Starting in the 1990’s, feminist and queer scholars frequently cited Woolf’s Orlando as an example of the potential of modernist experimentation to open up a space for the elliptical articulation of fluid genders and desires. This reading finds its best evidence in Orlando’s cross-dressed erotic pursuits. However, the text’s popularity has been on the wane at the turn of the century as the paradigms of queer studies that were introduced in the early 1990’s have been challenged by those of transgender studies. In the introduction to Palatable Poison, their collection of essays on The Well, Prosser and Laura Doan argue that a critical emphasis both on linguistic experimentation and on gender fluidity in the 1990’s placed a premium on experimental texts such as Orlando and Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood yet devalued Hall’s realism (18-20). In his own Second Skins, Prosser goes on to argue that unlike Hall’s protagonist Stephen Gordon, who suffers the constraints of the body and of realistic narrative time, Woolf’s defiance of realism in Orlando leaves her protagonist “free to move beyond h/er body” and to “break through the limits of the flesh” as “h/er narrative propels h/er through four centuries of history” (168). Implicit in this assessment is the assumption that Hall’s realism gives her novel the ability to represent the dilemmas of proto-transgendered subjects in a way that Woolf’s fantastic defiance of realism cannot.
By Chris Coffman, 2010