Orlando gives us Virginia Woolf’s hand at biography. It is allegedly about her friend and lover Vita Sackville-West. But, it is even more than that. It is a fantastical, improbable satire (which in many ways reminds me of Voltaire’s Candide). It is through this venue that Woolf examines the role of gender over the past 300 years.
When we begin the setting is Elizabethan. The boy, Orlando, was intended to be the first Queen Elizabeth’s “son of her old age; the limb of her infirmity; the oak tree on which she leant her degradation,” but Orlando removes himself from her favor by kissing a girl:
It was Orlando’s fault perhaps; yet, after all, are we to blame him? The age was the Elizabethan; their morals were not ours; nor their poets; nor their climate; nor their vegetables even. Everything was different. The weather itself, the heat and cold of summer and winter was, we may believe, of another temper altogether…Thus, if Orlando followed the leading of the climate, of the poets, of the age itself, and plucked his flower in the window-seat even with the snow on the ground and the Queen vigilant in the corridor, we can scarcely bring ourselves to blame him. He was young; he was boyish; he did but as nature bade him.” (p. 21)
Love wreaks its havoc when Orlando falls in love, but loses his Russian princess after she sets sail without saying good-bye to him:
Once before he had paused, and love with its horrid rout, its shawms, its cymbals, and its heads with gory locks torn from the shoulders had burst in. From love he had suffered the tortures of the damned. Now, again, he paused, and into the breach thus made, leapt Ambition, the haridan, and Poetry, the witch, and Desire of Fame, the strumpet; all joined hands and made of his heart their dancing ground.” (p. 60)
Of all Orlando’s adventures, none is more bizarre than him awakening as a woman:
“He stretched himself. He rose. He stood upright in complete nakedness before us, and while the trumpets pealed Truth! Truth! Truth! we have no choice left but confess—he was a woman.
The sound of the trumpets died away and Orlando stood stark naked. No human being, since the world began, has ever looked more ravishing. His form combined in one the strength of a man and a woman’s grace.” (p. 102)
Is Virginia saying the perfect human is a combination of both? Why make her hero into a heroine unless he is incomplete as a male; unless she needed to explore the place that women had in the life she found herself living, the place one woman in particular held in her life as an intimate?
For it was this mixture of man and woman, one being uppermost and then the other, that often gave her conduct an unexpected turn. The curious of her own sex would argue how, for example, if Orlando was a woman, did she never take more than ten minutes to dress? And were not her clothes chosen rather at random, and sometimes worn rather shabby? And then they would say, still, she has none of the formality of a man, or a man’s love of power, She is excessively tender-hearted. She could not endure to see a donkey beaten or a kitten drowned. Yet again, they noted, she detested household matters, was up and dawn and out among the fields in summer before the sun had risen. No farmer knew more about the crops than she did. She could drink with the best and like games of hazard. She rode well and drove six horses at a gallop over London Bridge. Yet again, though bold and active as a man, it was remarked that the sight of another in danger brought on the most womanly palpitations. She would burst in to tears on slight provocation. She was unversed in geography, found mathematics intolerable and held some caprices which are more common among women than men, as for instance, that to travel south is to travel down hill. Whether, then Orlando was most man or woman, it is difficult to say and cannot now be decided.” (p.139-140)
I see parts of Virginia in Orlando, especially when it comes to writing:
Next morning, in pursuance of these thoughts, she had out her pen and paper, and started afresh upon “The Oak Tree,” for to have ink and paper in plenty when one has made do with berries and margins is a delight not to be conceived. Thus she was now striking out a phrase in the depths of despair, now in the heights of ecstasy writing one in, when a shadow darkened the page. She hastily hid her manuscript. (p. 130-131)
and again here:
Then Orlando felt in the bosom of her shirt as if for some locket or relic of lost affection, and drew out no such thing, but a roll of paper, sea-stained, blood-stained, travel-stained–the manuscript of her poem, “The Oak Tree.” She had carried this about with her for so many years now, and in such hazardous circumstances, that many of the pages were stained, some were torn, while the straits she had been in for writing paper when with the gipsies, had forced her to overscore the margins and cross the lines till the manuscript looked like a piece of darning most conscientiously carried out. She turned back to the first page and read the date, 1586, written in her own boyish hand. She had been working at it for close on three hundred years nos. It was time to make and end. And so she began turning and dipping and reading and skipping and thinking as she read how very little has had changed all these years. She had been a gloomy boy, in love with death, as boys are; and then she had been amorous and florid; and then she had been sprightly and satirical; and sometimes she had tried prose and sometimes she had tried the drama. Yet through all these changes she had remained, she reflected, fundamentally the same. She had the same brooding meditative temper, the same love of animals and nature, the same passion for the country and the seasons. (p. 172-173)
And then, as I came nearer to the end of the book, I was amazed to find the subject of leaning upon another brought up again. It had been asked in the very beginning of the book, by Queen Elizabeth I, and now it was being asked by Orlando him/herself:
But whom could she lean upon? she asked that question of the wild autumn winds. For it was now October, and wet as usual. Not the Archduke; he had married a very great lady and had hunted hares in Roumania these many years now; nor Mr. M.; he was become a Catholic; nor the Marquis of C.; he made sacks in Botany Bay; nor the Lord O.; he had long been food for fishes. One way or another, all her old cronies were gone now, and the Nells and the Kits of Drury Lane, much though she favoured them, scarcely did to lean upon.
“Whom,” she asked, casting her eyes upon the revolving clouds, clasping her hands, as she knelt on the window-sill, and looking the very image of appealing womanhood as she did so, “can I lean upon?” Her words formed themselves, her hands clasped themselves, involuntarily, just as her pen had written of its own accord. It was not Orlando who spoke, but the spirit of the age. But whichever it was, nobody answered it.” (p.179)
We have come full circle, to a question which interests me immensely. Woman have traditionally been taught to lean on someone (in Disney: “someday my prince will come”), and I think that this is what Virginia is revolting against. And yet, there is no escaping it. Whether we lean on a man or a woman, it seems undeniable that we will at one point or another in our lives, lean on someone. It makes no difference if we are Queen, child, male or female. In that leaning, we will inevitably be disappointed.