Orlando by Virginia Woolf

I hadn’t intended to read more than one book for the current phase of the Woolfalong, as there are so many other books and challenges I need to get through this month. But when I reached the end of “Recollections of Virginia Woolf” I couldn’t help myself – I just had to pick up the other book I’d been considering reading, and that’s her love letter in a novel to Vita Sackville West, the faux biography “Orlando”.

orlando panther

Woolf’s love life was always a complex one, and she had had affairs of the heart with women before. Vita was of course very different from Virginia – a successful popular novelist with two sons, she was also a member of the landed gentry with a long heritage. Virginia was fascinated by this history and used Vita and her past as the springboard of her wild, dazzling story.

“Orlando” opens in the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1; the titular character is a young man of noble birth living in a huge mansion in a country estate. Dreamy and somewhat clumsy, Orlando has a pivotal encounter in the early pages of the book, espying a small, scruffy man sat at the kitchen table – could this be the great English bard? This vision runs through the book as Orlando struggled continually with his life and art.

Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.

Orlando is taken up by queen Elizabeth, who admires the youth’s beauty (and also his shapely legs – another recurring motif!) London in Elizabethan times is a fascinating place, and we watch Orlando experiencing all that lively and ribald world can offer. Love of all sorts comes his way freely until he is smitten with a visiting Russian princess, Sasha. Against the background of the Great Frost the affair is played out and Orlando betrayed, with the flood that follows the thaw sweeping away Sasha along with much else of London at the time.

Vita as Orlando

Vita as Orlando

But Orlando has several strange capabilities. For one thing, he gets to a certain age and then seems to stop ageing. So we follow him through decades and then centuries and as the world changes, and Orlando goes through a number of escapades, he doesn’t change. Well, that isn’t quite right – he in fact changes quite dramatically at one point, suddenly becoming a she! So the lady Orlando continues her life – ambassador in Constantinople, poet, hostess of a literary salon, always a landowner in love with the soil and eternal seeker of the truth about art and life.

In fact, putting aside the sparkling tale and the dazzling portrait of a changing England, the struggle between art and life is the crux of this tale. Orlando cannot help but write, though he/she spends much of the time wondering whether this is the right thing to do and if simply living for the day and the experience is better. Encounters with Pope and Dryden and Addison do not help matters; nor does the poet and critic Nicholas Greene; and it is not until the modern age that Orlando is able to write her great work and see it published and recognised. But even here Woolf is a little ambivalent about whether success is worth it and why one writes.

From the foregoing passage, however, it must not be supposed that genius (but the disease is now stamped out in the British Isles, the late Lord Tennyson, it is said, being the last person to suffer from it) is constantly alight, for then we should see everything plain and perhaps should be scorched to death in the process. Rather it resembles the lighthouse in its working, which sends one ray and then no more for a time; save that genius is much more capricious in its manifestations and may flash six or seven beams in quick succession (as Mr Pope did that night) and then lapse into darkness for a year or for ever. To steer by its beams is therefore impossible, and when the dark spell is on them men of genius are, it is said, much like other people.

It must be 35 years since I read “Orlando”, on my first great chronological read of Woolf’s works, and yet much still seemed familiar. In particular, the sequences on the frozen Thames during the Great Frost are one of the best things I’ve ever read, bringing to life a vivid impression of London at the time. In fact, the portrait of a changing land over several centuries is masterfully painted, bringing a novelist’s sensibilities to a historical tale and making that history stunning. Woolf really captures the effect the changing times had in a way a dull textbook can’t and the book is all the more wonderful because of it. The sheer brilliance of her prose takes your breath away, and her flights of imagination are exhilarating. At one point, where the eighteenth century turns into the nineteenth and heralds the Victorian era, she audaciously characterises that century of darkness and dullness and gloom (so the Bloomsberries thought of it) as being defined by damp! So the ivy creeps, everyone is cold and wears huge layers of clothes and even Orlando becomes feeble in a crinoline.

“Orlando” was a brave book to publish at a time when sapphic relationships were very much frowned upon; and the original edition had pictures of Vita posing as Orlando so there could not be much doubt who the book was about. Add in the fact that Vita was notorious for having run off to the continent with Violet Trefusis and you can see that Virginia was taking a bit of a risk.

However, “Orlando” is much more than just a frivolous love letter to Vita; in fact, I would argue that much of its value comes from the discussions of art and writing. I couldn’t help feeling the Woolf was putting her own thoughts and beliefs on the subject into the book, and I wondered if the conflicts she has Orlando enduring reflected those she felt in her own writing life.

As I’ve said, the vision of an evolving England is a vivid and wonderful one; but there’s also the joy of Woolf’s sparkling and wonderful prose which is unparalleled here. Never has her writing been so humorous and playful, and the book was a joy to read from start to finish. In fact, if you’re new to Woolf, “Orlando” might well be a decent place to start as it’s quite accessible and I think gives a real insight into Woolf herself. Re-reading “Orlando” was a truly wonderful experience, and one that will be a highlight of my reading year. I actually can’t wait for the next phase of the Woolfalong and I think I may well end up reading more than one title…..

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three orlandos

As an aside, my original read of Orlando all those decades ago was in the form of a little Panther edition (as were all of my Woolfs at the time). However, as I later discovered, the illustrations from the original book were left out and so I recently picked up what was billed as the definitive edition for this reread which included the illustrations. However, when I went to get my copies off the shelves for a photo I found that I already had one of these – truly I need to pay more attention to what’s already on the stacks…..

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