For some years now I’ve been wanting to reread Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. I first read the book about twenty years ago, and though I enjoyed it I came away confused. I felt as though on some level I really hadn’t understood the book. As though I hadn’t grasped how to read it. So, time having passed and me having (maybe) come to understand a bit more about books and reading, I sat down with Orlando again. And, as I’d hoped, I enjoyed it more thoroughly this time around, and felt as though I’d understood it a little better than I had. What surprised me was the reason for that understanding. I felt as though I’d worked out how to approach the book not because of any greater knowledge of modernism, or even because I’d read other books by Woolf, but because I now had a greater experience of early fantasy. More than I’d remembered or understood when I first read the book, Orlando is of a piece with the fantastic fiction of its time.
Orlando was first published in 1928. I have the impression that it’s read and spoken of primarily as an artifact of literary modernism, which is fair enough — Woolf was certainly one of the great modernists. But it’s worth remembering that Hope Mirrlees, who wrote the great fantasy Lud-in-the-Mist in 1926, was also a consciously modernist writer. And, to me, having read only To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway among Woolf’s other work, the approach of Orlando is much more like something out of Lord Dunsany than it is similar to Woolf’s technique in those other novels. Orlando avoids inner monologue, presenting itself as written by an obtrusive biographer, playfully claiming to base its text on carefully-scrutinised sources, staying silent where these sources are silent; reading it I think of Joyce Carol Oates’ Gothic Quintet (which boasts an array of odd biographers, as well as at least one pivotal sex-change), but am also reminded of Dunsany’s mock-scripture of The Gods of Pegāna. I will even go so far as to say that in its playful fantasia on the theme of English history, Orlando distantly reminds me of G.K. Chesterton — a writer who Woolf would otherwise appear to be as unlike as it is possible to be.
But there it is; call me mad if you like. Woolf’s Orlando is one of the great hero/ines of fantasy. And the book that follows his and then her story is a bildungsroman, following a protagonist born to a great inheritance: to a house of three hundred and sixty-five rooms, and fifty-two staircases. It is witty, and full of striking images — a frost-fair on the Thames, a party in Istanbul. A work concerned in certain ways with the nature of a lineage, it’s also worth thinking of as a work central to the lineage of modern fantasy fiction.
Let’s look at the plot of the book. It’s divided into six chapters. In the first, we meet Orlando as a boy, a minor noble in service to Elizabeth the First. So we’re in late sixteenth century England, and we watch Orlando try to write and fall in love and have his heart broken — but time starts to do some funny things, and it is clear as we move along that chronology’s loose. The second chapter takes Orlando, apparently unaging, through the early seventeenth century as he is humiliated by a professional poet’s satire of his youthful verse, then meditates as years pass away. After the Civil War he takes a diplomatic post in Istanbul; and, in chapter three, following a party there, for unclear reasons his sex changes. Orlando’s undisturbed by her new gender, though as she returns to England in the next chapter she starts to learn about the fixed roles English societies expect women to play. It is now the eighteenth century, and she takes willing part in that society, associating with Pope and Samuel Johnson; but the next chapter brings the nineteenth century, and an unnaturally dark fog that represents a specifically Victorian melodrama. It is only now that Orlando, struggling with her writing, feels herself to be in need of a spouse, and she duly finds and marries one Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, who is in some ways as gender-fluid as Orlando herself. The final chapter brings the story to the present, with a conclusion of Orlando’s struggles to write and the fragmentation of self characteristic of modernity. It all concludes ecstatically, with Orlando reunited with Marmaduke.
What’s it all mean? To start with, it’s a love letter, called “the longest and most charming love-letter in literature.” Woolf was in love with the aristocratic Vita Sackville-West, and her Orlando was Sackville-West given a new past. Orlando’s elaborate ancestral mansion was based on Sackville-West’s own family home. The book is filled with artful references to Sackville-West and her family. For example, just before Orlando changes sex there’s a brief mention made of a dancer named Rosina Pepita; the character’s based on Sackville-West’s grandmother, about whom Sackville-West wrote a biography.
So there’s an element of play involved in the book. The tone is appropriately light and puckish, especially at the start. Over the course of the novel the writing becomes more heavily ironic, more satirical. It never quite becomes bitter; there’s always a saving grace of humour. I wonder now if the tension between irony and the earnestness of some of the imagery, especially the fantastic imagery, wasn’t what I dimly perceived the first time I read the book. Here’s Orlando considering his family’s country seat, in the middle of the seventeenth century:
There it lay in the early sunshine of spring. It looked a town rather than a house, but a town built, not hither and thither, as this man wished or that, but circumspectly, by a single architect with one idea in his head. Courts and buildings, grey, red, plum colour, lay orderly and symmetrical; the courts were some of them oblong and some square; in this was a fountain; in that a statue; the buildings were some of them low, some pointed; here was a chapel, there a belfry; spaces of the greenest grass lay in between and clumps of cedar trees and beds of bright flowers; all were clasped—yet so well set out was it that it seemed that every part had room to spread itself fittingly—by the roll of a massive wall; while smoke from innumerable chimneys curled perpetually into the air. This vast, yet ordered building, which could house a thousand men and perhaps two thousand horses, was built, Orlando thought, by workmen whose names are unknown. Here have lived, for more centuries than I can count, the obscure generations of my own obscure family. Not one of these Richards, Johns, Annes, Elizabeths has left a token of himself behind him, yet all, working together with their spades and their needles, their love-making and their child-bearing, have left this.
Never had the house looked more noble and humane.
Rightly or wrongly, this image of a rural English utopia calls to my mind Tolkien’s Shire. There is some irony here; chronologically, this passage is set either during or just after the Interregnum, meaning that this image of continuity is actually linked to one of the great disruptions of English history. But there’s a kind of visionary intensity to the passage that is opposed both to irony and naivety, an intensity that I think marks out the greatest fantastic writing. It’s an intensity of description, an intensity of realisation, that makes a written image something more than anything that can be, in a literal sense, realised: something more than real.
And I think the image is something central to the book. The house has already been linked intimately to time with its three hundred and sixty-five rooms and fifty-two staircases; now it’s linked to tradition, to continuity. It’s something that exists outside of Orlando, and beyond him/her/them. Which seems to me to be important, as much else of the book insists on Orlando’s subjectivity, the fluidity and expansiveness of Orlando’s identity, often in tension with a world that seems to set bounds to that identity.
Orlando’s change of gender is one of the most remarked elements of the book, justly so, as the text celebrates the fundamental lack of essential difference between male and female character. Orlando’s neither disturbed nor particularly interested when she wakes up female. It’s only the society around her that prescribes norms and lays down laws about what she now can and cannot do. External signifiers like clothes determine one’s role in this profoundly external world, markers of gender and class. As a woman Orlando seems to face greater threats to her own fundamental autonomy, but it seems to me that the book’s point is that these threats really gain potency once they’re internalised — when Orlando feels inside herself the need for a husband, for example. It’s not accurate to say that Orlando’s worst enemy is herself, but it seems as though her own subjectivity is so vast as to contain both vision and limitation.
Certainly time doesn’t seem like it can contain Orlando. Orlando doesn’t really age during the course of the book, reaching the age of thirty fairly early on, then seeming to remain at that age or a little older. The book’s treatment of passing time is fascinating and characteristic: while the focus remains on Orlando, the world moves swiftly on around him and her. It’s like a film or graphic novel, with a constant foreground image set against a quick-shifting background. Orlando remains much the same, as do some of the characters — notably Orlando’s servants and animals. A scene can begin in one era, follow Orlando meditating or writing or performing some other simple action, and then reveal that it’s now fifty years later, and some things have changed and some have not.
I think that may be at the heart of the book, the tension I was vaguely aware of the first time I read it through. The conflict between what is fixed and what is fluid. Between the objective and the subjective. Between what is outside Orlando and what is not. If Orlando is everything, or contains everything, then what is Orlando? What defines the self except that which is not-self?
To me, the image of the house is at least a partial resolution of this tension in the book. It’s an image of continuity and tradition outside Orlando. It fostered Orlando, and so is positive, nurturing and not restrictive; and it will continue on when Orlando is gone:
In this window-seat, she had written her first verses; in that chapel, she had been married. And she would be buried here, she reflected, kneeling on the window-sill in the long gallery and sipping her Spanish wine. Though she could hardly fancy it, the body of the heraldic leopard would be making yellow pools on the floor the day they lowered her to lie among her ancestors. She, who believed in no immortality, could not help feeling that her soul would come and go forever with the reds on the panels and the greens on the sofa.
The fact that Orlando remembers writing verses is significant. Surely one of the book’s other great thematic interests is the link between Orlando and the English literature of the eras through which she lives. Orlando’s development as a writer, for hundreds of years working on a poem called “The Oak Tree,” mirrors and parodies the development of the literature around her. Orlando’s constantly trying to work out how to write truth in simple words; and in this way, as much as any, the times are against him and her. The nineteenth century in particular obstructs her with a pervasive melodrama, a sensibility that creates artificiality both in relations between men and women and also in the literature produced in those times. Modernism is the necessary corrective.
Except something else may be going on. Orlando’s name points to an origin in romance. You could argue that Orlando’s struggle with writing is a struggle with romance, with stripping away the conventionally romantic to get at the true and the visionary. Certainly there are elements of the romance form in Orlando’s adventures across the centuries. But this again I think points to a tension in the book, Orlando both a figure out of romance and struggling to find a way to live outside of romance, and indeed outside of all genre conventions.
To me the end of the book, in which this and all other tensions are resolved, works through an understanding of the essence of fantasy. The world becomes a world of metaphors, in which the truth sought by written art is figured as a wild goose, whose quills once were pens for Orlando. All things blur into all other things, past into present, male into female. That’s the perfect ending for this remarkable book, fluid and meaningful, modern and fantastic.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on Facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.