Orlando by Virginia Woolf claims it is a biography. A young man, the eponymous Orlando, is in London in the sixteenth century. At the outset, we meet him in an attic, having fun with a severed head and a sword. Virginia Woolf also tells us to expect Orlando at a later date to become a woman. It is destined to be a book of surprises.
He is of course at court, where else? He rubs shoulders with Tudor bigwigs, even monarchs. Of course, he is at court. Where else might such a character reside? Bloomsbury, perhaps… A few years later he even looks up at the dome on Saint Paul’s Cathedral, many decades before it was built. Despite its historical settings, Orlando does not much care for accuracy. It is not long before this biography becomes something decidedly less definable, though its author continues to invoke her declared intention of presenting the life of an individual.
Orlando, both the book and the character, is rather hard to define. Though it ostensibly focuses on the life, or perhaps lives of an individual, the book is not a biography, even a fictional one. It’s not really a novel either, since it offers neither thread of plot, nor characterization, nor description of relationships. There is a lot of name dropping, and many references to historical figures, but history it definitely is not, the author often preferring to drop personal opinion almost at randon alongside a name. Orlando meets and even spends time with several literary figures from the past, notably Pope, who is even quoted from time to time.
The writing is often poetic, but Orlando is not poetry, Neither is it a poetic novel. Some markers are needed, so here are some highlights from the text to illustrate both the inventiveness of Virginia Woolf and also how the test often appears disjointed, like random flashbacks into a dream.
“What’s the good of being a fine young woman in the prime of life”, she asked, “if I have to spend all my mornings watching blue-bottles with and Archduke?”
“Life and a lover” – a line which did not scan and made no sense with what went before – something about the proper way of dipping sheep to avoid the scab. Reading it over she blushed and repeated,
“Life and a lover.”
He started. The horse stopped.
“Madam,” the man cried, leaping to the ground, “you’re hurt!”
“I am dead, sir!” she replied.
A few minutes later they became engaged.
Orlando lives for the better part of 400 years, at least within these pages, and has numerous different lives, both as a man and a woman. He is a man, becomes a woman, marries and has children, and then becomes a man again. He or she is a writer, a poet, a courtier, whatever the page appears to demand for him, or her. Orlando displays a little in the way of character, let alone consistency within these different identities. The character increasingly feels like a vehicle for the personal gripes of its creator. On several occasions, the reader seems to occupy the back seat in a taxi, with the driver repeatedly saying, “And another thing… “, over her or his shoulder.
It may or may not be relevant, but it has to be noted that Virginia Woolf, for all her talent as a writer, for all her skills as a constructor of dream-like word pictures, was mentally unstable, and became more so as she aged. The unfortunate observation about Orlando is that the book appears to be a series of randomly assembled, almost disconnected thoughts, illusions, memories, prejudices, spiteful digs and opinionated rant. Orlando is also no less of an achievement for any of this, however, since it contains some real gems, but also much that is impenetrable and obscure.
What is clear, throughout, is Virginia Woolf’s 1920s version of feminism. It provides a thread that binds together the bones this book, but it is a thread that is far from golden, and the skeleton thus constructed has little recognizable form or shape. Also, in fact, she often seems sanguine, almost defeatist in her analysis, more often than not equating “female” with poverty, ignorance or failure, even when the female characters themselves, as individuals, are nothing less than assertive. It could be, of course, that she is projecting stereotypes associated with the people she describes, but it is hard to be convinced of this, since consistency is not a word that can be used in describing Orlando, which is a unique book, its success a genuine achievement of a vivid and strange imagination.