- Othello’s Sister: Racial Hermaphroditism and Appropriation in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando
Like any writer worth her salt, Virginia Woolf had a gift for first sentences. Her most fanciful novel, Orlando (1927), begins: “He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it— was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters” (13). As an opening, this is on par with that of her most famous work, A Room of One’s Own (1929), for its sly wit and rhetorical innovation: “But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction—what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?”(3). In each case, Woolf breaks with the conventions of English composition to very different—although theoretically linked—effect, crafting on the one hand an overtly self-deprecating, yet covertly sarcastic feminine persona, and, on the other, a bombastic and ultimately specious male biographer-narrator. “He,” Woolf writes, then adds a dash—putting the term “under erasure” syntactically, if not in the strictly Sausserian sense. It is a bold move—as is her beginning her book-length essay on “women and fiction” with a conjunction.
Orlando’s first sentence, though, does much more than catch our attention. The gendered pronoun immediately undercut by the typographic violence of the dash both introduces the hero/ine and ironically foreshadows his magical transformation into a woman not quite halfway through the novel’s three-and-a-half century romp. In other words, Woolf’s dash enacts on her protagonist’s gender the very sort of violence she describes (as I’m similarly doing when I call him a “hero/ine”). But the genius of the sentence does not stop there. For crystallized in these mere thirty-eight words we not only find Woolf’s critique [End Page 56] of gender norms and imperialism, but also her indictment of the relationship between them. There “could be no doubt”—the narrator confidently declares— of Orlando’s biological gender because...well, look at what he’s doing, he’s playing with something “the color of an old football,” and everyone knows only boys play with footballs. That the “football” was once a man’s head is not, in the biographer’s deadpan description of this puerile mock-violence, any more remarkable than “the fashion of the time”—because “Orlando’s fathers... had struck many heads of many colours off many shoulders...,” as we quickly learn, and “[s]o too would Orlando, he vowed” (13). As I am not the first critic to point out, Orlando’s pointless brutality with the unfeeling skull parodies the brutality that placed it there in the rafters of his ancestral manor—and that brutality is deeply gendered, and deeply British (see, for instance, Phillips 186 and Hovey 398).
For a novel Woolf herself dismissed in her diaries as a “joke,” as “frivolous,” and as “mere childs [sic] play,” this opening reference to racist violence is disturbing (Diary 177, 264). Sally Potter’s filmic interpretation omits it entirely, choosing instead to begin with Orlando’s composing poetry. I myself did not know at first what to do with it—or indeed with any of the other seemingly offhand references to people of color in Woolf’s oeuvre. Is the decapitated Moor in Orlando yet another instance of the Anglophone obsession for which I coined the term “Othellophilia”?1 Indeed, Shakespeare’s tragedy of interracial love and murder seems to be everywhere and nowhere in the novel. The hero’s name alludes to As You Like It (one of Shakespeare’s most gender-bending comedies) as well as Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (from whence Woolf derived her hero’s love-madness), but it also closely resembles another seven-letter name beginning and ending in the round vowel: Othello. If the resemblance is accidental, Woolf’s shorthand for the novel in her letters— “O—o”—hints further at an unconscious association (Vol. 4 23, 27). Only after viewing a performance of the play does Orlando determine to elope with his Russian princess, and that...