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About the book
Orlando, a novel by Virginia Woolf, was first published in 1928. It is a semi-autobiographical story based partly on the life of Vita Sackville-West, Woolf's lover. In the edition I have, there are 165 pages.
Synopsis (Taken from the back of the book)
"The longest and most charming love letter in literature," playfully constructs the figure of Orlando as the fictional embodiment of Woolf's close friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West. Spanning three centuries of boisterous, fantastic adventure, the novel opens as Orlando, a young nobleman in Elizabeth's England, awaits a visit from the Queen and traces his experience with first love as England, under James I, lies locked in the embrace of the Great Frost.
At the midpoint of the novel, Orlando, now an ambassador in Costantinople, awakes to find that he is a woman, and the novel indulges in farce and irony to consider the roles of women in the 18th and 19th centuries. As the novel ends in 1928, a year consonant with full suffrage for women, Orlando, now a wife and mother, stands poised at the brink of a future that holds new hope and promise for women.
What I thought
Being a book I had to read for my Gender and Sexuality class this year at university, this was not a book I was looking forward to at all. I haven't had the best of luck with Virginia Woolf over the past couple of years and after reading the first couple of pages, I wanted to read it even less.
The beginning of the book is extremely hard going and slow to get into. Set in the Elizabethan England, there is a lot of information about who is ruling the country at the time and where Orlando stands in the middle of it all. The language used is quite pretentious and needlessly long winded. These were the main reasons for me not being able to get into the story immediately and not wanting to continue reading. However, after putting the book down for a couple of weeks and giving it another shot, I found it easier and easier to read as I continued.
Orlando spans over a couple of hundred years which is extremely strange and different for a novel and I didn't quite understand why for a while. Orlando, at the beginning of the story, is a man who a nobleman during the rule of Queen Elizabeth, then going on to be an Ambassador in Constantinople. Part way through the story though, Orlando falls asleep and wakes up a woman. Another strange part of the story. Anyway, as Orlando changes to be a woman, still having all knowledge of her life previously as a man, the times change throughout the story. This is the main theme of the book. Having been both a man and a woman, Orlando is able to see how the treatment of women changes throughout time and also from both points of view.
I actually really enjoyed the way that Woolf changed the era being written about. I thought that this would bug me and that it would make the plot flow at a slightly weird pace. Strangely, this is something that I felt made the plot flow quite well as the time periods are quite blurred at times and the change happens so quickly that you barely notice. It was also interesting to see how Orlando changed over time, both when he went from man to woman and also how thoughts changed about different things. As the book ends in 1928, there are so many changes in the world compared with when the story first started.
Orlando is also very funny - this I wasn't expecting at all. Through Orlando's experiences as a woman, it becomes clear that she doesn't really know what to do in certain situations. She explains at one point that if she had still been a man, you would have taken out a sword and cut someone's head off. Things like this she cannot do as a woman so the funny parts of the book came when Orlando found herself in a dissimilar situation. I laughed a fair amount through reading this book and this isn't something I have experienced with a Woolf novel before.
Even though I had a bad experience with this book to begin with, it turned out that I really quite liked it. If you haven't been a fan of Woolf in the past, like me, you may find this novel a bit better.
Reading Orlando was a bit like watching Dallas. Remember when Bobby Ewing stepped out of the shower, when his wife Pam, woke up from a dream which lasted for hundreds of episodes? Nobody remembered her dream starting, but we were reliably informed by the press that what we had actually witnessed for the past few months (or was it years?) was a very badly construed dream sequence that even the writers hadn’t envisaged at the beginning. And so, when reading Orlando I was hoping throughout the novel, that Woolf would then say “It was all a dream, what in fact happened was…” and I would laugh and say “You had me going there”. Orlando is regarded as a classic of the 20th Century and was written as a tongue-in-cheek dedication to Vita Sackville-West, who was Virginia Woolf’s ‘part-time’ lover. It is a fictional biography of Orlando who was born a boy at the end of the 16th Century and changed into a woman in the middle of the 17th Century where her life is charted up until the time of writing, at the beginning of the 20th Century. Ok, two things strike the reader here. The first is that how can a man, suddenly change into a woman? The second is he/she lived for over 200 years, and by the end of her biography she is only 36 years old? The doubting amongst us can only view this as poetic license. But to me, there is fantasy and then there’s obscure fantasy. What I mean by obscure fantasy is bending the rules of reality too much to suit the continuation of plot and the ideas, which are being conveyed within a narrative. It was almost as if Woolf, felt that in going in one direction she was backed into a corner, and instead of reversing out of the corner, she just turned round and carried on, expecting the reader to accept the dead ends without question. Ok, to show you what I mean, let’s get on with the plot. Orlando, a member of the ar
istocracy becomes a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. He is also a frustrated poet who is haunted by his own work ‘The Oak Tree’. After a fraudulent love affair and an unwanted lover, he seeks a position at the embassy in Constantinople and becomes Ambassador. At the time of civil unrest, he falls into an unconscious sleep which lasts for a week, the revolutionaries, who think him dead, leave him and then he awakes to discover, without any horror that he is a woman. And so, the biography of her life continues through the ages. As far as plot is concerned then that is essentially it. The rest of the novel is concerned with an age of change and discovery. Change in the sense though of literature and society and a discovery of Orlando’s womanhood. The narrative is written from the viewpoint of a biographer, but with interjections and with fictional descriptions by Woolf, which are sometimes incredibly poetic. However, it is this which makes the novel even more tedious sometimes when reading, as with most novels which grasp for plots. Which then makes me think that I’ve missed something, which is integral to the themes of Orlando. Thematically, there are of course the issues of gender and age. The issue of gender is dealt with in much the same way as the Shakespearean comedy plays, but instead of gender-bending men dressing up as women and vice versa; it is with a suddenness that ‘he’ becomes a ‘she’. As I stated earlier, it is this where Woolf turns into the dead end, but carries on mindfully without making it an issue within the novel. Not that it is wrong to do so, but this sort of non-explanation and lack of consequences, which are missing in Orlando, make this a rather ‘unreal’ novel in the sense of how the reader has to accept what s/he is being told. Contrary to popular belief though, this is not just a novel centred around gender. Woolf it seems, is critical of literatu
re and of pre-novel, poets. In his/her life Orlando meets the likes of Pope and Dryden and decides that “the high opinion poets have of themselves; then the low one they have of others; then the enmities, injuries, envies, and repartees in which they are constantly engaged” and so Orlando continues throughout in the same vein of the arrogance and boredom of writers. An ironical concept considering that Virginia Woolf was a member of the Bloomsbury Group! And so dear reader (as I wish to call you that as you’ve read this far!), I am not particularly a fan of Orlando. Call me a heathen if you wish. To say that Virginia Woolf was a groundbreaking novelist, I will not disagree. You could read this, and take a totally different stance from me and read and enjoy the descriptions, which Woolf is so good at. But if like me, you want a solid novel with a plot and explanations, you may find the same problems that I’ve had – that even Dallas and Orlando can seem closer than you think…
Written, most academics agree, as a veiled and extended love letter to Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is a funny kind of novel. Beginning in the court of Elizabeth I, and moving through the major periods of English literature into the present day, the novel tells the tale of perpetual youth and the transition of Orlando from a man into a woman. But this is not a simple gender bending exercise. Rather, it is a carefully charted, lyrically rendered parody of the gender stereotypes inherent in the classification of English literature, and the assumptions about sex, sexuality and gender that those classifications enforce on readers and writers alike. Virginia Woolf is one of very few women writers who have been admitted into the predominantly male hierarchy of the Western Canon. The western canon is the body of literature that the academy agrees is representative of all that is best in all the writing of the past two millennia in the West (and elsewhere!). To be recognised as part of the canon is to be lifted into the realm of the Classic. Orlando is a modernist text par excellence, doing all that the modernists strove to do: i.e. find a new style in the face of the crisis of language, and find some way of connecting with the past. By drawing Orlando through time and literature, by keeping him young and immortal, Woolf is making him the trans-temporal, corporeal icon of the modernist spirit. But, she does more. By changing his sex, by making him into a woman, she subtly draws attention to and comments on the way in which women were sidelined in the canon, forgotten and undervalued. Orlando wins the favour of the ageing, dying Queen Elizabeth because of his youth and his beauty. She blesses/curses him by wishing eternal youth upon him. He then lives through a series of political, romantic and sexual adventures, all of which are primarily entertaining and poetical, but are also a sustained comment
ary on gender roles in life, art, literature and politics. Orlando, for instance, once he has become a woman, is denied ownership of the property granted him by Queen Elizabeth and which he/she has owned for hundreds of years: a clear comment from Woolf on the historical dispossession and disempowerment of women. But, above all this, and what makes the novel so enjoyable and memorable, is the love letter element. When you realise that the novel is written, in love, from one woman to another, you see Orlando’s transition in a new, more intimate light. It is a desperate plea for understanding, and an expression of the repressed desire and love in Woolf which eventually led her to drown herself. There is an excellent film of the novel, directed by Sally Potter and starring Tilda Swinton, that is worth watching after you have read the book. The film is not as good as the book, but it has some wonderful imagery, and highlight the gender issues quite brilliantly (in the beginning, Orlando the man is played by a woman (Swinton) and Queen Elizabeth, an old woman, is played by a man (Quentin Crisp)).
Three years ago, I discovered Virginia Woolf, and I decided to read one of her novels. My choice was relatively simple - as I buy about 5 to 10 books a week, I usually buy second hand books. So I chose the one that was the less expensive, and it was Orlando. Unfortunately, it was in french. That is a very funny book, and some of the puns cannot be translated. For instance, Orlando once says "cape Horn", and then blushes. In french, there is nothing funny, why should someone blush when saying "horn"? It reminds me of a song a few years ago which said "I'm horny, horny, horny, horny tonight". And people would sing it all day long without ever knowing what the song was about ;-) Orlando is a marvellous novel, and it is strikingly moving. In fact, as the story is very strange, we have to rely on the narrator, we must forget what usually happen, and we must allow strange things to happen without denying them, otherwise the book would be very boring. So the firts impression I had was that I was floating, on some kind of sweet river, like a lullaby. The story begins in media res, Orlando is a very popular young male, he is very handsome, very courteous, and Queen Elizabeth 1st loves him most. She is old and will soon die, so we can say that the book starts around 1600. Then, we follow Orlando, King James 1st likes him too, but the atmosphere has changed, and this is very poetic. Everything is frozen, and as you read it, you visualize it. There is snow and frost everywhere, everything is white and grey, but still you don't feel cold, there is a cool stream leading you. Orlando seems to be a candid person, he doesn't live in the proper sense, he seems not to realize what's happening to him, he makes no experience. One day, he wakes up and discovers he is a woman. Of course, he is quite surprised, as you can guess, but once he's acknowledged he was a woman, well, one
of his first problem is to find proper clothes. That is why I say he/she doesn't experience life much, everything that happens seems to be his fate, he doesn't try to see why such things happen to him, why he became a woman, why he doesn't grow old, why ... he doesn't seem to be interested in anything. What matters to him is to give a good image of himself. For instance, as a woman he wants a ring, he wants to get married and have children. This happens at the beginning of the 20th century and Orlando is still as young and pretty as he was 300 years ago, lucky Orlando... He is very shallow, not in a bad sense, but you cannot see through him, as if there was nothing to see indeed. There are marvellous descriptions of casual things, like a forest, I can't say precisely why, but i found it extraordinary poetic. It describes a forest at night, whith the wind and the trees singing, some light shining through, and it seems to represent feelings as the romantic fashion used to do. The novel is rather short, about 250 pages, and it is easy to read, and the story is really wonderful. I think it is one of the best book Virginia Woolf ever wrote because it is a fantastic story described with very casual words, and her very special style.
When I was holidaying by Lake Ohrid a little while ago, this odd novella, written by Virginia Woolf as a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, and first published in 1928, was the only English book on sale on a market-stall.. ..I am ashamed to say that I had never heard of the book before, but I enjoyed it's magical sweep, a Count/ess St. Germain-esque tour through history. The book is a biography of the fictional Orlando, who lived in the last half of the last millennium. The life is bizarre, and although I list some of the plot-twists beneath, if I told you the full story I'd be spoiling your enjoyment of the work. Suffice to say it is European, interesting, literary, political and historical. Outrageously, the book contains photos and an index as well. Very imaginative, twisted, clever, snobbish, pretty, poetic. A minor classic, and worth a couple of your many hours. Both Wordsworth and Penguin publish budget versions (less photographs, which are illustrations of the characters), at £1. Penguin publish a full version for £4.99. WARNING - SPOILER!!! PLOT-TWISTS FOLLOW - Orlando lives for 400 years and changes his sex. At the start of the book, Orlando is a young man in Elizabeth I's court. He becomes Ambassador Extraordinary and has an affair with a Russian princess. Then s/he becomes Lady Orlando, and meets Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. At the end of the book, Orlando gives birth.
Virginia Woolf's exuberant `biography' tells the story of the cross-dressing, sex-changing Orlando who begins life as a young noble in the sixteenth century and moves through numerous historical and geographical worlds to finish as a modern woman writer in the 1920s. The book is in part a happy tribute to the `life' that her love for Vita Sackville-West had breathed into Virginia Woolf's own day-to-day existence; it is also Woolf's light-hearted and light-handed teasing out of the assumptions that lie behind the normal conventions for writing about a fictional or historical life. In this novel, Virginia Woolf plays loose and fast: Orlando uncovers a literary and sexual revolution overnight. Orlando has always been an outsider... His longing for passion, adventure and fulfilment takes him out of his own time. Chasing a dream through the centuries, he bounds from Elizabethan England amd imperial Turkey to the modern world. Will he find happiness with the exotic Russian Princess Sasha? Or is the dashing explorer Shelmerdine the ideal man? And what form will Orlando take on the journey - a nobleman, traveller, writer? Man or... woman?