8 September 2018

Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

Next month is the ninetieth anniversary of Orlando (1928), Woolf's sixth novel.  What began as a diversion shortly after publishing To the Lighthouse has resulted in being a strong favourite with readers of Woolf's novels.  I wonder what she would think of her 'folly' being so relevant in 2018.  While parts of the world have made great strides when it comes to accepting people as they are, we are still a society that likes to create policy, define, and label.  That Woolf, many decades ago, could transition her main character from a man to a woman without so much as a sigh feels refreshingly uncomplicated.  As for the novel as a whole, Orlando reminded me of Saturday mornings as a nine year old, reading fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm.  There's a lot going on that doesn't make sense, but you're willing to believe anything is possible.

The story begins in Tudor England with Elizabeth I on the throne and the young noble has caught her eye.  Orlando spends time wandering through town as Woolf paints a picture of his day to day life....past the stables, around hawthorn bushes, through the park with its herds of roaming deer.  In the distance lies St Paul's.  After a few pages filled with observations, time jumps ahead to a new monarch on the throne.  Britain is blanketed by The Big Frost and the Thames has frozen solid.   Orlando sees the Russian Princess Marousha skating on the ice and falls head over heels in love.  But there's hitch, he is already betrothed to another.

Because Orlando magically travels through the centuries, aging at a snail's pace, let's just say he breaks some hearts and has his broken in turn.  As Orlando rises in favour to the subsequent King Charles, word spreads about his allure and, of all things, his beautiful calves.  Then, during a festive evening, in a swirl of ringing bells, clocks striking the hour, Turkish guards from the Imperial Body Guard along with British Admirality, Orlando goes to bed, in something of a trance, for seven days.  Upon waking, Orlando is now a woman.

'Orlando looked himself up and down in a long looking-glass, without showing any signs of discomposure, and went, presumably, to his bath.'

Woolf then goes on to state that although Orlando had changed in appearance, everything else about her character is exactly as it was before.  Leaving Constantinople with a gipsy, Orlando embarks on a journey over hills and through valleys, while writing an epic poem called The Oak Tree.  When the atmosphere among her fellow travellers begins to feel ominous, Orlando jumps onto a ship bound for London.  She's also realizing a few things....

'She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled.  'Now I shall have to pay in my own person for those desires,' she reflected' 'for women are not (judging by my own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled by nature.  They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline.  There's the hairdressing,' she thought, 'that alone will take an hour of my morning; there's looking in the looking glass, another hour, there's stays and lacing; there's washing and powdering; there's changing from silk to lace and from lace to paduasoy; there's being chaste year in year out...'

Orlando meets other characters who appear to be one sex but are simply masquerading as the other for one purpose or another.  As time passes, Orlando begins to take on more of the traits one would associate with being stereotypically female, as in being afraid of fast carriages or modesty.  The underlying message is that men and women assume roles.

As Orlando moves through the centuries, I thoroughly enjoyed the many historical and geographical references, such as London's Great Fire and the plague.  She is also amazed by her first sight of a bookshop, trains and cars.  I love stories centred around time travel and that moment of wonder (or fright) when a character first encounters something we take for granted.

Vita Sackville-West's son, Nigel Nicholson, has been quoted as saying Orlando is 'the longest and most charming love letter in literature.  Reading this novel on the heels of a book of letters between the two women, I would most humbly agree.  But it's also a tribute to Knole, Sackville-West's ancestral home in Sevenoaks, Kent.  From the gardens to the number of rooms, and even the names of the servants and housemaids (I smiled at every mention of Basket and Bartholomew) all from the country house's records.

Orlando ends at the twelfth stroke of midnight on Thursday the eleventh of October, 1928, the date it was published.  I've just checked the calendar....that date falls on a Thursday this year, as well.  I digress.  This story amazed me on so many levels, from Woolf's incredible imagination, her keen observations, her foresight concerning gender issues, not to mention her general knowledge of so many historical details.  The copy I read was borrowed from the library but I will be buying a lovely edition to keep. 


Vita Sackville-West, Lady Nicholson by Philip Alexius de László de Lombos

9 comments:

  1. I'm always up for a bit of magic realism! I've never read Orlando as I've kind of thought (like the Provincial Lady) that I wouldn't be able to understand it, but your review has intrigued me.

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    1. Don't hesitate to give Orlando a try, Nicola! It's a magical read as well as a fascinating examination of gender roles. Virginia Woolf must have written some of it with a smile on her face, and I love the connection with Vita.
      I see you're enjoying The Cazalet Chronicles....I gobbled them up as well.

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  2. Just went to see 'Vita and Virginia' at TIFF, which tells the story of their affair and the way it inspired Virginia to write Orlando - highly recommended viewing if it ever gets into general release.

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    1. Oh Susan, you do know how to make a woman green with envy. I knew it was playing but the TIFF schedule didn't work with mine. The whole issue of distribution when it comes to really good films frustrates me no end....eight year old boys are having their pick and choose these days with so many comic book ventures. I can feel a rant coming on so I'll leave it there, but don't worry....I'll see this film one way or another!

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    2. I didn't know that you could go to TIFF without an invitation! How exciting - and how wonderful to see this film, which I've been wanting to see ever since it was first mentioned.

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    3. Something to keep in mind if your travel plans bring you out this way again, Simon! Hope you see the film soon!

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  3. Totally agree with you about distribution of good films. Thankfully, we have a really good independent cinema here in Guelph, and are able to see things that don't show up at what I call the 'Hellplex' aka giant Galaxy cinema at the edge of town.

    Simon, you can go to TIFF if you are lucky enough to get single tickets when they go on sale, and also lucky enough to be free for a Wednesday afternoon showing. It's impossible to get any of the big gala celebrity tickets, but I've often been able to see smaller films at off hours (last year's was one about Emily Dickinson), and in both cases the directors and some of the cast and crew came out for short Q&A's afterwards. Very impressed with the woman who directed Vita and Virginia ... and last year, I made eye contact with one of my favourite actresses, Jennifer Ehle : )

    I hope both of you get a chance to see the film, because I read both of your blogs with great enjoyment, and I'd love to hear your takes on it.

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    1. A really good independent cinema in Guelph, you say...that's interesting. We've taken the train into Toronto but a drive to Guelph would work too so I'll keep my eye out! Simon was in Toronto last October so we missed an opportunity to meet up with you, which is a shame, but perhaps I'll see you at the book sale next month!

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    2. I'll let you know if/when it pops up on the schedule - sometimes it takes quite a few months for a distribution deal.

      It'd be great to see you at the book sale - same location, second weekend after Thanksgiving!

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