‘For a brief interlude after Orlando’s male-to-female transformation (or transition), Woolf raises the possibility of not being bound by sex at all, and tries speaking of Orlando with “they” pronouns, as a person containing both male and female selves: “The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity. Their faces remained, as their portraits prove, practically the same.” After these two sentences, however, the narrator-biographer bows to convention and begins to call Orlando “she.” But the glimpse of a nonbinary pronoun is tantalizing. It would take decades for the singular, gender-evasive “they” to take hold in the lexicon (Merriam-Webster dates the first use to the 1950s) and for the culture to catch up to Orlando’s casual claim that “in every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place.”
If published today, Orlando might have been misshelved not as biography but as fantasy or science fiction — genres in which women writers in recent years have increasingly found the space to challenge the straight-white-male strictures of both realist fiction and reality itself. Orlando’s blend of social critique and bold fantasy echoes in the postwar fiction of Ursula Le Guin and Angela Carter, and more recently in the fairy-tale retellings of Helen Oyeyemi and Daniel Mallory Ortberg — as well as in novels like Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, in which a graduate student writing on Sappho falls in love with a merman.