Orlando by Virginia Woolf

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.

Visit Frances for more discussion of Orlando, and then the Woolf In Winter read-along concludes with The Waves led by Claire on February 26.

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33 thoughts on “Orlando by Virginia Woolf

  1. Great post! I hadn't pulled those two images of leaning together yet. I thought Orlando's relationship with her eventual husband was so interesting, especially in the sense that due to the 'spirit of the age' she felt compelled to get married, but found someone who seemed to leave her with just as much freedom as she had in the past. It was her own whims that made her telegraph him a dozen times a day!Lovely new format by the way. 🙂

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  2. Yes, it was interesting how Orlando found that sense of balance in her marriage to Shel; there were times when they had to be together, and there were times when each needed solitude. And they understood each other perfectly! Wouldn't it be nice if our real-life relationships were so neat and tidy?

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  3. First of all, love the new format. It's one of the ones I was also contemplating on using. Second of all, love the header, it suits you and your blog.Anyway, I love your take on the book. I just love these read-alongs; so many insights to be gleaned. The theme of leaning upon someone didn't really occur to me while reading, and now I can see what an ever-looming presence it was. Orlando suffered the presence of the Archduke just so she won't be lonely. She leant upon Nell and Kitty and Rose, etc. She leant upon Pope, etc.Outside of Vita, I do wonder about the dynamics between Virginia and Leonard, how this concept of 'leaning upon' speaks of them as a married couple.

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  4. Luckily she found someone who let her have the freedom she needed; I don't think that was a terribly common kind of relationship in Virginia's day. The husbands must have been incredibly tolerant to 'allow' their wives' affairs. I must say, I didn't expect that kind of dalliance in the 20s, although I'm not sure why I thought it would be confined to the present age.

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  5. I think it takes a long time to work out in a relationship how to balance time together and time apart. In the beginning, it always seems to me I could never have enough time with my love. Then, as time wore on, I returned to my introvert self and required more solitude. I can't say that I saw Orlando's relationships as neat and tidy, though. To me, they seemed awfully frenetic.

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  6. Claire, thanks for working through the template issue with me the past few days! I'm glad this one seems suitable. It'll probably hang around for a month or so. ;)I have to read Woolf's writing so carefully because I'm afraid I'll miss something, so when I came upon "leant her degradation" in the beginning, and then found it again near the end, it struck a chord with me. Especially as I find, or have found, so many aspects of relationships as leaning on one another. Not in a good way, but in almost a co-dependent way. Now that I'm older, I require my independence, but it wasn't always that way for me. I wonder if Virginia had similar thoughts.

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  7. I thought that the parts about writing sounded very much autobiographical as well. And they were some of my favourite passages! I'm so glad I got over my fear of Woolf and read this. The humour really surprised me. The depth and scope didn't, but though expected they were still a pleasure.

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  8. Bellezza, it is looking gorgeous around here! As always, you have pulled really lovely quotes. As for Orlando's marriage, I think Woolf wanted us to appreciate that the androgyny of both partners (questioning one another as to who was male and who female) makes this a successful union where the societal expectations of gender have been removed. Based upon Vita's real life marriage that I am very interested in reading about in more detail.

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  9. The humour surprised me, too. As I commented on your blog, I wonder why she chose satire for such a serious theme as feminism/gender during this time period. Perhaps she felt she had to come around it through the back door? I don't know, but I would have preferred to have less "silliness" which ended up irking me to no end, whereas everyone else I've read loved it.

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  10. Frances, I'm so new to Virginia that I didn't even know she had affairs with women until I read this book and discovered her affinity for Vita. This book covers so much: marriage, love, sexuality, society's expectations of masculine and feminine roles. I liked it when Orlando wore trousers, which reminded me of how I feel in my favorite pair of Levi's: so free!

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  11. I love your quotes you selected, and the leaning at the end/beginning was very interesting – it kind of emphasizes what is interesting to me – that it feels like so many characters are just extensions of ORlando him/herself (Sasha being another example of this) – Ms Virginia is so good at making individual characters, this feels like it's done on purpose to me, and the first time I read the book, I actually wondered if the entire book is the dream of the character that rises up in the last shopping scene, and her multifold selves.But, I wanted to comment too about your worry about the humor in the book about such an important subject – this is more or less related to what I wrote about today. I'm not sure I agree that this is a bad thing. Humor and wit can be a very powerful way to explore things that are important – look at Catch 22, for instance, which explores the horrible insensibliity of war. I think Ms Virginia even hints at this when she talks about the parties in the age of reason where so many things were said, but where it was so rare that an actual witty thing came out – because when it did, it threw over the whole party, and left everyone feeling disturbed. Real powerful humor, fantasy, ANY vehicle, should deeply affect us, not just make us chortle, or cry, or whatever. The humor doesn't demean the issue – it's the humor that carries the issue, to me?

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  12. It's a lovely little book (although not a patch on some of her others) and great fun to read. I believe I may have picked up on the 'Candide' similarity in my post (or at least thought it!).Currently experimenting with a move to WordPress myself, but I just can't get the hang of the tools; it takes me ages to do anything, and I can't find half the stuff I want to do!

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  13. Re: the role of androgyny, Woolf wrote this book almost simultaneously with A Room of One's Own, in which she argues for mental androgyny as the prerequisite for true artists. Makers of the best art, she argues, transcend gender and at the same time incorporate aspects of both genders into their consciousness. Orlando gets to do this in a literal way, but it was very much part of Woolf's figurative project as well. As for the humor…why not? I agree with Jason: humor can be a very powerful way to tease apart one's own and others' conceptions of important subjects, and make people think. And to me, Woolf's satire is more tender than Voltaire's…she pokes fun at things like Empire and gender dichotomies, but she still has a warm place in her heart for the people who fall victim to these things, even if (like the Archduchess/Archduke, or Nick Greene) they act in ridiculous manners.

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  14. Jason, I love humour. I adore humour. I pull out humour in the face of distress in my life every chance I can get, because given the choice of laugh or worry? I'll take laughter any day. Only, here's my problem: I didn't think the parts that were supposed to be funny were funny. I just thought they were ridiculous.I'm intrigued by your idea that this could be a dream…now there's a vehicle I find useful and poignant, and perhaps more applicable in Orlando's situation than humour.

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  15. Tony, having never had a computer class in my life, I was awfully grateful for Blogger for allowing me to teach myself some of the ins and outs of blogging. WordPress is more complicated, in my opinion, but certainly worth it. The themes are full of ways to make a blog quite informative without being cluttered, and there are great stats on incoming links, etc. I'll have to come over and see what you wrote about this book; it's interesting that we both thought of Candide.

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  16. Emily, I completely agree with you that Virginia Woolf's humour is more tender than Voltaire's. Truly, she has a very compassionate side that makes us care for her characters, whereras Candide was little more than a puppet in the hands of Voltaire. I found their satire, similar, though, and the very exaggerated bits in which the characters found themselves. And, as I replied to Jason, I'm all for humour, it's just that I didn't find Orlando terribly funny.

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  17. I feel sometimes that I am the only one who hasn't read Woolf. This is such a good review, I almost felt like I was reading the book! I definitely plan to read some Woolf sometime soon hopefully!

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  18. Your blog looks great, though I have to say I was always fond of your dark template. I thought it had this very pretty candle-lit feel. 🙂 Anyway this one looks terrific, too :-)In response to your comment that your husband plies you with jewelry and sweets on your birthday- that's nothing to sniff at! 🙂 LOL 🙂 I'm a softie for that stuff, too!

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  19. I've had Orlando sitting in my shelves for years. I've always quit after a few pages. I've never read Woolf and this is only one I have and somehow I just couldn't get into her writing style. But I've never given the book away though I've donated lots. I've always had a feeling that one day I'll return to it and finally read the whole novel. I do believe there's a time and place for every book. Maybe it's time to try Orlando once again.

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  20. Great thoughts on the book. I was a bit of a cheat and had a break from longer Woolfish things and read her short biography Flush which I loved and now puts me in a much better reading position for the future, I actually have some hope myself and Ginny will get on.

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  21. Aths, I hadn't read any of Virginia Woolf's work until this January. None! So, it was important to me to join in the Woolf in Winter read alongs so that I could understand a little bit of who she is, what she wrote. I can't say I'm terribly clear on any of it, but it has been a very interesting experience, and the reviews of others have been invaluable to me. Otherwise, I may have thrown a book at a wall once or twice. 😉

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  22. Marie, you and I both seemed to be the ones who enjoyed the dark template. I smile at your comment that it appeared candle-lit because that's how I felt too. Apparently, though, we needed some halogen bulbs instead for a few other readers. 😉 It's interesting our birthdays are less than a month apart. I hope your new year is wonderful~!

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  23. Oh, Mrs. B, I don't know. I didn't like Orlando one bit. Of course, I'm in a minority with that opinion, but I found it quite annoying. I much preferred Mrs. Dalloway or To The Lighthouse, although even those two novels took some getting used to: sentences which are paragraphs long, absolutely no plot to speak of, reading the inner workings of characters' thoughts until it becomes like watching paint dry…I think I may need to revisit these, because while I've come to appreciate them more deeply through other reviewers, I by no means love them.

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  24. Eva, I'm glad I said something that you loved reading because frankly, I didn't feel I had anything very intelligent to write. Notice all the long quotes with little commentary in between? This book was a struggle for me.

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  25. Simon, I think that was a splendid idea! I think I should have begun with that, or at least read her biography now, because it's only through getting to know her that I've begun to appreciate her work. I have to admit, a lot of me was asking what the fuss was all about. For some reason, she just doesn't claim my heart as my beloved authors do. Thanks for telling me about Flush.

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  26. I could be so far in left field with this one I'm barely visible, so please bear with me ;-)It seems possible Woolf's implied answer to the question "Whom can I lean upon?" is, "Stop looking to others, develop your humanity in its fullness, and lean upon yourself." The focus on adrongyny certainly fits with such an answer – developing the best qualities of both genders nurtures independence.The idea tickles me. We suggest it now and then when we say things like "my practical side took over" or "my emotions just overcame me". We may look singular on the outside, but inside we're a bundle of "little people" of all sorts. It sounds to me like Virginia's saying, "Celebrate the fact, and put it to use."

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  27. Candide, eh? Bellezza that is a very interesting connection. I'm intrigued by what you noticed about leaning on others. So that's two new things to think about regarding this book, in addition to what the rest have said. And truthfully, I believe Woolf's feminism appears in each of her novels, though more subtly than here, and that it ran deeper than politics or social norms or sexual relations. It just was…but I'm going on badly so will stop.Love the new new look!

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  28. Ah, that's totally fair. I misunderstood and thought you just didn't like the funny style combined with serious issues (not that that wouldn't also be valid).

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