So finally, finally, I have read Orlando by Virginia Woolf. A modern classic, an intense and singular novel on love and time and identity and sexuality and gender. It is a little self-conscious, a little erotic, this self-styled ‘biography’ of the life and centuries of time of the eponymous Orlando. It is probably Woolf’s most unusual and fantastical work, a meditation on on desire and poetry, a transformation of an artist’s heart.
It is the Elizabethan age, and Orlando is a beautiful young nobleman filling his days in rowdy revelry in the colourful court. Charged with an almost androgynous erotic power, he transfixes all he comes across; impossible to pin down and bewitching to behold. His family holds huge lands, and he comes to the attention of the Queen simply through his first bow to her.
Orlando leads an extraordinary life of rollicking privilege with a pure poet’s heart, with all the self-absorbedness and bad lyricism that that might entail. Time passes in a speedy, vague way, and a little more magic (or faith on the part of the reader) is required when one morning, Orlando’s gender has changed. The ‘biographer’ accounts some possible theories, all with strong counter-narratives and conflicting versions. It is concluded with a delighted shrug, something not quite fathomable. But this change can be as easily absorbed into the story as this endless life is. Because by the close of the book, Orlando is a modern 36 year old woman in the year 1928; three centuries have passed.
Slowly, through some language slights of hand and a vagueness in detailed retelling, Orlando transforms in front of us. He, and then she, bears witness to the making of history from its very edge, always on trend, always with an artistic soul. The impulsive lover also transforms, the lover learns patience, and the woman truly knows what it is to be a man. Throughout it all, beyond poetry, I think the natural world is the real constancy for Orlando. Be it the mountains of Turkey or the oak trees on their family lands, it is to nature that Orlando returns. After witnessing centuries of human life, even Orlando’s timelines have nothing on the earth’s.
It is a bold concept, executed in a rather self-aware way with Woolf playing ‘biographer’ to Orlando. This leads to some rather awkwardly deliberate narration to negotiate the impossibility of Orlando’s existence, but generally the writing is exuberant and kind. Also, for the first time in my experience with Woolf’s work, filled with humour:
“For if it is rash to walk into a lion’s den unarmed, rash to navigate the Atlantic in a rowing boat, rash to stand on one foot on the top of St. Paul’s, it is still more rash to go home alone with a poet. A poet is Atlantic and lion in one. While on drowns us the other gnaws us. If we survive the teeth, we succumb to the waves. A man who can destroy illusions is both beast and flood. Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth. Roll up that tender air and the plant dies, the colour fades. The earth we walk on is a parched cinder. It is marl we tread and fiery cobbles scorch our feet. By the truth of it we are undone. Life is a dream. ‘Tis walking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life – (and so on for six pages if you will, but the style is tedious and may well be dropped).”
Orlando is our witness for centuries of human history, dressing in the flamboyant fashions, following customs that always pass, socialising with celebrated artists and writers – the name dropping of whom being a marker for the reader of what era we are actually in. It is a unique kind of story that despite its fantastic concept does stand on its own. Not just a meditation on desire and art, individuality and identity, but a magical transformation across both time and biology, all contained within the inimitable Orlando.