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Khushboo Sharma

IWB Blogger

The True Love Story Behind The Feminist Classic Orlando By Virginia Woolf Was Explored At JLF

  • IWB Post
  •  January 30, 2018

As Alexandria Harris, Virginia Woolf’s biographer and Juliet and Adam Nicolson, the grandkids of Vita Sackville-West, came together to recollect the true story behind the feminist classic Orlando at JLF, the audience was left enchanted.

The scandalous affair between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf began in the early 1920s. Both their lives were changed, enriched and fulfilled by it.Through Orlando Woolf dramatized the cultural inheritance embedded in Vita’s self.

As they tried to track their tempestuous love story, the first question that came up was- who Virginia was when they first met? As she started talking Alexandria shared how Virginia was “not a woman born into money. She worked and worked herself up to what she became at the time when she first met Vita in her forties.” She hailed the arrival of Vita as a great middle age adventure. She had seen a lot of struggle when finally the things started happening by the year 1925, she almost “ready and waiting” for Vita’s arrival.

Then Juliet began an account of Vita and how she was the exact opposite of everything that Woolf was, all that she could ever be and sadly, all that she could ever get. While Virginia was born in no money, Vita was born to a lord in one of the “biggest houses of town”. Interestingly her mother was “one of the seven illegitimate daughters” of a slum-born woman. Thus, Vita was “part exotic, part gypsy” and had an extraordinary sense of self. While Virginia was struggling with her writing, Vita had published a dozen of books by the time they met. The only dichotomy between the two women was that they were both work-oriented with the courage to stand up to the world whenever required.

Though entirely opposite to her, Vita had an amazing ability to listen and that played a major role in Virginia’s attraction towards her. Virginia was attracted to everything that Vita projected, she admired it and wanted that fulsomeness to be a part of her life. Juliet shared how, the “actual physical” phase didn’t last for a long time between the two. Virginia’s “mental disposition was very fragile” and Vita was concerned that the intensity of their affair will break Virginia into pieces and that is why she pulled herself back by going out with other women.

Alexandria narrated how talking about the intensity of their love affair, Virginia once said, “I have come to a precipice. What would happen if I get over the precipice?” That eventually happened and as Vita found solace in other women, Virginia found it in Orlando. It is reported that she once asked from Vita, “What if Orlando happened to be you”? This is how Vita became an epitome of all the people that Orlando was and all the time that it encompassed.

The concept of Orlando got shape when Virginia visited Vita’s ancestral house with her. It was a house “full of seriousness of English history.” It was also a house that Vita could not inherit and thus Orlando arrived at a kind of artistic justice. Back in 1920s, it was rather unimaginable for two women to be in love and that is why Vita would always dress up like a “wounded French soldier” whenever she had to meet Virginia, Juliet shared. It was the same gender ambiguity that led to a time ambiguity in Woolf’s novel. Orlando was created in the image of Vita who was for Virginia beyond any definition. It was like a “biographical response” from Virginia to Vita for her abandonment. Wasn’t Orlando in a sense both Vita and Virginia?

After the novel was published, as if suddenly struck by creativity, Virginia started tossing novels like omelets and published a succession of books. Vita’s creativity prospered too, but not in writing. She was drawn towards gardening and created masterpieces with her creativity.

As the sessions ended, I felt like I was jolted out of a dream and could not get the image of a cross-dressed Vita out of my mind. I was fortunate enough to ask a question: “Was Vita the true embodiment of the androgynous mind that Woolf later wrote about?”

Alexandria took up the question, “Well, Coleridge was also a part of the inception of that idea. Imagine what a feminine dream world Kubla Khan was. For her androgyny was an assimilation of physical creativity and the feminine dream world.” After her, Juliet took up the question and raised the presence of an ambiguity in the notion as she said. “Vita was just portraying the role of man and it is questioned how much of a performance was it for her. She was conscious of the fact she was cross-dressing and it is debatable whether she addressed the inner truth of what she was doing. After Wolf committed suicide in 1941, Vita became reclusive and resorted to alcohol. She retreated and pulled right back from life. She was left questioning am I truly androgynous? Who am I?”

Photo Courtesy: Aparna Natha

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