Wednesday, February 13, 2013

5: Virginia Woolf - Orlando

I'm not sure I can add an awful lot to the millions of words that have been written about Virginia Woolf and about Orlando--about its playful, affectionate look at 300 years in the life of a colorful character who is first a man and then a woman but always someone aware of his/her place in history. It's full of lovely observations about the differences between the sexes and how many of these differences are imposed from without in such subtle ways that they appear to be coming from within. For instance, Orlando observes that women can't carry swords because in order to use a sword, you need to have a hand free, and how can you have a hand free if you need your spare hand to fix your wrap when it slips from your shoulders? And now, because you don't have a hand free because of your wrap, you need a man to help and protect you with his free hand.
It's also a book chock-full of beautiful prose, from the gorgeous winter skating party to my very favourite passage, the couple of pages where Woolf describes the passing of the 18th into the 19th century, and how everything just becomes damp, and as a result of the damp all the men grow huge beards and everything gets covered in ivy and the clothes become sombre, and books become massive and self-important and unncessarily long, and all, apparently, to keep out the damp. I read this four times because it was just that lovely.
Because Orlando's long life is never explained, I suggested during book club that maybe the whole thing had been part of a fugue state or a dream, of someone wandering in a museum and imagining him or herself to be the people in the paintings. Eoghan pointed out that that couldn't be the case in a book of this period (1928), but would almost certainly be the answer if the book was written today. Mark, though, came up with the most plausible explanation, which is that Vita Sackville-West (and probably many other people in Woolf's circle), would have lived in places that were basically private museums, so they would have been constantly aware of their own places in history and the idea of themselves as just another iteration of the same familial material.
Much has been made of the fact that this is a love letter from Woolf to Sackville-West (the nature of whose relationship seems to have been as hard to pin down as Orlando's sex), but to me it read like a whimsical children's book a lot of the time. It would look great with Pauline Baynes illustrations.

1 comment:

ian said...

Alan Moore somewhat killed Orlando for me by bringing him/her into the League of Extraordinary Gentleman as an annoying immortal narcissistic name-dropper.