Short and Sweet Reviews // Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

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, Orlando: A Biography

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Check out Vita Sackville-West on the necessity of writing and Virginia Woolf on space to spread the mind out in.

Featured image via Book Republic

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Writer’s Quote Wednesday // Vita Sackville-West

Hello, hello, and welcome to the middle of the week, dear readers. If you are feeling a little run down or if Friday is feeling a little too far away, I encourage you to check out Writer’s Quote Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Colleen of Silver Threading and Ronovan of Ronovan Writes.

For my contribution this week, I have chosen a quote from the author and poet Vita Sackville-West.

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Victoria Sackville-West was born at Knole House near Sevenoaks, Kent, the only child of Victoria and Lionel Edward Sackville-West, 3rd Baron Sackville, who were cousins. Her mother was the illegitimate daughter of Lionel Sackville-West, 2nd Baron Sackville and a Spanish dancer, Josefa de la Oliva (née Durán y Ortega), known as Pepita. Christened Victoria Mary Sackville-West, the girl was known as “Vita” throughout her life to distinguish her from her mother.

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Vita Sackville-West was a prolific author, poet and memoirist in early 20th-Century Britain who is known not only for her writing, but for her not-so-private, private life. While married to the diplomat Harold Nicolson, she conducted a series of scandalous amorous liaisons with many women, including the brilliant Virginia Woolf. They had an open marriage.

Both Sackville-West and her husband had same-sex relationships. She frequently traveled to Europe in the company of one or the other of her lovers and often dressed as a man to be able to gain access to places where only the couples could go.

Gardening, like writing, was a passion Vita cherished with the certainty of a vocation: she wrote books on the topic and constructed the gardens of the castle of Sissinghurst, one of England’s most beautiful gardens at her home.

She published her first book Poems of East and West in 1917. She followed this with a novel, Heritage, in 1919. A second novel, The Heir, dealt with her feelings about her family. Her next book, Knole and the Sackvilles , covered her family history.

The Edwardians and All Passion Spent are perhaps her best-known novels today. In the latter, the elderly Lady Slane courageously embraces a long suppressed sense of freedom and whimsy after a lifetime of convention.

In 1948 she was appointed a Companion of Honour for her services to literature. She continued to develop her garden at Sissinghurst Castle and for many years wrote a weekly gardening column for The Observer. In 1955 she was awarded the Gold Veitch Medal of the Royal Horticultural Society. In her last decade, she published a further biography, Daughter of France and a final novel, No Signposts in the Sea.

She died of cancer on June 2, 1962.

It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by.

Vita Sackville-West, in a letter to Virginia Woolf

Before I get into what this quote means to me, I want to touch on how awesome it is that Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf had an affair. I am probably the last to know about this but I still think it’s a beautiful thing. I mean,  just read these letters! I’m in love with both of them already. *swoon*

Sorry, I get excited when I learn that famous women were just like me.

As for the quote, it’s one of the truest sentences I have ever read on the subject of writing.

Every day without writing is a day not lived to the fullest. Writing gives the day meaning and purpose. It is a way of stopping time so that you can investigate a moment, a lifetime, and everything in between.

Every day without writing is a day that has gone unnoticed and undocumented. The day has slipped through my hands and is all but forgotten. Without writing, I can’t prove it ever happened. I can’t prove I existed at any other time, form, or mindset other than I do at this moment. Without writing, I have lost time, and time is all I have.

Every day without writing is a day I have not been myself. Sometimes that is good, but sometimes it feels like a sin. To let a day go by without pulling yourself out and letting your mind contemplate all that it sees and feels is to commit a cruelty on yourself and the world. When you write, you tell a truth about yourself and all people. To deprive humanity of it is a disservice to the species.

All artist, if and when they are able, should take hold of every day and squeeze all the truth they can from it. We have a responsibility to document the world inside ourselves and the world without. We have a responsibility to preserve time. We have a responsibility not to let a moment go by unnoticed.

No one writer or artist can do it on their own. All creative people must work together and tirelessly to fill every day with all the days that came before, documenting who we are and what we have done, and will do. Make the time matter. Take a bit of your time and share it with someone else. Share it with the whole world. A book, a painting, these things are the closest we have to time travel and proof of the past.

Fact or fiction, it doesn’t matter. It all happened, and it all comes from, and is about, the human mind and experience.

Write every day if you can. Share it if you can too.

Don’t let time slip by unnoticed and empty.

Fill it up with yourself and then pull from it all that you can.

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P.S. Apparently Woolf even wrote a whole book based on Vita!

The gender-bending character in Woolf’s Orlando, in fact, was based on Sackville-West, and the entire novel is thought to have been written about the affair — so much so that Sackville-West’s son Nigel Nicolson has described it as “the longest and most charming love-letter in literature.”

Brain Pickings

P.S.S. For LOLs you have to check out The Collected Sexts of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf

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Quote via A Woman to Know Tinyletter by Julia Carpenter

Biographical information via Wikipedia and Goodreads

Original image via Unsplash