Orlando: a Biography has been on my TBR shelves for nearly five years now, so I was glad it came up in the Classics Club spin as this gave me the push to actually read it. I won Orlando in one of Heaven Ali’s Woolfalong giveaways in May 2016 and I’m sorry that I haven’t read it before now. I did start it when I first got it, but found it a bit ‘difficult to get into it’ and left it on my bookshelves for while – the while turned out to be nearly five years!
I’ve read some of Virginia Woolf’s books before – Mrs Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, Kew Gardens (a short story), Flush: a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog, A Room of One’s Own and The Three Guineas (in one volume and more recently, I’ve read The Voyage Out, and Death of a Moth and other essays.
Orlando tells the tale of an extraordinary individual who lives through centuries of English history, first as a man, then as a woman; of his/her encounters with queens, kings, novelists, playwrights, and poets, and of his/her struggle to find fame and immortality not through actions, but through the written word. At its heart are the life and works of Woolf’s friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West, and Knole, the historic home of the Sackvilles. But as well as being a love letter to Vita, Orlando mocks the conventions of biography and history, teases the pretensions of contemporary men of letters, and wryly examines sexual double standards.
Orlando is a fictionalised biography of Vita Sackville-West, based on her life. They had met in 1922 when Woolf was 40 and Vita was 30, when Wolf described her as ‘lovely’ and ‘aristocratic’. I was a bit overwhelmed at times reading Orlando – such a fantastical novel, spanning 500 years. There are copious literary, historical, and personal allusions and despite continually referring to the Explanatory Notes at the end of the book I’m sure I missed a lot of them. And it makes for a fragmentary reading experience, having to stop reading and flip backwards and forwards between the text and the notes, so that I was a bit confused about the story and what happened when.
But having said that the plot is extraordinary, beginning towards the end of Elizabeth I’s reign when Orlando is a young nobleman, and continuing for the next five hundred years to the start of the twentieth century. You have to completely suspend your disbelief, not just for the length of his life, but also for his/her gender as in the late 17th century whilst he is an ambassador for Charles II he falls into a trance for seven days, only to find when he comes to that ‘he’ has become a young woman. As a woman she lives with a group of Turkish gypsies and then returns to England in the 18th century, when she has difficulty in being identified as a woman. In the 19th century she falls in love with a young romantic traveller, finally finding freedom in finishing the poem she began in the 16th century and in experiencing the delights of motoring in the early years of the 20th century.
What I’ve described here is just the bare bones of the book, because there are many vivid passages – such as her description of the ‘Great Frost’ of 1608, when the Thames was frozen for six weeks and Frost Fairs were held on the ice. It hit the country people the hardest:
But while the country people suffered the extremity of want, and the trade of the country was at a stand still, London enjoyed a carnival of the utmost brilliance. The Court was at Greenwich, and the new King seized the opportunity that his coronation gave him to curry favour with the citizens. He directed that the river, which was frozen to a depth of twenty feet and more for six or seven miles on either side should be swept, decorated and given all the semblance of a park or pleasure ground with arbours, mazes, alleys, drinking booths, etc at his expense. For himself and his courtiers, he reserved a certain space immediately opposite the Palace gates; which railed off from the public only by a silken rope, became at once the centre of the most brilliant society in England. (pages 22-23)
She also writes about writing and about books, about the nature of gender, and about the position of women in society over the centuries. One theme that fascinates me is her depiction of the passage of time, particularly in the final section of the book set as the 20th century reached 1928 (the year Orlando was published). Overall it is a book steeped in history showing how the passage of time had changed both the landscape and climate of England along with its society – and I have only scratched the surface in this post. It is a book packed with detail that deserves to be read more than once to appreciate it fully.
- Publisher : OUP Oxford; 2nd edition (11 Dec. 2014)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 288 pages
- ISBN-10 : 019965073X
- ISBN-13 : 978-0199650736