My memory of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando from 17 years ago doesn’t really coincide with what I’m reading now. Mostly I remember being puzzled and confused by this novel in grad school, as I was often puzzled by Virginia Woolf in grad school, and sometimes still am. What I remember about the novel then I’ve captured in my marginalia, notes mostly taken in class, notes such as this: “Are men and women different?” And that is certainly a question Orlando faces, because she starts out as a man in Elizabethan England, but then transforms via deus ex machina into a woman.
This week I started reading Orlando again, this time interested in the theme of time travel— also a topic of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife — which Orlando also seems to do, given that she moves through time from the age of Elizabeth I to 1928, the year the novel was published.
Unlike Henry in The Time Traveler’s Wife, Orlando isn’t afflicted with a genetic disorder sending her through the ages. She just refuses to age, and moves through time with little effort, although there seems to be some supernatural influence over her gender- and time-bending: her transformation from male to female, for instance, takes place under while sleeping, when the gods or demigods Purity, Chastity, and Modesty visit and invoke the transformation. Time, like gender, seems relative, a state one moves through with little effort.
Editor’s Note: This post has been written as part of Sunday Salon.