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1. Cross-Dressing in Fact, Fiction and Fantasy

Cross-Dressing as Ambisexual Style: Queer Twists in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

Adèle CASSIGNEUL

Résumés

Cet article s’intéresse au transvestisme dans Orlando de Virginia Woolf. Lisant les subversions de genre explorées par le roman à la lumière du Dreadnought Hoax de 1910, canular pour lequel Virginia Woolf se travestit en Prince abyssinien, je souhaite explorer la séduction impliquée par le non-conformisme queer. Plutôt que de privilégier les théories socio-politiques butlériennes du genre, je souligne la dimension existentielle du trouble vestimentaire. Mettant en valeur les relations amoureuses du protagoniste et m’attachant aux lectures lacaniennes que Clotilde Leguil fait de l’instabilité du genre, j’inscris la biographie fantasque de Woolf dans le sillage de l’écriture féminine définie par Hélène Cixous, qui relie la différence sexuelle à l’amour ainsi qu’à l’écriture.

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Texte intégral

Girls were girls and boys were boys when I was a tot.
Now we don’t know who is who or even what’s what.
Knickers and trousers baggy and wide, nobody knows who’s walking inside.
Those masculine women and feminine men.
Popular song by Edgar Leslie (1926)

1. The laugh of Orlando: love, desire and écriture féminine

  • 1 Here as in the Mrs Dalloway’s Party short story cycle, rooks play a symbolic part. They embody wome (...)

1Orlando’s laugh resounds throughout centuries. He laughs with Princess Sasha (Orlando 20). She laughs at the Archduchess Harriet (118). She also laughs at herself and at the vanity of (his/her) life (203). Entwined with flirt and banter, the delightful pleasures of desire and mischievous teasing, laughter is furthermore connected to the serious wildness of love as Orlando meets her soul mate Marmaduke in a whirlwind of hoarsely laughing rooks1 (161-2). Laughter gives its flighty tempo to Orlando’s waltz of lovers, underlining its unbearable lightness of being and the intricate connexions between questions of identity, gender and alterity.

2Orlando’s elating laughter echoes his/her gender metamorphoses (sex change and cross-dressing) as well as the existential quandaries linked to his/her various amorous relationships. Struggling to give an “exact and particular account of Orlando’s life” (141) upon her return to England, the narrator-biographer notes that

[t]he task is made still more difficult by the fact that [Orlando] found it convenient at this time to change frequently from one set of clothes to another. […] She had, it seems, no difficulty in sustaining the different parts, for her sex changed far more frequently than those who have worn only one set of clothing can conceive; nor can there be any doubt that she reaped a twofold harvest by this device; the pleasures of life were increased and its experiences multiplied. For the probity of breeches she exchanged the seductiveness of petticoats and enjoyed the love of both sexes equally. (141-2)

  • 2 See Marshall on performative melancholia, “a melancholia where the subject experiences normative ge (...)
  • 3 All quotes from Leguil are my translation.

3Starting with the sex/gender vacillation exemplified above, I wish to analyse the ways in which Virginia Woolf’s Orlando explores existential trouble through gender mutations, their “complications and confusions” (121), and (poly)amorous relationships. Woolf’s texts have often been analysed in the light of Judith Butler’s gender theory, which emphasizes the subversive socio-political dimension of gender trouble (“Performative acts” 62).2 Yet, as Clotilde Leguil underlines, gender can be questioned differently, “beyond norms and stereotypes so as to reach the most intimate part of the subject’s relation to his/her gender” (L’Être 12. My translation3). Leguil’s psychoanalytical take on gender complements Butler’s analyses: rather than focusing on its prescriptive and performative aspects it underlines the precariousness of gender.

Whatever body we have, we feel manly or womanly depending on the encounters we make and according to the emotions or passions experienced on specific occasions. [Gender] is not a set trait of character. [It] escapes, as what triggers desire escapes. […] gender does not only entail playfulness, masquerade, and cross-dressing. [It] is not only a mask one can freely play with because it meddles with the question of being beyond dress and pretence. (14)

4Taking her cue from Lacan’s analysis of “the skewed relation that separates the subject from sex” (Lacan 676), Leguil posits that confronting gender is to “confront strangeness in oneself” (“Penser” 55). It is to become. Rather than being solely conditioned by natural or social determinisms (two kinds of essentialism inherent in sexual identity politics), gender experience can be related to desire and love, it is shaped by “subjective contingency and encounters” (59). In this way it is related to what Hélène Cixous calls “the other bisexuality on which every subject not enclosed in the false theatre of phallocentric representationalism has founded his/her erotic universe”.

Bisexuality: that is, each one’s location in self (repérage en soi) of the presence – variously manifest and insistent according to each person, male or female – of both sexes, nonexclusion either of the difference or of one sex, and, from this “self-permission”, multiplication of the effects of the inscription of desire, over all parts of my body and the other body. (“Laugh” 884)

  • 4 In The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Ursula Le Guin envisions a planet, Winter, on which there is n (...)

5Cixous’s emphasis on the plurality of bisexuality is what constitutes the écriture féminine and its disruptive effects. Woolf’s Orlando writes about difference and brings difference. It laughs at and “troubles conventions” (Elkin 101). Changing the rules of the old gender and literary games, Woolf’s “sext” (“Laugh” 885) reckons on clothes trouble and queer non-conformity to explore the “ambisexuality”4 (Le Guin 95) of love.

2. Clothes trouble

  • 5 Foucault explores gender through the intersexual case of Herculine Barbin. For him the sex/gender q (...)

6A genuine question arises when reading Woolf’s fancy biography: what is Orlando’s “true sex” (Foucault vii)5? When male Orlando suddenly becomes female and stands stark naked in front of a mirror, s/he contentedly contemplates an ineffable “naked form” (Orlando 87), a true “mixture of sex” (Foucault ix).

Orlando had become a woman – there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity. Their faces remained, as their portraits prove, practically the same. (Orlando 87)

  • 6 Jesse Wolfe, Karyn Sproles and Sandra Gilbert suggest that Woolf’s reflection on sex and gender tap (...)

7More than “multisexual” (Lokke 236), “manwoman” (Le Guin, Left Hand 101) Orlando is a “mixing of genres” (Derrida, “The Law” 61), as the plural “their” suggests. Orlando’s undermined sex and gender identity abolishes the sex/gender dichotomy. Woolf upends any notion that biological sex is related to gender or sexual orientation.6 Even the notion that biological sex is fixed and stable at all is questioned by her protagonist’s metamorphosis. Far from being an “unjoined person” (McCullers 3), a character trapped in a sex that does not fit his/her gender, Orlando is a composite being: “it was this mixture in her of man and woman, one being uppermost and then the other, that often gave her conduct an unexpected turn” (Orlando 121). Unbound and undetermined, gender matches contingencies.

  • 7 “Although there is no truth in itself of the sexual difference in itself, of either man or woman in (...)
  • 8 Leguil notes that, just like love, gender follows no rules (L’Être 49).

8Refusing to inscribe Orlando’s sexuality directly in the flesh of his/her body, Woolf creates a bisexual “chimera” (Foucault x) that uncovers a new kind of truth about the subject, his/her ontological queerness, a gender instability7 and indeterminacy that the “practically” encapsulates. “The genres pass into each other”, says Derrida (“The Law” 76). And Woolf’s incredible character also proves the philosopher’s “madness of sexual difference” (76) by defying the law of gender.8

9Nonetheless, sexual difference makes itself blatantly visible in clothing as Woolf was keenly aware:

Different though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above. (Orlando 121)

10Orlando having no fixed sex, his/her gender can only be determined by his/her attire (and the varying conventions of fashion throughout centuries), it can only be interpreted through what s/he chooses to wear. Sartorial designation of sex or gender is thus problematized and questioned through Orlando, his/her characterization and the doubts ironically raised by the narrator. Orlando’s sex and gender remain non ascribable. Chapter after chapter we follow playful fe/male permutations, with no certainty of his/her true sex.

  • 9 “Unisex” is the contemporary equivalent of “androgynous” and “genderless”. It was first used in 196 (...)

11If, according to Woolf, clothes are supposed to “wear us” and “mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their linking” (Orlando 120), sex/gender designation is further twisted and complicated by genderless or unisex garments.9 When female Orlando flees Turkey to return to England, she wears women’s clothes for the first time.

With some of the guineas left from the sale of the tenth pearl on her string, Orlando bought herself a complete outfit of such clothes as women then wore, and it was in the dress of a young Englishwoman of rank that she now sat on the deck of the “Enamoured Lady”. It is a strange fact, but a true one, that up to this moment she had scarcely given her sex a thought. Perhaps the Turkish trousers which she had hitherto worn had done something to distract her thoughts; and the gipsy women, except in one or two important particulars, differ very little from the gipsy men. At any rate, it was not until she felt the coil of skirts about her legs and the Captain offered, with the greatest politeness, to have an awning spread for her on deck, that she realized with a start the penalties and the privileges of her position. (Orlando 97)

  • 10 “[To look] feminine or, in the masculine equivalent, to look virile, is not natural nor automatic, (...)
  • 11 “The shawls adapted from the Middle East proved popular among Western women. Turbans of the “Turkis (...)
  • 12 According to Nicole Pellegrin, “In the inexperienced eyes of Westerners at the time of great discov (...)
  • 13 “Lady Mary enjoys the freedom her “drawers” confer – a freedom as much psychological as actual, a s (...)

12Turkish trousers are not distinguishable as male or female and are suitable for both men and women; a trend which runs counter to the Western sartorial norms and social habitus.10 A reform garment in nineteenth-century America,11 it is linked to radical activism and to feminine wildness and virility12 but it also sends further back to the eighteenth-century figure of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu who, at the time of Orlando’s stay in Constantinople, enthusiastically adopted Turkish pantlets.13 What’s more, the woman-manly or man-womanly confusion induced by unisex outfit is heightened in the intense seventeenth-century carnival scene on the frosted Thames. A “figure” (Orlando 18) appears “which, whether boy’s or woman’s, for the loose tunic and trousers of the Russian fashion served to disguise the sex, filled [Orlando] with the highest curiosity” (18). Sasha’s mesmerizing clothes and the trouble they produce play on the endless permutation of sex/gender possibilities. In Orlando, both Turkish and Russian attires put Western gender biases into perspective. Their carnivalesque confusion challenges clothes gender norms. I’ll call this confusion the clothes trouble as it is not linked to Butlerian gender performance and concerns personal liberty, the free expression of one’s plural inner self through clothes.

  • 14 “The term ‘heteronormativity’ designates all those ways in which the world makes sense from a heter (...)
  • 15 Neither dressing nor cross-dressing provide stable sex or gender identification as Orlando has no d (...)

13Actual cross-dressing is performed by two characters only, Harry and Orlando, and it takes place in England. Harry becomes Harriet to seduce the male Orlando in the seventeenth century and she takes off her mask when Orlando becomes a woman in the eighteenth century. One Victorian night, Orlando puts on what used to be her man clothes and seduces a young prostitute in Leicester Square. In each situation, male and female characters automatically or atavistically play the parts of man and woman, and come to parodically epitomize “the pink, the pearl, the perfection of [their] sex” (Orlando 115). Through the play on fe/male masks, Woolf questions and subverts heteronormativity.14 But she also confirms the playful possibilities that cross-dressing masquerade offers.15 “Man and woman change places. They exchange masks ad infinitum” (Derrida, Spurs 111).

3. Queer non-conformity

  • 16 “[C]arnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established orde (...)

14For Woolf, Orlando was to be “half laughing, half serious: with great splashes of exaggeration” (Diary 3 168). Invalidating stability, the mock biography plays on the “sexual topsy-turvy” (Zemon-Davis 404) of its unruly character, it counts on carnivalesque subversion16 to effect sex/gender deconstruction.

  • 17 Dressing up was a tradition the Stephen family inherited from their Victorian forebears. Woolf hers (...)
  • 18 As critics frequently underline, Orlando was contemporary with the 1928 obscenity trial of Radcliff (...)
  • 19 On the boat, the Navy took them for what they appeared to be.

15Seriousness springs from joy and laughter, from the utter pleasure and lightness that dressing-up17 and cross-dressing promote. In this way, Orlando inherits much of the spirit of the Dreadnought Hoax, the prank Virginia Stephen and a group of family and friends played on the Royal Navy in February 1910. In her 1940 talk to the Rodmell Woman’s Institute, Woolf recalls how much she enjoyed going to the “theatrical costumier in Garrick Street” (“Woolf’s Talk” 14) and her attraction for the strangeness or otherness the disguise transformation caused: “I did feel very queer” (15). Woolf’s queerness is imprecise and exploratory. It is a trickster’s queerness which echoes the “man-woman” stories that “often flagged headlines” in the 1920s and 1930s British popular press (Oram 68).18 Donning an oriental Prince’s garb, Woolf takes on an open-ended gender challenge (77). Between embodiment (she took the appearance of Prince Sanganya and interpreted his role) and imitation (she adopted and reproduced some characteristic traits of the fictitious Abyssinian Prince), she talks of a quasi alteration or metamorphosis of her identity, underlining the transformative power of costume and make up: “I became another person” (15). And the costumier added: “Madam you’re the very image of the Abyssinian Prince” (17). As the two Lafayette photographs prove, cross-dressing allowed Woolf to become somebody else – a man, a prince, an Abyssinian – and to be acknowledged as such.19 Just as in Orlando, the Hoax helped her effectively measure the expressive and symbolic power of dress. It underlined the fluid, discontinuous and surprising quality of gender which, rather than imposing an abstract anonymous norm, becomes internalized as a subjective intimate question. Cross-dressing sparks awareness.

16Of course, the Hoax also highlighted the utter mobility of what we call masculinity and femininity and the outrage this could cause. In his memoir on the event, Adrian Stephen comes back on the scandal brought about by Virginia’s eager involvement – “for God’s sake, keep Virginia’s name out of it” (Rosenbaum 15), summoned an eminent member of their family who was offended by the press publicity and the image it gave of their honourable relative. Peter Stansky remarks: “About ‘the girl’ in the party, the Mail revealed that she had come to the plan late because of a male defection, and that she had ‘stepped into the breach and the breeches’” (Stansky 34). Cross-dressed Virginia was intolerable because she “defamiliarized gender” (Halberstam 20) and in so doing ridiculed the masculinist culture of the Imperial Navy and through it the British patriarchal system.

  • 20 In her memoirs, Woolf remarks that “the sensitiveness to real things”, an “unnamed quality”, was “q (...)

17Woolf has “queer[ed] the angle” (Moments 108). Wearing men’s clothes, she confronted her own otherness, her own acute sense of becoming other.20 Just like Orlando donning “the clothes she had worn as a young man of fashion” (Orlando 138), young Virginia disruptively uses her body as an embodiment of and a projection surface for gendered fantasies. While her fellow pranksters dressed as feminised men (such was the Orientalist cliché), she outdid them cross-dressing as a man-dressed-up-as-a-woman, underlining the disruptive but also emancipatory function of garbs.

  • 21 The photographic illustration which pictures Angelica Bell dressed up as Sasha, “The Russian prince (...)
  • 22 In Writing Degree Zero, Barthes links style to the body: “imagery, delivery, vocabulary spring from (...)
  • 23 “Thanks to speech and the touch of eccentricity which makes the special charm of each of us, gender (...)
  • 24 Hélène Cixous comments on the twistiness of queerness: “Queer is twist. […] the aim is to bend, to (...)

18Orlando underlines yet another aspect of clothes trouble and the confusion it triggers: its “extraordinary seductiveness” (Orlando 18). When Sasha appears, Orlando is hypnotized by her magnetic appeal21: “The person, whatever the name or sex, was about middle height, very slenderly fashioned, and dressed entirely in oyster-coloured velvet, trimmed with some unfamiliar greenish-coloured fur” (18). Centuries later, adorned with a “black velvet suit richly trimmed with Venetian lace” which, even if “a little out of fashion”, fits her “to perfection”, the female Orlando suddenly looks “the very figure of a noble Lord” (138). The insistence on the alluring charm of both richly dressed characters has less to do with fashion proper than with style.22 Both have found sartorial styles that fit and sign the singularity of their idiosyncratic genre.23 Both have a singular and attractive manner of being, a peculiar way of moving or carrying themselves beyond gender labelling. As Clotilde Leguil, re-reading Lacan, suggests, “gender cannot be taken on as a role to which one would submit, it is made to be commensurate with a subject who naturally challenges universal norms” (L’Être 215). The elusive quality of both Sasha and Orlando’s genders, what makes their peculiar genres, resides in its twisting power24 – “Change was incessant and change perhaps would never cease” (Orlando 112).

  • 25 According to Efrat Tseëlon, masquerade is “a vehicle for constructing and deconstructing identities (...)

19Here is the nodal point where the laughing carnivalesque quality of ambiguous dress codes fuses with serious masquerade.25 Undoing assigned gender appearances either by annulling them or by interchanging them, it assumes fe/male disguises as such and thus both deconstructs normative gender categories and constructs novel and “uncertain” (Heath 53) or rather labile senses of identity. Clothes trouble provides the “queer twist” (Moments 154) Woolf nurtured throughout her life as a writer.

4. The ambisexuality of love

20At the end of the biography, Orlando “chang[es] her selves as quickly as she [drives]” (Orlando 202), indeterminately swapping fe/male selves through which we recognize different periods of her/his lives.

“What then? Who then?” she said. “Thirty-six; in a motor car; a woman. Yes, but a million other things as well. A snob am I? The garter in the hall? The leopards? My ancestors? Proud of them? Yes! Greedy, luxurious, vicious? Am I? (here a new self came in). Don’t care a damn if I am. Truthful? I think so. Generous? Oh, but that don’t count (here a new self came in). Lying in bed of a morning listening to the pigeons on fine linen; silver dishes; wine; maids; footmen. Spoilt? Perhaps. Too many things for nothing. Hence my books (here she mentioned fifty classical titles; which represented, so we think, the early romantic works that she tore up). Facile, glib, romantic. But (here another self came in) a duffer, a fumbler. More clumsy I couldn’t be. And – and – (here she hesitated for a word and if we suggest ‘Love’ we may be wrong, but certainly she laughed and blushed and then cried out –) A toad in emeralds! Harry the Archduke! Blue-bottles on the ceiling! (here another self came in). But Nell, Kit, Sasha? (Orlando 203)

21Energetically listing the succession of selves, Woolf foregrounds the ontological plurality of personality – the being-more-than-one Cixous talks about – while pointing at what Derrida calls “the fabulous sexual difference” (“Ants” 19) and the utter “undecidability” of identity – “there is no truth in itself of the sexual difference in itself, of either man or woman in itself” (Spurs 103). Through masquerade, Woolf implicitly acknowledges sex and gender as fictions, as fables, and thus validates one of the tenets of queer theory. But through the fragmentary representation of her character’s complex and composite identity (interjections, parentheses), she also pictures the mobility of sexual difference in details and traces that become clues to be deciphered.

22Derrida reminds us that “as soon as there is sexual difference, there are words or rather traces to be read. […] [S]exual difference remains to be interpreted, deciphered, decrypted, read and not seen” (“Ants” 21). In Orlando, we can read and unriddle sexual difference on clothes. But with clothes trouble and cross-dressing, interpreting also requires a renewed language to apprehend unusual identities, the language of fancy/fantasy, namely the écriture feminine, which connects gender and love to writing. The most relevant example of this is Orlando’s reaction to Sasha’s dancing.

But [the] details [of her dress] were obscured by the extraordinary seductiveness which issued from the whole person. Images, metaphors of the most extreme and extravagant twined and twisted in his mind. He called her a melon, a pineapple, an olive tree, an emerald, and a fox in the snow all in the space of three seconds; he did not know whether he had heard her, tasted her, seen her, or all three together. (Orlando18)

23Animal and vegetal cliché tropes, a host of elating metaphors, abound in Orlando’s unchecked poetic excess, excrescing “splashes of exaggeration” which express language’s reaction to Sasha’s queer apparition and create violent disruptions. The prose gets twisted, differance seeps in between words and their referent.

24For Hélène Cixous, the interpreting and reading of sexual difference is intertwined with love and otherness:

The infinite suppleness of sexual difference which cannot be submitted to anatomical or biological objectivity. We are talking about love – not only anatomy or species, or hormones or genes, it is all about reading.

What is love then? Some archintelligence, the desire for the other, a desire for the other’s happiness which can invent ways, signs, languages, or some kind of archintelligence that is free from the codes of our species, from cultural knowledge.

I say love, the love of jouissance, free from violence and power, some benevolence, a benejouissance, a caring caress that listens and reaches nearer, a light touch, a reading of the other’s eyes with blessing eyes. (Nous en sommes 105. My translation)

  • 26 Woolf started to explore gender suppleness in love relationships in Night and Day Katharine Hilbery (...)

25Matters of the heart are significantly important in Orlando as its ardent protagonist has quite a few love affairs, falls quite regularly in love and has two main love stories with Princess Sasha and Marmaduke Bonthorpe Shelmedine. These idylls have the suppleness Cixous mentions, a suppleness readable on dress or gestures26 and which contributes to what she calls the “genious” or the “vertigo of gender”: “the aim is to find oneself, ‘almost at random here and there’, hence to find oneself randomly, in place of the other, ‘as the other in the other’s place’. […] – here is the very vertigo of gender, the ever undecidable question of gender as vertigo” (108. My translation). This trouble, which entails gender uncertainty and unpredictability shows in Orlando’s and Shelmedine’s portraits.

26Indeed, both characters recognize in their lover their own irreducible otherness, they read the alteration of their alterity in their alter-ego – l’Amour Autre (Other Love) says Cixous, a love that dares otherness and generates possibilities. “To love, to watch-think-seek the other in the other, to despecularize, to unhoard” (“The Laugh” 893).

‘Oh! Shel, don’t leave me!’ [Orlando] cried. ‘I’m passionately in love with you,’ she said. No sooner had the worlds left her mouth than an awful suspicion rushed into both their minds simultaneously

‘You’re a woman, Shel!’ she cried.

‘You’re a man, Orlando!’ he cried. (Orlando164)

27The confession of love opens a playful gender interchangeability as both characters seem to effortlessly change sex and “rejoice in the exchange that multiplies” (“The Laugh” 893). Juxtaposing their portraits while bearing in mind eccentric Orlando’s use of dress, we can read sexual difference and the love that alters and dissolves it. While utterly dissimilar because of their respective singularity, the two characters have similar haircuts, their gaze and posture echo each other, and we have no difficulties picturing the male Orlando as Shelmedine and the female Shelmedine as Orlando. Reading the characters in the image, it seems that antagonist relations between sexes and genders are abolished. Enhancing “perfect reflectivity” (Bourdieu 111) and “perfect reciprocity” (112), the two portraits, taken together, seem a figuration of Bourdieu’s “‘enchanted island’ of love” (110) where mutual recognition, “by which each recognizes himself or herself in another whom he or she recognizes as another self and who also recognizes him or her as such” (111), prevails. Two “doubly-gendered creatures of unknown sex” (“Nous en sommes” 108. My translation), Orlando and Shelmedine combine likeness and difference and thus embody the “ambisexuality” of love or what Cixous calls “trance-like bisexuality” (Rire 52), which “doesn’t annul differences but stirs them up, pursues them, increases their number” (“The Laugh” 884).

Conclusion

  • 27 The French “se demander” means “to wonder” but it also literally signifies “to ask the other for on (...)

28I read Woolf’s playful and lively “biographical fantasy” (Diary 4 180) as a “thought-experiment” (Left Hand xiv) since, through cross-dressing and clothes trouble, she twistingly performs sexual difference as fabulous fable. Free from realistic contingencies, her fanciful text foregrounds gender trouble as sheer wonder, that is at once wonderful in the freedom and possibilities it offers, a source of wonderment (astonishment and admiration) and the springboard that sets us wondering. That’s it, cross-dressing = se demander.27

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Notes

1 Here as in the Mrs Dalloway’s Party short story cycle, rooks play a symbolic part. They embody women’s inner feelings, exteriorize their intimate, inarticulate drives. These wild and free birds are connected to women’s yearning for agency, freedom and free expression.

2 See Marshall on performative melancholia, “a melancholia where the subject experiences normative gender as a lost ideal” (319). See also Berman who, through transgender theory, explored “gender nonconformity cloaked in a transnational attitude” (234).

3 All quotes from Leguil are my translation.

4 In The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Ursula Le Guin envisions a planet, Winter, on which there is no gender. There, “the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed” (Left Hand 100). Gethenians are not neuters, they are “potentials, or integrals”, each is “manwoman” (101). This is congruent with Woolf’s own explorations in Orlando as in Woolf’s fantasy just like in Le Guin’s thought-experiment, “our entire pattern of socio-sexual interaction is non existent”, beings “do not see one another as men or women” (100-101), only as human beings. Le Guin goes back on her feminist engagement and her literary exploration in her 1976 essay “Is Gender Necessary?” (a redux version is published in 1988), in which she wonders “has anyone actually taken a step ‘beyond’ Virginia Woolf?” (“Gender” 155).

5 Foucault explores gender through the intersexual case of Herculine Barbin. For him the sex/gender question is tied to moral and socio-political questions of sexuality and sexual identity (see McLaren 127-134) but his analyses of Barbin’s personal feelings and subjective account of his/her experience echoes Leguil’s Lacanian and Cixous’s feminist readings of the same question.

6 Jesse Wolfe, Karyn Sproles and Sandra Gilbert suggest that Woolf’s reflection on sex and gender taps into Victorian sexology and may owe much to Edward Carpenter’s 1908 The Intermediate Sex: A Study of Some Transitional Types of Men and Women. See Wolfe 372-3, Sproles 186-7 and Gilbert 415. Georgia Johnston explores the queer modernist autobiography in order to counter scientific representations of the lesbian and reveal “new narrative formations, as transgressive response to the dominant culture” (Formation 2).

7 “Although there is no truth in itself of the sexual difference in itself, of either man or woman in itself, all of ontology nonetheless, with its inspection, appropriation, identification and verification of identity, has resulted in concealing, this undecidability” (Derrida, Spurs 103-5).

8 Leguil notes that, just like love, gender follows no rules (L’Être 49).

9 “Unisex” is the contemporary equivalent of “androgynous” and “genderless”. It was first used in 1966. It might not seem self-evident to analyse unisex clothes together with cross-dressing. Yet, in Western culture, wearing genderless attire is a significant gendered choice. As Orlando shows admirably, in the eye of the other, who deciphers and interprets dress, it is meaningful.

10 “[To look] feminine or, in the masculine equivalent, to look virile, is not natural nor automatic, and it does not depend on any chromosomic composition. It needs work, it must be earned and it is judged. Femininity does not concern the actual body of women, but their idealised body, shaped by the cultural representations of a given society or a specific social group. Gender acts as a divisive principle, in the same way as biological taxonomies. It is also linked to vision and a perception shaped by a common code” (Detrez 150. My translation).

11 “The shawls adapted from the Middle East proved popular among Western women. Turbans of the “Turkish form” and the familiarity of other articles of Middle, Near, and Far Eastern apparel may have laid the groundwork for the introduction of “Turkish trowsers [sic]”, first as masquerade costume, later as a reform garment. […] Turkish trowsers [sic] became one means of identifying the political or ideological orientation of the wearer” (Fisher np).

12 According to Nicole Pellegrin, “In the inexperienced eyes of Westerners at the time of great discoveries, ‘wildness’ showed in unisex garments: the ample clothes worn by Native Americans and Eastern peoples broke the divine law which, ‘in the twenty-second chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, deemed this kind of custom abominable in the eyes of God”. So when travellers met Persian women wearing the same large baggy trousers as their male companions, they felt deeply horrified. […] This kind of exoticism is perceived as doubly impious: women can ride horses just like men and, consequently, they ‘manage to please their mutual passions in seraglios’, which transforms their ambivalent femininity into a menace. Both literally and figuratively, their veiled femininity hides a dangerous latent manliness” (Pellegrin §8).

13 “Lady Mary enjoys the freedom her “drawers” confer – a freedom as much psychological as actual, a sign of her participation in the “masquerade” – at a time, incidentally, when masquerade in England was all the rage, and the occasion for transgressions of gender boundaries as well as of station and rank” (Garber 313). On the links between Orlando and Lady Montagu, see Winch 55-9.

14 “The term ‘heteronormativity’ designates all those ways in which the world makes sense from a heterosexual point of view. It assumes that a complementary relation between the sexes is both a natural arrangement (the ways things are) and a cultural ideal (the way things should be). Queer theory analyses how heteronormativity structures the meaningfulness of the social world, thereby enforcing a hierarchy between the normal and the deviant or queer” (Dean 238).

15 Neither dressing nor cross-dressing provide stable sex or gender identification as Orlando has no determined sex or gender. And the narrator’s ambiguities in the designation of the protagonist’s sex and gender further fog things up. On masquerade as analysed by Rivière and Butler, see Sanchez-Pardo Gonzalez and Boxwell.

16 “[C]arnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions. Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalized and completed” (Bakhtine 10).

17 Dressing up was a tradition the Stephen family inherited from their Victorian forebears. Woolf herself enjoyed dressing up for fancy dress parties (see Bell 133-4) and tableaux vivants, notably the family adaptation of her play Freshwater in 1935. She also donned one of her late mother’s dresses as a disguise to pose for Vogue/Vanity Fair in 1924 (photographs by Maurice A. Beck and Helen Macgregor).

18 As critics frequently underline, Orlando was contemporary with the 1928 obscenity trial of Radcliff Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, in which Woolf testified. Yet, as Alison Oram has proved, the British popular press regularly and repeatedly featured the stories of cross-dressing women from before the Great War through the 1950s. “Right up until the late 1930s, the domestic stories of cross-dressing women set in Britain largely retained their respectability as well as the characteristic humour and playful style of earlier years” (68). “As a sensational, exceptional story, women’s cross-dressing was part of the human-interest formula, together with crime and disaster, which, as the Colonel Barker trial demonstrated, sold newspapers” (75). Oram explores this phenomenon in link with the British popular fashion of male impersonators, which provides a cultural frame in which cross-dressing women could find a place. With the Dreadnought Hoax, Woolf stood as a female impersonator resembling contemporary cross-dressers.

19 On the boat, the Navy took them for what they appeared to be.

20 In her memoirs, Woolf remarks that “the sensitiveness to real things”, an “unnamed quality”, was “queer” in her “opaque and conventional” family (Moments 97).

21 The photographic illustration which pictures Angelica Bell dressed up as Sasha, “The Russian princess as a Child” https://i.pinimg.com/originals/03/be/c7/03bec76e2068e953db006263aa4e6432.jpg, plays with a seductiveness which combines oriental disguise, religious iconology and the mien of a femme fatale. It also capitalizes on the charm conveyed by the contrast between the blatantly feminine constructedness of the girl’s appearance and her childishness.

22 In Writing Degree Zero, Barthes links style to the body: “imagery, delivery, vocabulary spring from the body and the past of the writer and gradually become the very reflexes of his art. […] Its frame of reference is biological or biographical, not historical […] it rises up from the writer’s myth-laden depths and unfolds beyond his area of control. It is the decorative voice of hidden, secret flesh; it works as does Necessity, as if, in this kind of floral growth, style were no more than the outcome of a blind and stubborn metamorphosis starting from a sub-language elaborated where flesh and external reality come together” (Barthes 10-1).

23 “Thanks to speech and the touch of eccentricity which makes the special charm of each of us, gender can then come out as a new skin, at once unbearably light and uncanny” (L’Être 220).

24 Hélène Cixous comments on the twistiness of queerness: “Queer is twist. […] the aim is to bend, to twist, to refuse straight lines. […] Queer is a fluid, flexible way of twisting, spinning, weaving, undoing, bending what is as straight or as rigid as say… ‘Justice’. It’s a way to shift positions, to make the fantasy of virility spin on itself, to make straightness dizzy” (Regard and Reid 145. My translation).

25 According to Efrat Tseëlon, masquerade is “a vehicle for constructing and deconstructing identities” (Tseëlon 103).

26 Woolf started to explore gender suppleness in love relationships in Night and Day Katharine Hilbery loves mathematics (a conventionally male interest) and makes masculine gestures. She has a somewhat masculine bearing which questions gender categories and identities, and which confronts us to the infinite and mobile complexity of sexuality. The novel ends on the protagonist’s search for freedom through a marriage that provides hope for self-accomplishment. The intimate relationship with Ralph Denham opens up a space of negotiation and creation which should allow Katharine to be herself, in a plural and complex way. See Cassigneul.

27 The French “se demander” means “to wonder” but it also literally signifies “to ask the other for one’s self/oneself”.

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Référence électronique

Adèle CASSIGNEUL, « Cross-Dressing as Ambisexual Style: Queer Twists in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando », E-rea [En ligne], 16.2 | 2019, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2019, consulté le 21 juillet 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/7688 ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.7688

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Auteur

Adèle CASSIGNEUL

Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès
adele.cassigneul@univ-tlse2.fr
Adèle Cassigneul is a specialist of British literature and of text/image relations. She wrote her doctorate on Virginia Woolf’s relations with photography and film and has published articles on this subject both in France and abroad. She is the author of Voir, observer, penser : Virginia Woolf et la Photo-cinématographie (PUM 2018) and co-author of a monograph on Ian McEwan’s Atonement and its film adaptation, with Elsa Cavalié (Atlande 2018). In 2017, she also edited a journal issue entitled “Virginia Woolf and Images: Becoming Photographic” (Études Britanniques Contemporaines 53, 2017).

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