5* (out of 5*)

Are we so made that we have to take death in small doses daily or we could not go on with the business of living? And then what strange powers are these that penetrate our most secret ways and change our most treasured possessions without our willing it ? Had Orlando, worn out by the extremity of his suffering, died for a week, and then come to life again? And if so, of what nature is death and of what nature life? Having waited well over half an hour for an answer to these questions, and none coming, let us get on with the story.

What a ride! Virginia Woolf and I don’t often get on. At all. I usually despair over her stream-of-consciousness style of writing and her characters. So, I approached Orlando with some trepidation. And what happens?

Woolf pulls this masterpiece of a romp out of the hat which shows not only that she was a very clever writer but that she also had a delicious sense of humour.

Of course, it may be that that side of hers does only show in Orlando because it is a mock biography of and a tribute to Vita Sackville-West. One review I read even described the book as one of the most marvelous of love letters ever written – though both Virginia and Vita might have disagreed.

According to Nigel Nicolson, both Vita and Virginia denied rumours spread by Vita’s mother that their liaison was a serious one:

“She told me that everything was true except the part about Virginia endangering their marriage, but none of it mattered a hoot because the love they bore each other was so powerful that it could withstand anything. ‘My diary entry for Sunday, 28 May, three weeks later, reads: Virginia and Leonard came to lunch . Virginia looking well and happy after her Italian trip. She listened to the whole story of my visit to Brighton with her head bowed. Then she said: “The old woman ought to be shot”.”

(Nigel Nicolson – Portrait Of A Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson)

Apart from the biographical aspect of Orlando being the fictionalised account of Vita’s life, the book also amazes in that it dares to address the issues of identity and gender-bending or rather gender-switching – making it one of the most outspoken works of literature of its time to criticise a society that would condemn people to distinct roles based on their gender.

“And she fell to thinking what an odd pass we have come to when all a woman’s beauty has to be kept covered lest a sailor may fall from a mast-head. ‘A pox on them!’ she said, realizing for the first time what, in other circumstances, she would have been taught as a child, that is to say, the sacred responsibilities of womanhood.”

Of course there are many other topics that Woolf takes up in Orlando, such as the nature of time, the vanity of poets, the nostalgia for things in the past which blinds us from an appreciation of the present, etc. but I have to admit that most of my admiration for Orlando is based on how Woolf reflects some of Vita’s convictions in her fictionalised account and how to the point Orlando seems as a character who is at home in his/her identity.

Having read Nigel Nicolson’s biography of Vita, his mother, at the same time as Orlando, it was delightful to see the links between the two accounts of someone who possessed a rather unconventional outlook for her time:

“I hold the conviction that as centuries go on, and the sexes become more nearly merged on account of their increasing resemblances, I hold the conviction that such connections will to a very large extent cease to be regarded as merely unnatural, and will be understood far better, at least in their intellectual if not in their physical aspect. (Such is already the case in Russia.) I believe that then the psychology of people like myself will be a matter of interest, and I believe it will be recognized that many more people of my type do exist than under the present-day system of hypocrisy is commonly admitted.”

(Nigel Nicolson – Portrait Of A Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson)

 

Some of my other favourite quotes from Orlando:

“Love had meant to him nothing but sawdust and cinders. The joys he had had of it tasted insipid in the extreme. He marvelled how he could have gone through with it without yawning. For as he looked the thickness of his blood melted; the ice turned to wine in his veins; he heard the waters flowing and the birds singing; spring broke over the hard wintry landscape; his manhood woke; he grasped a sword in his hand; he charged a more daring foe than Pole or Moor; he dived in deep water; he saw the flower of danger growing in a crevice; he stretched his hand — in fact he was rattling off one of his most impassioned sonnets when the Princess addressed him,
‘Would you have the goodness to pass the salt?’
He blushed deeply.”

*****

“No passion is stronger in the breast of man than the desire to make others believe as he believes. Nothing so cuts at the root of his happiness and fills him with rage as the sense that another rates low what he prizes high.”

*****

“But Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit , may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second. This extraordinary discrepancy between time on the clock and time in the mind is less known than it should be and deserves fuller investigation. But the biographer, whose interests are, as we have said, highly restricted, must confine himself to one simple statement: when a man has reached the age of thirty, as Orlando now had, time when he is thinking becomes inordinately long; time when he is doing becomes inordinately short.”