Virginia Woolf's exuberant `biography' tells the story of the cross-dressing, sex-changing Orlando who begins life as a young noble in the sixteenth century and moves through numerous historical and geographical worlds to finish as a modern woman writer in the 1920s. The book is in part ahappy tribute to the `life' that her love for Vita Sackville-West had breathed into Virginia Woolf's own day-to-day existence; it is also Woolf's light-hearted and light-handed teasing out of the assumptions that lie behind the normal conventions for writing about a fictional or historical life. Inthis novel, Virginia Woolf plays loose and fast: Orlando uncovers a literary and sexual revolution overnight.
Nevertheless, Woolf's language play is even more incredible than the storyline. She creates metaphors that are poetry in prose, and her creative use of lists is another strong technique. She also uses some very clever allusions. I love the characters Purity, Temperance, and Chastity, who physically make an appearance when Orlando changes gender and try to cover her, while cleverly providing a reason for Woolf not to describe how the miracle takes place. Her writing is lyrical.
I read this book twice. First, just because I wanted to, and the second time for a group read. I'm very glad that I read it a second time. The first time, I was captivated by her use of words, but the story lost me several times, and I put it down frequently. The second time, already knowing what to expect plot wise, I was able to appreciate the craft of the novel, and at the same time, understand the story and characters more deeply and stay focused.
This book has a lot to offer. Orlando's life spans several ages of London life, from Queen Elizabeth, through James and Victoria, and through the eyes of her main character, Woolf offers interesting criticism of each. Her perspective on gender is another central theme, which she can explore from two angles, thanks to her character's unique personality. Not content with those broad motifs, Woolf further ponders the themes of love and life. With her language, intriguing characters, and complex themes and metaphors, this story is well worth a read, and then another, to fully appreciate this work from Virginia Woolf.
Orlando's life is a reflection of Vita Sackville West's familiar grounds and life. Some readers may interpret the book as a declaration of love or as a philosophical discussion about gender and a nation's historical changes through Orlando's life. It is open to interpretation and it is well worth reading the book for the multitude of questions it opens. A highly recommended classic.
The novel purports to be the biography of a young nobleman named Orlando, born during the Elizabethan age and destined to become a great power in his time. Instead of settling into a typical noble life, however, Orlando undergoes an astonishing number of calamities -- not the least of which is his transformation from a man to a woman -- and traverses over three centuries of history while aging only thirty-odd years.
Despite the fantastical elements, Woolf's great attribute in the novel is her ability to tell the tale with a fairly objective eye, one that forgoes many of the modern techniques that mark her more famous and more difficult works. Her sentences do flow marvelously, and her paragraphs though long float effortlessly from page to page, but there is never a sense of psychological overload. Rather, her constant asides to the work of biographers both grounds her in a fact-based tradition and lampoons the style at the same time.
Orlando's romps through the centuries are each tinged with unique moments, some of which are incredibly fascinating and some which do, admittedly, tend to drag. (One particular sequence involving Alexander Pope, for instance, lacks the zest of Orlando's interactions with, say, Nick Greene.) The absurdity of Woolf's world, however, drives the action forward, and the casualness with which Orlando becomes a woman and swims through time keeps the mood light even when the action threatens to take a serious tone.
Orlando is a unique work in that it showcases Virginia Woolf at perhaps the height of her imaginative powers, but remains genuinely charming and delightfully accessible. A fine first step for the budding Woolf enthusiast, Orlando is perhaps underrated but well worth considering among her very best work.
The book begins with Orlando’s birth and childhood and how he grows to be a “beautiful” young man and a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I near the end of her reign. Later King Charles sends him as Ambassador to Turkey and the descriptions of his ambassadorial duties are the stuff of Grouch Marx--hilarious.
While in Turkey Orlando falls into a prolonged trance like sleep and when Orlando awakes she is now a woman. VW’s thoughts on how people conform to society's ideas of gender roles, and how important clothing is, freeing the male and restricting the female are thought provoking but, again, I was more entranced with the humor as she describes the society of the time—a much later time than when Orlando was a man. I'm a huge Georgette Heyer fan and the descriptions of the society functions Orlando attends reminded me of the time Heyer writes about. VW had me practically rolling on the floor--the "assemblies," the "tea parties," and the "witty, intellectual gatherings" were a hoot. Part of this book seems to be a great "send up" of so many British customs and mores--her acerbic wit is delightful.
This last section was the most difficult for me to keep track of what was going on--I think because it moved so quickly through so many different moods. The novel ends on October 11th 1928—Orlando is over 400 years old. In many of her novels Virginia Woolf seems to love “playing with time!”
I enjoyed it but feel I need to read it again because I'm sure I missed a lot the first time through. Her style seems to change with each new novel of hers I read and I always get more from her books when I reread the--which I will be doing with this one also.
This publication of this book in 1928, was a hallmark in literature, especially in regard to women's writing and gender studies, for obvious reasons.
Orlando is introduced to the reader as he practises his fencing by attacking the dried up heads of Moors brought back from the crusades by his father (or was it grandfather) in the attic of the mansion owned by his family for generations. And this is the first clue perhaps that time in this book does not flow as quickly as might be expected, for Orlando is a boy in the later days of Elizabeth I, and the crusades are long gone. But his ambitions of martial glory are thwarted by the Queen, who ordains that a military life is too dangerous for her favourite. So Orlando becomes a young man at the court of Elizabeth I and falls in and out of love, all the while concealing his desire to write, as to be a writer is not at all a respectable thing for an aristocrat. But time passes very slowly indeed for Orlando (although in the best tradition of magic realism, this is not commented on, or even seemingly noticed by Orlando himself or those around him) When Orlando requests the king to send him abroad as an ambassador to avoid the unwanted attentions of a suitor, the king is Charles II, more than seventy years have passed since he was the favourite of Queen Elizabeth, but Orlando is still a young man of less than thirty. And it's while an ambassador to the Turkish Court at Constantinople that Orlando's life changes for ever, as he becomes a woman overnight. There is no explanation of this, and although there are court cases aplenty to determine his legal situation on his return to England, the reality of the situation is accepted without query by all around him.
On my first reading of the book I was expecting a very different book from the one that I thought I eventually got, and I think that detracted slightly from my enjoyment. On this second reading I just went with the flow and enjoyed the ride, as here when the break-up of the frozen Thames is being described:
'Where for three months and more, there had been solid ice of such thickness that it seemed permanent as stone, and a whole gay city has been stood on its pavement, was now a race of turbulent yellow waters. The river had gained its freedom in the night. It was as if a sulphur spring (to which view many philosophers inclined) had risen from the volcanic regions beneath and burst the ice asunder with such vehemence that it swept the huge and massy fragments furiously apart. The mere look of the water was enough to turn one giddy. All was riot and confusion. The river was strewn with icebergs. Some of these were as broad as a bowling green and as high as a house; others no bigger than a man's hat, but most fantastically twisted. Now would come down a whole convoy of ice blocks sinking everything that stood in their way. Now, eddying and swirling like a tortured serpent, the river would seem to be hurtling itself between the fragments and tossing them from bank to bank, so they could be heard smashing against the piers and pillars. But what was the most awful and inspiring of terror was the sight of the human creatures who had been trapped in the night and now paced their twisting and precarious islands in the utmost agony of spirit. Whether they jumped into the flood or stayed on the ice their doom was certain.'
A strange book that is apparently a tribute to Vita-Sackville-West. Nothing is ever explained, and quite a lot makes very little sense but it has some interesting thoughts on gender and the nature of time.
I was shocked by how much I loved this book until (almost) the very end. I loved Woolf's essay, "A Room of One's Own" when I first encountered it in my early teens. It's a classic defense of women's abilities, and I revisited it recently after reading Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae, which reads almost like a refutation of it--I found myself sucked in and rereading almost the entire essay--it's not just a classic feminist work, it's a classic work about literature. Orlando hits a lot of its themes, and so brilliantly I thought this would be a book I'd return to again and I'd definitely give the highest possible rating--until anyway I hit the last half of the last part.
To understand my reservations, you'd have to understand my reaction to another work I was introduced to in my teens--Woolf's most famous novel, Mrs Dalloway. Reader, I detested it. It became my bete noire as I was assigned it again and again in high school and college, taking to Monarch and Cliff Notes to survive without having to actually complete the book. I have little tolerance for the stream-of-consciousness technique which dominates that novel. I hate James Joyce, William Faulkner and (almost) all their works. I've read that the technique can be valuable in rendering a chaotic mind, and in touches I can see it as effective, but for me pages of it marred Toni Morrison's Beloved, and a novel-full of it is more than I can stand. Mrs Dalloway I found tedious and incoherent. But not only did I want to love the author of "A Room of One's Own," a friend of mine who didn't care for Mrs Dalloway adored Orlando. Orlando for most of its length is free of a stream of consciousness narrative--until, I think not uncoincidentally, we reach the time around Woolf's birth and the beginning of the modern era, and suddenly I have Mrs Dalloway again.
Not that there is as large a break in styles as you might think from my comments. Woolf's style is easy to recognize. A single paragraph can take pages, and a single sentence, kept aloft by endless semi-colons... Well, let me give you an example:
Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case, often of the most incongruous, for the poet has a butcher’s face and the butcher a poet’s; nature, who delights in muddle and mystery, so that even now (the first of November, 1927) we know not why we go upstairs, or why we come down again, our most daily movements are like the passage of a ship on an unknown sea, and the sailors at the mast-head ask, pointing their glasses to the horizon: Is there land or is there none? to which, if we are prophets, we make answer “Yes”; if we are truthful we say “No”; nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldy length of this sentence, has further complicated her task and added to our confusion by providing not only a perfect ragbag of odds and ends within us—a piece of a policeman’s trousers lying cheek by jowl with Queen Alexandra’s wedding veil—but has contrived that the whole assortment shall be lightly stitched together by a single thread.
Yes, that's one sentence. But it's wise and gorgeous--and it's something else--something that can be said about almost the entire book: it's hilarious. Notice her comment about her own sentence being unwieldy? Did I completely miss the sense of humor in Mrs Dalloway or was it just missing there? I did notice from time to time beautiful language and imagery even in that novel, and it's certainly present here. This is technically a dense read--little white space and very interior. There was not much dialogue and as I noted sentences and paragraphs that seemingly go on forever. And yet, yes, I did find this a page-turner, in the sense I was riveted and found it impossible to not speed through it even as I wanted to slow down and savor so much of the prose. It's the kind of book I can imagine returning to. So yes, even though my eyes rather glazed over because of the style of the last pages, I decided this is nothing short of amazing and for me worthy of five stars.
Woolf wrote this novel as a break from more serious endeavors, and as a kind of love-letter to or mock biography of her sometime-lover Vita Sackville-West, whose family, like Orlando's, could date their genteel pedigree back to the days of Shakespeare, and who, like Orlando, had a passionate attachment to her family home (which she, being female, could not inherit). One of my favorite, favorite things about this novel is the way in which it transformed a passing infatuation, waning even as Woolf worked on this manuscript, into a vibrant, funny creative project. The end result is a sort-of-novel that doesn't offer up easy answers to the problem of loving another person or that of making art, but which manages to be delightful and playfully satirical while also, this being Woolf, incorporating a good deal of depth, and playing on themes of artistic androgyny that she develops more seriously in A Room of One's Own. Were I to receive such a love letter? I would be putty in the sender's hands. (In fact, Orlando was pretty central to my courtship with my own partner, and a model for our own humble attempts at cooperative art projects.)
She was certainly feeling more herself. Her finger had not tingled once, or nothing to count, since that night on the moor. Yet, she could not deny that she had her doubts. She was married, true; but if one's husband was always sailing round Cape Horn, was it marriage? if one liked him, was it marriage? If one liked other people, was it marriage? And finally, if one still wished, more than anything in the whole world, to write poetry, was it marriage? She had her doubts.
One of the things that strikes me, thinking about Orlando on the heels of the Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse readalongs, is Woolf's relative patriotism in this novel. Throughout her works she is critical of the British Empire for its cost in human life abroad (Septimus Smith) and of English society in general for its repressiveness ("women can't write, women can't paint"; William Bradshaw's goddess of Conversion). And yet, as Peter Walsh notes, even in people who actively dislike Empire, "there were moments...of pride in England." While she continues to poke fun at the ridiculousness of Britishness in Orlando, Woolf's lighter tone and farcical approach allow her to portray her country more as one would the foibles of an exasperating yet beloved great-aunt, and less in a mood of white-hot rage or tragedy. The character Orlando, after all, is an embodiment of the "spirit of the age" in Britain, and Woolf can't be in enamored of Orlando without feeling some tenderness toward the country - even in its most Victorian stages.
Once there, she followed what had now become the most imperious need of her nature and wrapped herself as well as she could in a damask quilt which she snatched from her bed. She explained to the Widow Bartholomew as housekeeper) that she felt chilly.
"So do we all, m'lady," said the Widow, heaving a profound sigh. "The walls is sweating," she said, with a curious, lugubrious complacency, and sure enough, she had only to lay her hand on the oak panels for the fingerprints to be marked there. The ivy had grown so profusely that many windows were now sealed up. The kitchen was so dark that they could scarcely tell a kettle from a cullender. A poor black cat had been mistaken for coals and shovelled on the fire. Most of the maids were already wearing three or four red-flannel petticoats, though the month was August.
I love the fantastical and hilarious way in which Woolf has even Orlando's physical surroundings mirror the "spirit of the age" (whatever age s/he might be living through at the moment). In the Great Freeze of Elizabethan England we get carnivalesque scenes of apple-sellers completely frozen in the ice; the diplomatic seventeenth century brings tent-labyrinths with endless cups of strong coffee; the Romantic era sets the reader adrift in lightning storms and wind-wracked forests; the nineteenth century is ushered in with an monumental, over-decorated monstrosity and an oddly pervasive foggy chill. Orlando and the other characters are swept along irresistibly with the changing zeitgeist, and I laugh out loud every time I read the distressingly fast-forwarded transition from the freewheeling eighteenth century to the damp, dark nineteenth. All representations are caricatures, of course, but they're lovingly crafted and well-realized to a fault.
And then there's the brilliant character of Nick Greene, who spends eternity lamenting the fall of "modern literature" from its glory days--usually located a few centuries before his current diatribe, whenever that might happen to be. From a penniless Elizabethan playwright complaining of pains in his back, running down Shakespeare for a money-grubbing hack, and mocking Orlando's poetry in print in order to make a quick pound, he evolves into "the most influential critic of the Victorian age." Orlando, however, somehow prefers his earlier, less respectable incarnation, gossiping about poets and pressing Orlando for a pension, paid quarterly:
There was one knob about the third from the top which burnt like fire; another about the second from the bottom which was cold as ice. Sometimes he woke with a brain like lead; at others it was as if a thousand wax tapers were alight and people were throwing fireworks inside him. He could feel a rose leaf through his mattress, he said; and knew his way almost about London by the feel of the cobbles. Altogether he was a piece of machinery so finely made and so curiously put together (here he raised his hand as if unconsciously and indeed, it was of the finest shape imaginable) that it confounded him to think that he had only sold five hundred copies of his poem, but that of course was largely due to the conspiracy against him. All he could say, he concluded, banging his fist upon the table, was that the art of poetry was dead in England.
I must admit that the semi-personal nature of Orlando does lead to some flaws as well as delights. At times it feels in-jokey, too self-consciously clever, and the overwhelming Britishness of it can get to seem like a bit much for those who aren't, like me, firm Anglophiles. It also has that awkward trait in which white authors attempt to depict non-white people sympathetically and end up othering them in a somewhat cringe-worthy way (although, I do like the moment when the gypsy leader tells Orlando that he won't hold her father's Dukedom against her). Despite these drawbacks, though, this novel has a warm place in my heart, and I look forward to many re-reads, even if I must now plough on with Cortázar. Onward!
(If you loved the atmospheric lyricism of Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, consider joining us for the final Woolf in Winter discussion. Claire will be hosting The Waves two weeks from now, on Friday, February 26.)
It's easy to see why Virginia Woolf is admired by modernists, litarati and feminists. Woolf transitions seamlessly between gender and centuries in a classic of modernism that can just as easily be labeled postmodern today.
As usual, Woolf is too busy trying to be unusual and shocking to bother writing something actually readable. It is so frustrating, because there are a few beautiful passages, and the idea behind the last two-thirds or so of the novel is really interesting and could have made a wonderful book on its own. But these sparks of something better are drowned in Woolf's usual overly-self-conscious, self-indulgent prose. If you really must read any of this (and I advise against it), go only as far as the point where Orlando falls into a trance in Constantinople. There is absolutely nothing worth your time and energy beyond that point.
"Different though the sexes are, the 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 is above."
There are a few brilliant passages of prose -- particularly the part with the frozen river Thames. The story is of a man who turns into a woman and then lives 300 years.... I'm not sure what the point of it all was.
This is the fourth Woolf book I've read and she clearly isn't a good match for me. I only really enjoyed "The Years," which has a much more traditional narrative and style. There are several authors that I feel like I'm just not smart enough to understand and Woolf is among them.
Some of the best -- i.e. least simplistic -- thinking about culturally-defined sex roles I have ever read, including observations of how they have mutated over the past four centuries. She asserts, for example, that the Victorian era was a regressive one for women.
The last part of the book is an extended reverie, which I found a little monotonous, but I'll give it another chance.
The key to enjoying the book is to recognize the humour; I've laughed out loud at many of the passages. If the humour is not the kind you appreciate or even recognize you will surely dislike the book as much as I like it.
The lengthy paragraphs are a deliberate device of the author. It is an intriguing introduction to English literature; I found myself a good deal more interested in the Augustan poets after I finished the book.