Woolf at her fizziest, dizziest, most glittering and playful
Because we know how Woolf met her end, and because we know that she suffered several breakdowns, it is easy to backward read her writing to find evidence of the intensity of her suffering, and forget that she also lived with an intense awareness of joy – and, perhaps more easily ignored, wit, playfulness and ordinary moments of satisfaction , gaiety and pleasure
All these – including suffering, ennui and so-so are to be found rolled up in Orlando – as well as evidence of her intellect, her research and her always questioning mind
Written as a kind of love-letter, game and amusement both for her own creative pleasure and as the same for her lover and friend Vita-Sackville West, Orlando is both a highly readable, accessible introduction to Woolf’s writing, easily enjoyed by a teenager – I was 14, 15 or 16 when I first devoured this – and repaying later, more nuanced and reflective study, after surrendering to her more complex ‘difficult’ work
Why this is such a pleasurable read for a thoughtful teenager is that one of its major themes is the trying on of identity and the discovering both its fluidity and dizzying possibilities, and its kernel of ‘this is my true core’, inviolate from the influence of time, place, culture – and gender.
What a very surprising and modern book this must have been on its publication, in 1928, for those who looked behind its playful inventions and fantasies
For if it is rash to walk into a lion’s den unarmed, rash to navigate the Atlantic in a rowing boat, rash to stand with one foot on the top of St. Paul’s, it is still more rash to go home alone with a poet. A poet is lion and Atlantic in one. While one drowns us the other gnaws us. If we survive the teeth, we succumb to the waves. A man who can destroy illusions is both beast and flood. Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth. Roll up that tender air and the plant dies, the colour fades. The earth we walk on is a parched cinder. It is marl we tread and fiery cobbles scorch our fett, By the truth we are undone. Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life – (and so on for six pages if you will, but the style is tedious and may well be dropped).
Orlando is a beautiful young man, son of an aristocratic family, aged 16, with spectacularly attractive legs, shown to perfection in the costume of the times – the latter years of the sixteenth century. He is a moody, sullen and open-hearted, candid young man. Lest that sound contradictory, people are, and Woolf always reminds us of that. The elderly Queen Elizabeth, who always took a shine to comely young men, makes him an Order of the Garter.
However, there is something strangely androgyne about Orlando and this is not the full extent of his strangeness. He has something, which Woolf does not waste time on trying to explain, which makes him able to jump time as easily as space. She is not interested, as an SF writer might be, in explaining this : her interest is in identity in time, in history, in geography, so we follow Orlando, who not only jumps time – and various of his acquaintances similarly do so – but jumps gender.
Falling into a deep sleep and melancholy following the failure of a love affair with a similarly androgynous young woman in 1608, and after making one of his seamless time jumps to the Restoration, and becoming an Ambassador in Turkey, another sleep follows, and he wakens as a woman. The Lady Orlando is no different in many ways to Lord Orlando – his/her core nature is the same, though gender allows, encourages, forbids – in time and in place, certain manifestations of nature. Woolf has great fun with this, but also, she is offering delicious possibilities to readers who come to her in that time where they are exploring identity, discovering who they are, who they might be, who they won’t be
Certain susceptibilities were asserting themselves, and others were diminishing. The change of clothes had, some philosophers will say, much to do with it. Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us. For example, when Captain Bartolus saw Orlando’s skirt, he had an awning stretched for her immediately, pressed her to take another slice of beef, and invited her to go ashore with him in the long-boat. These compliments would certainly not have been paid her had her skirts, instead of flowing, been cut tight to her legs in the fashion of breeches. And when we are paid compliments, it behoves us to make some return
Woolf of course was the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, himself an author, a critic, an historian and biographer – and all of these strands are woven into this book, which is an once a history and a ‘biography’ of Orlando, and a meditation upon writing, reading and literary criticism. In fact, the final joke is Woolf’s presentation of this as a non-fiction by the inclusion of an index. Within which we will find Shakespeare, Pope, Dryden and others referenced, alongside such marvellous inventions as Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, and the Archduchess Harriet of Finster-Aarhorn (see Archduke Harry) – who, with a physiognomy remarkably like a startled hare must surely be a little dig at Lady Ottoline Morrell.
Though I did find the final section of the book, bringing it to the ‘now’ of her writing in 1928, dragged a little, this was such a pleasure to read again. And was spurred to this by HeavenAli’s year long Woolfalong, just squeaking into August’s Biography section.
Orlando was of course filmed, with the magnificent Tilda Swinton, intelligent, spirited, mercurial and very much a person out of her own mould, as the central character. The film was directed by Sally Potter.