Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

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.




15 thoughts on “Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

  1. I love this book and I love your thoughts on it. Particularly the line “Orlando’s switch from male to female is seen in the narrative as a way of gaining more lovely, rich experience.” I agree. And I find it an extremely compelling idea, which I think of as somewhere between a fantasy (because many people are confronted with real obstacles in skimming from gender to gender as Woolf depicts) and a psychologically realistic portrait of how human experience actually feels, which is often less cohesive and more various than is commonly acknowledged. And Orlando is just so much fun! It also has a warm spot in my heart because it featured prominently in my early courtship with my partner David, lo these many years ago. 🙂

  2. A lovely review of one of my favorite books of all time. Although it is far from perfect, the film with Tilda Swinton captures some of the riotous joy and humor, underpinned by genuine questions. Plus the costuming is gorgeous, and Quentin Crisp is priceless as Queen Elizabeth I.

  3. One of my very favorite books, and what a terrific review. You’re so right about the explosion of binary oppositions and what a romp the book is (which I didn’t expect at all when I picked it up to read it. In fact, that may be why I loved it so: the huge surprise).

  4. I can’t imagine VW saying she wants to kick up her heels and be off, but then my perception of her is probably way off. I like the idea, however, and I’ve wanted to read Orlando for ages. It just goes to show how modern VW was not just in her writing but her thinking, too! I’m looking forward to reading this.

  5. Apart from A Voyage Out I thik I read everything Virginia Woolf wrote but the only book I really did not like was “Orlando”. The story sounds captivating, the themes are fascinating but the book didn’t open up its doors for me. I was looking through the window but I just couldn’t open the door. Same for the movie.

  6. What a wonderful write up of the book! I read it so long ago the details are fuzzy. I do remember I loved it. And I was living in California at the time and the scene with everyone skating on the frozen river was such a startling thing. Until then I had no idea that a river could freeze in the winter. Of course now I have first hand knowledge of frozen winter things, but back then, not so much.

  7. Thanks for this review! It’s so interesting to hear that there are recordings of Virginia Woolf reading. I’d like to listen to that sometime. As for Orlando, I remember being very surprised when I read it. It seemed so, well, fun. I’m glad she wrote it.

  8. This is the first Woolf book I decided to invest in, though I’ve not read it yet. I have another one on my Kindle, but I think Orlando appeals to me the most of all her books. Woolf really intimidates me, but I think the themes and messages presented here would be the most interesting to me.

  9. Oh Litlove, what a great review! I love ‘Orlando’, in fact my undergraduate dissertation focused on it, and with a shock I realise it’s years since I last read it (not the dissertation – I’m NEVER rereading that! It was frightful!). Amazingly I remember not only the fabulous skating scene but the attempts at writing and the embassy and the sleep – and in fact that passage you quoted, which is so clever and vivid – and I am a person who normally struggles to remember the vaguest outlines of plot or character in a book she read just a couple of months ago. Which is to say that I find it a very powerful book, and I think it a great pity it’s not better known and more widely read.

    This is all well timed since I’m about to return to England to visit my parents and I am pretty certain my light-fingered mother has nicked my copy. I shall investigate.

  10. Emily – oh I am a sentimental soul at heart and I love the thought of Orlando playing a role in your early days with David – how touching! It IS such a fun book, but in the mischief there is much that is truthful. Judith Butler would take Orlando’s masquerade and turn it into a serious theory of gender identity, not that Woolf had any idea of that, or that Butler mentions Orlando in her books. I know just what you mean about the challenge of complex gender positions, but the love and playfulness that Woolf brings to considering our wide-ranging possibilities really blows all prejudices out of the water. I so like that about this novel.

    Em – I think it’s an easier book to get into than To The Lighthouse, but I loved them both! Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on whichever you pick up.

    celaward – for shame, I don’t read as many classics as I could. Every time I return to them I remember just how satisfying a book is, when it’s stood the test of time. You should see the huge gaps in my reading! Still – opportunities for more lovely reading experiences in the future. 🙂

    David – ooh I wondered what the film was like so thank you for telling me that. I do like Tilda Swinton; she has such a spooky face. And how nice to think this is one of your favourite books. That’s a list I’d like to see one day.

    Emily – I couldn’t agree more – it is a romp and it IS a surprise. I wondered what it would be like before I picked it up – and I could never have imagined it in advance! i can so see why this ends up on a favourites list; I did enjoy it very much.

    Danielle – you could have knocked me down with a feather when I heard her voice – it was very plummy and well-educated, but so joyful. Not what I had expected at all! And this book is a hoot. I’ve read most of Woolf’s novels, apart from Between The Acts and Jacob’s Room, and I found this one of the easiest to read, along with The Years, which I really liked although not many scholars would go along with me on that. When I think of all the classics that I haven’t read though – !! So many!

    Caroline – well that just happens sometimes, doesn’t it? I really like Julian Barnes’ books but I could not get into The Porcupine and in fact left it unfinished. It’s okay, just a fact of reading life. At least you love all the other novels, right?

    Stefanie – oh boy, I can imagine what that scene would have felt like to read, sizzling in California. I loved that part of the book with the Russian princess – I think it was probably my favourite part. I wondered if you had read this one – I have a few Woolfs left in reserve, and I’m eking them out. Still, I guess once I’ve read them all, I can always read them again!

    bloglily – I know! I’d grown accustomed to serious Woolf, in To The Lighthouse mode, or Mrs Dalloway. This is such a different side of her, but it gives hope, doesn’t it, that we could all kick up our heels and be off one day, when we needed to.

    arti – I understand – I felt intimidated before I actually read Woolf. But she is surprisingly accessible, and can be funny, touching, beautiful, and tremendously evocative at times. This is a good one to try, or else I often suggest Mrs Dalloway, which is shorter and wonderfully structured. Do give her a go – I’d love to know what you think of her.

    Helen – lol! that remark about your mother did make me laugh. I hope you retrieve your copy and get to read it again. This would be a fun book to write a dissertation on, but ouf, tough, too. I found it hard to know where to begin on this blog post, because one point seems impossible to explain without several others being explained simultaneously (very Woolfie, that). I find that if I don’t write about a book, I lose it comprehensively, and fast, but writing sticks it in place for a bit. That being said, there are parts of this book that are SO evocative, like the section on the Russian princess which I just adored. I think that will stay with me for a long time.

  11. I saw a performance of a play Woolf wrote, and it was very … vivacious. So much so, I would never have guessed it was Woolf’s if I hadn’t known it! She definitely had a playful side. It’s been a while since I read this book, and it’s time for a reread at some point. I like your point that Woolf suggests the feminine view point is more lax and playful; I like how she can suggest that while at the same time explore the value of having it both ways, so to speak.

  12. I’ve been wanting to write a staff recommendation for Orlando. You’ve written so well about it that maybe reading your thoughts will provide the necessary kick. I love Woolf and read Orlando almost two years ago now while wandering around London. The book was rapturous–gorgeous, joyful, exploratory and occasionally (and not overbearingly) profound. Your thoughts on it are really illuminating. Thank you!

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