The beautiful and brilliant Virginia Woolf, the best novelist of all time. She had a lesbian love affair with a woman while they were both married to men. Woolfs husband was cool with it.
The best novelist of all time, Virginia Woolf, had an affair with a woman while she was married to a man (he was cool with it). George C. Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The longest, strangest, most wild lesbian love letter of all time has to be Virginia Woolf's novel Orlando: A Biography.

It's not, I should clarify, a "letter" at all, and "love story" dumbs it down, and "lesbian" is probably not the word anyone would have used back in 1928, when the novel was published (my money's on "sapphic"). Orlando, a masterpiece of modernist literature and the closest thing to science-fiction that Woolf ever wrote, wryly purports to be a biography of a character named Orlando who is a man at the start of the book ("He" is the book's first word) and a woman by the end of the book (a 500-hundred-plus-year-old woman who shows no signs of dying).

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It is a book about shapeshifting, about desire, about power, about the pomposity of men (one of Woolf's great subjects), and about how the material world plays tricks on us, as do categories, language, labels of any kind. The book was changed around a bunch and turned into a beautifully shot but not-that-good (personal opinion!) Tilda Swinton movie in 1992.

People who love that movie have never read the book. They can't detect what's missing. The book is teeming with brilliant thinking about gender, time, shapeshifting, lust, change, power, and planetary crisis. It is filled with thousands of hilarious details, winking authorial asides, and a whole bunch of other stuff you would never be able to put on a screen because they are actions of the mind, not surfaces that can be filmed.

Vita Sackville-West, the woman in Virginia Woolfs life and the inspiration for the fictional character Orlando, who starts out life as a man and shapeshifts into a woman and is immortal.
Vita Sackville-West, the woman in Virginia Woolf's life and the inspiration for the fictional character Orlando, an immortal transgender shapeshifter. Lenare/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Orlando: A Biography was inspired by a woman in Virginia Woolf's life, Vita Sackville-West, who like Woolf was married to a man at the time (Virginia's husband was chill about it, and Vita's husband was queer). Now the story of their love has been turned into a major motion picture, called Vita and Virginia.

Vita, played by Gemma Arterton, says in the trailer: "Independence has no sex."

The reason I said above that Orlando: A Biography is a lesbian love letter is because Woolf wrote it for Vita, as a kind of over-the-top, gorgeously elaborate flirtation and tribute. Both of them were novelists back when many people didn't think women could or should be serious artists, and both of them thought the constraints of gender, of societal expectation, were bullshit. Theirs was an intimacy, and an intellectual sparking, that hasn't gotten the attention it deserves.

But with Vita and Virginia, this story—the true story behind the artistry—is coming to the big screen. Look!

It is hard to explain how excited I am to see this movie. Woolf usually shows up on the screen as a woman with voices in her head, a madwoman, a woman filling her pockets with rocks and drowning herself in a river. Nicole Kidman won an Oscar for putting on a prosthetic nose and filling her pockets with rocks and drowning herself in a river in The Hours, that movie in which Virginia Woolf was a character. But that movie was premised around Woolf's fourth-best book, Mrs. Dalloway. It's thrilling that Orlando is getting another day in the court of pop culture.

Want to watch a clip? Of course you do.

Want to hear some of the language from Orlando the novel? Of course you do.

As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking.

And:

[S]ociety is everything and society is nothing. Society is the most powerful concoction in the world and society has no existence whatsoever.

One of my favorite insights in the book is about how many selves we each have inside of us. It's such an Americanism that you should "be yourself," that you are one self, an individual, but over the course of hundreds of pages Woolf blows that stupid and confining idea wide open. Here is the novel tangling directly with the idea of all the selves we have swimming around inside us:

For she had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may have as many thousand…and these selves of which we are built up, one on top of the other, as plates are piled on a waiter’s hand, have attachments elsewhere, sympathies, little constitutions and rights of their own… so that one will only come if it is raining, another in a room with green curtains, another when Mrs. Jones is not there… and some are too wildly ridiculous to be mentioned in print at all.

We each have "six or seven thousand" selves insides us? I just love that. And I love those random examples—there is a certain self that comes out of you when it's raining, and another self that comes out when you're in a room with green curtains, etc. It's going to be another 500 years before this novel is appreciated fully. There are a thousand brilliant things like this on each page.

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But even though I've read this novel more than once, I have to say the story of the person who inspired it, and her relationship to the person who wrote it, is not a story I know well. That's another reason I can't wait to see this film.

Vita Sackville-West, left, at home in England, in a room that may as well be ripped straight from Orlando.
Vita Sackville-West, left, at home in England, in a room that may as well be ripped straight from Orlando. Sasha/Getty Images

Vita and Virginia opened in the UK last month, and it opens in New York and LA this Friday, but there is no word yet when it will open in Seattle.

That gives you time to go read Orlando if you haven't yet. Maybe take an Adderall first. Woolf's language is difficult—sometimes I have to read a sentence 10 times before I realize, "Oh, she's crossing the street," or whatever—but Woolf's writing rewards the attention it requires. It will make your mind richer, which will make your life better.

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