Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

“He — for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fasion of the time did something to disguise it — was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.”

My experience with Woolf’s writing is limited yet expanding.  I loved reading To The Lighthouse for its somewhat dream-like qualities and was rather pleasantly lulled by its stream-of-consciousness style.  Mrs. Dalloway I enjoyed, but I didn’t connect with it as much as I’d hoped and was left in a somewhat puzzled frame of mind at the end.  After reading Orlando, I was left with this same feeling.  What exactly did I just read and who was this Orlando?

Orlando is a young man born in the reign of Elizabeth I, and the novel follows him through his youth, as he has an affair with a Russian princess, cares for his ancestral estate, travels on diplomatic missions, etc.  The theme of writing is also explored, in his rejection by a famous poet and various other allusions. Finally he falls into a trace and, lo, awakes a woman.  This transformation does not seem  to surprise him, and she carries on her life as if nothing remise has occurred, yet upon returning to England she finds her estate embroiled in financial turmoil.  While remaining a woman, she fashionably switches between genders, eventually marries a sea captain, wins the lawsuit with regard to her property and that’s about it.  Woolf herself acts as an historical biographer and with her comic and satirical descriptions of certain people, I wasn’t sure if she was parodying herself as narrator, or taking a poke at a particular figure of her time and society.

Honestly I don’t have much to say about the book.  Twentieth century literature always does this to me.  I expect to be “informed and amused,” as books attempted to do historically (see my Gulliver’s Travels post for some extra information on writers’ intent) and end up somewhat disappointed when I’m only amused.  While I enjoyed the book, it would probably get only 3.5 stars from me.  In spite of my resolution to love it, 20th century literature always falls short.  Certainly the stream of consciousness writing is an interesting experiment, the disjointed prose perhaps a comment on the human psyche and the other artistic experiments are worth examining, but I’m always left with an empty feeling at the end.  What was the author really trying to say?  What did I learn?  What could I take away from the book that would change me in some fundamental way?

Yet, it turns out Woolf herself perhaps was not as satisfied with Orlando as she’d hoped.  Woolf wrote in her diary:

“I have written this book quicker than any; and it is all a joke; and yet gay and quick reading, I think; a writer’s holiday.”

“……… begun ….. as a joke: and now rather too long for my liking.  It may fall between stools; being too long for a joke, and too frivolous for a serious book.”

“Orlando taught me how to write a direct sentence; taught me continuity and narrative and how to keep the realities at bay.  But I purposely avoided, of course, any other difficulty.  I never got down to my depths and made shapes square up, as I did in the Lighthouse …… I want fun.  I want fantasy.”

And yes, Woolf wasn’t meaning this book to be serious at all:

“My notion is that there are offices to be discharged by talent for the relief of genius: meaning that one has the play side; the gift when it is mere gift, unapplied gift; and the gift when it is serious, going to business.  And one relieves the other.”

And so Orlando was a playful, frivolous fantasy that enraptures the reader, as Woolf captures your imagination with her wonderfully vibrant prose and light-hearted fanciful tone.  And I can enjoy it on that level.  Yet it is still only a wonderfully decorative cake, and I feel like I’ve missed the main meal.

O at Behold the Stars has an excellent review of Orlando, and with her comprehensive knowledge of Woolf, will be able to give you much more insight into the book than I have.

16 thoughts on “Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

  1. That's not encouraging, although 3.5 stars is not bad. I need to really be persuaded to read Woolf; and like you, I really, really want to enjoy her. Have you read anything about Night and Day? I am tempted to try that one.

  2. Ah, I'm sorry it didn't grip you! Well, you know I loved it deeply, but I know what you mean about 20th Century lit – Woolf I love, but aside from her, P G Wodehouse, and a love / hate relationship with James Joyce, I prefer earlier times too. I feel there's a bit too much trickery in 20th Century lit 🙂

    For what it's worth, I read a few days ago (in the Michael Whitworth biography) that Orlando is an oddly private book. I think perhaps only Vita herself was supposed to truly *get* it. All the same, I think everyone should at least give it a go 🙂

  3. You have to be in the right head-space, I think, and I just wasn't for this one. I was reading too many other books at the same time. I haven't read Night and Day, but I absolutely loved, loved, loved, To The Lighthouse. Something about it resonated with me and I enjoyed the stream of consciousness, so 5 stars for that one. If you're open for something different, you could give it a try. Mrs. Dalloway I liked but felt I was missing something. I think with each read it's a book that I'll appreciate more and more.

  4. Enjoyed the review because I could detect that you really tried to find something to like in this book. That requires reflection. Woolf is not a writer that appeals to me. Not every book we read can be a ' home run'. Admire your variety of readings so far in 2015!

  5. Thanks so much for your comments, O; a couple of points you made were so close to what I've felt. First, I certainly recognized the private messages in Orlando, which left me, as a reader, a little confused. This is a wild guess but Woolf doesn't seem that concerned with her reader; it's her contemporaries and her craft that really seem to matter to her, which is perhaps why I sometimes feel on the outside with her writing. And your other point about trickery in 20th century literature is that exactly! There seem to be so many experiments in 20th century lit that the reader seems to be left trying to figure out what they are, instead of enjoying the book. Having a system for, say ancient Greek tragedy, for example, allows the author to be creative within that system yet the reader is familiar with it too so there is a meeting point. Sometimes 20th century lit seems like a free-for-all!

    I'm going to re-read this at a future date and I'm sure that I'll enjoy it more. I wish I'd known it was just a playful work before I read it, instead of looking for some deeper meaning. Well, I guess there was a type of deeper meaning but only Woolf and Vita were in on it …….. :-Z

  6. It's good to know about the playfulness beforehand. I was looking for something more than play and kind of got lost. I hope you enjoy it as your first Woolf. I've learned with her, if you don't like one book, you can move to another of her works and it will probably be very different.

  7. Very perceptive of you, Nancy …….. I did so want to love it. I do like it but not as much as I hoped. I did LOVE her To The Lighthouse. In any case, I'm going to keep reading her books because there are single treasures I do receive from her but so far To The Lighthouse is her only work I've been able to appreciate as a whole. She is a wonderful writer though and probably worth reading just for her lovely prose.

  8. Now I'm really curious about the title. A story about a man who turns into a woman who switches back-and-forth between genders. I wonder what Woolf was trying to get at.

    What was the author really trying to say? What did I learn? What could I take away from the book that would change me in some fundamental way?

    I sometimes wonder if every book is supposed to fundamentally change us or sometimes we are just supposed to enjoy a creatively written "playful, frivolous fantasy" with "wonderfully vibrant prose."

    I would describe Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers as a well-written adventure story, a fun and playful story with some pretty good writing. It's not really the sort of book that speaks to us on a deeper level or challenges worldviews though. Robert Stevenson's Treasure Island is probably another example, a well-written imaginative adventure story.

  9. I learned from O that Woolf was writing this book about her lover Vita Sackville-West, so Vita is Orlando. It is thought that their relationship had cooled down and Vita had moved on to someone else, so it was perhaps Woolf's attempt at getting her attention back. The problems that Orlando had with his/her estate parallel the troubles Vita had with her ancestral estate.

    I completely agree with you, but Dumas and Stevenson are plainly "fun" authors. They don't pretend to be anything else. At times, Woolf seems disingenuous and clearly writes about things that her reader is not going to fully understand which leaves the reader very unsure as to what they're reading. As I said in my comment to O, it would be interesting to find out how Woolf felt about her readers. In this book, especially, I did not feel that she considered her readers at all. She appeared to need praise from her friends and contemporaries, but as to what she expects of her readers, I'm not sure. And she clearly labels herself a genius in that last comment, so perhaps that gives us some insight into her mindset.

  10. ok…you have company! I had the same feeling about Orlando. It rambled and travelled and did many things except perhaps make a point! It made me so scared of this stream-of-consciousness that I am yet to read another Woolf

  11. Prior to Modernism, sometimes literary critics talk of Decadence as a kind of in-between literary period featuring writers such as Oscar Wilde, Joris-Karl Huysmans, and Charles Baudelaire. The sense one gets from those writers, at least from their work, is that they despise the average reader and have a strong sense of elitism. They argued for art for art's sake. I suspect if they cared about anyone else's opinions it would be other artists they respected rather than the hoi polloi. Perhaps much of this attitude extended into Modernism and Virginia Woolf.

    I think Woolf is a product of the times in which there is a heavy emphasis on exploring new styles, hence why we Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner doing their stream-of-consciousness (Joyce going the furthest and experimenting even beyond that technique). I think in general what the modernists are trying to say is inherent in the style itself rather than in a dramatic plot line (unlike much of 19th century literature). The other works of Woolf's I've read definitely have a serious quality to them.

  12. As always, I really appreciate your insights. That makes alot of sense and it gives me a reason for my uncomfortableness with this period of literature. Now that I know what was going on, perhaps I can appreciate it more!

    BTW, I'm still slogging through Ulysses. I actually think I could tentatively like it but the jury's still out. 🙂

  13. Why am I not surprised that our feelings are similar? 😉 I would recommend To The Lighthouse (have I mentioned that I loved it? 😉 ) But read it when you feel very lazy, you're in a capricious mood, and you're willing to let you mind wander. I think you might like it then. Mrs. Dalloway is also worth reading but I'm still a little lost with it …….. I liked the crazy character best ….. go figure!

  14. Sorry I'm late to the party but I must say that you and I seem to share similar sentiments towards this novel. It left me fairly indifferent and quite frankly, baffled. The prose is often beautiful (as to be expected by Woolf); its whimsical and satirical charm delectable if not overdone. The problem was, I just couldn't care less about any of it. As you mention, the novel is a love-letter to Vita Sackville-West and contains a great deal of inside knowledge, personal anecdotes and jokes that went over my head. I enjoyed the movie adaptation with Tilda Swinton a lot more.

  15. You have every excuse for being late! 😉 And your words certainly echo my feelings. I felt either like I was prying into a private message, or, if she was aware she had an audience, she was being almost rude with those private messages. I mean, if she wanted to write a letter to Vita, write a letter to Vita, and don't subject us to hidden meanings and innuendoes.

    Actually I loved the movie, which is why I had such high hopes for the book.

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