This is the second installment of our book reviews of LGBT books that we have in our collection at St George’s.
Every February we celebrate LGBT History Month! It is about celebrating the richness of queer people’s contributions to society, to make LGBT+ people visible in all their diversity and to educate out prejudice.
At St George’s we have a growing Reading for Pleasure collection and as part of that we have been expanding our range of LGBT titles. You can browse the whole collection on our Wakelet.
Orlando – Virginia Woolf
Liz (Diversity and Inclusion Adviser)
Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, written in 1928, is a progressive, fun and vibrant novel that plays with gender and identity but carries an underlying important questioning of the restrictive nature of gender placed on individuals by society. This novel is very ahead of its time, like much of Woolf’s other works. It challenges the status quo, making it as important a comment on gender today, as it was when it was first published.
Orlando is a beautifully written book with vivid and rich descriptions of societies and landscapes and tales of love and passion spanning over 300 years. Orlando is a love story, arguably based on Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s close friend and lover. Woolf uses the novel to explore this relationship free of the boundaries of society, exploring sexuality and gender that is fluid.
Woolf creates Orlando as a playful, intense and humorous character through which she is able to explore, critique and question the role of gender in society and how this has changed over time. Woolf considered Orlando to be a “holiday” or “joke”, suggesting it is less serious and intellectual than her other works. Despite this, the novel has a serious and interrogative undertone which makes for interesting reading.
In Orlando, gender is fluid. For the protagonist, Orlando, gender changes as the novel moves through time. Half way through the novel Orlando changes from man to woman. This is not remarkable for Orlando or for Woolf, but entirely plausible. Woolf writes
‘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’
In this, Woolf argues that gender is merely costume and expression, and is interchangeable. Orlando has autonomy over their identity, and this remains separate from the sex and gender.
Woolf highlights the complex relationship between gender and identity and how this is impacted by societal expectations and norms. Orlando pushes boundaries and questions why our roles and identities are so shaped and prescribed by our sex. Orlando is able to break free of this, exploring different roles and learning the penalties and privileges of each of these. Gender is performative and fluctuating, demonstrating a wonderful freedom. As the novel progresses Woolf explores a hopeful and changed world for women.
Orlando is a hugely progressive and daring novel; it is widely viewed as the first trans novel. It is fast-paced and immensely enjoyable to read. Whilst it was published 1928 it still feels relevant and challenging today. Woolf asks important and brave questions of her reader through a charming and playful love story I’d recommend everyone to read.
The Night Watch – Sarah Waters
Anne (Liaison Support Librarian)
Sarah Waters is a contemporary novelist known for weaving together themes of gender, sexuality and identity with characters that live on the margins of their respective societies. Night Watch (2006) is no exception to this. As readers we follow four characters through London before, during and after WWII. The author expertly plays with time and chronology, slowing revealing secrets and hidden traumas. At first, I found it difficult to engage with the characters and due to the chronology of the novel it is not fast-paced. However, some scenes stood out as highlights to me. Without wanting to give too much away, all I can say is that the characters’ personal development connects in imaginative, sometimes horrifying, ways to wartime events and post-wartime malaise. The female characters struggle to readjust to the more stereotypical gender roles they are expected to fall back into after the war. The sexual freedom they experienced during the war has receded and turned some characters’ romances into flat routine in which they seemed trapped. Their sexuality and the consequences thereof are something all four protagonists struggle with, either because of social stigma or personal shame and often because of a combination of both. Waters’ language does justice to the dramatic, (in)tense scenes as well as the more mundane, everyday elements of people’s lives and I always enjoy a good description.
While I am not painting a very rosy picture of The Night Watch, and it definitely is a dark novel at times, I enjoyed reading it. As always, I really liked Sarah Waters’ gender-bending, sexually adventurous and at times confused protagonists as they navigate their historical contexts.
We published another blog post a few weeks with more book reviews of LGBT titles. You can find it here. Any recommendations for our LGBT book collection? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.