"For the truth is I feel the need of an escapade after these serious poetic experimental books whose form is always so closely considered. I want to kick up my heels & be off. I want to embody all those innumerable little ideas & tiny stories which flash into my mind at all seasons. I think this will be great fun to write; & it will rest my head before starting the very serious, mystical poetical work which I want to come next." (from Volume 3 1925-1930 of The Diary of Virginia Woolf; March 14, 1927)
After Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse and just prior to The Waves, Virginia Woolf wrote a very clever, very humorous book titled Orlando: A Biography to which she refers in the diary excerpt above. Her "writer's holiday" turned out to be her best-selling offering to date. The novel of "plain sentences" and "externality ... for a change" is based upon Vita Sackville-West, Woolf's then lover, and Violet Trefusis Keppel, the woman with whom Vita had previously had a passionate affair. With Vita often disguised as a man.
The title character, Orlando, lives over three hundred years in the pages of the book from Elizabethan times through October 11, 1928, the day the novel was published. During the course of that long and unsettled life, Orlando lives first as a man and then finds herself transformed, literally, into a woman. As Woolf suggests above, the novel is about so many things but manages to keep a consistent tone throughout as the title character matures from the author of absurdly purplish poetry to award winning author by journey's end. And a fun-filled ride it is - "half-laughing, half serious: with great splashes of exaggeration."
Woolf's father was well-known as a biographer, and it is not without a touch of mischief that Woolf aims a satirical pen at the art of biography in Orlando. While maintaining that a biographer's duty is to the facts, this omniscient narrator/biographer lays out all manner of conjecture, rumor, and interior monologue as objective truth. Ever ready with a justification for every divergence from biographical norm, the narrator repeatedly provides glimpses into the hilarity of youth and inexperience as it seeks to write its own story in poetic and melodramatic terms without any seeming awareness of the absurdities presented. About his efforts as a poet, the narrator shares this:
"He was describing, as all young poets are for ever describing, nature, and in order to match the shade of green precisely he looked (and here he showed more audacity than most) at the thing itself, which happened to be a laurel bush growing beneath the window. After that, of course, he could write no more. Green in nature was one thing, green in literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces."
Regarding Orlando's affair with Elizabeth I, we have not an idealized peek at young passion but this interaction with the aging queen:
"... she pulled him down among the cushions where her women had laid her (she was so worn and old) and made him bury his face in that astonishing composition - she had not changed her dress for a month - which smelt for all the world, he thought, recalling his boyish memory, like some old cabinet at home where his mother's furs were stored. He rose, half-suffocated from the embrace. 'This,' she breathed, 'is my victory!' - even as a rocket roared up and dyed her cheeks scarlet."As incident upon incident such as these pile up and prompt laughter from some readers and annoyance in others, the changes begin to occur within the novel, outwardly a matter of life experience seasoning and maturing Orlando, represented by the shifting attachment to nature compared with the previously exemplified detachment. All of this accomplished in a flow of language that is steady and smooth and irresistible. I always think of the word "fluidity" in conjunction with Orlando. Not just the language utilized to tell the story but as an end goal for Orlando as writer. And in terms of the fluidity of gender roles and sexuality, that we can easily float from one position to another. An embrace of androgyny in the sense that male and female are portrayed as the same until they put on both the literal and figurative societal trappings of gender. All floating toward love and friendship and poetry. With only the family home serving as a constant with its 365 bedrooms (the days of the year) and its 52 stairways (the weeks of the year).
Now if you have read Orlando, you know what I am saying here already. If you have not, then I hope you might want to read of the exploits of the protagonist who lives over three hundred years in the book but never ages beyond her mid-thirties. Who beds a queen and falls in love at the drop of a hat with both men and women, and journeys the globe as both aristocrat and gipsy. Who arrives back home to finally produce both personally and professionally and end the unnatural passage of time.
In college, fellow Woolf lovers would mock me a bit for saying that Orlando was my favorite Woolf novel. So many see it as the throw-away novel, something to pass the time in between her more serious works of literature. But I have always loved the joy in the novel. I always laugh out loud reading it. And let's be honest, how many glimpses of Woolf do we have as playful and kicking up her heels as she said? So I have finished another re-read of the novel and once again feel as if I have just had an amazing playdate - with Virginia Woolf. How great does that sound?
This is the third stop for Woolf in Winter. If you would like to join us for one more Woolf novel, Claire is playing host for The Waves on February 26. I will attempt to keep a running list of Orlando posts below as they appear. As always, thanks for joining the conversation.
Claire at Kiss a Cloud
Emily at Evening All Afternoon
Nymeth at Things Mean a Lot
Lena at Save Ophelia
Nicole at Bibliographing
Jason at Moored at Sea
Julia at A Number of Things
Amy at New Century Reading
Lourdes at Pisti Totol ~ Black Bird
Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed
Bellezza at Dolce Bellezza
Victoria at Books and Baked Goods
Richard at Caravana de recuerdos
Karen at Bookbath
Eva at A Striped Armchair
ds at Third-Storey Window
Violet at Still Life With Books