NEH Grant EX-20049-01


Orlando, A Biography



Orlando was published in 1928, a novel despite the word “biography” in the title. It was written as a kind of gift for Vita Sackville-West, with whom Woolf had an intense relationship. Vita had grown up in the vast ancestral family home, Knole, which had been given to the family by Queen Elizabeth I. But Vita, as a female, could not inherit, and with her father’s death, lost Knole forever. In the novel, Vita is re-created in the character of Orlando, a 16-year old boy living in Elizabethan times, who receives the estate from Queen Elizabeth. Witty and ribald, the novel follows the seemingly immortal Orlando through the next 400 years, during which he falls in love a Russian princess, writes, becomes ambassador to Constantinople, marries a gypsy dancer, becomes (most surprisingly of all) a woman, spurns the attentions of Archduke Harry (who formerly was Archduchess Harriet), meets various literati, falls in love with and marries Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, gives birth to a boy, goes back to writing, and is marvelously reunited with Marmaduke in the present, as the book ends. The book deals with changing gender roles over time and in various societies, and examines questions of androgyny and identity. Funny and exuberant, it was a great popular success.

Essay Questions & Paper Topics

1.      Study the relationship of Woolf and Vita Sackville-West and relate it to Orlando.

2.      Discuss the device of Orlando’s trances in preparing transformation.

3.      Explore Orlando’s comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of being male and female.

4.      Discuss the way Woolf uses nature imagery in describing cultural change (e.g., the effects of climate change in Chapter 5).

5.      Explain why Marmaduke is the perfect mate for Orlando.


Baldwin, Dean. “Woolf’s ‘Orlando.’” English literature in transition 1880-1920 Winter 2000

Boxwell, D.A. “Disorienting spectacle: the politics of ‘Orlando’s’ sapphic camp.” Twentieth century literature. Fall 1998 v.44

Burns, Christy L. “Re-dressing feminist identities: tensions between essential and constructed selves in Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando.’” Twentieth century literature. Fall 1994 v.40

Cervetti, Nancy. “In the breeches, petticoats, and pleasures of ‘Orlando.’” Journal of modern literature. Winter 1996 v.20:2

Hovey, Jaime. “’Kissing a Negress in the dark’: Englishness as a masquerade in Woolf’s ‘Orlando.’” PMLA May 1997 v.112:3

Lawrence, Karen R. “Orlando’s voyage out.” Modern fiction studies. Spring 1992 v.38:1

Lokke, Kari Elise. “’Orlando’ and incandescence: Virginia Woolf’s comic sublime.” Modern fiction studies. Spring 1992 v.38:1

Olin-Hitt, Michael R. “Desire, death, and plot: the subversive play of ‘Orlando.’” Women’s studies June 1995 v.24:5


“Orlando.”  Dist. by Sony Pictures Classics (1993)

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