Visiting a friend a couple of days ago, she played me a recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice. I was astonished, because she sounded so unexpectedly…vivacious. The way she spoke was forceful, lively, mischievous, playful. I’m so accustomed to thinking of Woolf’s prose as dreamy and elegant, with a sort of molten flow to the words that expands the moment in her narrative, slowing it down and stretching it out, so that even the most dramatic event (and there never seem to be many of those) is held up for contemplation at leisure. It was a revelation to hear her so animated, so passionate.
But it made perfect sense when I read Orlando: A Biography. Woolf wrote in her diary as she approached Orlando ‘I feel the need of an escapade after these serious poetic experimental books whose form is always so closely considered. I want to kick up my heels & be off.’ And my goodness me, is that what she does! Orlando is a romp, a lark, a fantasia, a beautiful piece of parody and a glorious love letter to Vita Sackville-West, the real-life model for the narratives racy, adventurous hero(ine). But since it was written by Virginia Woolf, the high priestess of modernism, it is also a brilliant appraisal of the art of history and biography writing and a clever inquiry into the relationship between life, narrative and the experience of time passing.
Anyone who’s ever thought that Woolf could afford to quicken the pace of her narrative occasionally (and I include myself in that) gets more than she bargained for here. The story opens with Orlando as a boy in the Elizabethan age, who grows into a passionate young man who falls in love with a Russian princess although it all ends badly, then he devotes himself to literature, but meets discouragement here, then flees to Constantinople as Ambassador, and then, after a revolution during which he falls into a Rip Van Winkle type sleep, wakes to find he has metamorphosed into a woman; in this new guise (or possibly an old one that different clothes and a different perspective may simply have obscured) she runs off to join the gypsies, returns to London to become a salon hostess, marries and bears a child and ends up a lady novelist on 11th October 1928, the day in fact that Orlando: A Biography was published. If you think I’ve given away the plot here, believe me, it is not the plot that you read this book for. You read it for the sheer audacity of Woolf’s narrative, that takes a character through four hundred years of history with a biographer in hot pursuit, and permits her a wild multiplicity of roles and lives while somehow giving her enough inner substance and coherence to stay exactly the same. For Orlando wants, across time and space, to write, and it takes her all those centuries to find her correct niche.
Woolf takes enormous pleasure in sending up ‘the conventions of the age’ or ‘the spirit of the times’, showing that historical context can so quickly harden into cliché, whilst at the same time being aware that each era is indeed distinguished by its inventions, its living conditions, its possibilities for men and women, its vocabulary and speech patterns. The pages where the narrative moves into the nineteenth century are wonderful in this respect, as the major change, from which all other changes derive, is attributed to the weather (a fine tribute to the power of the pathetic fallacy) and the arrival of persistent and pervasive damp.
‘But the change did not stop at outward things. The damp struck within. Men felt the chill in their hearts; the damp in their minds. In a desperate effort to snuggle their feelings into some sort of warmth one subterfuge was tried after another. Love, birth, and death were all swaddled in a fine variety of phrases […] And just as the ivy and the evergreen rioted in the damp earth outside, so did the same fertility show itself within. The life of the average woman was a succession of childbirths. She married at nineteen and had fifteen or eighteen children by the time she was thirty; for twins abounded. Thus the British Empire came into existence; and thus – for there is no stopping damp; it gets into the inkpot as it gets into the woodwork – sentences swelled, adjectives multiplied, lyrics became epics, and little trifles that had been essays a column long were now encyclopaedias in ten or twenty volumes.’
What is in effect a brilliant extended metaphor is used to unite all kinds of disparate characteristics of the Victorian age; its crazy and wrong, and yet in other ways it seems so amusingly, zanily correct. This sort of simultaneity, very common to the modernist enterprise, crops up repeatedly, as for instance at the end, when Orlando’s twentieth century vision is one that holds all her previous selves across time together as geological strata of the soul, or the kind of parallel worlds that quantum physics would later come to discover. Orlando’s multiplicity also prefigures later theories of performative identity, that suggest we are capable of playing any number of roles across the extent of our lives, without feeling any internal contradiction, and without being defined by any single one of them. Woolf is on one level poking fun at the kind of biographical enterprise that seeks coherence and stolidity in its subject, subsuming all the events of a life to one truth of a person. But on another, her playful fantasy was in fact highly prescient of the complex theories about identity and existence that would characterise the latter part of the twentieth century.
The oscillating gender identity of Orlando is a perfect case in point. ‘Different though the sexes are, they intermix,’ the narrator writes. ‘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. Of the complications and confusions which thus result everyone has had experience’. The sense of dual gender identity was certainly something that both Woolf and her lover Vita Sackville-West were familiar with, but again the playfulness opens up a doorway onto a more modern, more sophisticated view of identity. Orlando’s switch from male to female is seen in the narrative as a way of gaining more lovely, rich experience. It liberates the character from the stultification of any one way of seeing, one way of feeling, one way of being, which may well be common to the way we tell stories about people, but is not at all common to the real experience of existence. Orlando continues to switch back and forth playing games with gender, but does so in order to keep a toehold in subversion, and get the best of all possible lives.
A popular way of looking at this narrative is to see it as exploding binary oppositions, between male and female, between past and present, between all the either/ors which had dominated writing about history and biography until Woolf’s day. The understanding that one could either be a man or a woman, could live in one era or another, be either a wife or a novelist, all these rules and regulations were frisked cheekily in Orlando, but in a way that seriously challenged convention. So the opposition between serious writing and frivolity was also undermined. But it was Woolf’s particular genius to suggest that it was the feminine viewpoint that was more lax and playful, as opposed to the stuffy orthodoxies of the male point of view that insisted on unity, authority and truth. What I particularly enjoyed was the manipulation of two kinds of narrative; the one that makes sense by enclosing experience in the structure of language, telling us ‘what happened’ in a realistic way, and the other, arguably more real ‘truth’ of storytelling, that it takes place in a perfectly expandable time outside of time, that it can do anything, bring any possibility to life and persuade us of its likelihood. This is a book you have to give yourself over to; you just have to let it happen and not ask too many questions, but if you can do that, then you’ll be blessed with both a joyous romp and an insidiously clever inquiry into the ways we narrate the experience of living.