Chanya Button explains why Orlando is important to her and an inspiration behind the bold retelling of her new film, Vita & Virginia. To coincide with the film’s release, Charleston and the Depot in Lewes are holding a Q&A session with Chanya and Charleston’s Reader in Residence, Holly Dawson, following the film’s 17:30 screening on Friday 5 July. Tickets available here.
Before I loved Virginia Woolf, I was transported by Greek mythology. Aged 7, I precociously interrupted a tour guide during a school trip to the National Gallery, to share with my bewildered classmates, my (strong) views on the narrative behind Titian’s portrait of Bacchus and Ariadne. Unsurprisingly, the incident did not do much to improve my chances of survival on the unforgiving social battlefield of the under 10s. However, the embryonic feminist fury I felt, aged 7, at Ariadne’s powerlessness – deserted by her lover on a remote island, with her only hope of rescue offered by the grace of a nubile male god – did crystallise something for me about the explosive potential of history, and myth. In turn, this shored up my conviction that Virginia Woolf is the nimblest of assassins. Orlando both honours history, and disrupts it; as it too honours and disrupts its subject, Vita Sackville-West. Re-appropriating the terms of ancient social contracts as tools of satire, Woolf empowers artists who march behind her to use the bonds that confine them as weapons to fight back. It is Woolf herself, in that sense, who offered me the tools with which we made Vita & Virginia. Tools with which we both honoured her history, and challenged perceptions of her. In the pages of Orlando the details of history become arrows, shot from Woolf’s bow at the contemporary reader, to provoke, and to challenge injustice. Woolf simultaneously surgically re-orders a conventional approach to biography, and crystallises Vita Sackville-West’s deepest truths, without ever writing a word about her. We too, attempted to re-order an approach to the bio-pic, empowered by Woolf’s own expressionistic approach. On one of my first trips to Knole, Vita Sackville-West’s family home, I noted a photo of Vita as a child with a warm conspiratorial glow. Pictured in the gardens of a house she will never inherit, this mournful but vivid child somehow summons a glower that embodies centuries of exhausted disapproval. This is the look I remember wearing as I stared, with impotent solidarity, towards a naked, stranded Ariadne. Perhaps Virginia Woolf saw this photo too, and perhaps it planted a seed of empathy for the young Vita, whose sex alone constituted the reason she could not inherit her ancestral home. A novel in which Woolf captures the essence of a woman who beguiled and intoxicated her, whilst taking an exacting blade to the boundaries between gender and power, using humour to denounce them as arbitrary. By way of Ariadne, Vita Sackville-West and my 7 year old self – standing in the National Gallery bewildered by centuries of female disempowerment – we arrive at Orlando. In Orlando Woolf offers us a potent fuel; a fuel we burned brightly in the making of Vita & Virginia.
Orlando makes a case for Woolf as one of literature’s inaugural punks. With its time-travelling gender-fluid protagonist, Woolf’s novel boldly projects into a future where science fiction would take shape. Woolf’s Orlando and David Bowie’s androgynous alter-ego Ziggy Stardust share more with each other than Virginia’s hero, who turns into a heroine, does with other protagonists thrust into the literary landscape of 1928. Despite its telescopic focus on the future, I believe it is no mistake that the 16th Century is where Woolf’s novel explodes into life. It is an era rabid with fascination around the rebellious poetry of myth; a language with which Woolf’s readers would have been familiar. Orlando begins with a languid, androgynous Elizabethan courtier whose simultaneous exhaustion with, and thirst for, a life outside the bounds of his own experience catapult him through time — setting him on a collision course with the contemporary reader – one in which our protagonist lands as a bold, Edwardian woman. One wonders what grammatical gymnastics Woolf could have performed if she had been here for the pro-noun revolution; would Orlando have been he, she or they? Perhaps Orlando would have revelled in performing and exploring all three? One wonders the same about Vita Sackville-West, whose relationship with Woolf signals the deep roots of her androgyny. Were Vita able to shake off the shackles of the aristocracy, would she have been empowered to take up arms against the confines of male and female, in moving between pronouns herself?
Orlando is rooted in the past, hurtling with adrenalised forward motion into the future. A future which holds the potential to free the woman who inspired it, from the confines her gender and class constructed around her. Like Orpheus who, as he led his lover Eurydice out of the underworld, kept his eyes locked forward lest he look back and lose his love forever, Woolf moves unflinchingly forward, leading Vita out of the darkness towards an imaginative plane where she can live and love in whichever way she pleases. What a contemporary audience has most to gain from Orlando is in plugging in to this powerful forward motion, and celebration of boundary defying androgyny. That’s why I am utterly convinced of its value as a work that remains vividly resonant, and relevant today. It is progressive in form, in theme, and in process. It honours the conventions it simultaneously disrupts. Virginia could have written a biography of Vita, but she didn’t. She was surrounded by biographers; her Father Leslie Stephen was the first Editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, and Woolf admired her close friend Lytton Strachey’s developed theory of biography across his works, including Eminent Victorians. Rather than engage with the genre on pre-established terms, she chose to eschew its focus on the facts and fragments that make up the things that happen to a person, and instead chose to try and distill Vita’s deepest truths. It is therefore Virginia the literary rebel, who shares traits with all great rebels – an eye trained on the future; the future of form as well as content. What Virginia saw in Vita was “the strength of a man, and a woman’s grace”. She saw a woman with the softness and empathy we associate with femininity, with the sexual appetites we more traditionally associate with masculinity. To use contemporary terms, Woolf’s understanding of gender fluidity and creative eye staring unblinkingly ahead, mean that as an artist I would argue she has more in common with David Bowie, than she does with Charles Dickens. Dickens wore history like a cape around his shoulders, using its detail to embroider and enrich his narratives – embedding them even further into the moment in which he lived and wrote. Woolf uses history and convention as rocket fuel to blast her up and out of the time into which she was born. She is always looking forward; in theme, in form, in process. Bowie and Woolf also seem to share an understanding of their intuitive approach to writing. Perhaps Bowie shared Woolf’s view that “once the mind gets hot it can’t stop”; saying in an interview in 2002 – of his songwriting – “it’s an odd feeling, like something else is guiding you ”. Woolf answers; “how extraordinarily unwilled by me but potent in its own right, by the way, Orlando was! As if it shoved everything aside to come into existence”. Indeed, Woolf also commended that To The Lighthouse was written in “a great, apparently involuntary, rush. One things burst into another”.
In writing Orlando, Woolf purged herself of an experience that threatened to overwhelm her. Vita’s relentless pursuit of Virginia, one which resolved in Virginia giving herself to Vita emotionally and sexually, came to its conclusion when Vita’s attentions fell on another – Mary Campbell. Whilst everyone around Virginia was braced for Woolf to disintegrate in response to Vita’s betrayal, Woolf performed a rescue on herself. Her profound genius arrived to rescue her, as she used her pen to exorcise the intoxicating intensities of her relationship with Vita. In the end, this allowed Virginia to understand with the greatest empathy Vita’s deepest truths, and allowed their relationship to last for the rest of Woolf’s life. Vita wrote in 1927;
“I have come to the conclusion that solitude is the last refuge of civilized people. It is much more civilized than social intercourse, really, although at first sight the reverse might appear to be the case. Social relations are just the descendants of the primitive tribal need to get together for purposes of defence; a gathering of bushmen or pygmies is the real ancestor of a Teheran Dinner Party; when the wheel comes full cycle, and your truly civilized person wants to get away back to loneliness. If all my life went smash, and I lost everybody, I should come an live in Persia, miles away from everywhere, and see nobody except the natives”.
Understanding Vita as the child who grew up alone at Knole, betrayed by the confines of her sex, allowed Virginia to empathise with Vita’s need to forever isolate herself. Perhaps it also offered an explanation for why Vita pulled away from Virginia. This was not the first time Woolf used her craft as a form of psychological digestif. In A Sketch of the Past, Woolf speaks about the process of writing To The Lighthouse, as an intuitive means of grieving for and purging herself of the spirit of her Mother; “I suppose I did for myself what psycho-analysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest”. I would argue that the way in which Woolf engaged her craft is also representative of a revolutionary attitude towards managing mental health, one that she and her husband Leonard shared. Together they constructed a routine within which Woolf could live and work, in defiance of her emotional and psychological challenges. I think it is no co-incidence that the Hogarth Press were the first to publish Freud’s work in the English language; their understanding of mental health was detailed, and incredibly progressive in some ways. The very existence of Orlando is proof that Virginia is a survivor of profound emotional and psychological challenges. She used her genius to survive, for as long as she possibly could. She is not someone who succumbed without a fight. She was not someone who was conventionally fragile.
Woolf did all of this whilst retaining an essential unknowability herself. Two of the portraits Vanessa Bell painted of her sister were faceless, speaking to Woolf’s a deep ineffability. Stephen Finer’s 1994 portrait of David Bowie shares that quality too: a faceless figure, alive in technicolour oils, more texture than likeness. Both Woolf and Bowie seem to be pointing their successor towards capturing a deeper kind of truth, one she searches for in Orlando:
“The trumpeters, ranging themselves side by side in order, blow one terrific blast: — ‘THE TRUTH! at which Orlando woke. He stretched himself. He rose. He stood upright in complete
nakedness before us, and while the trumpets pealed Truth! Truth! Truth! we have no choice left but confess — he was a woman”.
The facts of Virginia Woolf’s life have been forensically documented. In making Vita & Virginia, an expressionistic exploration of the story behind Orlando, I have come to feel that a shred of a diary entry, a flying fragment of a letter alone – cannot allow us access to Virginia Woolf’s essential truth. That is a deeper pursuit, and in Orlando, Virginia perhaps gives us a code for how to perceive that truth. It is in looking under the surface, and keeping our eyes trained on the future.