Orlando: A Biography

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Orlando: A Biography
1st edition cover
Author Virginia Woolf
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publisher Hogarth Press
Publication date
11 October 1928
ISBN 978-0-15-670160-0
OCLC 297407

Orlando: A Biography is a novel by Virginia Woolf, first published on 11 October 1928. A semi-biographical novel based in part on the life of Woolf's presumed lover Vita Sackville-West, it is generally considered one of Woolf's most accessible novels. The novel has been influential stylistically, and is considered important in the history of women's writing, gender studies, and transgender studies.

It has inspired adaptations: in 1989 director Robert Wilson and writer Darryl Pinckney collaborated on a theatrical production. A film adaptation was released in 1992, starring Tilda Swinton as Orlando and Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I. Another stage adaption by Sarah Ruhl premiered in New York City in 2010.


Orlando tells the story of an individual named Orlando, born as a biological male in England during the reign of Elizabeth I. Orlando lives for more than 300 years and, at around 30 years of age, mysteriously changes biological sex to female.

As a teenager, the male Orlando is briefly a lover to the elderly queen. After her death he has a brief, intense love affair with Sasha, an androgynous princess in the entourage of the Russian embassy. This episode, of love and excitement against the background of the Frost Fair held on the frozen Thames River during the Great Frost of 1608, is one of the best known of the novel. It is said to represent Vita Sackville-West's affair with Violet Trefusis.

Following Sasha's sudden departure and return to Russia, the desolate Orlando returns to writing The Oak Tree, a long poem started and abandoned in his youth. He meets with a famous poet, Nicholas Greene, whom he joyfully entertains, but who criticises Orlando's writing. Later Orlando feels betrayed when he learns that he is the foolishly depicted subject of one of Greene's subsequent works. A period of contemplating love and life leads Orlando to appreciate the value of his ancestral stately home, which he proceeds to furnish lavishly. There he plays host to the populace.

Ennui sets in and the harassment of a persistent suitor, the Archduchess Harriet, leads to Orlando's fleeing the country when appointed by King Charles II as ambassador to Constantinople. Orlando performs his duties well, until a night of civil unrest and murderous riots. He falls asleep for a period of days, resistant to all efforts to rouse him. Upon awakening he finds that he has metamorphosed into a woman – the same person, with the same personality and intellect, but in a woman's body. Although the narrator of the novel is disturbed and befuddled by Orlando's sex change, Orlando herself is complacent. From here on out, Orlando's gender changes frequently although she stays biologically female.

The now Lady Orlando covertly escapes Constantinople in the company of a Gypsy clan. She adopts their way of life until its essential conflict with her upbringing leads her to head home. Only on the ship back to England, with her constraining female clothes and an incident in which a flash of her ankle nearly results in a sailor's falling to his death, does she realise the magnitude of becoming a woman. She concludes it has an overall advantage, declaring "Praise God I'm a woman!" Back in England, Orlando is hounded again by the archduchess, who reveals herself to be a man, the Archduke Harry. Orlando evades his marriage proposals. She goes on to live switching between gender roles, dressing alternately as both man and woman.

Orlando soon becomes caught up in the life of the 18th and 19th centuries, holding court with the great poets (notably Alexander Pope). Nick Greene reappears, apparently also timeless, and promotes Orlando's writing, promising to help her publish The Oak Tree.

Orlando wins a lawsuit over her property and marries a sea captain, Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine. Shelmerdine, like Orlando, is gender non-conforming, and Orlando credits this similarity with the success of their marriage. In 1928, she publishes The Oak Tree, centuries after starting it, and wins a prize. As her husband's ship returns in the aftermath of her success, she rushes to greet him.

Influence and recognition[edit]

The work has been the subject of numerous scholarly writings, including detailed treatment in multiple works on Virginia Woolf.[1] An "annotated" edition has been published to facilitate critical reading of the text.

The novel's title has also come to stand in some senses for women's writing generally, as one of the most famous works by a woman author that directly treats the subject of gender.[2] For example, a project on the history of women's writing in the British Isles was named after the book.[3]

The skating party on the Thames was featured in Simple Gifts, a Christmas collection of six animated shorts shown on PBS TV in 1977.

The novel has been adapted for theatre and film. In 1989 the American director, Robert Wilson, and writer Darryl Pinckney collaborated on a theatrical production. A British film adaptation was released in 1992, starring Tilda Swinton as Orlando and Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I. A second theatre adaptation by Sarah Ruhl premiered in New York 2010.[4]

A similar character named Orlando, ageless and with varying sex and gender through the ages, is featured in Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's graphic novels The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume III: Century.


  1. ^ See, e.g., Alice van Buren, The Novels of Virginia Woolf: Fact and Vision Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973.
  2. ^ For example: Jacqueline Harpman, Orlanda, Paris: Grasset, 1997.
  3. ^ "Orlando: Women's Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present". orlando.cambridge.org. 
  4. ^ New York Times Review

External links[edit]