Hang on just a freaking second here, I thought to myself, reading the blurb on the back of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 “biography”, Orlando.
I glared at the cover as I continued in my thoughts – So it’s about a dude who wakes up one day to find that he’s no longer a dude? Huh? You’re either a dude or you’re not a dude…err, dude.
What the heck kind of book IS this??
Frowning sceptically, I folded back the cover and started reading.
Within the space of only a few pages, my questions were all answered.
What the heck kind of book is Orlando? It’s a book like absolutely no other. It’s funny, it’s strange, it’s romantic, it’s spectacularly beautiful and it’s amazingly clever. Yes, all at the same time.
Now. I’ve just got to try and cram all my hectic thoughts about Orlando into something resembling a book review. Oh dear. This could be difficult. Here goes nothing…
by Virginia Woolf
Published in 1928
Although Virginia Woolf was married to a husband she adored, this didn’t prevent her from embarking on a passionate affair with another woman. Her name was Vita Sackville West – and Orlando is dedicated to her.
Vita Sackville West’s son quite rightfully referred to Orlando as “the longest, and most charming love-letter in literature”. Because Orlando, the character, is Vita. Disguised as a biographer, Virginia tells a fictionalised version of Vita’s life; admiring her beauty, her grace, her intelligence; showering her with beautiful, sparkling words. Who wouldn’t be flattered?
To give her “biography” life, Virginia draws upon Vita’s actual family history to weave little facts here and there into Orlando’s story. Orlando is even illustrated with photographs showing Orlando through the different stages of his/her life, as well as a few of the novel’s supporting characters. All these images are Vita herself.
This is more than a novel – it’s the chronicle of a relationship. Reading Orlando for the first time is therefore a strange experience. It feels like I’m prying, like I’m sticking my nose into something private. To tell the truth, I suspect I’m as much in love with the story behind Orlando as I am with Orlando itself.
Virginia Woolf begins Orlando with the words…
“He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it…”
Orlando begins his journey as a boy. He’s sixteen, and it’s the year 1500-and-something, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. He’s a sensitive, attractive young man who longs for adventure – but at heart, Orlando is a clumsy, dreamy writer. Virginia, in biographer mode, tells us on page four:
“…we must admit he had eyes like drenched violets, so large that the water seemed to have brimmed in them and widened them…”
I think it was that particular phrase – “eyes like drenched violets” – that first made me stop, blink a few times and realise that I was reading something spectacular. It’s such a simple, lovely metaphor. That’s one of my favourite lines from the book.
Soon, the beautiful Orlando captures the eye of Queen Elizabeth herself, and is whisked away to her court. Orlando embarks on a series of romances, before falling in love with Sasha, a Russian Princess, in the midst of the coldest winter England has ever seen. But as the ice thaws, Sasha abandons Orlando, breaking his heart, and Orlando locks himself away in his mansion. Eventually, to escape his feelings, he accepts a position as an ambassador, and goes to Turkey.
After a night of fierce rioting, Orlando wakes up from a week-long sleep – only to discover that he has become a woman. Her reaction? She simply shrugs and goes off to take a bath. As you do.
It’s only on the boat back home that Orlando begins to realise what it truly means for her to be a woman in England:
“…I shall never be able to crack a man over the head, or tell him he lies in his teeth, or draw my sword and run him through the body…all I can do, once I set foot on English soil, is to pour out tea and ask my lords how they like it” (p. 100)
Immortal Orlando, free from the fetters of time, death and sex describes history as she sees it, as a spectator standing on the margins of history itself. We follow her journey through the centuries to the “present” – midnight, Thursday the Eleventh of October, 1928 – the day Orlando was published.
I know, Orlando sounds confusing and strange. And it is. But it’s also beautiful, hilarious and amazingly intelligent.
Orlando is like no other book. It defies time, it defies gender. It even defies genre. Woolf calls Orlando a biography. But, at the same time, it’s a romance. It’s fantasy. It’s a historical novel. Pinning Orlando down is next to impossible – one more thing I adored about this exceptional novel.
Then, of course, there’s Virginia’s writing. Orlando might be the faux biography of Vita, her lover, but it seems to me that Virginia herself is the real star of Orlando. Orlando reveals just as much about Virginia as it does about Vita. We’re peering right into the depths of Virginia’s soul – and, amazingly enough, she knows it:
“In short, every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works…” (p. 134)
There’s something so personal about Orlando. Virginia’s writing is irresistibly flirtatious. She writes like a woman in love. Brash and beautiful, Virginia Woolf addresses the reader directly, and even dares to poke fun at some of literature’s greatest names. She guides us through history from her own unique perspective. The passage that describes the beginning of the nineteenth century is one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever read.
As a faux-biographer, Woolf is at her wittiest. At one moment, she stresses the importance of relying only on the facts to tell her story. The next, she blatantly lapses into the kind of language no biographer would use. She repeatedly claims to be impartial, when it’s obvious that she’s utterly obsessed with her subject. During the time Orlando spends locked up at home, working on her poem, poor Virginia-as-biographer is disgusted with Orlando, declaring her “no better than a corpse”, and begins to describe what’s happening outside the window as a means of passing the time. How can you not love this book?
Before I finish: a confession. Although I adored Orlando with all my entire heart, I’m not claiming I understand everything that happened between these pages. Don’t ask me what’s going on in the bit with the toy boat and the telegram. I have no idea. And why, in the second last sentence of the novel, is there a goose, of all things? Where did that come from? What is it doing there?
There are so many strange, wonderful passages that beg to be read and re-read, over and over again, to squeeze everything I can from them. If only I had the time…
You need to sit down and read Orlando. Okay, I acknowledge that it’s going to be difficult. But the rewards are plentiful: a forest of lush, leafy words, an adventure into the imagination that feels like a dream. And a glimpse into the soul of Virginia Woolf – quite possibly the most brilliant woman who ever lived.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
Don’t be afraid of Virginia Woolf – Orlando might sound completely off the planet – but just ignore your doubts and keep reading. Just trust me, ‘kay?
In a word: