Wednesday, 31 July 2002

Virginia Woolf: Orlando (1928)

Edition: Penguin, 1942
Review number: 1110

Orlando is famous as the novel into which Woolf poured her passion for Vita Sackville-West; the character of Orlando is meant to represent both her and her aristocratic family background (her rootedness in English history was one of the things which fascinated Woolf). And yet, even though she is a vitally important part of the novel, it would be quite possible to read it and admire it without being aware of this fact. Orlando is not the only character in the novel inspired by a real person; his early lover Sasha is a portrait of Vita's own Violet Trefusis.

Orlando seems at first to be a (rather whimsical) historical novel about a poetically minded Elizabethan nobleman. However, Orlando remains a young man through the early Stuarts, before he becomes Charles II's ambassador to the Turkish court in Constantinople. This is when things become really strange, when Orlando escapes a massacre in a revolt because he is in a deep sleep and is thought to be dead, and wakes up a woman. She lives through the next two and a half centuries (up until the day in 1928 when Woolf says she is writing) and only in this form is able to find love, with the similarly sexually ambiguous Shelmerdine.

The intimations of homosexuality are actually quite discreet, particularly by modern standards. They have been rather seized upon, making Woolf something of an icon for lesbian pride, and yet they remain unusual for their tenderness.

At least as important to Woolf is the issue of feminism. When Orlando becomes a woman, court cases are brought against her to deprive her of her property on two grounds: she is dead, so that she cannot own property; and she is a woman, which Woolf says "amounts to much the same thing". (This mirrors events in Vita's life, for as a woman she could not inherit her ancestral home when her father died.) Even by writing a novel purporting to be in part a biography of a woman, Woolf was making a point: the Dictionary of National Biography, edited by her own father, was overwhelmingly masculine. Then there is the poetry; in an indirect reference to Woolf's essay A Room of One's Own (published a year later), Orlando writes bad poems as a man (to the derision of Ned Greene, who also appears in the essay). With less opportunity to write after the change of sex, most of the early work is abandoned and destroyed, but what Orlando then writes is of far higher quality.

In Orlando, the reader is constantly aware of a the poetic quality in the language Woolf uses, something she uses to express the slow flow of time in the life of one who seems to be immortal. Its tone is also partly due to the novel being a pioneering example of what is now called magic realism, a method of writing far more familiar than it could have been to the original readers. Among the diverse later writers that the novel brings to my mind are Peake, Rushdie, Jill Paton Walsh and the Moorcock of Mother London. Orlando is the most obviously non-realist Woolf novel of those I have read, and yet it is also the one which is likely to be most accessible to the modern reader, largely because its influence has trickled into much of modern mainstream literature and also into the fantasy genre.

No comments: