Monday, 24 June 2019

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

In the latest Classic Club spin, the number ended on 19, which directed me to Orlando by Virginia Woolf. I thought I had all the time to read, but alas it was a little bit longer than I expected. I could not read it straight through, so divided it into smaller parts. Anyway, I did finish it on 11 June (instead of end of May), but flexibility is needed sometimes.

It is a very strange book and I don't really know what to think about it. It spans over more around 400 years. Orlando is a nobleman in the times of Elizabeth I and becomes one of her many favourites. He lives a life of leisure and tries to become a poet. At the age of 30 he is changed into a woman, who then lives on for centuries. The story continues up until 1928, which was the year Woolf's book was published.

It is a satire of English life and English literature. The pleasantries of life come and go, but through the ages they fail to be a reason for living. Poetry is the one reason that never fails. Orlando, in both disguises, tries to become a famous poet. It takes centuries before Orlando finally manages to finalise her poem, "The Oak Tree", but then she shuns fame. Sees it for what it really is, a shamble.

Orlando behaves the same whether he/she is a man or a woman. The values are the same and life is the same.
"We may take advantage of this pause in the narrative to make certain statements. Orlando had become a woman - there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity. Their faces remained, as their portraits prove, practically the same. His memory - but in future we must, for convention's sake, say 'her' for 'his,' and 'she' for 'he' - her memory then, went back through all the events of her past life without encountering any obstacle."
Even if Orlando is a woman during a time when women did not enjoy the same freedom as men, Orlando still acts his/her own way. Even sometimes dressing as a man although she is a woman. Orlando does realise though, that society in general is divided by the ambitions of the different sexes. Men want to climb the social ladder in society and make a mark on it. Feelings must be depressed. The women on the other hand can more easily express their feelings, but are bound, or captured, by the limits of society. Orlando acts the same independently on which gender he/she is.

It is a book about our society, how it changes, or not changes(?) through times. Are the rules of society more free at the time Woolf writes the book, or are they the same as they have been for centuries, just in another disguise? The book is inspired by Woolf's relationship with poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West. Her son, Nigel Nicolson, wrote: "The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her." (Blair, Kirstie (2004). "Gypsies and Lesbian Desire: Vita Sackville-West, Violet Trefusis, and Virginia Woolf". Twentieth Century Literature).

It is certainly an interesting angle that Woolf chooses to use, when looking at life, desires and how the norms of society impose on our actions. Do we adapt to our society and the norms, or are we, as Woolf suggests, the same regardless of society?

"She turned back to the first page and read the date, 1586, written in her own boyish hand. She had been working at it for close three hundred years now. It was time to make an end. Meanwhile she began turning and dipping and reading and skipping and thinking as she read, how very little she had changed all these years. She had been a gloomy boy, in love with death, as boys are; and then she had been amorous and florid; and the she had been sprightly and satirical; and sometimes she had tried prose and sometimes she had tried drama. Yet through all these changes she had remained, she reflected, fundamentally the same. She had the same brooding meditative temper, the same love of animals and nature, the same passion for the country and the seasons."


  1. Well done for completing such a complex book for your Spin! I'm reading Woolf in chronological order in an attempt to understand and appreciate her later works, including this one.
    This was one I was dreading, but you've piqued my interest with your thoughtful review - thanks :-)

    1. Thank you Brona. It is quite a different story, and I did enjoy it. Especially, since I read a little bit on the background to this specific story. I nevertheless enjoy Woolf and will go on reading other novels by her.