[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
Orlando, by Virginia Woolf, is funny. Okay, it’s not snort-beer-out-your-nose funny, (it’s Virginia Woolf after all,) but it’s still witty and fun… probably about as “fun” as Woolf got. The writing is poetic, political and smart, and the story goes nowhere you would expect from the woman who wrote Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse.
Orlando is presented as the biography of a young British nobleman. The biographer’s voice is very present throughout the book, and at times the biographer shares with us the joys and difficulties of writing a biography; reading through scores of invoices for wood, fabric and furniture, for example, when Orlando furnishes an estate. The biographer voice also neatly dodges the gender-change that occurs a third of the way through the book, but more about that in a bit. We meet Orlando as a young man on one of his father’s estates. The time is probably late sixteenth century or perhaps early seventeenth. Orlando is a beautiful boy, who loves nature. A particular oak tree calls to him and he spends time beneath its branches whenever he can.
As he matures into young manhood, he becomes a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, and the alert reader will already have noticed that the time-frames don’t quite add up. Welcome to Orlando. As a favorite at the Elizabethan court, and later at the court of James I, Orlando is prone to great passions. He is engaged three times. He tumbles tavern wenches in boathouses and engages in adventures. In James’s court, during the time the great Frost Fair, while gamboling about the frozen Thames, Orlando becomes infatuated with a Muscovite princess. The imagery is beautiful and strange, and typically Woolf; a frozen boat laden with apples, visible at the bottom of the river through the ice; the princess in her harem trousers and ice skates; her own ship, frozen in the ice in the harbor. Orlando, smitten, can’t read the double meanings in the words the princess says, but we can, and when the catastrophic thaw comes she sails away and leaves him.
Orlando returns to one of his many estates and throws himself into writing. Here he has his first conversation with a poet. The poet is bitter, scathing about the playwrights and poets of the day like Marlowe and Shakespeare, who lack the true talent of Ovid and Aristophanes. Orlando shares his own prolific and amateurish work with the poet, who publicly mocks him for it. Hurt, Orlando takes up service for the crown, and is sent to Constantinople.
By now it is probably the early eighteenth century. Orlando serves in his civil service post; he is feted and admired by the British; he hunts and has adventures. After a large reception at his house and an attempted revolution by the natives, Orlando awakens the following morning, female, and decides to change her life. The biographer comments that many people say Orlando was a female the entire time, pretending to be male, and some people say that Orlando was male the whole time, pretending to be female. The poor biographer can only report the facts, when Orlando woke up that morning she was Lady Orlando.
Orlando takes this change in stride. As Lady Orlando, she joins a group of gypsies and travels around Europe, but Orlando has a dangerous disease that the gypsies distrust; a love of nature. Gypsies find this infatuation impractical, and some of the younger members of the clan think they will need to kill her. Before things come to that tragic pass, however, Orlando decides to return to England. She returns in women’s clothing, sitting on the deck under a canopy the captain thoughtfully draped for her, mulling over the difference in how men and women are treated.
A couple of centuries wheel by while Orlando makes her home in England and returns to the one poem she had tried to write again and again; the poem about the oak tree. Orlando is involved in elaborate lawsuits; she dresses in men’s clothing and haunts the city at night, meeting with prostitutes to share tea and hear their stories; in one scene she goes for a walk on her own grounds, contemplating, again, women’s clothing, and is overcome by a wave of fearfulness and powerlessness, something she never felt as the male Orlando. These haphazard adventures are not haphazard at all, as Woolf uses her male-then-female hero to make her points about societal mores and expectations.
But Woolf is also interested in the act of writing, and Orlando works hard on her poem. Woolf lets us see Orlando struggling with her poetry, but takes time to deal with the Victorian era — another strange and powerful image is a statue that Orlando sees in London, a detailed, busy statue piled with inventions, devices and things — and the repression that went with it (Woolf refers to it as darkness). Late in the nineteenth century Orlando gets married and has a child, although her husband seems somehow to always be fighting one particular battle somewhere in the Empire, rather like a character stuck at the very edge of a black hole.
Around this time, Orlando meets the same poet she met as a young man. The poet is bitter, scathing about the playwrights and poets of the day, who lack the true talent of the greats like Marlowe and Shakespeare.
The book ends in 1926, with Orlando driving her motorcar through London and back home to her estate. Her poem about the oak has been published to great acclaim. The handsome youth has become a successful, fashionable matron of the twentieth century.
Scholars theorize that the story is a love-letter to Vita Sackville-West; Woolf transmuting her lover’s life into this literary festival. It’s easy to see West in the early character, particularly the adventurer who travels to foreign lands with gypsies, and some of Orlando’s lawsuits and adventures feel like in-jokes. Mainly, though, Woolf manages to give a critique of British society from the sixteen hundreds to the nineteen hundreds in one fairly slim novel. Is Orlando’s long life explained? Of course not. Is his/her gender clarified? Again, of course not. Orlando, while a real character with fears, needs, talents and foibles, is also a symbol of Britain. The book is filled with symbols, including one of my favorites early in the book; Orlando’s house that has three-hundred-sixty-five rooms and fifty-two staircases.
I wanted to read Orlando because I had heard so much about it, but I didn’t expect it to be quite this engaging. I have not done the book justice here. In fairness to me, the readers and critics of the period didn’t quite know what to make of it either. You can read Woolf’s “fantasy novel” as a poetic critique of society over four hundred years, or you can just let the prose wash over you and enjoy, along with Orlando, the vivid and beautiful descriptions of nature, time and art.