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.

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The scribbling itch

Virginia Woolf’s tidied up writing lodge at Monk’s House in East Sussex

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf.
Penguin Modern Classics 1970 (1929).

But why should I fear a nameless grave
When I’ve hopes for eternity…
— From the Scottish ballad ‘The Fower Maries’

Described as an essay, A Room of One’s Own is indeed that but it also has elements of fiction, memoir, stream of consciousness and scarcely veiled polemic, however gently done. I had no idea quite what to expect and the end result confounded what little I’d anticipated — luckily in a good way, however.

Surprisingly very little is directly about a writer’s room, such as those which can still be seen at Monk’s House in East Sussex, a cottage retreat which the Woolfs bought a century ago: here Virginia established a writer’s lodge in a garden shed, in additional to her own bedroom with its well-stocked bookshelves.

What this essay does is to expound on women’s writing in England from the Renaissance to the 1920s, what they wrote, the conditions they wrote under, whether they should aspire to poetry or novels, and the fantastical notions far too many men had about what women could and couldn’t do.

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A lodge of her own

Patio and deckchairs in front of Virginia Woolf’s writing lodge

Another visit to the literary south coast of England finds us at Monk’s House at Rodmell in East Sussex, the home of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. We start at Virginia’s Writing Lodge, essentially a superior garden shed, completed in 1934.

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