Review: Orlando

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Cass recently mentioned that she’s a little intimidated of Virginia Woolf, hence the reason that she hasn’t attempted Orlando. I’m fascinated by this, because I don’t get intimidated by writers. This is not to say that I am some kind of fearless reader, laughing in the face of Dovstkhey and Namakov. No, this is because I simply don’t know any better. While growing up in a pop culture-free bubble has its disadvantages (“TV shows come on every week?” I exclaimed, at the age of fifteen), it also has its advantages; namely, I usually find out an author is considered difficult after we’ve frolicked on some literary shores together. (That is, by the way, exactly what reading The Three Musketeers feels like. Albeit with more cannons.) So, in my usual state of oblivious serenity, I picked up Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.

Orlando is a biography of the titular character. Born under the reign of Elizabeth I, Orlando is a passionate young man who adores the written word. When his path crosses with the monarch’s, they have a brief affair, where Orlando rises in society. After her death, he persists at court and gets engaged, although that’s quickly ended by his affair with a Russian princess named Sasha. Even writing offers no relief for the fallout over that, so Orlando arranges for himself to be stationed in Constantinople as an ambassador. He’s rather good at it, until he’s not, and as Constantinople descends into chaos, Orlando falls into a deep sleep and awakes in a female body. Unsurprised, the now Lady Orlando escapes Constantinople and returns to England, where life will be very different for her…

I actually made the mistake of seeing the film version of Orlando before reading the book. Well, it’s only a mistake in that I do prefer to read the book first—Tilda Swinton, gender-bending, and a swift hit of the eighties with Billy Zane on top? Yes, please. The film, like most film adaptations, streamline things to focus on a clear story. The novel Orlando, especially towards the end, veers away from Orlando’s biography and a focus on the changing centuries through the lens of England and towards a kind of soul-searching prose that’s entirely Woolf herself. On the inside flap of the edition I have, it mentions that, in her diaries (where she also made it clear that Orlando is partially based on friend and lover Vita Sackville-West), Woolf started writing Orlando as a bit of joke and got more serious as it went on.

And you definitely feel that in the text. At first, Orlando, while jawdroppingly beautiful (Nell Gwynne comments on his shapely gams twice, whilst pelting King Charles II with food), is a figure Woolf is comfortable poking fun at, especially his identity as over-sensitive writer who worships the written word. When he first encounters Sasha, his Russian princess, so many images flood him that Woolf wryly notes that “he did not whether he had heard her, tasted her, seen her, or all three together” (37). But after Lady Orlando gets married (it’s a short story and fairly baffling), things start feeling hemmed in, a little claustrophobic, and dark. Not unlike Mrs. Dalloway, to be perfectly honest. It’s tempting to pin this change on Orlando’s transformation, but it appears that Woolf intended the transformation to be a device from the word go. Perhaps it’s a function of Orlando approaching the modern day as a woman and Woolf being unable to resist the temptation of spinning off into her own thoughts when in extremely familiar territory. (Incidentally, there’s no reason given for either Orlando’s transformation or her apparent immortality—the latter is barely addressed.)

Watching Woolf philosophize is, however, fascinating; while she’s often too dark for me, there’s still something to grab onto, such as facets of identity or how the act of driving out of London affects your soul. The writing is beautiful and, even in its darkest moments, shines out of the depths. But the latter half of the novel feels so different from the first half that it can be a bit jarring—while it flows as you read, it’s hard to reconcile the dark shiver up your spine from the last few pages with Orlando waking up and finding herself accused of fathering three illegitimate children in the first. It’s well worth a read for Woolf’s language about identity, the novel’s status in the canon of women’s writing, and the feminist thought in Woolf’s philosophical moments, but the construction feels a bit undercooked.

Oh, and a heads up—the novel kicks off with some racial slurs.

Bottom line: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is a novel with two very different halves—the first half is comfortable poking fun at its protagonist, while the second sees Woolf philosophizing instead of narrating. Well worth a read for Woolf’s writing style, the novel’s status in the canon of women’s writing, and the feminist thought, but the construction feels a bit undercooked.

I rented this book from the public library.

  • Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. 1928. London: The Hogarth Press, 1964. Print.

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