The Real Orlando

The Real Orlando


The new West End adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is being billed, and with reason, as the story of anyone’s right to love who they want to: to be whoever they want to be. Woolf’s eponymous hero(ine) not only lives through centuries, from the age of Elizabeth I to the day of the book’s 1928 publication, but changes from a man to a woman along the way.

But, just a century on from Woolf’s first meeting with Vita Sackville-West, the inspiration for Orlando, the real life relationship of those two women may have lessons both subtler and more important than the fictional story.

There is no doubt of the identification. As Virginia wrote to Vita:  ‘suppose Orlando turns out to be Vita; and it’s all about you and the lusts of your flesh and the lure of your mind  . . . Shall you mind? Say yes, or No.’  Orlando had ‘cheeks covered in peach down’ - Virginia had compared the down on Vita’s face to a velvety plant. Orlando had wonderfully shapely legs - Virginia harped on Vita’s bold stride, on legs, ‘running like slender pillars up into her trunk’. Vita was even photographed for several of the illustrations which adorned the first edition of the book. ‘Orlando at the Present Time’ was Vita as she might be seen every day, leaning against a country gate and holding the leash of her beloved dogs. 

Most importantly, Orlando, like Vita, had grown up in a great Elizabethan house - Knole Park in Kent. (Vita’s mother was the then Lord Sackville’s illegitimate daughter, her father Sackville’s nephew and eventual heir.) Evan as a young child she’d roam its corridors by candlelight.  ‘I was never frightened. I loved Knole and I took it for granted that Knole loved me.’

But the tragedy of Vita’s life was that as a girl she could never inherit the entailed estate; and Orlando was conceived and written at the moment when Vita’s father was dying. Knole would pass to a distant cousin; Vita would be cast out of Paradise - unless Virginia could give  it back to her in some way. Orlando, having inherited his great mansion, with its gardens and galleries, its portraits and its deer park, becomes a woman (in the course of a long enchanted sleep) without, crucially, having to lose his/her inheritance. When the book came out Vita wrote that she felt somehow, ‘that Knole knows about Orlando, and is pleased.’

When the two women first met in December 1922, both were successful writers, though Woolf had not yet reached the height of her enduring powers; while time would eventually bypass Vita, a bestseller among contemporaries. Both were married; Vita, after a few wild debutante years, married the diplomat Harold Nicholson in 1913; while Virginia - ten years the elder - had married Leonard Woolf the year before. By 1922, Vita had borne Harold two sons, while Virginia had suffered episodes of breakdown; had been a founding member of the Bloomsbury (or as Vita would dub it, Gloomsbury) group. 

Vita wrote to Harold: ‘I simply adore Virginia Woolf and so would you . . . Darling, I have quite lost my heart.’ Virginia told her diary that she was ‘muzzy headed . . . partly the result of dining to meet the lovely gifted aristocratic Sackville West last night at Clive’s. Not much to my severer taste - florid, moustached, parakeet coloured…’ But her coolness did not last. In mid-February Virginia’s diary noted a visit from Vita and Harold: ‘She is a pronounced Sapphist, & may . . .  have an eye on me, old though I am.’ 

It was in the summer of 1924 that Virginia visited Knole with Vita. ‘All these ancestors & centuries, & silver & gold, have bred a perfect body’, Virginia wrote afterwards. Even Leonard described Vita at this point as ‘an animal at the height of its powers, a beautiful flower in full bloom.’ Vita noted shrewdly how Virginia liked people ‘through the brain better than through the heart.’ Perhaps hers were the mental adventures; later, Virginia would acknowledge that her friendship with Vita had opened new horizons: ‘I use my friends rather as giglamps: there’s another field I see, by your light.’  But from the start it was clear theirs could also be a physical relationship.

Vita’s had long been to some degree an open marriage. It had almost been ended a few years before by Vita’s passionate affair with VIolet Trefusis, with whom she had fled to France, intending never to return. But in the calmer waters that followed (their husbands had followed them, and persuaded Vita and Violet to return)  Harold referred to her same-sex affairs as her ‘muddles’; she to his as his ‘fun’. ‘Please don’t fall too much in love with Mr. Jebb’, Vita wrote to him once. ‘I don’t mind who you sleep with, so long as I may keep your heart!’ Harold too featured in Orlando, flatteringly portrayed as the explorer Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine: a man as ‘strange and subtle’ as a woman, just as Orlando was a woman ‘as tolerant and free-spoken’ as a man.

But autumn 1925 brought Virginia to stay with Vita at Long Barn, and it was during the two days they spent alone there that -  according to Vita’s later report to Harold - the relationship briefly became physical. Though Vita seems obviously cast as the more active partner, the two women would later joke about ‘the explosion which happened on the sofa’ when  Virginia ‘behaved so disgracefully’; Vita would diagnose an illness of Virginia’s as ‘SUPPRESSED RANDINESS’. But Virginia, Vita told Harold, had only ever ‘lived with’ Leonard, ‘and that was a terrible failure and abandoned quite soon.’  Harold wrote to Vita that ‘I do hope that Virginia is not going to be a muddle. It is like smoking over a petrol tank.’ Vita reassured him: I have gone to bed with her (twice), but that’s all.’ Her love for Virginia was  ‘a mental thing, a spiritual thing if you like, an intellectual thing … I am scared to death of arousing physical feelings in her, because of the madness. I don’t know what effect it would have, you see: and that is a fire with which I have no wish to play.’ 

The two women’s letters would remain passionate, but Vita would continue to have other affairs; and by the time the idea of Orlando was born, their relationship was changing - as, indeed, were their working lives. Soon, Virginia would be moving into the more experimental, and more explicitly feminist, phase of her writing: Vita (through the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press) would be publishing her most successful novel The Edwardians - but would also be purchasing the garden at Sissinghurst on which her fame now rests.

In a sense Orlando was a parting gift … though not parting in the final sense. It’s true that Virginia, visiting Sissinghurst, would complain that Vita ‘has grown very fat, very much the indolent country lady, run to seed, incurious now about books; has written no poetry; only kindles about dogs, flowers, & new buildings.’ But they would find their way through to a new kind of closeness. (Virginia was ‘interested by the gnawing down of strata in friendship; how one passes unconsciously to different terms…scarcely feel it an exciting atmosphere, which, too, has its drawback from the “fizzing” point of view: yet is saner, perhaps deeper.’) And more than a decade after Orlando, Virginia could still describe Vita as the only person, apart from Leonard and her sister Vanessa, who she had truly loved. ‘You have given me such happiness’, she wrote in one wartime letter,’

When, in the spring of 1941, Virginia took her own life, Leonard wrote to Vita that evening, lest she should first hear the news on the radio. ‘I know what you will feel & what you felt for her.’ Harold came down from London to Sissinghurst to be with her. A few days later he wrote to her: ‘My dearest I know that Virginia meant something to you which nobody else can ever mean and that you will feel deprived of a particular sort of haven which was a background comfort and strength.’

Both Vita and Virginia had in their different ways explored what it meant to be a woman.  (Emma Corrin, who plays Orlando in this new production -  having previously appeared as Princess Diana in series four of The Crown - themself identifies as non-binary, and uses the pronoun they.) The 1920s were a time of exploration in gender identity - in social as well as sexual roles; though the year of Orlando’s publication also saw the obscenity trial over Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness.  Vita’s relationship with Violet Trefusis had seen her assume a masculine identity; yet Virginia could write that Vita was: ‘in short (what I have never been) a real woman.’  In the 1929 A Room of One’s Own Virginia explored the idea that ‘in every human being ‘a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place’ - as, of course, it had in Orlando. ‘It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple …Some marriage of opposites has to be accomplished.’ That, of course, is one aspect of the two women’s relationship that gives it such relevance today.

But perhaps there is another; as reflected in the behaviour of the three survivors after Virginia’s death - the acceptance which both husbands gave to the women’s relationship. Harold was glad, he had once wrote to Virginia, that Vita had come under an influence ‘so stimulating and so sane …I loathe jealousy as I loathe all forms of disease.’  ‘In all London, you and I alone like being married,’ Virginia told Vita near the start of their affair. The kindness with which all four participants treated each other would continue - and that too may offer another lesson for the 21st century.


Sarah Gristwood is the author of Vita and Virginia: The lives and love of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-WestOrlando premieres at the Garrick Theatre on December 5, with previews from November 25.