18 Classics of LGBTQ Literature

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18. Orlando

Orlando: A Biography is a high-spirited novel, written by Virginia Woolf. It was published in 1928. Though Woolf is known for her intense books such as To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando is one of her most accessible works. I consider it to be some classic feminist literature and especially interesting in how it treats gender and sexuality. It was inspired in large part by Woolf lover, Vita Sackville-West; Sackville-West’s son Nigel Nicolson would later call Orlando “the longest and most charming love-letter in literature”.

The novel follows Orlando, first a young gentleman in Elizabethan England. He serves at the court of the queen and falls in love with a Russian noblewoman, who eventually rejects him. Orlando also attempts to write and publish an epic poem, The Oak Tree, and fails.

After a time, he becomes an ambassador to Constantinople for Charles II (Orlando lives for over three centuries without aging much beyond young adulthood). He also avoids the affections of Archduchess Harriet.

During a period of riot and unrest in Constantinople, Orlando falls into a deep sleep. When he awakens, Orlando discovers that “he” is now a “she”, mysteriously changed her sex and gender while slumbering. She accepts her new body simply, and without much initial shock or chagrin.

The Lady Orlando now travels back to England, now dealing with the magnitude of sexism and misogyny that invade her life. However, she eventually believes the change to be an overall improvement, saying “Praise God I’m a woman!”

Harriet reappears, apparently after she changes her sex and becomes Archduke Harry. Orlando continues to avoid marriage with the Archduke. However, Lady Orlando eventually marries a sea captain, Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, who also appears to be gender non-conforming. Orlando claims that their happy marriage is a result of their fluid genders. The novel ends with Orlando finally publishing The Oak Tree in 1928, and running to greet her returning husband.

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