Orlando, the titular character of the novel Orlando by Virginia Woolf, lives from the mid-16th to mid-20th century. Orlando lives primarily in England, though she lives in Turkey for a period. Though Orlando is born male, she transforms into a female in her adulthood. This allows her to understand life and society from both male and female points of view, and she is especially struck by the injustices of life as a female. Even as a noblewoman, she knows she is expected to get married and depend on a husband for financial and social stability. Even smaller issues such as modest dressing and social manners are touched upon in the story, and Orlando's unique experience across genders and centuries allow her to clearly see the bias and absurdity in the subjugation of women.
The Elizabethan period in English history spanned from 1558–1603, the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Orlando was an adolescent boy during this period, so the norms for females during this period are witnessed through his interactions with characters such as Queen Elizabeth, Sukey, and Sasha. During the Elizabethan period, females did not attend schools of any form, could not inherit land or titles, and were prevented from joining many career fields such as medicine, politics, and the military. Upper-class girls were sometimes tutored in the home, but, like women of all classes, they were expected to be subservient to their husbands as adult women. Marriages were arranged and women were expected to bring a dowry. Elizabethan fashion for women included painful corsets and pale makeup that often contained dangerous materials.
The Jacobean and Caroline eras succeeded the Elizabethan era, but little of these times England are shown in Orlando because Orlando spends the period first hiding in his home and then in Turkey. However, gender roles during this time were much the same as in the Elizabethan era. When Orlando returns to England, it is the 18th century, during which time the industrial revolution took place. Scholars offer conflicting views on the status of women during this period. Some feel that the rise of capitalism and industry solidified the dichotomy of men's work outside the home and women's work inside the home. Others argue that the industrial era prepared society for the growing economic and political independence of women.
The period that Woolf is most explicitly criticizes is the 19th century. The end of Chapter IV reads, "A turbulent welter of cloud covered the city. All was darkness; all was doubt; all was confusion. The Eighteenth century was over; the Nineteenth century had begun" (199). Woolf uses the metaphor of a dark cloud descending over the British Isles to represent the way in which nineteenth-century society stifled and oppressed women. The Victorian era, which spanned the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837-1901, was a time during which being a woman meant staying home, having a large family, and keeping up the respectability of the household. While Queen Elizabeth had been a symbol of power and independence, Queen Victoria was a symbol of domesticity and feminine propriety.
Orlando ends in the early 20th century—midnight on Thursday, October 11, 1928. It is clear from Orlando's life in Chapter VI that women were much more independent then than in any previous era of English history. Suffragettes began to protest for the right to vote, though this is not mentioned in Orlando, and women's abilities to remain unmarried and work outside of the home increased drastically. During this period, Orlando drives herself around, has a stable income as a writer, and pays no attention to the child to whom she gave birth in a previous chapter. Through Orlando's experiences, Woolf charts the history of women in England over the four centuries leading up to the author's life.