I’m new to Virginia Woolf, but I wish that I had begun reading her work years ago. Like Jane Austin I assumed that her writing was shallow, all romance, and marriage, and manners. I mean, all of that was covered in this book, but there was so much more. I was wrong, so very wrong, but I’m growing and learning like everyone else.
In Orlando: A Biography Woolf tells the story of a nobleman born in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He joins the queen’s court, becomes a favorite, falls in love with a princess, get his heartbroken, and all the while works at becoming a poet, but none of that compares to the adventure of his miraculous transformation. Orlando, at the age of 30 turns from Lord Orlando to Lady Orlando and lives for over 300 years more.
“For here again, we come to a dilemma. Different though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above.
― Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography
Obviously one of the major themes covered is gender and the ways gender shapes the way we act and the choices we make and the choices that are available to us. Surprisingly Woolf is critical of both men and women and our assumptions about the ways the other thinks. Men do not understand women, and women do not understand men because both refuse to believe that the other has the very same feelings, qualities, wants, and needs.
Another is time and change. Orlando lives a very long time and sees the world change around him and later her. Her inner world goes through many changes too, and he/she struggles to understand who she is and what she wants to be against the backdrop of “the times” which are always changing and seem always to be at odds with people living in them.
“I’m sick to death of this particular self. I want another.”
― Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography
A lot of time is also spent on literature and the life of a writer. In the moments when mass production and critique was the focus of Orlando’s life, I had the feeling that I was reading an inside joke between Woolf and the writers of her time. I got the jest, but I’m hoping through further reading I can gain a deeper understanding of Woolf views on the subject.
Woolf covers all this as well as wealth and privilege, society, individuality, and, of course, love.
But the real interesting bit about this book is the dedication. Orlando has been called “the longest love letter in literature.” The character of Orlando was inspired by Woolf’s close friend and lover, the writer Vita Sackville-West. At the time of its writing, their affair was waning. Vita, the more adventurous and fickle of the two was moving on to other lovers.
In fact, many of the other characters were also pulled from real life as well, and I imagine I will be reading about Woolf’s personal history for a long while to come.
The style was a shock, at first. From the very beginning, it reads like an old fairytale. The language is flowery, complicated and hard to follow, at first. After a few chapters, it becomes beautiful and poetic, interesting and lively. There is a lot of description and not much dialogue, and sudden jumps through time, which can be hard on the brain too, but I promise it is well worth the effort to stick with it. I have never read anything quite like this.
I am afraid my little review here has done the book very little justice, and you’ll just have to read it for yourself to understand how amazing this story is. As for me, I am firmly a Virginia Woolf fan from here on out and have already picked up a copy of Mrs. Dalloway to read next.
“The flower bloomed and faded. The sun rose and sank. The lover loved and went. And what the poets said in rhyme, the young translated into practice.”
― Virginia Woolf,
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Featured image via Book Republic