This is a Fictional Friday post, where I review a book (but it might not always be fiction)
I’m officially finished university until the 7th of January 2013. Assuming we make it that far, with all this End of the World Being Nigh stuff going on.
The fact that the first thing I do after handing in my last essay is go to the gym, then write a blog post, speaks volumes. I also intend to finish a knitting project this weekend.
I thought I would celebrate my lack of university work by writing a post on – wait for it – a book I’m not studying. Hard-core, I know.
Last week was Book Week in Scotland, which I had hoped to write about but university work got in the way. My boss, however, did ask me to write something. There’s a magazine for the area of Glasgow I work in that asked every business to submit a paragraph on their favourite book, and I was asked to do this on behalf of the gallery I work in. I wrote a paragraph on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and it was published on-line and in print two Mondays ago.
Unfortunately, I can’t find it on-line, and don’t have a copy of what I wrote, so I’ll start over again for my lovely followers. Also, I intend to write more than a measly paragraph!
Virginia Woolf published Orlando: A Biography just a few weeks after Radcliff Hall’s Well of Loneliness was censored. Well of Loneliness was censored because of homosexual content. Hold on to your hats guys, because it has the sentence “she kissed her full on the lips, as a lover”. That‘s how raunchy it gets.
Now, I think Well of Loneliness is the most depressing book I’ve ever read, and, had it not been censored, would be long forgotten by now. If you ban something, it becomes more popular. People started smuggling copies of the depressing book over the channel, and people still read it today, because it’s one of those books you have to read. Just because it was banned.
We know today that Virginia Woolf’s Orlando was in a similar situation as Well of Loneliness. There was a point when it was on the table in a censorship office, and was very nearly banned. The main differences are that Orlando is good, and that it wasn’t banned. Yet it’s still popular today – in fact, more-so than Well of Loneliness.
First of all, you need to know who Vita Sackville-West was. Picture a modern-day Paris Hilton, but with class and intelligence, and a tendency to have affairs with women. She was a socialite; everyone knew who Vita Sackville-West was.
She famously ran off to France with Violet Trefusis, having their husbands go after them to bring them home. She also dressed up in men’s clothes (by which I mean she wore trousers in the 1920s, instead of dresses), so that she could go for walks around London without being recognised.
Orlando was not only dedicated to Vita Sackville-West, but was about her; her biography, if you will. The book has photos of her, like the one above, captioned as being Orlando, the protagonist. Everyone who read the book would recognise Orlando to be Vita Sackville-West. It was the most open love letter anyone had ever written.
So, everyone who read the book would be aware, first of all, of the person it was written to and about. They would also be aware that Well of Loneliness had recently been banned.
Orlando wasn’t banned because Virginia Woolf was too clever for that. She plays with ideas of gender, sex and sexuality throughout the book. The book spans a 500 year period, with the protagonist has a sex-change halfway through (a very surreal scene). Their gender, however, doesn’t change doesn’t come until a few months later, when someone sees her ankle (God forbid).
The novel was ahead of its time in terms of ideas of sex and gender, sexuality, society, politics and so much more.
Yet it wasn’t banned; merely because Woolf plays within the boundaries of what is allowed. It’s as if she’s saying “I know what I mean, you know what I mean, we just won’t say so, so this censorship guy can’t stop us from doing this”.
The effect of the book must have been massive. The rights women experience today are because of people like Virginia Woolf, who were prepared to write a book saying that women are only “feminine” because of the roles society expects of them. That you can fall in love with someone before you even know their gender. That the gender imbalance between men and women in society when it comes to sex is not fair.
The mere fact that it was an open love letter from a famous writer to a famous Lady must have made massive changes in ideas of sexuality and what is and is not okay. Of course, we don’t know whether Woolf and Sackville-West had an affair. Why should we care, to be honest? Orlando is incredibly mean in the way it criticises and makes fun of its protagonist. But it’s also beautiful, humorous, clever, and will capture your heart.