Virginia Woolf’s Orlando ‘The longest and most charming love letter in literature’, playfully constructs the figure of Orlando as the fictional embodiment of Woolf’s close friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West. Spanning three centuries, the novel opens as Orlando, a young nobleman in Elizabeth’s England, awaits a visit from the Queen and traces his experience with first love as England under James I lies locked in the embrace of the Great Frost. At the midpoint of the novel, Orlando, now an ambassador in Costantinople, awakes to find that he is a woman, and the novel indulges in farce and irony to consider the roles of women in the 18th and 19th centuries. As the novel ends in 1928, a year consonant with full suffrage for women. Orlando, now a wife and mother, stands poised at the brink of a future that holds new hope and promise for women.
Because I’m a gossip and a sneak, I’ve always been rather interested in Virginia Woolf’s relationship with Vita Sackville-West. Two big names in literature and society, two strong women, two LGBT women masquerading as straight in a world that wouldn’t like them much if they knew the truth… what’s not to be interested in? That’s why when this gender bending, time jumping novel got assigned to me at university this year, I was pretty excited. I thought, “hey, here’s a Woolf I can really sink my teeth into. This sounds awesome!”
Alas… no. I found it to seem too smug and self-congratulatory, I found the casual racism jarring (though, it is Woolf, I should probably be used to it by now) and it just overall felt wrong. Maybe I’ve just read too much Woolf this year. Maybe I just really find some of her thoughts quite unacceptable. Maybe it’s just my love/hate relationship with Virginia shining through. I prefer her critical work, like A Room of One’s Own and The Common Reader, which I recently read, to her fiction. In these books, she has a fire in her. I don’t see it as much in her fiction.
Orlando is split into two sections- his time as a male and her time as a female. I found the transitioning period the most interesting, when she was learning what it is to be a women- what she must forgo, what is suddenly unacceptable, what her clothes will do to her ability to be free. This was the most fascinating part of the novel, and I think Woolf nailed it.
[She found herself] dragged down by the weight of the crinoline which she had submissively adopted. It was heavier and more drab than any dress she had yet worn. None had ever so impeded her movements. No longer could she stride through the garden with her dogs, or run lightly to the high mound and fling herself beneath the oak tree. Her skirts collected damp leaves and straw. The plumed hat tossed on the breeze. The thin shoes were quickly soaked and mud-caked. Her muscles had lost their pliancy. She became nervous lest there should be robbers behind the wainscot and afraid, for the first time in her life, of ghosts in the corridors.
Orlando doesn’t weaken as a woman, but the reality of what she must fear now, as opposed to her time as a man, renders her jumpy. The thought of a robber, who previously offered no threat but to the purse, now becomes a sexual menace. The ghosts that wander the hallways are now the people she knew when she was a young man, since she has an unnamed and undiscussed ability to continue living through the centuries. This isn’t submission- it’s self preservation.
The novel opens with Orlando hitting the shrunken head of a black man with a stick, and personally, I found this decapitated piñata image, with its racial overtones, pretty foul. To open a novel like that put a bad taste in my mouth and really didn’t help me to want to like Orlando. The race stuff continues with his experiences with a Russian princess, and then during his time in Turkey. I know Woolf herself was quite racist and classist, making it a bit of a challenge for me to get along with her as a personality, but this is the worst of it that I’ve seen in her fiction. Satire or not, I found it distasteful and cheap, well below her ability as a writer.
I also felt like the narration was a bit smarmy and self congratulatory, like “Oh, I’ve written a clever novel, look at me!” Sackville-West’s son calls it “the longest and most charming love letter in literature” but I just don’t see it. Yes, she does some very clever things with time, literature and the way that gender is written, and there’s some pretty awesome moments, but something just felt awry in the narration. It turned what could have been a 4-5 star read to me into a 2.5-3 star, and that’s pretty disappointing.
So in all, Mrs Dalloway is still winning as my favourite Woolf novel, closely followed by Between the Acts. I still have quite a few on my shelves and on my Kindle to get through, which will be either a slog or revelatory- who knows!