I’m late to Orlando, reading it for Pride Month this June almost one hundred years after it was published. But the book feels timeless. I cannot do justice to it in a review, so below are my random thoughts. I was lucky enough to be given the Folio Society edition, with an introduction by Jeanette Winterson. I recommend it.
It’s a long time since I made so many notes while reading a novel (Infinite Jest, Ducks, Newburyport). This book is an adventure that you can plunge into and be swept along, but also a social commentary that stops you on almost every page with the beauty of a sentence or a fresh idea.
Orlando is a young man and aspiring poet in 16th century England. He falls in love, becomes ambassador to Constantinople and changes into a woman. The story is written as a biography and moves through time seamlessly to cover four hundred years.
Woolf refers to London landmarks and drops historical figures into the story. This gives it a fly-one-the-wall aspect as we see London unfold over time, and grounds the story in reality.
Orlando is fun and modern. This should not come as a surprise, but I always think of Woolf as a daunting author, so it’s a delight to read her work and feel as though a (highly intelligent) friend is telling you a story. It’s lively, euphoric and poignant, and transcends gender stereotypes. It is rich with characters and history, but light and playful.
Great writing need not be heavy or difficult. It gets to the heart of the matter, without the need for long words or big themes. Woolf’s prose is so lucid and supple, it’s a joy to read. She opens the story with:
“He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it – was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.”
Woolf surprises with words that are unexpected but on point. Orlando sits under the oak tree “to feel the earth’s spine beneath him.”
And, trying to woo Sasha:
“She was like a fox, or an olive tree; like the waves of the sea when you look down upon them from a height; like an emerald.”
The book is filled with humour, skewering poets, critics and the patriarchy in turn. Woolf weaves in sly asides:
“He was describing, as all young poets are forever describing, nature, and in order to match the shade of green precisely he looked (and here he showed more audacity than most) at the thing itself…”
It contains one of the best descriptions I have read about the struggle to make art. Too often, authors write about this in a way that is obviously autobiographical and feels self-conscious or affected. Woolf writes with wit and sympathy, using the confidential tone of the biographer. It feels like a knowing wink from Woolf as she shares a joke with the reader at her own expense. That is, it feels true.
Here is an excerpt (but every page is quotable):
“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 … and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”
Likewise, Woolf’s observations of critics are apt today. Greene the book critic rails against the state of modern literature:
“Now all young writers were in the pay of booksellers and poured out any trash that would sell.”
The structure is masterful as Woolf weaves the story from one time period to the next. She writes beautifully about the seasons unfolding, in a long sentence with a rhythm that matches the rhythm of the days, all of it undercut with humour: “a conclusion which, one cannot help feeling, might have been reached more quickly by the simple statement that ‘Time passed.'”
It’s refreshing to find prose so virtuosic that does not take itself too seriously. The biographer speaks to the reader about the lack of action in Orlando’s life at one stage, and the challenges this presents.
“Orlando sat so still that you could have heard a pin drop. Would, indeed, that a pin had dropped.”
She handles the theme of gender transformation and cross-dressing with honesty and a light touch. Inspired by Vita Sackville-West, who dressed often as a man, Woolf captures the freedom of men in that age and the constraints facing women.
Woolf deals with the sex change matter-of-factly. The biographer tells us: “Orlando became a woman – there is no denying it.”
This grounds the reader and we follow Orlando’s dilemma as she considers her wardrobe and leaves Constantinople.
Woolf’s commentary on sexism and men who “go about as if you are the Lords of creation” still holds today. She writes pointedly about the conventions of society and the role of women.
There is a line about a woman thinking of a gamekeeper “(and as long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking)” which is incisive and could refer to Lady Chatterley’s Lover (it was published privately in 1928, around the same time as Orlando was published).
Her satire on London society is timeless: it is all about the mix of people adding up to something exciting, but nothing happens. “The whole thing is a miasma, a mirage.” She observes the ephemeral nature of parties. Witticisms are not recorded, so are the happiness and profound thoughts real? Today we might ask, if it is not captured for social media, did it really happen?
And there are some moving passages towards the end of the book about art and poetry. In the end, “was not writing poetry a secret transaction, a voice answering a voice?”
What a privilege to read Woolf’s ‘secret transactions’. Highly recommended.