. I think it will be great fun to write; & it will rest my head before starting the very serious, mystical poetical work which I want to come next.”

Colin Dickey, in Lapham’s Quarterly, on Virginia Woolf’s time-warping novel Orlando.

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