Now we don’t know who is who or even what’s what.
Knickers and trousers baggy and wide, nobody knows who’s walking inside.
Those masculine women and feminine men.
Popular song, 1926
1. The Laugh of Orlando : Love, Desire and écriture féminine
Orlando’s laugh resounds throughout centuries. He laughs with Princess Sasha (Orlando 20). She laughs at the Archduchess Harriet (118). She also laughs at herself and at the vanity of (his/her) life (203). Entwined with flirt and banter, the delightful pleasures of desire and mischievous teasing, laughter is furthermore connected to the serious wildness of love as Orlando meets her soul mate Marmaduke in a whirlwind of hoarsely laughing rooks  (161-2). Laughter gives its flighty tempo to Orlando’s waltz of lovers, underlining its unbearable lightness of being and the intricate connexions between questions of identity, gender and alterity.
Orlando’s elating laughter echoes his/her gender metamorphoses (sex change and cross-dressing) as well as the existential quandaries linked to his/her various amorous relationships. Struggling to give an “exact and particular account of Orlando’s life” (141) upon her return to England, the narrator-biographer notes that
[t]he task is made still more difficult by the fact that [Orlando] found it convenient at this time to change frequently from one set of clothes to another. […] She had, it seems, no difficulty in sustaining the different parts, for her sex changed far more frequently than those who have worn only one set of clothing can conceive ; nor can there be any doubt that she reaped a twofold harvest by this device ; the pleasures of life were increased and its experiences multiplied. For the probity of breeches she exchanged the seductiveness of petticoats and enjoyed the love of both sexes equally. (141-2)
Starting with the sex/gender vacillation exemplified above, I wish to analyse the ways in which Virginia Woolf’s Orlando explores existential trouble through gender mutations, their “complications and confusions” (121), and (poly)amorous relationships. Woolf’s texts have often been analysed in the light of Judith Butler’s gender theory, which emphasizes the subversive socio-political dimension of gender trouble (“Performative acts” 62) . Yet, as Clotilde Leguil underlines, gender can be questioned differently, “beyond norms and stereotypes so as to reach the most intimate part of the subject’s relation to his/her gender” (L’Être 12. My translation ). Leguil’s psychoanalytical take on gender complements Butler’s analyses : rather than focusing on its prescriptive and performative aspects it underlines the precariousness of gender.
Whatever body we have, we feel manly or womanly depending on the encounters we make and according to the emotions or passions experienced on specific occasions. [Gender] is not a set trait of character. [It] escapes, as what triggers desire escapes. […] gender does not only entail playfulness, mascarade, and cross-dressing. [It] is not only a mask one can freely play with because it meddles with the question of being beyond dress and pretence. (14)
Taking her cue from Lacan’s analysis of “the skewed relation that separates the subject from sex” (Lacan 676), Leguil posits that confronting gender is to “confront strangeness in oneself” (“Penser” 55). It is to become. Rather than being solely conditioned by natural or social determinisms (two kinds of essentialism inherent in sexual identity politics), gender experience can be related to desire and love, it is shaped by “subjective contingency and encounters” (59). In this way it is related to what Hélène Cixous calls “the other bisexuality on which every subject not enclosed in the false theatre of phallocentric representationalism has founded his/her erotic universe”.
Bisexuality : that is, each one’s location in self (repérage en soi) of the presence – variously manifest and insistent according to each person, male or female – of both sexes, nonexclusion either of the difference or of one sex, and, from this “self-permission”, multiplication of the effects of the inscription of desire, over all parts of my body and the other body. (“Laugh” 884)
Cixous’s emphasis on the plurality of bisexuality is what constitutes the écriture féminine and its disruptive effects. Woolf’s Orlando writes about difference and brings difference. It laughs at and “troubles conventions” (Elkin 101). Changing the rules of the old gender and literary games, Woolf’s “sext” (“Laugh” 885) reckons on clothes trouble and queer non-conformity to explore the “ambisexuality”  (Le Guin 95) of love.
2. Clothes Trouble
A genuine question arises when reading Woolf’s fancy biography : what is Orlando’s “true sex” (Foucault vii)  ? When male Orlando suddenly becomes female and stands stark naked in front of a mirror, s/he contentedly contemplates an ineffable “naked form” (Orlando 87), a true “mixture of sex” (Foucault ix).
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. Their faces remained, as their portraits prove, practically the same. (Orlando 87)
More than “multisexual” (Lokke 236), “manwoman” (Left Hand 101) Orlando is a “mixing of genres” (“The Law” 61), as the plural “their” suggests. Orlando’s undermined sex and gender identity abolishes the sex/gender dichotomy. Woolf upends any notion that biological sex is related to gender or sexual orientation . Even the notion that biological sex is fixed and stable at all is questioned by her protagonist’s metamorphosis. Far from being an “unjoined person” (McCullers 3), a character trapped in a sex that does not fit his/her gender, Orlando is a composite being : “it was this mixture in her of man and woman, one being uppermost and then the other, that often gave her conduct an unexpected turn” (Orlando 121). Unbound and undetermined, gender matches contingencies.
Refusing to inscribe Orlando’s sexuality directly in the flesh of his/her body, Woolf creates a bisexual “chimera” (Foucault x) that uncovers a new kind of truth about the subject, his/her ontological queerness, a gender instability  and indeterminacy that the “practically” encapsulates. “The genres pass into each other”, says Derrida (“The Law”, 76). And Woolf’s incredible character also proves the philosopher’s “madness of sexual difference” (76) by defying the law of gender .
Nonetheless, sexual difference makes itself blatantly visible in clothing as Woolf was keenly aware : “Different though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above” (Orlando 121). Orlando having no fixed sex, his/her gender can only be determined by his/her attire (and the varying conventions of fashion throughout centuries), it can only be interpreted through what s/he chooses to wear. Sartorial designation of sex or gender is thus problematized and questioned through Orlando, his/her characterization and the doubts ironically raised by the narrator. Orlando’s sex and gender remain non ascribable. Chapter after chapter we follow playful fe/male permutations, with no certainty of his/her true sex.
If, according to Woolf, clothes are supposed to “wear us” and “mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their linking” (Orlando 120), sex/gender designation is further twisted and complicated by genderless or unisex garments . When female Orlando flees Turkey to return to England, she wears women’s clothes for the first time.
With some of the guineas left from the sale of the tenth pearl on her string, Orlando bought herself a complete outfit of such clothes as women then wore, and it was in the dress of a young Englishwoman of rank that she now sat on the deck of the “Enamoured Lady”. It is a strange fact, but a true one, that up to this moment she had scarcely given her sex a thought. Perhaps the Turkish trousers which she had hitherto worn had done something to distract her thoughts ; and the gipsy women, except in one or two important particulars, differ very little from the gipsy men. At any rate, it was not until she felt the coil of skirts about her legs and the Captain offered, with the greatest politeness, to have an awning spread for her on deck, that she realized with a start the penalties and the privileges of her position. (Orlando 97)
Turkish trousers are not distinguishable as male or female and are suitable for both men and women ; a trend which runs counter to the Western sartorial norms and social habitus . A reform garment in nineteenth-century America , it is linked to radical activism and to feminine wildness and virility  but it also sends further back to the eighteenth-century figure of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu who, at the time of Orlando’s stay in Constantinople, enthusiastically adopted Turkish pantlets . What’s more, the woman-manly or man-womanly confusion induced by unisex outfit is heightened in the intense seventeenth-century carnival scene on the frosted Thames. A “figure” (Orlando 18) appears “which, whether boy’s or woman’s, for the loose tunic and trousers of the Russian fashion served to disguise the sex, filled [Orlando] with the highest curiosity” (18). Sasha’s mesmerizing clothes and the trouble they produce play on the endless permutation of sex/gender possibilities. In Orlando, both Turkish and Russian attires put Western gender biases into perspective. Their carnivalesque confusion challenges clothes gender norms. I’ll call this confusion the clothes trouble as it is not linked to Butlerian gender performance and concerns personal liberty, the free expression of one’s plural inner self through clothes.
Actual cross-dressing is performed by two characters only, Harry and Orlando, and it takes place in England. Harry becomes Harriet to seduce the male Orlando in the seventeenth century and she takes off her mask when Orlando becomes a woman in the eighteenth century. One Victorian night, Orlando puts on what used to be her man clothes and seduces a young prostitute in Leicester Square. In each situation, male and female characters automatically or atavistically play the parts of man and woman, and come to parodically epitomize “the pink, the pearl, the perfection of [their] sex” (Orlando 115). Through the play on fe/male masks, Woolf questions and subverts heteronormativity . But she also confirms, the playful possibilities that cross-dressing mascarade offers . “Man and woman change places. They exchange masks ad infinitum” (Spurs 111).
3. Queer Non-Conformity
For Woolf, Orlando was to be “half laughing, half serious : with great splashes of exaggeration” (Diary 3 168). Invalidating stability, the mock biography plays on the “sexual topsy-turvy” (Zemon-Davis 404) of its unruly character, it counts on carnivalesque subversion  to effect sex/gender deconstruction.
Seriousness springs from joy and laughter, from the utter pleasure and lightness that dressing-up  and cross-dressing promote. In this way, Orlando inherits much of the spirit of the Dreadnought Hoax, the prank Virginia Stephen and a group of family and friends played on the Royal Navy in February 1910. In her 1940 talk to the Rodmell Woman’s Institute, Woolf recalls how much she enjoyed going to the “theatrical costumier in Garrick Street” (“Woolf’s Talk” 14) and her attraction for the strangeness or otherness the disguise transformation caused : “I did feel very queer” (15). Woolf’s queerness is imprecise and exploratory. It is a trickster’s queerness which echoes the “man-woman” stories that “often flagged headlines” in the 1920s and 1930s British popular press (Oram 68) . Donning an oriental Prince’s garb, Woolf takes on an open-ended gender challenge (77). Between embodiment (she took the appearance of Prince Sanganya and interpreted his role) and imitation (she adopted and reproduced some characteristic traits of the fictitious Abyssinian Prince), she talks of a quasi alteration or metamorphosis of her identity, underlining the transformative power of costume and make up : “I became another person” (15). And the costumier added : “Madam you’re the very image of the Abyssinian Prince” (17). As the two Lafayette photographs prove, cross-dressing allowed Woolf to become somebody else – a man, a prince, an Abyssinian – and to be acknowledged as such . Just as in Orlando, the Hoax helped her effectively measure the expressive and symbolic power of dress. It underlined the fluid, discontinuous and surprising quality of gender which, rather than imposing an abstract anonymous norm, becomes internalized as a subjective intimate question. Cross-dressing sparks awareness.
Of course, the Hoax also highlighted the utter mobility of what we call masculinity and femininity and the outrage this could cause. In his memoir on the event, Adrian Stephen comes back on the scandal brought by Virginia’s eager involvement – “for God’s sake, keep Virginia’s name out of it” (Rosenbaum 15) summoned an eminent member of their family who was offended by the press publicity and the image it gave of their honourable relative. Peter Stansky remarks : “About ‘the girl’ in the party, the Mail revealed that she had come to the plan late because of a male defection, and that she had ‘stepped into the breach and the breeches’” (Stansky 34). Cross-dressed Virginia was intolerable because she “defamiliarized gender” (Halberstam 20) and in so doing ridiculed the masculinist culture of the Imperial Navy and through it the British patriarchal system.
Woolf has “queer[ed] the angle” (Moments 108). Wearing men’s clothes, she confronted her own otherness, her own acute sense of becoming other . Just like Orlando donning “the clothes she had worn as a young man of fashion” (Orlando 138), young Virginia disruptively uses her body as an embodiment of and a projection surface for gendered fantasies. While her fellow pranksters dressed as feminised men (such was the Orientalist cliché), she outdid them cross-dressing as a man-dressed-up-as-a-woman, underlining the disruptive but also emancipatory function of garbs.
- The Russian Princess as a Child
Orlando underlines yet another aspect of clothes trouble and the confusion it triggers : its “extraordinary seductiveness” (Orlando 18). When Sasha appears, Orlando is hypnotized by her magnetic appeal  : “The person, whatever the name or sex, was about middle height, very slenderly fashioned, and dressed entirely in oyster-coloured velvet, trimmed with some unfamiliar greenish-coloured fur” (18). Centuries later, adorned with a “black velvet suit richly trimmed with Venetian lace” which, even if “a little out of fashion”, fits her “to perfection”, the female Orlando suddenly looks “the very figure of a noble Lord” (138). The insistence on the alluring charm of both richly dressed characters has less to do with fashion proper than with style . Both have found sartorial styles that fit and sign the singularity of their idiosyncratic genre . Both have a singular and attractive manner of being, a peculiar way of moving or carrying themselves beyond gender labelling. As Clotilde Leguil, re-reading Lacan, suggests, “gender cannot be taken on as a role to which one would submit, it is made to be commensurate with a subject who naturally challenges universal norms” (L’être 215). The elusive quality of both Sasha and Orlando’s genders, what makes their peculiar genres, resides in its twisting power  – “Change was incessant and change perhaps would never cease” (Orlando 112).
Here is the nodal point where the laughing carnivalesque quality of ambiguous dress codes fuses with serious masquerade . Undoing assigned gender appearances either by annulling them or by interchanging them, it assumes fe/male disguises as such and thus both deconstructs normative gender categories and constructs novel and “uncertain” (Heath 53) or rather labile senses of identity. Clothes trouble provides the “queer twist” (Moments 154) Woolf nurtured throughout her life as a writer.
4. The Ambisexuality of Love
At the end of the biography, Orlando “chang[es] her selves as quickly as she [drives]” (Orlando 202), indeterminately swapping fe/male selves through which we recognize different periods of her/his lives.
“What then ? Who then ?” she said. “Thirty-six ; in a motor car ; a woman. Yes, but a million other things as well. A snob am I ? The garter in the hall ? The leopards ? My ancestors ? Proud of them ? Yes ! Greedy, luxurious, vicious ? Am I ? (here a new self came in). Don’t care a damn if I am. Truthful ? I think so. Generous ? Oh, but that don’t count (here a new self came in). Lying in bed of a morning listening to the pigeons on fine linen ; silver dishes ; wine ; maids ; footmen. Spoilt ? Perhaps. Too many things for nothing. Hence my books (here she mentioned fifty classical titles ; which represented, so we think, the early romantic works that she tore up). Facile, glib, romantic. But (here another self came in) a duffer, a fumbler. More clumsy I couldn’t be. And – and – (here she hesitated for a word and if we suggest ‘Love’ we may be wrong, but certainly she laughed and blushed and then cried out –) A toad in emeralds ! Harry the Archduke ! Blue-bottles on the ceiling ! (here another self came in). But Nell, Kit, Sasha ? […] (Orlando 203)
Energetically listing the succession of selves, Woolf foregrounds the ontological plurality of personality – the being-more-than-one Cixous talks about – while pointing at what Derrida calls “the fabulous sexual difference” (“Ants” 19) and the utter “undecidability” of identity – “there is no truth in itself of the sexual difference in itself, of either man or woman in itself” (Spurs 103). Through masquerade, Woolf implicitly acknowledges sex and gender as fictions, as fables, and thus validates one of the tenets of Queer theory. But through the fragmentary representation of her character’s complex and composite identity (interjections, parentheses), she also pictures the mobility of sexual difference in details and traces that become clues to be deciphered.
Derrida reminds us that “as soon as there is sexual difference, there are words or rather traces to be read. […] sexual difference remains to be interpreted, deciphered, decrypted, read and not seen” (“Ants” 21). In Orlando, we can read and unriddle sexual difference on clothes. But with clothes trouble and cross-dressing, interpreting also requires a renewed language to apprehend unusual identities, the language of fancy/fantasy, namely the écriture feminine, which connects gender and love to writing. The most relevant example of this is Orlando’s reaction to Sasha’s dancing.
But [the] details [of her dress] were obscured by the extraordinary seductiveness which issued from the whole person. Images, metaphors of the most extreme and extravagant twined and twisted in his mind. He called her a melon, a pineapple, an olive tree, an emerald, and a fox in the snow all in the space of three seconds ; he did not know whether he had heard her, tasted her, seen her, or all three together. (Orlando18)
Animal and vegetal cliché tropes, a host of elating metaphors abound in Orlando’s unchecked poetic excess ; excrescing “splashes of exaggeration” which express language’s reaction to Sasha’s queer apparition and create violent disruptions. The prose gets twisted, differance seeps in between words and their referent.
For Hélène Cixous, the interpreting and reading of sexual difference is intertwined with love and otherness :
The infinite suppleness of sexual difference which cannot be submitted to anatomical or biological objectivity. We are talking about love – not only anatomy or species, or hormones or genes, it is all about reading.
What is love then ? Some archintelligence, the desire for the other, a desire for the other’s happiness which can invent ways, signs, languages, or some kind of archintelligence that is free from the codes of our species, from cultural knowledge.
I say love, the love of jouissance, free from violence and power, some benevolence, a benejouissance, a caring caress that listens and reaches nearer, a light touch, a reading of the other’s eyes with blessing eyes. (“Nous en sommes” 105. My translation)
Matters of the heart are significantly important in Orlando  as its ardent protagonist has quite a few love affairs, falls quite regularly in love and has two main love stories with Princess Sasha and Marmaduke Bonthorpe Shelmedine. These idylls have the suppleness Cixous mentions, a suppleness readable on dress or gestures  and which contributes to what she calls the “genious” or the “vertigo of gender” : “the aim is to find oneself, ‘almost at random here and there’, hence to find oneself randomly, in place of the other, ‘as the other in the other’s place’. […] – here is the very vertigo of gender, the ever undecidable question of gender as vertigo” (108. My translation). This trouble, which entails gender uncertainty and unpredictability shows in Orlando’s and Shelmedine’s portraits.
- Orlando Upon Her Return to England
Indeed, both characters recognize in their lover their own irreducible otherness, they read the alteration of their alterity in their alter-ego – l’Amour Autre (Other Love) says Cixous, a love that dares otherness and generates possibilities. “To love, to watch-think-seek the other in the other, to despecularize, to unhoard” (“The Laugh”, 893).
‘Oh ! Shel, don’t leave me !’ [Orlando] cried. ‘I’m passionately in love with you,’ she said. No sooner had the worlds left her mouth than an awful suspicion rushed into both their minds simultaneously
‘You’re a woman, Shel !’ she cried.
‘You’re a man, Orlando !’ he cried. (Orlando164)
- Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine Esquire
The confession of love opens a playful gender interchangeability as both characters seem to effortlessly change sex and “rejoice in the exchange that multiplies” (“The Laugh” 893). Juxtaposing their portraits while bearing in mind eccentric Orlando’s use of dress, we can read sexual difference and the love that alters and dissolves it. While utterly dissimilar because of their respective singularity, the two characters have similar haircuts, their gaze and posture echo each other, and we have no difficulties picturing the male Orlando as Shelmedine and the female Shelmedine as Orlando. Reading the characters in the image, it seems that antagonist relations between sexes and genders are abolished. Enhancing “perfect reflectivity” (Bourdieu 111) and “perfect reciprocity” (112), the two portraits, taken together, seem a figuration of Bourdieu’s “‘enchanted island’ of love” (110) where mutual recognition, “by which each recognizes himself or herself in another whom he or she recognizes as another self and who also recognizes him or her as such” (111), prevails. Two “doubly-gendered creatures of unknown sex” (“Nous en sommes” 108. My translation), Orlando and Shelmedine combine likeness and difference and thus embody the “ambisexuality” of love or what Cixous calls “trance-like bisexuality” (Rire 52), which “doesn’t annul differences but stirs them up, pursues them, increases their number” (“The Laugh” 884).
I read Woolf’s playful and lively “biographical fantasy” (Diary 4 180) as a “thought-experiment” (Left Hand xiv) since, through cross-dressing and clothes trouble, she twistingly performs sexual difference as fabulous fable. Free from realistic contingencies, her fanciful text foregrounds gender trouble as sheer wonder, that is at once wonderful in the freedom and possibilities it offers, a source of wonderment (astonishment and admiration) and the springboard that sets us wondering. That’s it, cross-dressing = se demander .
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