“Thank God I’m a Woman!”: On Reading ORLANDO as a Trans Woman

This is a guest post from Constance Augusta Aloysius Zaber. Constance Augusta (yes, that is one first name) Aloysius Zaber is a proud New Englander currently living in Northampton, MA where she spends her time baking, haunting libraries, making zines, and talking about sex. She’s almost always thinking about Virginia Woolf or Puritans. Follow her on Twitter @constancezaber.

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Orlando by Virginia WoolfI’m not certain how or why I first picked up Orlando. I know that it wasn’t from my high school’s library or the town’s public library. I know that I was 14 and had fallen in love with the Virginia Woolf after seeing the film adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. I know that I owned my copy because I remember underlining the hell out of that book with a ballpoint pen. I know that I’ve never reread it and I know that I don’t need to because I think about it just about every damn day of my life.

Regardless of how I found the novel it’s easy to see why it’s lasted with me. It’s not my favorite of her works (that honor is held by The Waves), but with a plot that crosses genders and time this was the exact book I needed as a teenager who had managed to hide her true gender, even from herself.

I was a deeply closeted trans teenager whose depression and dysphoria had numbed her life to the point where she was more observer than participant. I was a shitty poet (I now consider myself a crappy poet) whose daydreams included international politics and wearing elaborate dresses and attending literary salons and dating women with strong personalities (and even stronger jawlines) and haunting old libraries and also being Old Money. When I read Orlando I had the uncanny feeling that I was reading some parallel version of my life where I was like happy or something? I’m not a particularly spiritual person but I couldn’t shake the notion that Virginia Woolf hadn’t just written a book I related to, she had written a book for me. (This idea that Virginia Woolf and I were somehow linked was only strengthened when I found out we shared a birthday.)

In the eight years since I read about her, Orlando has followed me throughout my life, a quiet spirit whose presence keeps me connected to a future that I wasn’t able to envision as a teenager. When I needed a pseudonym for the androgynous identity I used online during parts of high school I picked Orlando (and because I was a pretentious little shit I also made sure people knew its source and were suitably impressed that I enjoyed Virginia Woolf). In college I started a gender nonconforming fashion blog that I titled after the 52 staircases and 365 rooms of Orlando’s familial house. As I experienced the morning sickness that came with the first few weeks of my hormone replacement therapy I thought how lovely it would be to fall asleep in a Turkish mansion one fragrant summer night and awake sometime after my body had sorted everything out. When I think of the difficulties that come from dating when one is a woman who once called herself male there’s always Orlando’s husband Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, a reminder to me that love for women like us isn’t an impossibility.

I know that parts of the literary establishment don’t consider Orlando the greatest of Virginia Woolf’s works and honestly I can see that. It’s one of her “lighter” works, with language that, while beautiful, doesn’t quite have that sweeping majesty of The Waves or the atomic analysis of daily life of Mrs. Dalloway. It is, however, the book that I always recommend to people just starting out on Virginia Woolf. When people find out that I’m a major Woolf fan it’s not uncommon for them to take on a confessional attitude and say, “You know I’ve never read her, I’ve always meant to. Is there any book you think I should start with?” I feel Orlando is one of her most immediately accessible fiction, with a plot carried more by fantastical events than the examination of daily minutia. When I read it, it’s as if I can almost feel the fun that she had in writing it and the love she had for Orlando’s real-life counterpart, her lover Vita Sackville-West.

Just as I’ll never know just how I first found Orlando (I don’t have many firm memories from my years undercover as a boy), I’ll probably never fully know how much my experiences with the book have blinded me to its various flaws. At this point I see no reason to try and separate my thoughts on its literary merit from the love I have for a book that fell into my life at exactly the right time. Then I was a nervous teenager who believed her own lies, but now I shout the same declaration that Orlando delivered at the bow of a ship bringing her home: “Thank God I’m a woman!”

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