Life and a lover

‘The Two Sons of Edward, 4th Earl of Dorset’ by Cornelius Nuie, and ‘Angelica as the Russian Princess’ by Vanessa Bell (Charleston Trust)

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.

Knole House, from Morris’s ‘Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen’ (1880).

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.

Hogarth Press first edition cover of ‘Orlando’ (1928)

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 features some artworks that shed light on the background to Orlando: “The queer love story behind Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.”

30 thoughts on “Life and a lover

    1. The link I give after my review includes a painting of Vita dressed as Portia in The Merchant of Venice taking on her crossdressing role as the lawyer’s apprentice Balthazar – a role of course played by a boy in Shakespeare’s day – and therefore indicative of the gender fluidity that Woolf’s novel is partly about.

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    1. I first read this decades ago (in the early 70s, I believe) and was completely flummoxed by both its quixotic nature and what reaction I ought to take regarding its underlying gender politics; but luckily now we all have been educated in such matters, even as their sheer complexity may still flummox us!

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        1. I agree, Jane! In fact there’s a bit of everything in here, I feel: humour and wit, but also poetic descriptions, caustic comments about male chauvinism, biografiction (!), philosophical musings – so much to think about but also to be disconcerted about as she hops from one mood to another with scarcely any warning.

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    1. I don’t think I’ll leave it so long before my next read, after the first gap of nearly half a century! From the recent Graham Norton Show I see that as well as the film (which I’ve yet to watch) that there’s a stage adaptation currently running at the Garrick Theatre starring Emma Corrin, whose appearance is just as androgynous as I’m sure Tilda Swinton’s was.

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  1. This sounds really interesting. A brief glance at it on Goodreads said something about it being written in the form of a letter or letters. Can you confirm that?

    And what, if anything, do those awesome pictures of The Two Sons of Edward and Angelica have to do with the book?


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your queries, Jinjer! To answer them:

      1. The description of it being ‘the longest and most charming love letter in literature’ is used in a figurative, not a literal sense: it’s not a series of letters, more a portrait of Virginia’s lover fictionalised as a lord who lives for over four centuries and becomes a woman. Uncategorisable, as I said!

      2. The original edition was peppered with ‘portraits’ of characters in the novel. At least one is a posed photograph labelled as a 17th-century (!) Russian princess, the rest are mostly portraits from Knole House misidentified as fictional characters in the novel (the young Orlando is actually Edward’s son from an Elizabethan double portrait).

      You can in this respect regard Orlando as a kind of novelised Renaissance masque in which characters represented Virtues, Vices or figures from fables and legends – here they are ranged about to reflect Orlando’s role as chief and only protagonist!


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    1. Thanks, Cathy – I hesitated about including it under your strict novella criteria (it’s more a short novel) but this edition came in at a little over 150 pages of dense text so I felt justified! I’m now reading Convenience Store Woman which definitely fits the word count. 🙂


  3. I have avoided reading Virginia Woolf my entire life! In order to stop hanging my head in shame I read Mrs Dalloway…and watched the movie (under protest). Now you’ve challenged me once again to at least try Orlando. What is it that keeps me from approaching Ms Woolf? Is she a bit too “kaleidoscope”. Do her very challenging works of literature feel like some sort of joyless high-fibre diet? Ok, time to stop looking for excuses.. I will read Orlando in 2023 and keep your enlightening book review close at hand to nudge me along!

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    1. I have to confess that, until recently, Orlando was the only Woolf I’d read, but a holiday in East Sussex meant we could visit residences associated with the Bloomsbury Group – Vita’s Sissinghurst Castle, Woolf’s country retreat Monk House and her sister Vanessa Bell’s Charleston.

      Since then I’ve read A Room of One’s Own (, Vita’s No Signposts in the Sea ( as well as written posts on Monk House and Sissinghurst. And I’ve got a few more of Virginia’s and Vita’s works waiting!

      The thing I understand about Virginia is that she experimented and innovated so that one of her fictions is not quite another; which you may find encouraging, Nancy, if you’ve been underwhelmed by Mrs Dalloway!


      1. I visited Vita’s Sissinghurst Castle…and I can still see the beautiful garden. One of the most amazing moments was when the I walked under the canopy of white roses…and could hear an ear deafening “buzz” of bees. It was magical. I will have to search for your post(s) about Sisinghurst!

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  4. Aonghus Fallon

    I read quite a bit of Virginia Woolf a few years back (I’d never read her before). I started with Orlando, which I enjoyed a lot, then went onto Mrs Dalloway (where I felt literary pyrotechnics had largely supplanted plot) then some of her short stories, only to founder on The Lighthouse. That isn’t to say the latter is a bad book; I’d just had enough Virginia Woolf to do me for a while.

    Woolf seems to have both emulated Joyce and loathed him. I’d see Mrs Dalloway as a riposte to Ulysses (Mrs Dalloway is – deliberately, I reckon – the polar opposite of Bloom in nearly every respect) and there’s one scene in particular that mimics a scene from Ulysses but also subverts it, and in which Woolf makes her class loyalties pretty clear. Or so I suspect.

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    1. Interesting to consider Mrs D a riposte to Leopold Bloom, Aonghus, something to beat in mind when I finally get to them!

      As for Woolf being assimilable only when visited sparingly, I rather suspect that’ll be the case with me too, though it will depend on my mood at any given time, as it is with most things I read.


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