A cult heroine among many of my generation, I recently decided to plunge back into Woolfian waters, in which I had not dipped my toes since my undergraduate studies. Having read (and attempted to analyse) Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse what now feels like many years ago, I was surprised at just how different Orlando is to Woolf’s other works. It’s shape-shifting and unpredictable, moving through time, gender, sexuality and all literary conventions with a fluidity that I think encompasses Woolf herself. I was bewildered and amazed by it in equal measures.
From Orlando’s origins as a young nobleman in Elizabethan London all the way through to her maturity and literary success of the 1920s, the reader is aware of Woolf’s interest in the sheer scope of human experience – in the things that change as the years go by, and in the universal truths of humanity that seem to stay the same. While countries and time and society changes around the main character, Orlando remains, adapting to the seasons and styles and learning through it all just how fickle human beings are.
I particularly enjoyed the symbol of Orlando’s poem “The Oak Tree” which he/she starts as a young man, and never quite seems to finish until right at the end of the book. One of my favourite quotes from the novel is Orlando trying to write the poem. I suppose as a writer myself I can’t help but feel drawn to Woolf’s comments about the heartache and the wonder of the writing process:
“…how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished…”
The way Orlando views his/her poem changes throughout the novel as the way society around him/her changes, and new styles and types of literature become fashionable and accepted. It’s ironic that Nick Greene, whom Orlando meets as young man at the beginning of the novel describes his contemporaries, such as Shakespeare and Donne, as uninspired and lacking in talent but by the end of the book he is singing their praises and declaring that all good writers have died. I suppose Woolf is trying to make a point here about those writers and critics who love to hate change and will always think that old is better than new. In Woolf’s modernist outset I think this is an important idea to note.
I feel like there are a hundred things I could write about Orlando, and that my ideas about it are as multi-faceted as the book itself. From the idea of human desire and sexuality, to the echoes of Woolf’s own life and lover Vita Sackville-West, there is so much more to analyse and discuss. Maybe one day I’ll come back to write an essay on it all, but for now I’m content to think of the book as some huge, reaching piece of fiction that encompasses what it is to be human – both man and woman – and what it is to be a writer. I look forward to dipping back into Woolfian waters very soon.
P.S. how wonderful are these covers by Helsinki-based illustrator Aino-Maija Metsola? Her beautiful and expressive artwork for the new Penguin vintage classic editions of Woolf’s works are all fabulous and very evocative of Woolf’s writing. I’ve signed up for the Penguin vintage books emails and received a great introduction to reading Virginia Woolf delivered to my inbox which you read here: https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/find-your-next-read/reading-guides/2016/oct/where-to-start-reading-virginia-woolf/.