Within the first few pages of starting this extraordinary novel, I couldn’t help but think what a difficult book it would be to write about. So now here I am… staring at a screen, wondering where to begin.
Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind.”
Orlando was chosen by my book group – and although we don’t meet to discuss it until the 26th I wanted to avoid the usual last minute rushed reading that often happens with book group choices. I was rather looking forward to being challenged and surprised, and I was – in a most enjoyable way. I have seen Orlando described as Virginia Woolf’s most accessible novel – but as this is only the third of them I have ever read I can’t say definitively – but I certainly found it an engaging novel, enormously entertaining and inventive, it is an extraordinary, historical fantasy. Woolf’s prose is glorious, rich and endlessly quotable, the images she leaves us with unforgettably colourful. Frequently studied by scholars of gender, transgender and women’s studies, Orlando is a novel of complex ideas. Certainly there is a great deal of fascinating and often very funny social commentary on the changing roles for men and women throughout the ages.
Virginia Woolf started writing Orlando, a mock biography in 1927 for Vita Sackville West – it was published by the Hogarth Press in 1928 – the character of Orlando largely based on Vita herself. The novel is filled with references which would have meant something to Vita, and with a detailed knowledge of Vita’s family home Knole in Kent. It is interesting to note that this novel was first published in the same year as Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, a novel I read at the end of last year and absolutely loved – yet Hall’s depiction of lesbianism and transgender issues is far bleaker and less euphoric than Woolf’s.
“He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it – was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which hung from the rafters.”
So starts Orlando; a biography. The novel opens in the late 1500’s and Orlando is a young nobleman of high birth, who quickly becomes a favourite of the ageing Queen at the Elizabethan court. Immediately the reader is catapulted into the most colourful and fascinating historical age. Following the queen’s death, during the long cold winter of 1608 in King James’s reign, during the famous frost fair on the frozen river Thames, Orlando falls in love with Sasha an androgynous Russian princess. When Sasha abandons him, returning suddenly to Russia, Orlando is desolate, and returns to writing The Oak Tree – an epic poem he had first begun and abandoned in his youth. Orlando is also very much a novel of writing and writers, Orlando writes, is delighted by books, (one of my favourite incidents coming much later in the book when Orlando places an order with a Victorian bookseller).
“The taste for books was an early one. As a child he was sometimes found at midnight by a page still reading. They took his taper away, and he bred glow-worms to serve his purpose. They took the glow-worms away and he almost burnt the house down with a tinder.”
Orlando meets Nick Greene – and briefly enjoys a friendship of entertainment and understanding, though Greene criticises Orlando’s writing. When Orlando is made aware of a satire written by Greene about Orlando – he is left feeling betrayed. Thereafter Orlando comes to lavish more time, money and attention on his beautiful ancestral home, to which he invites all sorts of people. Orlando finds himself the subject of harassment by the Archduchess Harriet – who has made her feelings quite clear.
To rid himself of these unwanted attentions, Orlando leaves for Constantinople as an ambassador to King Charles II – yes – already more than sixty years have gone by and Orlando is still a young man. It is here we begin to see Woolf’s deliciously inventive playing around with time – amongst other things. While in Constantinople, Orlando falls into a strange, week long sleep. On awaking, Orlando has become a woman.
As a woman, Orlando is essentially the same person, and yet externally different, – in this we have the beginning of Woolf’s powerful message about gender, and how our perceptions are formed.
“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”
Time continues to move forward, as the now female Orlando takes up with Gypsies, leaving behind the ambassadorial trappings she escapes, lives with them, happily adopting their way of life, until conflict results in her realising that her place is back in England. Leaving the next day aboard ship Orlando is soon made particularly aware of her femaleness when she almost causes a sailor to fall to his death in shock with an accidental glimpse of her ankle. When Orlando docks in England it is to the dawn of the eighteenth century, and she marvels at all she sees around her.
Orlando moves through the eighteenth and nineteenth century – we meet again that Archduchess who has now become an Archduke Harry and Nick Greene pops up again, he too apparently timeless. Orlando – although remaining biologically female – sometimes appears dressed more as a male, at others as a woman, her gender itself switching about – often determined by the age in which she is living. In the Victorian age – Orlando is more feminine than we ever see her. Orlando wins a lawsuit, over her beloved property, and in tune with that most conventional age – the Victorian age she is pursued in marriage. Eventually Orlando marries the similarly gender ambiguous Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine. As the novel ends we are in Woolf’s present day, and Orlando finally publishes her poem The Oak Tree.
There are so many things to celebrate in this novel – leaving aside all the gender and societal issue which will make for fascinating discussion. I loved Woolf’s humour – her tongue in cheek mickey taking particularly at the Victorian age, and its literature.
“madam,” the man cried, leaping to the ground, “you’re hurt!” “I’m dead, sir!” she replied. A few minutes later, they became engaged.”
I had not expected to find such delicious, sharp humour, and right up until the last thirty or forty pages I loved every bit. Then, suddenly the narrative becomes a little more impenetrable, it might have just been my tiredness, but by the time we get into the (to Woolf) modern age – everything becomes a little less clear. That’s a minor point really – because overall I found Orlando to be a joy to read.