Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Reviewed by Stefanie Hollmichel

orlandoI first read Orlando by Virginia Woolf many years ago. Fresh in love with Woolf’s writing and having just learned about her romance with Vita Sackville-West, I read the book as one long love story. But to read Orlando purely as a love letter from Virginia to Vita is to miss all the truly strange and wonderful things the book does. Because the book is also mock historical fiction and a satire on biography, not to mention an examination of identity and gender as well as a criticism of literary criticism. The book turns out to be charming, rich, and complex.

Having just published To the Lighthouse, Woolf wanted to write something lighter to please the public, something of which a reader could understand every word. But this is Woolf we are talking about and she sent me to the dictionary a number of times. Orgulous? Drugget? Obfusc? Woolf made that last one up!

Orlando’s subtitle is A Biography. Woolf includes a Preface in which she thanks everyone who helped her with her ‘research’. Originally, there was a Table of Contents and an Index. Interwoven with the text are portraits of Vita’s ancestors and of Orlando him/herself, which, of course, are photos of Vita. The booksellers had no idea what to do with this strange genre-bending book. Nonetheless, Orlando was well-received by the public and sold more copies in the first six months than To the Lighthouse sold in a year.

You may already know the story. It begins with the young, aristocratic Orlando, age seventeen, in the late sixteenth century. He is beautiful, has great legs and is prone to flights of poetic fancy. The Great Frost freezes the Thames. He falls in love with Sasha, the niece of a Russian ambassador. The river thaws, she leaves without saying goodbye and Orlando is heartbroken. He spends a lot of time mooning about in the fields and sitting under an oak tree. Thus it is in 1586 that he begins composing a poem, ‘The Oak Tree,’ that will take over 300 years to complete and publish at which time it will win a number of awards.

In order to escape the attentions of an Archduchess, Orlando becomes ambassador to Constantinople. For his good service, he is awarded the title of Duke. On the evening of the gala Orlando slips away to his room during the fireworks for some peace and quiet. He falls into a deep sleep and is thus spared from being accosted during an uprising because everyone thought he was dead. A week later Orlando wakes up to discover he is now a she.  She looks exactly as she did before except for a few important differences. Taking it all in her stride, she runs off with the gipsies for a time before returning to England.

Back in England she discovers her estate has been thrown into the chancery courts over the questions of whether or not she is dead, whether she is a man or a woman, and whether, as Duke, she had married a dancer named Rosina Pepita and had three sons. A chancery court case out of Dickens’ Bleak House, it stretches on for over a hundred years, gobbling up a good deal of her fortune and estates.

In the meantime, Orlando is courted by an Archduke who won’t take no for an answer. Since as a woman she cannot use a rapier to defend her honor, she must resort to dropping a toad down the Archdukes’ shirt. He finally gets the message.

In a scene that would do Marianne Dashwood and Willoughby proud, Orlando runs out on the moors at night, trips on a root and breaks her ankle. She resolves to die, but as the dawn arrives she hears hoof beats and sits up:

She saw a man on horseback. He started. The horse stopped.
‘Madam,’ the man cried, leaping to the ground, ‘you’re hurt!’
‘I’m dead sir!’ she replied.
A few minutes later, they became engaged.
The morning after, as they sat at breakfast, he told her his name.

Have I mentioned how funny Orlando is? Woolf is considered literature and we lose sight of her biting sense of humor as though literature and funny are mutually exclusive. She proves time and again they are not:

But love—as the male novelists define it—and who, after all, speak with greater authority?—has nothing whatever to do with kindness, fidelity, generosity, or poetry. Love is slipping off one’s petticoat and—But we all know what love is. Did Orlando do that? Truth compels us to say no, she did not. If then, the subject of one’s biography will neither love nor kill, but will only think and imagine, we may conclude that he or she is no better than a corpse and so leave her.

In great Woolf style, this short passage manages social commentary, while mocking literature and the traditional biography all while making us laugh. Woolf also proves it is possible to write a book that is both a popular novel and capital “L” literature.

Oxford World Classics has done well with the reissue. They have made a paperback with decently sized margins leaving plenty of room for notes and commentary. You will want to make notes and comments, I guarantee it. They have also provided mostly helpful endnotes indicated in the text by an asterisk. I say mostly helpful because sometimes the notes are explanations of things that really don’t need explaining. But better too much than too little. The introduction to Orlando by Michael H. Whitworth is also thorough and well done. I’m generally not one for reading introductions until I have read the book, but in this case, read it first, as there isn’t much to spoil and it is a good setup for the novel.

If you have always wanted to read Woolf but feel intimidated, Orlando is a good place to start. And you can’t go wrong with this new Oxford edition.

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Stefanie blogs at So Many Books http://somanybooksblog.com and wouldn’t mind a bit if Woolf wrote her a novel, a love letter or heck, even a sentence would do.

Virginia Woolf, Orlando (Oxford World Classics: Oxford, 2014) 9780199650736, 288pp., paperback .

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