H.M.S. Orlando: The Metamorphosing, Imperial Vessel.
The roughly 300-year span of Orlando's life coincides with the establishment and consolidation of the oceanic British Empire. In or about 1615--a few years into the historical setting of Orlando's first chapter--Sir Walter Raleigh declared, "[w]hosoever commands the sea, commands the trade, whosoever commands the trade of the world, commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself' (qtd in Jowitt 3). By the time that Raleigh makes this comment, England is already driving for sea-faring domination, and the sailing vessel has taken on primary importance in the dream of the global British Empire. Further, the warship does not necessarily take precedence in this endeavor, but the merchant vessel, because control of trade will bring domination by pairing with military power. From the Renaissance through the nineteenth century, the British Empire attained its global power on the high seas with this two-pronged naval approach.
Without rehearsing an exhaustive history of British imperial expansion, I only wish to remind readers of the extent to which vessels occupied British thought in the context of empire. In Modernism, Imperialism, and the Historical Sense, Paul Stasi writes, "the imperial context within which Woolf wrote" dictated that "to be British was also to be imperial" and, in turn, to be "dependent upon events that took place elsewhere" which means that the "British national subject was stretched across time and space" (112). Stasi then argues that such temporal and geographical "stretching" necessitates that the imperial nation "fashion forms of continuity for itself' (112), despite that it exists as, in historian Claire Jowitt's words, "an oceanic entity" of constantly moving military and trade campaigns (4). The naval and merchant vessel would seem to help fill this role, as Paul Gilroy established in The Black Atlantic, explicitly including ships as a vital part of the ideology of an English nationalism. However, Gilroy shows in that work that a "cohesive" national English identity (which the ship symbolizes) falls in favor of what rings truer historically, a constant stream of interacting cultures that breaks down that ideological identity (which the ship actually effects). For Gilroy, ships are "micro-cultural, micro-political system[s] in motion" (4), "mobile elements that [stand] for the shifting spaces between the fixed places that they connected," and a way "to explore the articulations between the discontinuous histories of England's ports, its interfaces with the wider world" (17). As I will show, Woolf has already written ships in Orlando to be just such a chronotope for studying empire, as both a symbol for English empire and a vehicle for taking apart the ideology that fuels it.
Woolf's play with representations of English merchant and military vessels in prior works (if notalso her role as an "Abyssinian" dignitary in 1910's "Dreadnought Hoax") shows that she took such vessels seriously as tools of colonial work and as objects deserving not necessarily to be satirized, but to be critically problematized. Several of her preceding novels and essays placed English vessels in their narrative foreground in a way that, according to Kathy Phillips, introduces a typical "constellation" of thematic concerns for Woolf--"Empire making, war making, and gender relations" (vii). Particularly in the relationship between imperial work and gender relations, as Sonita Sarker writes, in The Voyage Out and Orlando "sexual exploration and experimentation and emergent or flagrantly rebellious sexualities are often located in 'other' places," whose "otherness...is deeply marked by colonial histories" and which, I posit, English ships not only made possible but practically constituted (119). Furthermore, I argue that Woolf's understanding of this otherness rooted in English ships and shipping allows locations like London's docklands, even Orlando's frozen Thames, to become such sites of problematization.
Others have explored Woolf's linking of English empire, gender relations, and representations of ships as well, though typically emphasizing them as investigating the concept of the "voyage"--a genre of English writing that Woolf herself traces to the sixteenth-century writings of Richard Hakluyt. Molly Hite argues that The Voyage Out's Rachel not only aligns with the ship which carries her to the novel's colonial destination (not in the least because her father's shipping company owns it), but that it exposes the "peculiar process of social embodiment" which Rachel experiences through her "increased definition" aboard the ship and upon delivery to the colony, pointing toward the novel's thematic position that "something supremely important is lost in the voyage that brings this young girl from the state of being an inchoate subject of experience to the state of being visibly and acceptably delineated" (533). Likewise, E. H. Wright argues that Rachel's time on the Euphrosyne constitutes a kind of "epiphanic" voyage resulting from her inherently restrictive upper-class upbringing (twenty-four years of feeding rabbits, as Rachel puts it [Wright 83]). In this way, the ship which enables the voyage becomes "alternately...a symbol of freedom" but also of "isolation" (83). In this context, the sea itself offers "refuge from the people and rules that have dictated" Rachel's life and "from social pressures and behavioral expectations based on essentialist thinking" (83, 84). However, aboard the Euphrosyne, Rachel endures Richard Dalloway's unwanted, if not violent, sexual advance, which precedes Terence Hewet's ogling and sizing her up as a candidate for marriage--both of which set the stage for the newly female Orlando's experience on the Enamoured Lady.
Jeanne Dubino and Anna Snaith also focus on Woolf's consistent use of ship-bound voyages to explore the English cultural constructions of gender which accompany the colonial work carried out by them. Dubino argues that women's sea voyages are inherently gendered in Woolf, that "they become an educational occasion in which women learn about femininity" but, rather than producing actual freedom or change, reveal "straightjackets of conventional gender roles" (12). (1) In "Leonard and Virginia Woolf: Writing against Empire," Snaith posits that Woolf "defamiliarizes" the trope of "English (wo)man abroad" in order to "undercut narratives of imperial pride or superiority," setting the stage for Orlando's life and travels (24).
In order to enact such undercutting of proud narratives of English empire and superiority as Snaith posits, Woolf draws on the very same historical writings which she admired as a young reader. That is, she both invokes and then deconstructs the two perhaps most canonical works of English sea exploits of the sixteenth century, those of Richard Hakluyt--particularly The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation, first published in 1589 and reprinted in 1906. (2) Other critics have shown Woolf's repeated engagement with this and related works (Professor Walter Raleigh's English Voyages of the Sixteenth Century and James Anthony Froude's English Seamen in the Sixteenth Century [Fox 20]), and Stasi has argued that Woolf saw Hakluyt specifically as laying the groundwork forthe 19th-century English empire (122). Alice Fox documents Woolf's repeated readings of her reprint of Principal Navigations over several years. (3)
The way in which Woolf repeatedly engages with Hakluyt's works as a young reader and as an author suggests that she finds productive ambivalence in them. She praises his narratives' rhetorical qualities and even involves their geographical descriptions in her own writing (as Fox shows at some length). Nonetheless, in "The Elizabethan Lumber Room," she explicitly recognizes their potential to be "used effectively all through the West Country to decoy the apt men lounging by the harbour side to leave their nets and fish for gold. Less glorious but more urgent," she writes, "was the summons...to set foot on some intercourse between the merchants of England and the merchants of the East" (63). In other words, her admiration for captivating stories of the English on the high seas in Hakluyt comes paired with a wariness of their imperial utility.
In terms of Woolf viewing her representations of English vessels as something like Gilroy's empire-creating, yet imperial-narrative-deconstructing, chronotopes, Hakluyt works as an atlas for tracing their historical progress and for approaching new possibilities in terms of imperial action, English social hierarchy, and even gender relations. Fox writes that Woolf saw in Hakluyt's depictions of English vessels "a means of class mobility, rather than a perpetuation of a system that allowed the rich to salve their consciences while keeping down the underprivileged," particularly as his representations of sixteenth-century English sailors contrasted with that of her near-contemporary, Froude (36). Understanding Woolf's take on her own important source material in this way opens up the role of vessels in her narratives. Here they function as mobile sites that challenge the relationship between characters' socially-defined subjectivity, which in Stasi's argument, typically "must be rooted in place" to the extent that the closeness between place and subjectivity "effac[es]" possibilities of "allegiances" across social classes (134). Following Fox's position, however, Woolf's sense of Hakluyt's ships as "means of class mobility" leads her to depict vessels as spaces for novel actions or social formations. Moreover, Fox shows that such influence runs throughout the novels preceding Orlando. She demonstrates how Woolf's reading of Hakluyt's collected narratives of the "southern voyages" "had already informed her writing of The Voyage Out" and influenced her "thoughts about gender in relation to the phenomenon of voyaging" in Jacob's Room and To the Lighthouse. Her rereading in Hakluyt about both the "northern" and southern voyages then "enter[ed] into her last novel of that decade, Orlando" (39). Thus, in Woolf's fiction, as distilled into the title character and narrative of Orlando, as I will show, the English vessel moves between modes of meaning, geographical space, and social structures of class, gender, and imperial work.
Woolf's fiction consistently uses vessels in a literal, denotative sense to discuss merchant and colonial travel. More intriguingly, it also consistently makes and uses metaphors for people as vessels in order to enact more complicated examinations and experimentations with the aforementioned "constellation" of thematic concerns ("Empire making, war making, and gender relations"). Within such imagery, as part of Woolf's vessel-based experimentation in Orlando, fabrics play a surprisingly central role. For most of the three hundred-odd years of his and her existence alongside that of imperial England, fabric in the form of sails makes English ships go. Fabric, especially wool, is delivered by English ships to colonial and/or commercial destinations. Fabrics are brought home to England's docks by those same ships, at which point they take center stage in English fashions. Fabric inheres in Woolf's depicted, if not also in historical, English colonialism in Orlando, and previous works demonstrate her by-then established consideration of fabrics' particular roles in colonial economics and travel. In works like The Voyage Out and The London Scene's "The Docks of London" and "Oxford Street Tide," she consistently specifies the nature and action of any pertinent ship's sails. Further, she insistently and specifically references fabrics as important trade and imperial commodities throughout these works. In so doing, she intentionally places fabrics as colonial commodities into contact with literal and metaphorical vessels, which results in an even wider constellation of concern for English bodies, predominantly, and the ceremonial and martial fashions that adorn them for particular roles in the imperial endeavor.
Prior to Orlando, Woolf developed a repertoire of metaphors that recast people as ships, and ships as people, to explore this nexus of bodies, fabrics, and colonial work. In "Oxford Street Tide," she describes barrows loaded with goods, and by association, the people pushing them, directly as "vessels" which "eddy vaguely across the stream of traffic" in their part of the "effort to persuade the multitude that here unending beauty...very cheap and within the reach of everybody, bubbles up every day...from an inexhaustible well" (24-25). In this effort, the "vessels" involved do not function as people but as tools. In the same way, but reversing the direction of transformation of ship-to-person, "The Docks of London" describes its "romantic and free and fitful" ships as "swimming" upriver to the port, where, after their "sails are furled," they "have no longer the proper perspective of sea and sky behind them" or "the proper space in which to stretch their limbs" (6).
Similarly, The Voyage Out both figures Rachel as a vessel and the ship, Euphrosyne, as a virgin bride-to-be, connecting, in Snaith's reading, the economics of colonial trade to those of "the marriage market" on which Rachel is a commodity ("Race, Empire" 207). In Chapter 1, just after readers are told that the Euphrosyne is one of her father's ten merchant ships, Rachel declares, "I'm going out to t-t-triumph in the wind!" as if she were a sailing vessel--emphasizing her individual connection to the material ship by taking her to its wind-blown decks. In the next chapter, the Euphrosyne becomes "a bride going forth to her husband, a virgin unknown of men," as an "inhabitant of the great world...travelling all day across an empty universe, with veils drawn before her and behind" (24-25, emphasis mine). That Woolf's narrator conflates the ship's sails with the veils worn by a bride, a virgin bride, no less, bears directly on Orlando's descriptions of the relationship between the body and its adornment, to the social and political roles fabrics and fashions imply, and to the newly female Orlando's experience aboard the Enamoured Lady.
Such metaphors also link ships and shipping to the economic activities of British colonialism. When Woolf writes in "The Elizabethan Lumber Room" that much of the "charm" of Hakluyt's volumes "consists in the fact that Hakluyt is not so much a book as a great bundle of commodities loosely tied together, an emporium, a lumber room strewn with ancient sacks...huge bales of wool, and little bags of rubies and emeralds" and that reading it resembles "sitting down in semi-darkness to snuff the strange smells of silks and leathers and ambergris," she highlights this connection between English vessels and the commodities that inhere in imperial economics--fabrics being among the most prevalent, most important of them (61). (4) Thus, Hakluyt not only influences Woolf's rhetoric in describing ships, voyages, and colonial destinations in her fiction, it also draws her attention to the way that his narratives work as commodities that motivate colonialism as well as the commodities that system garners. They "remind" captains of "how necessary it is to find a market abroad for English wool" and to draw the "apt young men" to win "immortal fame... in search of markets and goods" ("Lumber Room" 63-64). (5)
When it comes to the economic products and work of British imperialism in Woolf's imagination, then, fabrics serve as both literal, historical markers of colonial trade and exploitation and as metonymic images for colonial attitudes (all of which Orlando and his and her body will trouble). Snaith takes the Flushings' practice of buying and selling of fabrics in The Voyage Out as an example of "the violent capitalist motivations behind colonialism in the search for cheap labour, new markets, and raw goods" ("Writing against Empire" 19). Mrs. Flushing gleefully explains to Rachel that she and her husband regularly obtain "shawls, stuffs, cloaks, embroideries" "cheap" around the world and then sell them to wealthy Londoners upon their return: as the unnamed, indigenous peoples, "don't know what they're worth,...we get 'em cheap," she says, "And we shall sell 'em to smart women in London" (VO 238). (6) Snaith points out that Mrs. Flushing essentially quotes from Leonard's Empire and Commerce in Africa here, as he describes the "universal," "dominating" "economic passion" of imperialism--"the passion of buying cheap and selling dear" (qtd in Snaith 22). Thus, in The Voyage Out, as a prelude to an extension of the same principle to Orlando's body, fabrics take up a primary place as problematic colonial commodity at the heart of its exploitative economics.
Orlando takes this issue further in the focus that begins in the novel's first line on the fabrics that adorn Orlando, both as a literal and figurative vessel of empire. The specificity of Woolf's descriptions of his and her adornment throughout Orlando's life tie the practices of fashion to those of empire, a theme with which Woolf also works in "The Docks of London." There she writes that the "only thing...that can change the routine of the docks is a change in ourselves," again using wool as an example, saying that if "we...took to using rubber instead of wool for our blankets, the whole machinery of production and distribution would rock and reel," and citing "our tastes, our fashions" as "mak[ing] the cranes dip and swing" and "call[ing] the ships from the sea" (14). (7) "Flocks upon flocks of Australian sheep have submitted to the shears," she continues, "because we demand woollen overcoats in winter" (14).
As others have shown, Woolf targets "the perpetrators of colonialism: the ideologies, systems, institutions, commodities, and exhibitions through which colonial power is maintained" (Snaith, "Race, Empire" 209), while using "juxtaposition and metaphor" to "orient the gaze...toward the background links among Empire, military, and gender relations, which together constitute a comprehensive imperial ideology" (Phillips xxix). I posit, then, that Woolf creates the character of Orlando as a multiply-signifying vessel. Orlando ties the colonial tool of the literal vessel (in her "full sail" and in her "launch" into London society, for example) to the colonial commodity (in the specification of fabrics reaped through colonial trade), and to the historical arc of culturally determined meaning of those elements toward the carrying out of British Empire (in his and her fashions and their bodies' relationship to them as signifying of class, gender, and imperial role)--or, in other words, to Stasi's "sense of continuity" that historical narratives build for the empire. Orlando's mutability and its slippery relation to that narrative then challenges any such continuity or coherence.
Initially, Orlando's masculine youth promises a future in the British ruling class under royal appointment--as introduced in the first lines depicting his boyhood pastime: slicing at a severed "Moor's" head with a sword in an attic room. The head has been handed down by some unknown, unnamed, paternal ancestor. Apparently as a matter of course, "Orlando's fathers had ridden...and they had struck many heads of many colours off many shoulders, and brought them back to hang from the rafters" (11). His paternal line constitutes a repeating process of colonial warfare more than a series of unique individuals, and Orlando stands at the end of it, willing to take on the head-lopping mantle.
However, an already-noticeable discrepancy between his body and its adornment complicates his seemingly predestined service to the Empire from the outset. Constructing the novel's opening lines so that the reader cannot determine whether or not his clothes are "appropriate" to Orlando's gender--because they partially "disguise" it--foreshadows the pattern of Orlando's failed imperial action, raising doubts about whether Orlando will be capable of serving as the continuation of the war-making paternal line. Thus, the novel's first parenthetical expression points out a critical junction for my argument: the inherently intertwined problem of Orlando's period-appropriate adornment, his somehow troubling body and sexuality, the fact that both adornment and sexuality are culturally regulated in the Empire's successive historical periods, and that his imperial role hinges upon this cultural regulation. The latter emerges in Queen Elizabeth's rewarding Orlando's family with an estate and Orlando himself with an appointment as Treasurer and Steward based upon his "implied...pair of the finest legs that a young nobleman has ever stood upright upon" (18). This investment with royal authority makes Orlando into a vessel of the queen's power, which he doles out in Scotland and other locales, though only briefly and unreliably as his youth and "boyishness" lead him to other pursuits, namely of women.
Orlando's interest in women ought to reinforce a sense of heteronormative masculinity. However, the places where he cultivates this interest violate the restriction of scope expected by his ruling class, inducing the social and political problems of his young, male life--and typified by the garments he must conceal as well as those he uses to do so. Along the banks of the Thames where sailors tell Hakluyt-esque tales of their voyages, Orlando finds captivating women who are "scarcely less bold" in speech or "free in their manners" than the men. On this fringe of society--the docklands upon which England's colonial trade depends--social mores appear more egalitarian than in the class from which Orlando comes (22). This license titillates him, but he feels compelled to remain anonymous--less for decorum's sake than for maintaining his own freedom of movement--and he dons "a grey cloak to hide the star at his neck and the garter at his knee" (22). The performative, imperial rigging of the garter and star pendant made of gold, enamel, and precious stones, would, if seen, bar his access to the common sailors' world, because it would denote the power the Queen has invested in him. Covering these two features of his adornment with grey cloak made of duffle (common, coarse woolen cloth affiliated with lower-class garb) enables a kind of class transvestism--an adoption of coarse fabric not meant for the "fine" figure of Orlando, with his curling hair and attractive "nobleman's" legs, and most importantly, imperial station. That Woolf names this fabric, "duffle," is an invocation of English colonial history, as the OED traces its etymology through English trade with the town of "Duffel" in Brabant, then later with American Indians and then with the New England and Virginia colonies through the eighteenth century. The fact that the fabric's name became synonymous with a cloak worn by lower-class subjects forms a contradiction to the authority vested in Orlando as the queen's appointee, covering the sartorial signs of that power.
This class transvestism grants Orlando access to the sailors and women, "eager" as they are "to come at the truth of the matter as Orlando himself (22). The phrase, the truth of the matter, implies in one way that the nearer to his skin the women can go, the closer they draw to Orlando's true identity--as if his clothes function as protective layers hiding the kernel of truth, presumably his/her genitals. The other possible meaning of this phrase, as a euphemism for sex, posits a coexistence of "truth" with intercourse, in which a naked body cannot conceal gender or identity the way a cloak or other adornment might. Both meanings fail to account for a mutable body and contrast with Shel's later sighting of the apparently clearly female Orlando's "full sail" of English canvas which accurately announces her.
In any case, the three themes of Orlando's gender and sexuality, the role of his clothing in relation to them, and his decreasing utility to His or Her Majesty's Empire meet on the banks of the Thames, thanks to shipping's role in the Empire. Because the Crown relies on sea trade, it sanctions constant traffic into and out of London, even at the risk that such constant traffic provides opportune locations for otherwise forbidden or unsavory activity: "Every day sail[s] to sea some fine ship bound for the Indies; now and again another blackened and ragged with hairy unknown men onboard [creeps] painfully to anchor" (O 22). Orlando's noble body does not belong with "ragged" ships and "hairy" men, but because the Empire lives via its ships and their constant comings and goings, he can hide himself among the river's on and offshore traffic, where "opportunity" is not "lacking," because "[n]o one misse[s] a boy or girl if they dall[y] a little on the water after sunset; or raise [s] an eyebrow if gossip ha[s] seen them sleeping soundly among the treasure sacks safe in each other's arms" (O 22). The bustling banks of the Thames offer freedom from class-based expectations, at once symbolizing imperial business and enabling Orlando to act without regard to, if not against, the imperial, cultural order that oversees this business. In this way, the larger context and dock-side locations affiliated with shipping echo Gilroy's view of the ship as a tool of empire that actually orchestrates interactions that undermine the cultural ideology behind the imperial venture. As Her Majesty's Treasurer and Steward, an ostensibly important post, Orlando can be found in post-coital slumber "among the treasure sacks" on the banks of the Thames. Compared to the "severely utilitarian" docks of Woolf's "The Docks of London," which find "mercantile value" for even the most seemingly odd or out-of-place materials lying among the "dingy, decrepit-looking" banks and warehouses, Orlando uses his lower-class fabric and fashion to flout his imperial role there, thus challenging his own "mercantile" or imperial value (7, 11).
Such is Orlando's state as he enters the reign of James I and meets Sasha, whose freezing of English trade and subsequent theft of Orlando's love inspires his abandonment of the Steward and Treasurer position for a poet's life. One cannot say that despite that Sasha first appears to Orlando to be a boy, but partially because of or in relation to it, she captivates Orlando. On first sight of her, Orlando stands "ready to tear out his hair with vexation that the person [is] of his own sex, and thus all embraces [are] out of the question," because his cultural location prescribes his sexuality (28). As the Queen's, then the King's, tool, his duty is to further the empire abroad and produce offspring with an appropriately well-bred woman. Nonetheless, Orlando's false but exciting initial identification of a male Sasha results from her athletic movement and attire, a "loose tunic and trousers," which (familiarly enough) "serve to disguise the sex" (27). As Orlando's indeterminate gender and sexuality trouble his utility to the throne, Sasha's own ambiguous body and fashion mark her as outside the class of women Orlando should seek.
Sasha's troublesome complementarity with Orlando's ambiguous gender (which "Queen Bess" had confidently identified, and based upon which his post was granted) performs a complete embargo on Orlando's work as Steward and Treasurer, and freezes the traffic of ships in and out of London that signifies the nation's trade. Their first meeting on the frozen Thames symbolizes this embargo, a stop to that "irresistible call" to merchant ships to enter London that coincides with the duration of Sasha's hold on Orlando (Woolf, "Docks" 6). In combination with her distaste for his class of monarchs and lords (she calls them a detestable "English mob"), Sasha's active distraction of Orlando from his appointed, governmental responsibilities constitute the less physically apparent embargo, or "freezing" of, England's imperial project. Only recently considered a masculine young man whom the Queen herself handpicked for service to the Empire, Orlando now speaks French while strolling among commoners with Sasha, his infiltrating Russian girlfriend, and schemes to "escape" from his homeland with her.
As Orlando waits with the horses on their proposed night of escape, however, Sasha executes his emasculating defeat by sailing off. Simultaneously, all that her frost has impeded in the Thames breaks loose, having "gained its freedom" (46). The thawing river rages out to sea behind the Russian ship bearing Sasha, wreaking havoc along the banks and killing a number of Londoners marooned on speeding slabs of ice. The Muscovite Embassy's ship escapes, while the French, Spanish, Austrian, and "Turk" ships incur damages or sink. The confirmation of his betrayal comes in the shape of "black eagles...flying from the mast head"--or, in maritime terminology, the ship's dressing (48). (8) As he stands knee-deep in the water, he accuses Sasha of "all the insults that have ever been the lot of her sex," including that she is "[f]aithless" and, ironically, "mutable" (48). That mutability damns her foretells how this same characteristic will also render him (as her) an incapable, imperial vessel. As Sasha's ship takes her away, the water "takes" Orlando's words and washes a broken pot, the picture of an impotent vessel, against his leg (40). (9)
Sasha's flight motivates Orlando's complete break with his role as Steward and Treasurer. He abandons the Thames and its traffic for his family home and poetry. After his subsequent literary betrayal, this time at the pen of the poet Nicholas Greene, Orlando concludes, "I have done with men" (71). Without realizing it, however, Orlando is not fully done with men, as he is courted by "Harriet," a man dressed in women's clothes in order to approach Orlando in a culturally condoned manner. During one lighthearted argument between them, Harriet attempts to fit a shin plate from one of Orlando's suits of armor to his leg. This gesture symbolizes an attempt to adorn Orlando with the martial tools of empire, the armor in which his male ancestors presumably struck heads from the bodies of differently-colored men. Orlando's leg and the plate do not fit each other, though, producing an almost overwhelming sensation of love directed at Harriet. At first a pleasant sensation this love turns out to be the "black...vulture," "Lust," which "disgustingly" lands on Orlando (87). He refuses the plate and rejects Harriet in the same moment. Thus, before Orlando sails off in another imperial capacity, we find a repetition of his inability to fit properly into his station as English gentry, because his body and the raiment handed down by that station simply do not match. His body cannot be made compatible to his role as the Empire's tool, like a vessel rigged with the wrong sails.
Contingent upon the king's approval, Orlando flees from the conflicted love that Harriet's gesture with the shin plate produces, as Ambassador Extraordinary to Constantinople. His proposed royal service (now to King Charles) begins as a voyage of escape, not as a mode for imperial progress. Perhaps due to this predisposition, Orlando's time as ambassador coincides with a successful rebellion there. This rebellion's climax also denotes the climax of Orlando's imperial, political career.
On the night in which he will become she, symbols of imperial power awarded to Orlando collide with his actions, which contradict the practice of colonial politics. Preparations for the celebration of Orlando's dukedom feature signs of imperial power, not least of which are "jellies made to represent His Majesty's ships," as if the night's Turkish guests are invited to ingest representations of the same vessels exporting English empire to their country (94). (10) Once he enters, Orlando's body--specifically his "leg," "countenance," and "princely manners"--add to the presentation of English power (96). While standing on the "centre Balcony... hung with priceless rugs" and accepting "the Collar of the Most Noble Order of the Bath," the "Star" pin, "the ducal robes,...the ducal coronet," and "the golden circlet of strawberry leaves," Orlando stands as the proxy body of the English monarchy inhabiting Turkish space--being crowned there under protection of six Turkish guards (96-97).
However, Orlando addresses the room in Turkish rather than in the King's English and when he places the circlet on his head, an atmospheric disturbance occurs which is said to be either the beginning of the revolution or some prophesied, mystical hailing of Orlando. Effectively, the placing of the circlet on his head announces the end of his imperial service to England, rather than his ascendency within it. Christine Fouirnaies argues that the possession of power and land within Constantinople that the coronet, or circlet, ought to symbolize, once stolen in the rebellion, precipitates, or at least precedes, his "turn[ing] into a woman" and that this change denotes a change of class as well, since a woman cannot wear it (35). I posit that the "disturbance" which accompanies the moment of that circlet's contact with Orlando's body already indicates a mismatch between the body and the power-infused adornment, so that it echoes Orlando's experience with the shin plate from his ancestors' suit of armor as his and her body refuses the adornment that grants investment of imperial power.
Afterwards, Orlando's covering or replacing of the new ceremonial garb by a "loose cloak or dressing gown" repeats the fabric-based transgression of class and imperial role that he practiced in the London docklands earlier. Dressed this way, Orlando hoists "a woman, much muffled, but apparently of the peasant class" to his chambers' balcony, after which they embrace and go inside (98). First, on the ceremonial balcony, Orlando's body, as a vessel, contains and strategically doles out the King's power overseas, showing the majestic reach of England's throne. On the second balcony, Orlando skirts public view completely while the rebellion heightens, and he forgoes any demonstration of his and England's power by publicly "taking" a woman from among the local upper-class to solidify their adherence to English rule. As with his earlier breaking of class barriers, the coarse, lower-class-affiliated gown he covers himself in symbolizes a rejection of imperial British power and demonstrates his lack of allegiance to the ideology that allows colonization to flourish--namely, that a peasant and a duke cannot exist as equals, let alone as lovers, and that a colonial "race" could not and would not love another which it colonizes. After their marriage, Orlando enters the week-long slumber that allows him to survive the successful rebellion by appearing dead. When he wakes, his embassy is ransacked and he is now a woman.
Tellingly again, this new, female Orlando escapes the city with the help of "those Turkish coats and trousers which can be worn indifferently by either sex," in which she conceals "several strings of emeralds and pearls of the finest orient which had formed part of her Ambassadorial wardrobe" (104). She has the aid of a group of so-called "gipsies" with whom, the narrator reasons, "she must have been in secret communication before the revolution" (105). Eventually, Orlando's values and views about nature make her unwelcome among them, and she finds "an English merchant ship, as luck would have it, under sail in the harbour" near Mt. Athos (112, emphasis mine). The "biographer" does not further specify the location (on a northern Grecian island) or how Orlando came there, but its relevance lies in that, regardless of where Orlando finds him or herself--and not "as luck would have it"--English maritime trade has already established its presence (112). (11)
Using pearls from the now-useless ambassador's costume hidden under the gender-neutral, "Turkish" adornment, Orlando outfits herself in "the dress of a young English woman" and buys passage home (113). Thus, the remains of her imperial post's sartorial component offer her the power to buy transport home on an English ship in a fashion appropriate to her new station. Where once the male Orlando had lain with various female companions among "sacks of treasure" along the Thames, the Enamoured Lady now transports her via the Thames into London along with such "sacks"--and dressed in a fabric that connotes the "selling dear" of textile trade. The vessel's name foreshadows Orlando's ensuing realizations about the new expectations of behavior and character she must meet, highlighted by the sailor who nearly falls to his death from the mast after seeing "an inch or two of calf" which she failed to cover and the captain's immediate desire to erect an awning over her on deck (116).
Over the duration of her voyage these new, concrete realities sink in. He used to insist "that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled" for his pursuit (115). Now she must "pay in [her] own person for those desires" while she protects herself, above all else, as a vessel for (English) procreation (115). "[C]hastity is (women's) jewel," Orlando thinks, while the Enamoured Lady's captain arranges the awning to shade her and "the coil of skirts about her (once admired, once free) legs" make themselves felt (113). Her body's culturally prescribed adornment both contains her and announces the new rules by which she must play.
All the while, textiles as vital pieces of imperial economics and politics cover her three times over: the awning chivalrously rigged by the captain, the dress that marks her as "a young Englishwoman of rank," and, in a telltale move for Woolf, the ship's sails which conspicuously fall on their landing in Italy (113). In The Art of Sail-Making, David Steel explains that the sails under which Orlando rides, like all English sails for centuries, would have constituted a layer of English canvas regulated for their Englishness. That is, beginning under William III, English ships had to be rigged with sails produced in Britain, of British materials, as long as demand could be met, while any coming from overseas were taxed, examined, and if approved, stamped as English before being flown over English ships (187-88). Altogether, Woolf's orchestration of the female Orlando's return to England draws attention to the fabrics around her, as near to her body as stockings and as remote as the sails flying from the masts, as material connections between sartorial culture and colonial economics--with the variably gendered Orlando most problematically bearing them.
While Orlando ruefully takes in the limitations of being wrapped this way ("these skirts are plaguey things to have about one's heels," she thinks), she also finds that "the stuff (flowered paduasoy) is the loveliest in the world" and shows her "own skin...to such advantage" (114). Again, the word's etymology reveals a micro-history of English textile trade, as "paduasoy" refers to the Italian city of Padua from which the "strong, rich, silk fabric, usually corded or embossed" came (OED "paduasoy"). Furthermore, contrasted with the "duffle" used as concealment by the young, male Orlando or on the balcony prior to his empire-defying marriage, this fabric aligns Orlando with the "smart women" of London to whom The Voyage Out's Mrs. Flushing sells colonial textiles. Moreover, while her role appears mostly unappealing to Orlando as an intelligent person who previously experienced the freedom men enjoy, she explicitly connects her skin to her adornment in an aesthetic way. This particular cloth, which Woolf clearly uses with intent, improves her own understanding of her appearance--not necessarily in that she appears more genuine but perhaps more attractive. Being attractive, consciously and assiduously pursuing an appearance that wins the interest of men, now constitutes the primary outlet designated by upper-class, English culture for Orlando.
When Sasha sailed away from Orlando and England, a broken pot washed against his leg. Now, landing in England via the Thames, Orlando must protect herself as a "chaste, threatened, weak, and fertile vessel," in Phillips' words, ready to be filled and to "meet the needs of an imperial state" by delivering a line of children into the throne's service (199). She may no longer strike a man, or curse him, make an oath, or "draw [her] sword and run him through the body," but she may express her expected and appropriate inner emptiness--her being a vessel--by pouring out tea and asking, "D'youtake sugar? D'you take cream?" (O 116). (12) In her own argument for Orlando's change of "sex" as inherent in the loss of British influence in Constantinople, Phillips posits that the empire requires that Orlando become female in order to justify military intervention as the protection of female English subjects. This new, "imperial role" for Victorian women is to give their male counterparts a martial motive in guarding "the chastity which the bridal veils proclaim," then to fill the "bassinets (that) nurture the soldiers who will fill the ranks" (Phillips 197). Hence comes Orlando's understanding that "the British Empire came into existence" by each woman bearing fifteen children (O 229). The Enamoured Lady delivers this new vessel of the English gentry, the promise of a continued, imperial lineage, into the Victorian era, when she must fight her disinheritance for being either dead or a woman in a legal suit, which foretells her coming difficulty and ultimate failure to fill this vessel's role.
After moving to London to escape Archduke Harry's second attempt to woo her, now under the reign of Queen Anne, Orlando immediately makes the mistake of walking in public alone--which ladies may not do. (13) And even in London's "miasma" which might seem more amenable to an incompletely-gendered woman. Orlando finds no clear place. Crucially, the "biographer" describes the attempt to introduce her there as the launching of a ship for its maiden voyage. "Orlando was launched without delay," he writes, "and with some splash and foam at that, upon the waters of London society" (141). Not only does this "launch" figure Orlando directly as an English ship, it does so similarly to the earlier works mentioned above, which use such metaphors to connect vessels to imperial work and commodities. (14)
The launching of the ship that Orlando ought to be fails, however. She does not "pass muster" as a proper female because "there was an absent mindedness about her which...made her clumsy" (143). Further, "she was apt to think of poetry when she should have been thinking of taffeta; her walk was...too much of a stride for a woman...and her gestures...endanger a cup of tea on occasion" (143). "Passing muster" as female, just as for a ship or a soldier, means appearing uniform, fitting the stipulated pattern of dress and decorum. To fulfill her role as an English lady, Orlando should focus on her own surface and its appearance to others' view--to move gracefully, to speak and listen congenially while entertaining or being entertained, to think of fabrics and fashions that complement her skin and body. She should not pursue self-determined, intellectual subjects--contemplating poetry or philosophy, nor moving her body willfully. Ultimately, the failure of the newly launched Orlando, who rudders constantly against the borders of condoned behavior, marks a failure of the expected coopting of her body for imperial expansion or continuity.
In a way that mirrors Orlando's male life, then, she cannot live up to what the country, crown, and culture demand of her female life. She does not function as an imperial vessel, which ought to deliver fighting men and merchants for service overseas, who will, themselves, later return with treasure and win decorations like the men of "Portrait of a Londoner." Nor was she successful when a male Steward (carousing with the lower classes and enabling the freeze on English trade) or Ambassador (losing Constantinople). Orlando's mutability, the lack of a clear match between his and her body and its adornment in the textiles that are also colonial commodities, both signal and help enact his and her incompatibility with any imperial role.
Not only does this failed combination repeatedly prevent the success of his. and then her, imperial activity up to the time of her return to England, but the Empire's progress through time also increasingly pushes Orlando's indeterminate nature further to the fringes of imperial usefulness and, thus, of social relevance. As the nineteenth century arrives--and the height of British colonial reach with it--Orlando finds it "antipathetic to her in the extreme" (178). Its most dire infringement upon her fluid nature is the predominant sartorial textile, crinoline, which is "heavier and more drab than any dress she had yet worn" (178). Not unrelated to the repressive Victorian mores concerning female physicality, Orlando finds that no other fabric "had ever so impeded her movements" (178). Her body develops a stronger affinity for nature during this time, specifically with the natural elements surrounding her home in Blackfriars, where she declares: "I have found my mate. It is the moor. I am nature's bride" (182). But Victorian England's fashions directly fight her natural attraction to nature as a "mate." Its plumed hat blows off as she walks (with difficulty, in the crinoline) and its thin shoes become "quickly soaked and mud-caked" as she attempts to tramp the moor (179). Because Orlando needs this communion with the plants, animals, and soil of her lands, the nineteenth century becomes another, stronger case in which Orlando's bodily and/or spiritual needs and history's gendered fashions cannot coexist. And any role in imperial work remains out of the question.
Similarly, the increased mechanization and ordering of life that Orlando first notes while passing the now-orderly Wapping Stairs on the Enamoured Lady's arrival in London constitutes the latest form of imperial progress, and her refusal to live up to the late Victorian model of mechanistically bringing the "British Empire... into existence" by "marry [ing] at nineteen and [having] fifteen or eighteen children by...thirty" poses equal resistance to empire as refusing to adopt its modernization. However, as the Victorian period gives way to the twentieth century she proves (again, against gender expectations) to be an adroit driver. Where Orlando has never fit since his adolescence, Orlando continues not to fit--in the class of lords, dukes, and duchesses. Despite giving birth to one child (vowing it will be the only), Orlando falls out of the ruling class and its attention.
Where the adoption of a second or subsequent gender might often be thought of as the shedding of a sense of falsity in favor of a genuine identity, I posit that, in Orlando's title character, such a removal of falsity is precluded by the mutability of the character. Orlando's metamorphosing body, gender, or "sex" renders the dichotomy of "truthfulness" and "falseness" moot. It is precisely this mootness which demonstrates the British Empire's ideology as fallacious in Orlando, as Woolf orchestrates it within the historical arc of British colonialism's vessel-based foundation and expansion--with Orlando's transformation directly at its midpoint. Woolf's use of the "biographer" foregrounds his history, like all histories, as a narrative construction, which combines with Orlando's continual fashion and gender-related social and political failures to refute anything like the narrative of continuity that Stasi describes.
However, his and her political and social failures do not expose Orlando as an incapable individual. They expose the fully arbitrary, temporally relative, but stringently reinforced cultural expectations foisted onto him and then her as such, which is given form on Orlando's body through the cultural regulation of fashion as performative of gender and sexuality and as both a tool and product of colonial economics. Regardless of gender and time, the versions of English culture which define sartorial, economic, and social mores throughout Orlando remain arbitrary, despite that the imperial business for which Orlando is to be outfitted as a literal or representative vessel depend on those regulations. Thus, the string of successive, present-moment failures surrounding Orlando's metamorphosing body constitute a critique of the very narrative motivating the continuation of English colonial history.
Blyth, Ian. "Orlando and the Tudor Voyages." Locating Woolf: The Politics of Space and Place. Eds. Anna Snaith and Michael Whitworth. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, pp. 183-96.
"dress, v." Merriam-Webster Online. Britannica. 12 December 2012.
"dress, v." OED Online. December 2012. Oxford UP. 12 December 2012.
Dubino, Jeanne. "Engendering Voyages in Virginia Woolf's Fiction." Voyages Out, Voyages Home: Selected Papers from the Eleventh Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf. Eds. Jane de Gay and Marion Dell, Clemson U-Digital P, 2010, pp. 12-17.
"duffle | duffel, n" OED Online. September 2012. Oxford UP. 8 December 2012.
Fouirnaies, Christine. "Was Virginia Woolf a Snob? The Case of Aristocratic Portraits in Orlando." Woolf Studies Annual, Vol. 22, 2016, pp. 21-40.
Fox, Alice. Virginia Woolf and the Literature of the English Renaissance. Clarendon Press, 1990.
Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Verso, 1993.
Hite, Molly. "The Public Woman and the Modernist Turn: Virginia Woolf's The Voyage Out and Elizabeth Robins's My Little Sister." Modernism/Modernity, vol. 17, no. 3, 2010, pp. 542-48.
Jowitt, Claire. The Culture of Piracy, 1580-1630: Literature and Seaborne Crime. Ashgate, 2010.
"paduasoy, n" OED Online. September 2012. Oxford UP. 8 December 2012.
Phillips, Kathy J. Virginia Woolf Against Empire, U of Tennessee P, 1994.
Sarker, Sonita. "Woolf and Theories of Postcolonialism." Virginia Woolf in Context. Eds. Bryony Randall and Jane Goldman. Cambridge UP, 2012, pp. 110-22.
Snaith, Anna. "Leonard and Virginia Woolf: Writing against Empire." The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 50:1, 2015, pp. 19-32.
--. "Race, Empire, and Ireland." Virginia Woolf in Context. Eds. Bryony Randall and Jane Goldman. Cambridge University Press, 2012, pp. 206-18.
Stasi, Paul. Modernism, Imperialism, and the Historical Sense. Cambridge UP, 2012.
Steel, David. The art of sail-making, as practised in the Royal Navy, and according to the most approved methods in the merchant service, accompanied with the parliamentary regulations relative to sails and sail cloth. Illustrated by numerous figures, with full and accurate tables. London, 1796. Eighteenth-Century Collections Online. Gale. 9 December 2012.
Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. 2 vols. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.
--. "The Docks of London." The London Scene: Six Essays on London Life. Daunt Books, 2013, pp. 5-15.
--. "The Elizabethan Lumber Room." The Common Reader. Harcourt, Brace &Co., 1925, pp. 61-71.
--. Orlando: A Biography. Orlando, Harcourt, 2006.
--. "Oxford Street Tide." The London Scene: Six Essays on London Life. Daunt Books, 2013, pp. 19-26.
--. "Portrait of a Londoner." The London Scene: Six Essays on London Life. Daunt Books, 2013, pp. 67-74.
--. The Voyage Out. Penguin Classics, 2006.
Wright, E. H. "The 'girl-novel': Chance and Woolf's The Voyage Out." The Conradian: The Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.), vol. 39, no. 1, 2014, pp. 80-97.
(1) Wright argues that "Rachel arguably dies to avoid this eventuality," whereas Orlando does not die at all, as if performing an inverse form of resistance (84).
(2) The other primary work of Hakluyt being Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America (1582).
(3) The Diary of Virginia Wool/features two entries regarding Hakluyt, August 15, 1924 and December 8 1929, in which she reminisces about her embrace of his work as a girl, and reports spending much of her week rereading him, respectively.
(4) While wool serves as an export in "The Elizabethan Lumber Room," in the "The Docks of London" it figures as one of the most important imports: "None of all the multitudinous products and waste products of the earth but has been tested and found some possible use for. The bales of wool that are being swung from the hold of an Australian ship are girt, to save space, with iron hoops; but the hoops do not litter the floor; they are sent to Germany and made into safety razors. The wool itself exudes a coarse greasiness. This grease, which is harmful to blankets, serves, when extracted, to make face cream. Even the burrs that stick in the wool of certain breeds of sheep have their use, for they prove that the sheep undoubtedly were fed on certain rich pastures. Not a burr, not a tuft of wool, not an iron hoop is unaccounted for," given "the aptness of everything to its purpose" (11-12).
(5) The Voyage Out's Clarissa Dalloway echoes this sentiment from the decks of the Euphrosyne: "One thinks of all we've done, and our navies, and the people in India and Africa, and how we've gone on century after century, sending out boys from little country villages...it makes one feel as if one couldn't bear not to be English" (42).
(6) The Flushings' economic exploitation corresponds with the apparently standard trip upriver from Santa Marina: "Every year at this season English people made parties which steamed a short way up the river, landed, and looked at the native village, bought a certain number of things from the natives, and returned again without damage done to mind or body" (VO 250).
(7) Again mirroring Leonard's statement in Empire and Commerce that people must change their own "beliefs and desires" to effect solutions to colonization and warfare, as Phillips shows (Phillips xxxiii).
(8) Maritime use of the verb "to dress" means "to ornament a ship for a celebration by hoisting national ensigns at the mastheads and running a line of signal flags and pennants from bow to stern" (Merriam-Webster). The OED's definition more generally emphasizes ships' "flags" set as decoration. Woolf mentions a similar usage of the "Blue Peter" in "The Docks of London," a flag which signaled passengers or crew ashore of impending departure.
(9) In "Orlando and the Tudor Voyages," Ian Blyth notes that, historically (which Woolf certainly knew via her reading), King James' reign saw the loss of potential trade pacts with Russia to the Dutch (190). He reads Sasha's betrayal of Orlando as representing that commercial loss. To that, Fox notes that Orlando's time with Sasha bears signs of influence from Hakluyt's accounts of the first Russian ambassador's visit to London in the mid-sixteenth century (46), while Orlando's thoughts about Russia itself and the insults he sends toward Sasha's fleeing vessel refer to Hakluyt's description of Russian people as "great talkers and lyers, without any faith or trust in their words, flatterers and dissemblers" (qtd in Fox, 48).
(10) Fox points out further reference to Hakluyt in this scene, from an account of the reception of the first English sailors at the Turkish court--with a "magnificence" of scale and fineness, including a hall "spread with carpets on the ground fourscore or fourscore and tenne foot long, with an hundred and fiftie severall dishes set thereon" (34).
(11) Paul Stasi similarly reads The Voyage Out's, fictional history of Santa Marina, where the Euphrosyne delivers Rachel to the same place where English ships had lain 300 years prior as "Woolf...highlighting the continuity of imperial relations" even if simultaneously hearkening back to "something of the newness of discovery, a feeling that she imagines existed before the discourses of both empire and gender were codified" (126). Moreover, the English Navy's Mediterranean Fleet redeploying toward home waters at the end of Voyage Out's fourth chapter (at which Clarissa Dalloway exclaims--"Aren't you glad to be English!") reiterates the seeming omnipresence of English commercial and martial vessels (60).
(12) Orlando's full lamentation of her loss of recourse to violence is strikingly thorough in its scope, while also invoking the element of imperial fashion, the coronet, that was placed on him just before he became she: "I shall never be able to crack a man over the head, or tell him he lies in his teeth, or draw my sword and run him through the body...or wear a coronet... or sentence a man to death, or lead an army" (116).
(13) An echo of Rachel Vinrace's realization about why she has never been allowed to go out alone, after Dalloway accosts her on the decks of the Euphrosyne.
(14) "Portrait of a Londoner" describes the reintegration of exported and then re-imported men into London society by Mrs. Crowe, which seems much less public, judgment-laden, and more personal than what Orlando experiences in a woman's return: "Travellers absent for years, battered and sun-dried men just landed from India or Africa, from remote travels and adventures among savages and tigers, would come straight to the little house in the quiet street to be taken back into the heart of civilisation" (74).
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|Publication:||Woolf Studies Annual|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
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