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Added: Elizabth Halliburton - Date: Does that mean they had sex? It probably does, because Vita liked sex and was a pursuer of women. She also enjoyed a long and successful marriage to Harold Nicolson. He too had his affairs. Virginia and Leonard Woolf were largely compatible and certainly affectionate.

It seems unlikely from all that we know that she was interested in sex with Leonard, but sexless marriages were, and are, common enough. The thing about passion is that it is much more than a sexual encounter. Had the love affair not happened Orlando would never have been written. That would be a loss. Vita; only with a change about from one sex to the other. O rlando is not the first piece of fiction about a sex change. In The Arabian Nightsthere are both gender switching plots and cross-dressing.

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Every romance is a bromance. Sackville-West liked to cross-dress, calling herself Julian. The novel starts in an attic, as the young Orlando slices at the preserved head of a Moor.

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Is Orlando the first English language trans novel? It is, yet in the most playful way. Orlando manages his transition with grace and a profound truth. Same person. That difference of sex, though, had legal and social implications. Virginia and Vanessa had been home schooled; the usual method for upper class girls. Other girls were barely schooled at all. When Woolf was writing Orlandomore than 8 million women aged 30 and over had won the vote in the Representation of the People Act. For men the age had been set at Inthough, the year of its publication, all women over 21 finally won the vote on equal terms with men.

But education for women remained a problem. Higher education especially so. Cambridge refused to confer degrees on women, and the two Cambridge colleges for women, Newnham and Girton, founded and funded by women, could offer tuition but not degrees. Until the best a woman could expect was a degree in title only — a titular Looking for Wolfe West Virginia fun and good conversation, called, inevitably, by those witty Cambridge men, BA Tit. Thanks guys, good joke.

Less than a fortnight after the publication of OrlandoWoolf went to Girton to deliver the second of her two lectures, entitled Women and Fiction. A week earlier she had been at Newnham.

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Orlando had paved the way for this more serious and disturbing exploration. The protagonist spends hundreds of years trying to reclaim his own property and cash, legally sequestered after he wakes up as a woman. Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What effect has poverty on fiction? On poetry? What conditions are necessary for the creation of a work of art? She had already asked these questions in Orlando. Orlando is a poet — perhaps not a very good one — but as a man even a mediocre writer is taken seriously.

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Even the best women struggle to be noticed. Orlando has sometimes been dismissed as a romp. As a less important book than Mrs Dalloway or To the Lighthouse. This is to misread it. It was far ahead of its time in terms of gender politics and gender progress.

Consider it not only as the first trans novel in English but in the light of another publication: The Well of Loneliness. Radclyffe Hall, who liked to be known as John, was a rigid lesbian who believed that women who loved women were born in the wrong body.

This condemned all lesbians to eternal suffering. Her novel was like a depressing version of Orlando. Carol Ann Duffy told me that when she first read this she thought it meant lesbians had sex upside down. The novel was banned in the UK and there was a court case. Woolf agreed to testify, in the interests of free speech and against censorship, but fretted at the thought of having to say The Well of Loneliness was a work of literature.

Woolf, because she can write, because she can charm, because she is funny, perhaps because she was in love, and her style flies along with such ease and grace, managed to smuggle past the censors and the guardians of propriety the most outrageous contraband — a hero who becomes a heroine, who loves women and men, who rails against the system, and whose experiences reflect those of a real-life woman who had numerous same-sex affairs and who went to the opera with slicked back hair wearing evening dress.

The Well of Loneliness reinforces every depressing stereotype about gender and sexual desire. It was banned. Orlando exploded all the stereotypes — and became a bestseller. Orlando smashed up literary.

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Woolf called it a biography — in fact it is a novel. This was a direct hit at her dead father, Sir Leslie Stephen, the Victorian patriarch who had been the editor of the Dictionary of National Biographya dead white male heterosexual enterprise. Women hardly existed in the DNB. And claiming truth.

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Now Woolf struck back. She started the postmodernist fashion for mixing up fact and fiction, history and invention. When Woolf chases Orlando through continents of history and geographies of time, she is giving herself the freedom to explore the different ages of England, and the changing role of women. Woolf, of course, dedicated the book to her and sent her a copy on publication day, 11 October The love affair was nearly over by then.

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Crossing boundaries … Tilda Swinton in the film adaptation of Orlando. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive.

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