Critical Commentary

Representation, Expression and Censorship: Same-sex Desire in ‘Orlando’ and ‘The Well of Loneliness’

By 1928 – the year The Well of Loneliness[1] and Orlando[2] were published –there was an increasing social awareness of female same-sex desire in Britain.[3] Whilst The Well engages in religious and contemporaneous sexological discourse in order to legitimise and justify ‘sexual inversion’; Orlando adopts metaphorical language and narrative strategies to deconstruct and expose conventional heterosexuality, exploiting the possibility for same-sex desire.[4]

The masculinised protagonist of The Well – Stephen Gordon – can be identified, with the help of Newton, as ‘The Mythic Mannish Lesbian’.[5] This view of female homosexuality echoes throughout the novel, and is primarily drawn from the work of contemporary sexologist’s such as; Havelock Ellis[6], Edward Carpenter[7], Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and Karl Ulrich, whose theories of ‘congenital sexual inversion’ Hall embraced.[8] To these theorists ‘sexual inversion’ is seen as misaligned gender identity[9]; in other words, female homosexuality is characterised by a masculine soul trapped in a female body.[10] Stephen is directly associated with masculinity: her masculine tastes and accomplishments, her cropped hair and her men’s ties, combined with an aversion to female domesticity and passivity identifies her as the quintessential ‘invert’.[11] For Stephen – and Hall – ‘lesbianism is a congenital form of lust caused by and manifested in gender reversal’[12] but this use of sexological distinctions between ‘true inverts’[13] and the women who love them, sets up a hierarchy of inversion weighed down by contradictions about same-sex desire.

Radclyffe Hall & Una Elena Troubridge

Radclyffe Hall & Una Elena Troubridge

In The Well, lesbian sexuality is based on a conventional gender dynamic, which perpetuates the problematic relationship between gender identity and sexual desire. Characters such as Mary Llewellyn and Barbara are not considered true inverts’ themselves, but rather, the invert’s love interest; these are women who do not display overtly masculine characteristics but are sexually responsive to the approaches of women who do.[14] Whilst Stephen is directly associated with masculinity; Mary is, ‘‘the girl who, herself being normal, gave her love to an invert.’[15] Lesbian desire in The Well conforms to the conventional models of heterosexuality – desire between the masculine and feminine – but by the end of the novel, this model of sexual desire has failed lesbian sexuality. The sexological distinctions in The Well demand that Mary must desire a man, so her momentary homosexuality is –from the beginning – unstable; this type of inversion, associated with the feminine, wasn’t seen to be inherent, but acquired, so that by the end of the novel Mary is seen to return to her ‘natural heterosexuality’. Parkes, with the help of Baker, explains that ‘lesbian relations are inherently unstable’[16] and by superimposing the heterosexual model of desire, Hall threatened to make them disappear altogether.[17]

Paradoxically, Woolf’s Orlando parodies conventional heterosexuality and challenges homophobia by both censoring and challenging censorship. Consider this early scene; in Orlando’s first encounter with Sasha he experiences desire before he is able to establish her biological gender. The figure of Sasha ‘whether boy’s or woman’s, for the… Russian fashion served to disguise the sex, filled him with the highest curiosity’.[18] Yet this ambiguously gendered figure exudes an ‘extraordinary seductiveness’, which is wholly registered by Orlando; ‘so he raved, so he stared.’ It continues;

Orlando was ready to tear his hair with vexation that the person

was of his own sex, and thus all embraces were out of the question.

Virginia Woolf by Lady Ottoline Morrell (1926)

Virginia Woolf by Lady Ottoline Morrell (1926)

But the skater came closer… She was a woman.[19]

Here, same-sex desire is simultaneously censored and expressed. As Orlando self-censors his homosexual desire – thus giving expression to it – the narrator censors the expression of same-sex desire by abruptly confirming that Sasha ‘was a woman.’ The narrator does not censor same-sex desire particularly, but he/she acknowledges the socially conventional censorship of this particular sexual expression. Orlando – here as a man – is not permitted to express desire for what may be, another man. Only upon the revelation of her sex is Orlando permitted to ‘stare[d]; tremble[d]; turn[ed] hot; turn[ed] cold.’[20] Although widespread hostilities towards lesbian perspectives in her time led Woolf to code much of the sexual content in her fiction,[21] in this passage Woolf simultaneously makes possible the expression of both hetero- and homo-sexual desire. Cramer elaborates; ‘in Orlando, heterosexuality operates as a cover letter, an outer envelope that Woolf presents as her own ‘miracle of discretion’.[22] It is through this disguise of heterosexuality then, that Orlando cautiously disrupts the traditional boundaries between gender identity and sexual desire. Orlando – unlike The Well – does not assume conventional heterosexual models in order to represent desire; by vacillating their gender identities[23] Woolf provides hercharacters with innovative channels through which to experience desire. So Heterosexuality in Orlando then, is ‘interrupted, sidelined and undercut’[24] in order to pave the way for a lesbian sexuality that is ‘creative, self-generating, not merely reactive or imitative of extant medical and legal models.’[25]

Although it led to an infamous obscenity trial in 1928, Jeanette Winterson has claimed that it is as sexy as ‘sixty denier stockings in lace up brogues’[26] (REF: website): ‘That night they were not divided’ are as graphic as it’s description of lesbian lovemaking get.’[27] Nevertheless, Hall’s insistences on the novel’s ‘truth’ about sexual inversion were obscene enough for her time and consequently led to the novel being banned in Britain.[28] But if Woolf found channels of expression within censorship, is it possible therefore that within representation there may exist censorship as well?

Outrageous, Puddle would feel it to be, that wilfully selfish tyranny of silence… The

world hid its head in the sands of convention, so that seeing nothing it might avoid Truth.

It said to itself: …if silence is golden, it is also, in this case very expedient.’ There were

moments when Puddle would feel sorely tempted to shout out loud at the world.[29]

Unfortunately, Puddle never does; and it is this silenced portrayal of same-sex desire in The Well, which does more to reinforce censorship than it does to challenge it. Puddle is a ‘lonely unfulfilled middle-aged spinster’[30] but the spinster is defined by her sexual invisibility. At least in The Well, rejecting the model of heterosexuality leaves Puddle with no other channel for sexual expression. Puddle expresses neither of the three; sexual inversion akin to Stephen; nor the responsiveness of the invert’s love interest; not even the reactive heterosexual desire common to women. Bauer explains that Puddle suffers from ‘deep intellectual, emotional and physical frustration because she has no access to an established same-sex discourse’[31], yet Hall further restricts her expression of desire by setting Stephen against Puddle; Stephen as the ‘super-invert’[32] versus Puddle, the silent unfulfilled sexually repressed spinster. Is it even possible to define Puddle as an invert? The novel never permits her any expression of inversion and according to the sexological distinctions set up to define inverts, Puddle lacks most of the specified criteria. By tying her characters up in the biased heterosexual model of desire[33] Hall is demanding the same quantifiable sexual acts common to heterosexuality, so that Puddle’s inversion, silenced by Hall and excluded by Stephen, becomes not only unspoken; but unspeakable.[34]

The relationship between gender identity and sexual desire that is critical to Hall’s portrayal of inversion is comically mocked and challenged in Orlando.[35] As Orlando’s desire for the ambiguously gendered Sasha captures the ambivalent nature of sexual orientation[36]; the same-sex desire seen in the Archduke for Orlando is able to transgress the sexual roles assigned by heterosexuality.[37] The fluid identities of characters such as the Archduke, Orlando and Shelmerdine disrupt the conventional concept of sexual identity as stable and psychologically interior;[38]

She had… no difficulty sustaining the different parts, for her sex changed

far more frequently… the pleasures of life were increased and it’s experiences

multiplied. For the probity of breeches she exchanged the seductiveness of

petticoats and enjoyed the love of both sexes.’[39]

The subversive nature of Orlando’s sex change helps to destabilise the originality of heterosexual identities, and through these narrative strategies Orlando is capable of exploring a fluid gender identity, and thus, a fluid sexuality. Even in the seemingly conventional marriage between Orlando and Shelmerdine, heterosexuality is consistently interrupted and mocked; for despite the appearances of conventionality, the union between them could not be less conventional. For, as we soon discover, Shelmerdine’s sexual identity is just as unstable as Orlando’s; (Ref: Parkes, pg. 450)

‘’I’m passionately in love with you,’ she said. No sooner had the words left her

mouth than an awful suspicion rushed into both their minds simultaneously,

‘You’re a woman, Shel!’ she said.

‘You’re a man, Orlando!’ he said.[40]

While seeming to leave the essential principles of sexual difference unaltered, Woolf – through these vacillations of gender – creates the possibility of non-heterosexual desire.[41] Opening up channels for the fluid and multiple expressions of sexuality, seen in androgyne-type figures like Shelmerdine and Orlando – and even the enthusiastic drag-character of the Archduke. Through the hyper-conventional institution of heterosexual marriage Woolf disguises a lesbian note; all the while protecting it within the ‘envelope of heterosexuality’, and therefore enabling it to pass undetected.[42]

Radclyffe Hall

Radclyffe Hall

In The Well, Hall does not represent a ‘creative, self-generating’ lesbian sexuality because, within Hall’s sexological distinctions, there is no inherent sexual desire in women.[43] Only men experience active lust, and therefore the natural fusion of inversion and masculinity excludes the feminine invert – and as we have seen, any other type of inversion – from the discourse of same-sex desire. The feminine invert, in this case, does not experience desire but is instead only receptive and reactive to the masculine inverts desire. Expression of female/feminine desire is excluded and sidelined; in Orlando this desire is brought right to forefront of the text. Orlando – in 19th Century England – disguises her feminine frame in traditional male clothing and comes across the prostitute Nell in the streets of London; in the conventional style of heterosexuality, her touch ‘roused in Orlando all the feelings which became a man’ but we are soon reminded of the theatricality of this performance of gender. At the moment that Nell appears ready for sex, ‘out she came, prepared.’ Orlando flings off her disguise and appears as a woman, although in ‘the strangest torment of anger, merriment and pity.’ In this scene, as in the scene with the Princess Sasha, we recognise Woolf’s, ‘subversive, pervasive, and persuasive lesbian strategies… [and] the witty lesbian text play’s an elaborate game of hide and seek with the reader and the censor, teasing with taunts.’ Woolf, in a spectacular show of lesbian expression asks: ‘What do we suppose women do when they seek out each other’s company?’ But having been suggested, lesbian desire is censored once again as the narrator decides that, ‘As that is not a question that can engage the attention of a sensible man…’. Although it appears simultaneously censored and expressed, lesbian sexuality is momentarily handed the stage and allowed to perform – for Orlando is not just a lesbian text but a lesbian feminist text,[44] distancing itself from queer theory into which feminism disappears without a trace.[45]

So we see that well ahead of her time Woolf was distinguishing between gender identity and sexual identity; before Judith Butler, Eve Sedgewick and Adrienne Rich[46] published influential theories on gender and sexuality, Woolf adopts androgyny in an attempt to explore alternative models of sexual desire. Her focus on the enveloping heterosexual text protecting the subliminal homosexual note; for while Woolf is drawing attention to the compulsory heterosexuality, she undermines social norms, challenging and critiquing compulsory heterosexuality. We must remember that as a woman, Orlando never feels sexually attracted to men.

Hall may have attempted to portray sapphic love as natural, inherent and sacred but instead, the identity of the inverted woman who ‘acts’ like a man can only be seen by others as ‘maimed’, ‘a freak’, ‘flawed’ and naturally, ‘unnatural’.[47] Whereas Woolf’s vacillation between genders within a world of fantasy ‘annihilates such categories to embrace a more profound truth about gender and sexual identity’:[48]

‘Orlando had become a woman – there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity. His memory – but in future we must, for convention’s sake, say ‘her’ for ‘his’ and ‘she’ for ‘he’ – her memory then, went back through all the events of her past life.’[49]

Orlando is not a woman acting like a man: Orlando is a man. And Orlando is a woman.[50] Although there is a shift in conventional language and thinking, there doesn’t seem to be anything unnatural about this seemingly fluid transition within pronouns and genders.

The Well of Loneliness reissued by Hersperus Classics (2014)

The Well of Loneliness reissued by Hersperus Classics (2014)



[1] Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness (London: Virago modern Classics, 2008) From hereon I will refer to this text as The Well.

[2] Virginia Woolf, Orlando (London: Wordsworth Classics, 2003).

[3] Laura Doan, Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of Modern English Lesbian Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001) p. xxi. Doan reminds us here that prior to 1928, and for some years after, the term ‘lesbian’, ‘sapphist’, ‘homosexual’ and ‘sexual invert’ did not specifically denote a particular sexual behaviour, sexual identity or appearance.

[4] Leslie Hankins, ‘‘A Precipice Marked ‘V’: between ‘A Miracle of Discretion’ and ‘Lovemaking Unbelievable: Indiscretions Incredible’’ Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings. Ed. Eileen Barret and Patricia Cramer (New York: New York UP, 1997), p. 180.

[5] Esther Newton, ‘The Mythic Mannish Lesbian’, The Lesbian Issue, Vol. 9, No. 4, (Summer, 1984), p. 568.

[6] Havelock Ellis wrote the infamous preface for the first edition of the novel, insisting that ‘it is the first English novel which presents, in a completely faithful and uncompromising form, one aspect of sexual life as it exits among us today.’

[7] Although Carpenter wasn’t himself a sexologist, he was a widely recognised homosexual and social reformer whose works on homosexuality were often read alongside the work of sexologists such as Ellis and Krafft-Ebing.

[8] Hall, op. cit., p. x.

[9] This is what modern medicine identifies as ‘transgender’ – I use the term ‘transgender’ to denote specifically a person who undergoes a partial or full gender reversal, and not as the ‘umbrella’ term for a range of gender and sexual identities.

[10] Newton, op. cit., p. 567 – 568.

[11] Sherron. E. Knopp, ‘‘If I Saw You Would You Kiss Me?’’: Sapphism and the Subversiveness of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando’, PMLA, Vol. 103, No. 1 (Jan., 1988) p. 29.

[12] ibid, p. 566.

[13] In this essay I use the term ‘invert’ as a product of the contemporary medical discourse of homosexuality and in order to assist in my argument; in current criticism Stephen is discussed within debates of transgender/transsexual models.

[14] Newton, op. cit., p. 566.

[15] Hall, op. cit., p. 460.

[16] Michael Baker, Our Three Selves; The Life of Radclyffe Hall (New York: Morrow, 1985) p. 219

[17] Adam Parkes, ‘Lesbianism, History, and Censorship: the Well of Loneliness and the Suppressed Randiness of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando’, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 40, No. 4, (Winter, 1994), p. 442.

[18] Woolf, op. cit., p. 17.

[19] ibid, p. 17.

[20] ibid, p. 17.

[21] Patricia Morgne Cramer, ‘Virginia Woolf: Liberating Lesbian Readings from Heterosexual Bias’, Articles, Papers and Presentations. Paper 2 (2010). p. 4

[22] ibid, p. 4.

[23] ‘In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place.’ Woolf, op. cit., p. 93.

[24] Hankins, op. cit., p. 190.

[25] Cramer, op. cit., p. 7.

[26] Jeanette Winterson. ‘Jeanette Winterson pitches Virginia Woolf’s Orlando against The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall.’ The Times 27 June 2008. Web. 15 Nov. 2013.

[27] Hall, op. cit., p. viii.

[28] ibid, p. viii.

[29] ibid, p. 135 – 136.

[30] ibid, p. 120.

[31] Bauer, op. cit., p. 121.

[32] ibid, p. 127. I use the term ‘super-invert’ as described in Bauer’s essay; the notion of Stephen as a superior type of invert compared with Mary, Puddle, Angela, Valerie etc. During Stephen’s romance with Angela, we see that Angela does not suffer from ‘congenital inversion’, but rather –and as Bauer describes – ‘corrupt perversity’; a sexual desire that is acquired and comes from her lack of sexual satisfaction with her husband (Ralph). This type of inversion reinforces the notion of homosexuality as a degenerative and pathological abnormality, and contrasted against Stephen’s noble and congenital inversion, reinforces the hierarchy of inversion.

[33] Cramer, op. cit., p. 4.

[34] Adrienne Rich, ‘’It Is the Lesbian in Us…’. in On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose 1966 – 1978 (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1980) p. 199. Rich makes direct links between silence and censorship in this essay; highlighting that ‘whatever is omitted in biography, whatever is censored in letters, whatever is misnamed as something else… will become, not merely unspoken but unspeakable.’ (Italics in original)

[35] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (NY: Routledge, 1990) successfully deconstructs the conventional links between sex, gender and sexual desire in her poststructuralist definition of gender difference. Furthermore, Butler’s theory of the ‘performativity of gender’ pervades Woolf’s narrative and aids in the deconstruction of the strict models of convention between sex, gender and sexual desire.

[36] Pei-Wen Clio Kao, ‘Queer Love in Woolf’s Orlando and Chu’s Notes of a Desolate Man.Comparative Literature and Culture. Vol. 14, Issue. 1, (March, 2012) Article 6 pg. 2

[37] ibid, p. 2

[38] Parkes, op. cit., p. 436

[39] Woolf, op, cit., p. 108

[40] Woolf, op. cit., p. 124.

[41] Parkes, op. cit., p. 449.

[42] Hankins, op. cit., p. 189.

[43] Newton, op. cit., p. 567.

[44] Hankins, op. cit., p. 181.

[45] ibid, p. 181.

[46] I refer in particular to the groundbreaking gender and sexuality theories that rose out of Adrienne Rich, ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’, Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979 – 1985 (NY: Norton, 1986), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkley: University of California Press, 1990) and Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (as detailed above).

[47] Sherron. E. Knopp, ‘‘If I Saw You Would You Kiss Me?’’: Sapphism and the Subversiveness of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando’, PMLA, Vol. 103, No. 1 (Jan., 1988), p. 30.

[48] ibid, p. 30.

[49] Woolf, op. cit., p. 67 – I have italicised the gendered pronouns to draw attention to the fluidity in which they vacillate from ‘he’ to ‘their’ to ‘she’ in a seemingly natural way.

[50] Ibid, p. 30. Italics in the original.


Newton, Esther. ‘The Mythic Mannish Lesbian’, The Lesbian Issue, Vol. 9, No. 4,           (Summer, 1984), pp. 557 – 575

Parkes, Adam. ‘Lesbianism, History, and Censorship: The Well of Loneliness and the Suppressed Randiness of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando’, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 40, No. 4, (Winter, 1994), pp. 434 – 460

Doan, Laura. Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of Modern English Lesbian Culture. New York: Columbia Press University, 2001

Doan, Laura and Prosser. Jay. Palatable Poison. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001

Michael Baker, Our Three Selves; The Life of Radclyffe Hall. New York: Morrow, 1985

Cramer, Patricia Morgne. ‘Virginia Woolf: Liberating Lesbian Readings from Heterosexual Bias’ (2010). in Articles, Papers and Presentations. Paper 2

Bauer, Heike. ‘Stephen Gordon Super-Invert: The Sexology of Radclyffe Hall’. in English Literary Sexology, Translations of Inversion, 1860 – 1930. Ed. Joseph Bristow. (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 112 – 142

Hankins, Leslie. ‘A Precipice Marked ‘V’: between ‘A Miracle of Discretion’ and ‘Lovemaking Unbelievable: Indiscretions Incredible.’’ in Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings. Ed. Eileen Barret and Patricia Cramer. (New York: New York UP, 1997), pp. 180 – 202

Knopp, Sherron. E. ‘‘If I Saw You Would You Kiss Me?’’: Sapphism and the Subversiveness of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando’, PMLA, Vol. 103, No. 1 (Jan., 1988), pp. 24 – 34

Clio Kao, Pei-Wen. ‘Queer Love in Woolf’s Orlando and Chu’s Notes of a Desolate Man’. Comparative Literature and Culture. Vol. 14, Issue. 1, (March, 2012) Article 6

Fassler, Barbara. ‘Theories of Homosexuality as Sources of Bloomsbury Androgyny’. Signs. Vol. 5, No. 2, (Winter, 1979), pp. 237 – 251

Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. London: Wordsworth Classics, 2003

Hall, Radclyffe. The Well of Loneliness. London: Virago modern Classics, 2008

Rich, Adrienne. ‘’It Is the Lesbian in Us…’. in On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose 1966 – 1978 (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1980) pp. 199 – 202

Winterson, Jeanette. ‘Jeanette Winterson pitches Virginia Woolf’s Orlando against The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall.’ The Times 27 June 2008. Web. 15 Nov. 2013.



2 thoughts on “Representation, Expression and Censorship: Same-sex Desire in ‘Orlando’ and ‘The Well of Loneliness’

  1. I really like this blog. It is well thought out and researched. I have cited you in my essay on “Queer Theory, in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Thanks for your work.


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