Thoughts: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

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Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 5

Orlando is Virginia Woolf’s sixth major work and was written in a year, between To the Lighthouse and The Waves. It is an epic novel and historical biography which follows the journey of one character, Orlando, over the course of about 350 years (1588-1928). It is a biography not of any one character, but of the nature and history of gender, identity, and sexuality through time. At the start of the novel, readers will encounter Orlando as a young boy of noble birth. His family entertains Queen Elizabeth I, who is the first to notice Orlando’s beauty and potential. As he ages (slowly), Orlando will spend much of his time with “low” people – those well-outside the realm of nobility, though he himself is a member of the court. He explores and enjoys sexual relations with women of varying types, though each of his three serious ventures into love soon goes sour. Orlando will twice mistake the loves of his life for the wrong gender, which is particularly complex after Orlando himself has become a woman, remembering himself as a man, loving a man who is actually a woman. Ultimately, after trips abroad and back home again, Orlando’s story is one of exploration and being open to the many possibilities of life. He is a writer, first, who spends hundreds of years working on one short poem called “The Oak Tree,” a strong symbol of nature’s presence and dominance throughout the passage of time. Orlando witnesses the world-changing, from the sexual freedom and marriageless years of the Elizabethan period, to the stringent, stuffy, prudish world of the Victorian age. At a certain point, he (now she) wakes up to “the present” and is terrified, realizing that she suddenly exists in the now, and it is a now that she no longer recognizes, where women are property, where love is regulated, and where art and literature exist only in the past.

There are two main characters in the novel; the first is Orlando, who changes from male to female throughout the long passage of time. The second is actually the narrator – a third-person, mostly omniscient but nevertheless unreliable “biographer,” whose tone and style change throughout the book, as Orlando and his life are changing. One could argue, though, that the true characters are actually gender (identity), sexuality, and time: these are the ideas explored most intricately and most often throughout the course of the book and they are certainly front-facing; the narrator/biographer views time and Orlando in opposition to how opinions and practices of sex and gender are viewed differently at various points in history. Other characters (of the usual sense) include Sasha, Orlando’s true first love, a Russian princess; Shel, Orlando’s husband who is actually a woman (or who, at least, has the qualities of one); the Archduchess Henrietta who is actually Archduke Harry (perhaps the only truly homosexual character, as the others whose genders bend throughout could truly be said to be of the opposite gender, psychologically and even physically, after their changes, while Harry is simply a man who cross-dresses as a woman and who loves Orlando as a man); and certain historical figures, like Nick Greene (poet/critic), Queen Elizabeth I, and Alexander Pope.

Orlando, though massive in scale, brilliant in conception, and beautiful in prose, was actually considered by Woolf to be a “writer’s holiday,” so to speak. She refused to allow gender nor time to constrain her writing, which is evidenced by the fact that Orlando, who begins the story as a man and ends it as a woman, 4 centuries later, only ages 36 years in the process. Woolf’s secondary aim, aside from bending time and gender, is satirizing Victorian biographies and novels which traditionally emphasize truthfulness and fact (though they are obviously fiction). What is most fascinating for me is the fact that the book was, for Woolf, a game of sorts – a lighter satire and departure from her more rigid works; yet, this one is incredibly important and speaks seriously, though fantastically, to issues of self-discovery, truth, art, and gender. The exploration of the many time periods, from Elizabethan to the early 20th Century, particularly in terms of the literary arts in any given movement, will be fascinating for serious readers, but the beautiful and sensuous prose (less explorative than other works, making it more accessible) as well as the unusual topic and uninhibited re-imagining of reality and time make this a unique, awe-inspiring read for anyone willing to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Gender, Sexuality, Time, Art, Literary History, Nature, Truth, Poetry.

Notable Quotes:
“Nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates happiness from melancholy” (45).

“Once the disease of reading has laid hold upon the system it weakens it so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the ink pot and festers in the quill” (75).

“Bad, good, or indifferent, I’ll write, from this day forward, to please myself” (103).

“No passion is stronger in the breast of man than the desire to make others believe as he believes. Nothing so cuts at the root of his happiness and fills him with rage as the sense that another rates low what he prizes high” (149).

“Nothing can be more arrogant, though nothing is commoner than to assume that of Gods there is only one, and of religions none but the speaker’s” (173).

“Illusions are the most valuable and necessary of all things, and she who can create one is among the world’s greatest benefactors” (199).

“We write, not with the fingers, but with the whole person” (243).

“For it has come about, by the wise economy of nature, that our modern spirit can almost dispense with language; the commonest expressions do, since no expressions do; hence the most ordinary conversation is often the most poetic, and the most poetic is precisely that which cannot be written down” (253).

“Our most violent passions . . . are the reflections we see in the dark hollow at the back of the head when the visible world is obscured for the time” (323).

Orlando is Book 1 for my B2tC Challenge; Book 9 for my Classics Club List; & Book 3 for my 2013 TBR Pile.

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16 thoughts on “Thoughts: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

  1. Great review! Orlando is my favorite of all of Woolf’s works that I have read thus far (I have to admit that I wasn’t entirely riveted by To the Lighthouse, but I did love Mrs. Dalloway). Although largely considered a modernist, I love how Woolf pushes into the post-modern in this book.

    • I agree with you 100%. I wasn’t a fan of To the Lighthouse, either (it kept me from reading Woolf for 5 years). And I’m a postmodernist myself, so the route she takes with this one, structurally and thematically, really resonates with me.

  2. Orlando is one of my favourite books by Woolf (my other favourite is Flush). I enjoyed how she drew on the life of her lover, Vita Sackville-West. I don’t know if I could ever bring myself to re-read To The Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway, but Orlando is a book I can see myself reading multiple times. I’m so glad you liked it!

    Yann Martel wrote a novel called Self which is often said to be a modern version of Orlando. I liked it, but it was weird.

  3. I put this on my tentative list of classics for Dark Cargo’s Ye Olde Booke Clubbe, a year long reading event. Since I plan on reading it, I only read the first paragraph of your review as I wanted to go into it with as little preconceived ideas as possible. I have not read any Woolf before and I look forward to this being my first work. I like the idea of exploring sexuality through an extended lifetime.

    • I haven’t read much Woolf, either, but I wish I had read this one first. It’s beautiful and challenging, but not nearly as much as some of her other works. I read To the Lighthouse years ago and that book put me off of Woolf for a very long time. I’m very glad I gave her another chance, as this book is brilliant.

  4. Great review. I agree that gender and sexuality over time are characters in this book. (I also remember trying to keep track of stuff like “Orlando himself has become a woman, remembering himself as a man, loving a man who is actually a woman.”) I think it was at the point where this theme became more clear (i.e. after Orlando became a woman) that the book really won me over. My favorite part was the one that took place in the 19th century.

    • Oh, tracking the timeline was difficult but fun, too. I don’t think I would have appreciated it as much if I hadn’t done that. You should see the back of my book! Every time a historical event or person was mentioned, I wrote it down with estimated dates plus where Orlando was at the time (male/female & age)…It was nice the few times she dropped actual dates, helped me really keep track. I had to do most of it based on the King/Queen at the time and the popular authors at the time, or significant events like arrival of electricity and automobiles.

  5. Excellent review! I really have to start reading Woolf. I’ve had Mrs Dalloway on my shelves for months now, but I haven’t gotten around to starting it yet. Orlando certainly seems as though it’s the kind of novel that would appeal to me.

  6. I have been wanting to read more VW since falling head over heels in love with To the Lighthouse. I even bought her biography. But Orlando has me wondering if I lack the appropriate knowledge and experience with ‘literature’ but I hope to try it anyway. Your review is excellent and I really enjoyed this comment thread.
    PS I have read Mrs. Dalloway twice and loved it so much more the second time. I always encourage people to give it another go if they failed to see its merits.

  7. Pingback: Textual or Sexual? | loonyliterature

  8. Your review makes me want to read Orlando right now although I don’t really like Woolf, but that unrealiable narrator you mention and the exploration of sexuality and gender makes it super interesting. Thanks!

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