I’ve not read “Orlando” since university so in my memory it felt like one of her more flighty and playful novels focusing on gender. It is that but there is so much more in the novel I’d forgotten about or missed when I read it the first time. I think Woolf’s highly stylised prose that are packed with so many ideas make her an especially interesting author to revisit at different stages of your life. Orlando is famously about an individual who begins as a teenage nobleman in the Elizabethan era and who lives through a few centuries aging little and swapping genders. It’s remarkably inventive and forward thinking. The character was perfectly realized by Tilda Swinton in Sally Potter’s 1992 film and I recently visited the Charleston Trust where they are currently celebrating the book’s 90th birthday with different events and exhibits. I relish visiting the Charleston House and Monk’s House whenever I can. I saw writer Olivia Laing and the artist/writer La JohnJoseph give an interesting performance responding to the book. Seeing different modern takes and interpretations of the novel has given me a whole new appreciation of Woolf’s vision alongside revisiting the text itself.
Something I didn’t recall from my first reading of the book was the way Woolf pokes fun at and satirizes being a writer throughout the novel. Orlando aspires to be a poet working on a poem about an oak tree for a few centuries. But Orlando’s opinions about writing and the literary community change over time. Orlando encounters Alexander Pope and other literary figures who disillusion him/her about being a writer and Woolf marks how writers’ reputation and stature changes dramatically over time. The book recounts how insular some literary circles can be (how little has changed over time!) and how Orlando is drawn to only writing for himself and then abandoning writing altogether to just appreciate nature, but Orlando is eventually drawn back to working on that epic poem. There’s a lot of ironic humour when Woolf contemplates how “once the disease of reading has laid upon the system it weakens it so that it falls in easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the inkpot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing.” Woolf herself is such a fixture in the literary canon now that I feel this statement really humanizes her. The way she writes about conflicted feelings about the meaning and pursuit of literature makes me consider how she must have felt so conflicted herself despite her stature as a highly stylized writer devoted to the arts.
Connected to that is the whole premise of “Orlando” which is ostensibly a biography of this fantastical figure. The novel frequently makes references to the problem of writing a biography and the difficulties of trying to summarize someone’s life when really a person is infinitely more complex than recounting the facts about their history. This feels especially poignant since Woolf’s own father Leslie Stephen was a biographer himself. When Orlando considers biographical information about Alexander Pope it’s observed how “every secret of a writer’s soul every experience of his life every quality of his mind is written large in his works. Yet we require critics to explain the one and biographers to expound the other. That time hangs heavy on people’s hands is the only explanation of the monstrous growth.” It’s so interesting how Woolf seems to be skewering literary criticism and biography here which can only give a subjective interpretation of a writer’s work. But also the observation about people having too much time on their hands when Orlando is in some ways plagued with an immortality which forces him/her to continue forth without ever discovering answers or true revelations. All that changes is the proliferation of literature which increases when the development of mass printing takes place and Orlando studiously orders all the latest literature available.
I was also excited by noticing imagery and symbolism in Orlando which recurs in other books by Woolf. So, as in “To the Lighthouse” she makes the same metaphor about a lighthouse beam temporarily illuminating something just as our fleeting thoughts give a fleeting insight into our being. She also portrays an individual observing waves and toy boats at the Serpentine and then imaginatively inflates these to much larger events and occurrences in civilization. The character of Rhoda does the same thing rocking paper ships in a basin of water in “The Waves”. It’s interesting seeing how Woolf reworked certain metaphors over her different novels to assiduously probe the questions about life which were most central to her endeavours. Also, since I read Cavendish’s “The Blazing World” for the first time this year I was struck by how part of “Orlando’s” boundary-breaking imaginative influence must have come from this earlier 17th century novel. This is despite Woolf’s dismissive tone about how Cavendish “frittered her time away scribbling nonsense and plunging ever deeper into obscurity and folly” as she wrote in her essay “A Room of One’s Own”.
Of course, one of the brightest and most striking things about the book is how Orlando changes sex halfway through. But I’d forgotten how several other characters in the book also have a more fluid sense of gender and swap their sex at certain points. One of the great points that Laing and La JohnJoseph made in their talk was how enlivening it is to read a story about a character who swaps genders without their being oppressed for doing so and there’s something liberating and freeing about the way Orlando simply wakes up one day as a woman. Of course, Orlando does experience social trouble for the way the question of his/her gender is taken to court, there’s the issue of property ownership and how restrictive female clothes become for Orlando over time. But overall, it’s seen as a positive natural thing. One of the strongest statements Woolf makes about this is “Different though the sexes are they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness while underneath the sex is the very opposite from what it is above.” This powerfully marks the subtly of gender identity, but I was struck by how Laing observed that Woolf also frequently makes moving statements about how (as well as the question of gender) she portrays the way we’re all ever-changing beings beneath the identity on the surface. Later on in the book, Orlando frequently changes back and forth between male and female clothes and takes on a proliferation of identities to suit Orlando’s mood and the occasion. It feels like this character is an early proponent of how everything about the way we socially present ourselves is a form of drag.
I really appreciated the emotional and intellectual pleasures of this novel by revisiting it after such a long time. As much as I’m inspired by many aspects of it, I could also argue with Woolf’s perspective and point of view. One of the most notable the privileged and classist attitude Woolf exhibits through the novel and her other writing. She makes questionable statements about the worth of teaching the working class to read and at one point when Orlando goes out to try to appreciate the world he/she condescending exclaims “I like peasants. I understand crops”. But it would be easy to argue that Woolf is highly aware of writing from a position of privilege and mocking this state within the novel. Nevertheless, these opinions make Woolf all the more interesting and worthy of revisiting as a writer who contains infinite complexity and who is endlessly enjoyable to discuss.
You can watch more of my reaction to revisiting Woolf in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_brld3IHRq4