Orlando. A Biography,
by Virginia Woolf.
Introduction and notes by Merry M Pawlowski.
Wordsworth Classics, 2003 (1928).
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 feet.
By the truth we are undone. Life is a dream. ‘Tis the waking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life.
As Orlando is a welter of vignettes, a kaleidoscope with multiple patterns, and a diorama with many scenes, so might a consideration of this ‘biography’ be a sequence of thoughts, reflections and digressions.
Orlando being so well-known as an extended fantasia on Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West means only occasional reference to that fact needs mentioning; it’s as a piece of literature and, above all, storytelling that I think Orlando needs to be remembered, and whether it works as a satisfying experiment or not addressed.
And what is the outward show of this narrative, its material appearance? It tells the history of a young Elizabethan noble whose life, career, gender and obsessions go through a series of transformations over several centuries till we arrive at the year 1928, in the month of October, with Orlando now a woman together with, one hopes, the love of her life. Accept this wild proposition, therefore, and things start falling into place.
But let’s start with Orlando’s residence, unnamed but based on Vita Sackville-West’s ancestral home Knole House – reputed to consist of a room for every day of the year – yet a home which, as a woman, Vita could never inherit. The calendrical succession of rooms suggests the passage of time; in addition, as with Mervyn Peake’s sprawling Gormenghast Castle, its owner feels isolated and alone despite his countless servants and occasional visitors. It’s from here, at the midpoint of the novella, that Orlando departs for Constantinople; and it’s here she eventually returns, alchemically sublimated and transmuted, still in search of answers, having been rejected by one lover and now rejecting a potential helpmeet.
Woolf deliberately upends the notion of biography being purely factual and thus dispassionate: to give the genre life she feels free to speculate, to embroider and to personalise it. But she does it all so playfully using humour, satire, and prose poetry; she indulges herself with streams of consciousness and magic realism, the action broken by moments when Orlando meditates – whether on Nature, on what passes for Enlightenment wit, on clothing, or on wedding rings.
Woolf’s narrative is less a tapestry with a clear-cut design and more like the comforting quilt in which, during Victoria’s reign, Orlando wraps herself: this quilt’s structure is of course made of contrasting panels, panels which may at one moment highlight gender issues and at another debate what constitutes ‘the spirit of the age’; alternatively they may focus on third-rate poetry or trivialise the responsibilities of running an estate; however, as a whole they may struggle to identify whether any attraction Orlando feels is true love or merely infatuation.
But we mustn’t forget the parade of larger than life characters who appear in one or more of the quilt panels: Elizabeth I, Sasha the Russian princess, the scurrilous writer Nicholas Greene (who was also to appear in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own the following year), Rosita Pepita the Romani who is linked to Orlando’s gender change in Constantinople, Enlightenment writers Addison, Dryden, and Pope, Orlando’s staff below stairs, Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine the Cape Horner, and the Archduchess Harriet who, despite morphing into an Archduke, merely bores Orlando:
As the sound of the Archduke’s chariot wheels died away, Orlando felt drawing further from her and further from her an Archduke (she did not mind that), a fortune (she did not mind that), a title (she did not mind that), the safety and circumstance of married life (she did not mind that), but life she heard going from her, and a lover. ‘Life and a lover,’ she murmured; and going to her writing-table she dipped her pen in the ink and wrote:
‘Life and a lover’ – a line which did not scan and made no sense with what went before […]
Life and a lover – to which one might add ‘laughter and literature’ – are what Orlando discovers she yearns for.
Woolf’s extraordinary vision, of a bisexual gender-changing protagonist whose story spans the centuries from 1588 to 1928, defies pigeonholing; indeed this my attempt at a cursory analysis barely conveys its intricacies, its quixotic nature, its barbed quills, its subtleties, many of which are only revealed by doing one’s homework and reading between the lines. My own appreciation was greatly assisted by Merry M Pawlowski’s informative introduction, but nothing substitutes for close reading and savouring of Woolf’s own text. Orlando is, for me, definitely a text destined for a third reading.
Read for #NovNov, Novellas in November, to fit the classic novella category
This piece by Clare Patterson on ArtUK.org features some artworks that shed light on the background to Orlando: “The queer love story behind Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.” https://artuk.org/discover/stories/the-queer-love-story-behind-virginia-woolfs-orlando