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Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography, ed. with an introduction by Rachel Bowlby (Oxford: World’s Classics, 1992)

In Orlando, Virginia Woolf seems to have decided to have a blast, presenting a novel as a biography, and taking great playful liberties with this non-fiction form.

‘I want to kick up my heels & be off.  I want to embody all those innumerable little ideas & tiny stories which flash into my mind at all seasons.’  The Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeillie (London: Hogarth Press, 1977-84), iii, 131, quoted p. xiv

And since the only fit subject for a novelist or a biographer (in writing Orlando she is both) is ‘life’, Orlando seeks fulfilment and self-expression through relationships and writing.  The magic of the writing sweeps you along with a life stretching from the late 16th century, with an ageing Elizabeth I on the throne, to the early 20th century.  And without fuss or fanfare, he becomes she about half way through, before such things were feasible.

Life, it has been agreed by everyone whose opinion is worth consulting, is the only fit subject for a novelist or biographer; life, the same authorities have decided, has nothing whatever to do with sitting still in a chair and thinking.  Thought and life are as poles asunder. 254-55

To give some biographical paraphernalia, my edition includes paintings and photos of Orlando.  The portraits are reproductions of random canvases hanging on the walls of Knole, the rambling, ancient pile which is the model for Orlando’s sprawling English home.  The photos are of Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962), whose family owned Knole and who grew up there. The character of Orlando, and many other details, were inspired by – and borrowed from – Vita, her family’s history, and Knole.

I first read Orlando at a delicate moment. I was 17 or so and things were difficult at home and had been for years.  The cumulative effect was catching up with me in odd ways, including the fact that for over 18 months I hadn’t read a book, despite the fact that from earliest childhood and ever since, books have brought solace and inspiration, even just as a quiet presence on the shelves.

The taste for books was an early one.  As a child he was sometimes found at midnight by a page still reading.  They took his taper away, and he bred glow-worms to serve his purpose.   They took the glow-worms away, and he almost burnt the house down with a tinder.  …  But worse was to come.  For once the disease of reading has laid upon the system it weakens it so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the inkpot and festers in the quill.  The wretch takes to writing.  71-72

Yet I didn’t touch a book for a year and a half.  I knew something was wrong and remember coaxing myself back to reading by telling myself to take (another) day off school, find a bench, and read a book.  Any book.  Orlando was part of our home library and had always been there.  I don’t know what my mother had said about it to make me feel that at such a juncture, it might be the thing to ease back into reading. I took the day off school (again), found a bench, started reading, and finished the book the same day.  I remember losing track of time and place and spending hours on that bench.  And it broke the book-less spell that had been cast over me.

Over a third of a century passed between first and second readings, though in the interim, the wonderful film came out.  I gave the DVD to my brother and he told me that my niece, about four years old at the time, watched it several times, even telling him to ‘shhhh’ if he interrupted her in mid-viewing.  I am curious how the film worked on such a young mind (she also loved Laurel & Hardy and used to laugh her head off on her own watching them).

What I remembered of the book was its caparisoned, tapestried, brocade and damask colours and language, the distillation of entire English eras into an ambiance, and the liberties it takes with the passage of time.  Orlando seems to advance some 15-30 years in life while the world around him ages by more than three centuries.

What I had forgotten, or perhaps hadn’t fully noticed at the time, was the levity and playfulness, which the film captured beautifully.  One of my favourite episodes involves Orlando, now a lady, playing Fly Loo, a far-fetched fly-spotting-fly-swatting gambling game, with a suitor she can’t bear.  She goes to extraordinary lengths to put him off, and nearly succeeds by brazenly cheating and then dropping a toad down his shirt.  She would have preferred a rapier, but her options were limited.

She caught a blue-bottle, gently pressed the life out of it (it was half dead already, or her kindness for the dumb creatures would not have permitted it) and secured it by a drop of gum arabic to a lump of sugar.  While the Archduke was gazing at the ceiling, she deftly substituted this lump for the one she had laid her money on, and crying ‘Loo Loo!’ declared that she had won her bet.  …  He was no nice judge of flies.  A dead fly looked to him much the same as a living one.  She played the trick twenty times on him and he paid her over £17,250 (which is about £40,885:6:8 of our own money) before Orlando cheated so grossly that even he could be deceived no longer. 


… she cut the matter short, as he stooped his proud head, by dropping a small toad between his skin and his shirt.   In justice to her, it must be said that she would infinitely have preferred a rapier.  Toads are clammy things to conceal about one’s person a whole morning.  But if rapiers are forbidden, one must have recourse to toads.  176

Orlando’s character delights me, at once spirited, resilient, self-possessed, authentic, tender and zestful, and yet also vulnerable, full of doubt, and lonely.  She doesn’t have friends, not in any enduring sense, and it takes her about 200 years to find her soul-mate, after taking nearly half that time to get over his first love, an elusive and enigmatic Russian.

Sasha, as he called her for short, and because it was the name of a white Russian fox he had had as a boy – a creature soft as snow, but with teeth of steel, which bit him so savagely that his father had it killed.  43

Virginia Woolf - Orlando - photo credit: Jonatan Pie at

He is besotted by her, but she seems cooler, at times bemused, at times patronising, and utterly unimpressed by his English top-drawer pedigree.  She vanishes with the entire Muscovite Embassy the day the Big Freeze on the Thames comes to an end; there is no explanationand no further contact.  The shock of her loss prostrates Orlando during which time the doctors try all their quackery, before conceding defeat.

But the doctors were hardly wiser than they are now, and after prescribing rest and exercise, starvation and nourishment, society and solitude, that he should lie in bed all day and ride forty miles between lunch and dinner, together with the usual sedatives and irritants, diversified, as the fancy took them, with possets of newt’s slobber on rising, and draughts of peacock’s gall on going to bed, they left him to himself, and gave it their opinion that he had been asleep for a week.  65

Newt’s slobber, never fails, nor peacock’s gall.  Just don’t mix them.

It is only in the Victorian era, long after he has become a she, that she finds love that lasts.  It comes, as these things often do, out of the blue and in a most unexpected setting.

Towering dark against the yellow-slashed sky of dawn, with the plovers rising and falling about him, she saw a man on horseback.  He started. The horse stopped.

‘Madam,’ the man cried, leaping to the ground, ‘you’re hurt!’

‘I’m dead, sir!’ she replied.   239

One of the great lines of literature, that: ‘I’m dead, sir!’  For among her tribulations is a swathe of lawsuits aiming to dispossess her of house and fortune.  They rumble through the courts over a century or so, during which time she is confined to her town-size home to live incognita until the Law has decided what to make of her.

The chief charges against her were (1) that she was dead, and therefore could not hold any property whatsoever; (2) that she was a woman, which amounts to much the same thing; (3) that she was an English Duke who had married one Rosina Pepita, a dancer; and had had by her three sons, which sons now declaring that their father was deceased, claimed that all his property descended to them.  …. Thus it was in a highly ambiguous condition, uncertain whether she was alive or dead, man or woman, Duke or nonentity, that she posted down to her country seat, where, pending the legal judgement, she had the Law’s permission to reside in a state of incognito or incognita, as the case might turn out to be.  161

And in all her wanderings, yearnings, sufferings and pleasures, she tries to write poetry and carries with her a manuscript he started writing as a boy, ‘The Oak Tree’. The love of books and poetry began early, and as Orlando rushes down the backstairs to welcome Elizabeth I, he has a passing glimpse of a ruff-grubby, sleeve-greasy man, whom he believes to have been Shakespeare, though it is never confirmed.

Later, in a Jacobean moment, he invites a great poet to his home and tries to learn from him, though in the end the poet can’t bear the luxury and security and scarpers, but not before securing a fat emolument to be paid to himself quarterly, as befitting patronage for such a sensitive creature as a poet.  How much Orlando benefits from the association is unclear, at least until the poet shows up several centuries later, one of the few people on the same time-scale as Orlando.  In this new incarnation he is, instead of a poet, a literary agent, as sleazy as ever, but at least willing to help Orlando publish her writing.

Of the nature of poetry itself, Orlando only gathered that it was harder to sell than prose, and though the lines were shorter took longer in the writing.   84

And despite his generosity to the poet, he finds himself lampooned to high heaven by him, in terms that are distressing.

… he rang for the footman; delivered the document to him at the end of a pair of tongs; bade him drop it in the filthiest heart of the foulest midden on the estate.  92

As this book is about life, Orlando’s story embraces learning about trust, losing illusions, and coping with the vulnerability that comes of sincerity.

Two things alone remained to him in which he now put any trust: dogs and nature; an elk-hound and a rose bush.  The world, in all its variety, life in all its complexity, had shrunk to that. Dogs and a bush were the whole of it.  So feeling quit of a vast mountain of disillusion, and very naked in consequence, he called his hounds to him and strode through the Park.  93


… she somehow got the impression – here she rose and walked – they made one feel – it was an extremely uncomfortable feeling – one must never, never say what one thought.  (She stood on the banks of the Serpentine.  It was a bronze colour; spider-thin boats were skimming from side to side.)  They made one feel, she continued, that one must always, always write like somebody else.   (The tears formed themselves in her eyes).  272

Another theme explored is the ‘spirit of the age’, and the degree to which we belong to or reflect such a spirit, or can sit comfortably within it while retaining our independence. For most of her life, Orlando seems to have a healthy relationship with the spirit of whichever age she is in.

… for the transaction between a writer and the spirit of the age is one of infinite delicacy …  Orlando had so ordered it that she was in an extremely happy position; she need neither fight her age, nor submit to it; she was of it, yet remained herself.  Now, therefore, she could write, and write she did.  She wrote.  She wrote.  She wrote.   254

Orlando is born in the late 16th century.

The age was Elizabethan; their morals were not ours; nor their poets; nor their climate; nor their vegetables even.  26

Orlando, then, starts out as an Elizabethan, and is quite at home in the 17th and 18th centuries.  It is only the 19th century that nearly crushes her, and you sense her suffocation as the Victorian era entrenches itself, and Orlando sees the crinoline entering her wardrobe.   The transition from the sunny uplands of the 18th century to the dank, miasmic, damp-seeping 19th is wrapped in weather.

A turbulent welter of cloud covered the city.  All was darkness; alll was doubt; all was confusion.  The Eighteenth century was over; the Nineteenth century had begun.   216


Under this bruised and sullen canopy the green of the cabbages was less intense, and the white of the snow was muddied.  But what was worse, damp now began to make its way into every house – damp, which is the most insidious of all enemies, for while the sun can be shut out by blinds, and the frost roasted by a hot fire, damp steals in while we sleep; damp is silent, imperceptible, ubiquitous.  217

This creeping, seeping climate change culminates in a major shift in diet.

Then a change of diet became essential. The muffin was invented and the crumpet… 218

You know the weather’s bad if you need to invent muffins and crumpets as an antidote.  The damp that engendered such comfort foods also fuels an unhealthy level of fecundity.

Ivy grew in unparalleled profusion.  218

And it even infiltrated language so that words proliferated.

… there is no stopping damp; it gets into the inkpot as it gets into the woodwork – sentences swelled, adjectives multiplied, lyrics became epics, and little trifles that had been essays a column long were now encyclopaedias in ten or twenty volumes.   219

There is much in Orlando about writing and Orlando himself provides incisive comment on both prolixity and economy in language.  I loved this use of white space.

For it has come about, by the wise economy of nature, that our modern spirit can almost dispense with language; the commonest expressions do, since no expressions do; hence the most ordinary conversation is often the most poetic, and the most poetic is precisely that which cannot be written down.  For which reasons we leave a great blank here, which must be taken to indicate that the space is filled to repletion. 





So Orlando picks up his poem and drops it, writes and re-writes, with or without access to pen and ink.

‘Oh!  if only I could write!’ she cried (for she had the odd conceit of those who write that words written are shared).  She had no ink; and but little paper.  But she made ink from berries and wine; and finding a few margins and blank spaces in the manuscript of ‘The Oak Tree’, managed, by writing a kind of shorthand, to describe the scenery in a long, blank version poem, and to carry on a dialogue with herself about this Beauty and Truth concisely enough.  140


Next morning, in pursuance of these thoughts, she had out her pen and paper, and started afresh upon ‘The Oak Tree’, for to have ink and paper in plenty when one has made do with berries and margins is a delight not to be conceived.   169

And if you ever feel, as I often do, that you are taking forever to write or complete something, take heart; your ‘forever’ is but the twinkling of an eye in Orlandesque time.

She turned back to the first page and read the date, 1586, written in her own boyish hand.  She had been working at it for close on three hundred years now.  It was time to make an end.  226

In the end, Orlando’s love of life and nature, poetry and writing, converge and you see what ‘The Oak Tree’ was trying to achieve all those centuries.

Was not writing poetry a secret transaction, a voice answering a voice?  … What could have been more secret, she thought, more slow, and like the intercourse of lovers, than the stammering answer she had made all these years to the old crooning songs of the woods, and the farms and the brown horses standing at the gate, neck to neck, and the smithy and the kitchen and the fields, so laboriously bearing wheat, turnips, grass, and the garden blowing irises and fritillaries?   310

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