For Virginia Woolf, her fantastical biography Orlando was an act of strength. Orlando was inspired by Woolf's long and intoxicating relationship with the mercurial poet and aristocrat Vita Sackville-West. Theirs was an emotionally hedonistic union that ran wild in the letters they exchanged from the moment they met in 1922, right up until Woolf's death in 1941. At the pinnacle of their romance, words would both be the conduit for their love and consistently fail to express the ferocity of it. Vita wrote to Virginia in 1926:
"I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia … I miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. So, this is really just a squeal of pain."
Woolf's literary reputation remains haunted by the specter of the emotional and psychological challenges she faced, challenges that eventually resulted in her suicide. For someone who wrote so vividly about what it means to be alive, I have always felt it something of a betrayal that her death has become a defining part of her identity. This is why the work that Vita inspired stands out for me as a profound triumph. From the moment she dipped her pen in the ink in 1927, "body … flooded with rapture and … brain with ideas," what Woolf did with this work was take control.
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Orlando indelibly marks a moment where Woolf used her creative genius to process and overcome an emotional experience that could have consumed her. Who among us hasn't been so inebriated by love — so frantic and shallow-breathed — that we find ourselves desperate to drown in the heart that pushes us away? With Orlando, Woolf made an active choice to dive deeper into Vita, and the result was both a creative and personal victory.Vita's allure was clear: with her rich aristocratic lineage and life filled with riotous romantic escapades, she arrived in Virginia's life a ready-made character. Stoked by the fiery, androgynous, passionate contradictions at the core of her relationship with Vita, Woolf brought to life an imagined history in the character of Orlando, a protagonist who shifts between gender, time, and social class throughout the novel. Summoned as a brazen and vigorously male Elizabethan courtier, Orlando hurtles toward us through 300 years of history and lands as an Edwardian woman on 11th October 1928 (also the book's final words).
When Vita and Virginia met in 1922, their impressions of each other were not favorable. Vita was a best-selling writer, diplomat's wife, and member of an ancient aristocratic family. Virginia was upper-middle-class intelligentsia, married happily to Leonard Woolf, a socialist, and a prolific member of the avant-garde Bloomsbury group of writers and artists.
Virginia thought Vita "brash," "hard and manly — like a grenadier"; and Vita leveled the accusation at Virginia early on that she had no "grand passion," that she was something of an opportunist who coldly saw everything and everyone as potential "copy" for her work. The irony was that Vita would become that grand passion. When Orlando finally meets Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, the man who becomes her husband at the end of the novel, language once again fails, as Vita's "squeal of pain" cried out from her letter in 1926. It almost seems a direct statement from Woolf to Vita that at the moment they fall in love, Orlando and Shel don't exchange a word. Woolf refuses to pin their love down with language, to exploit it as "copy," as Vita accused. They know everything about one another in a matter of moments, and so Woolf leaves a blank space on the page:
"Really it would profit little to write down what they said, for they knew each other so well that they could say anything, which is tantamount to saying nothing."
Vita and Virginia were warned off each other almost immediately. Virginia's circle was wary of Vita's promiscuity and infamy, and derisive of her populist novels. Those around Vita warned her of Woolf's bouts of mental illness, her left-wing politics, and the community of bohemian artists with whom she lived and worked.