What was it about?
At the start of the novel, Orlando is a teenage page to Elizabeth I in 16th century England. He serves as an ambassador while writing poetry and plays. He even falls in love with a Russian princess named Sasha. At the age of 30, he suddenly transforms into a 19th century woman. As a woman in Victorian England, Orlando faces limitations that she had not faced as a man. Her loves and interests remain the same, but she struggles to find her voice. Even as a man, Orlando didn’t know how to write good poetry. What does good poetry look like anyway? Who gets to decide? As a woman, Orlando wonders if she should even pursue writing. Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf is a nonstandard Bildungsroman replete with meditations on history, historiography, time, memory, gender, sexuality, love, and literature.
What did I think of it?
What is a biography? That is one of the major questions explored in Orlando: A Biography. Is a biography a slavishly literal retelling of a person’s life? If not, what are the details most important in a person’s life? Perhaps, a biography is never really a history of a single individual. But what sources do we use, and most importantly, how do we interpret them? Orlando writes dozens of works, but what do/can they tell us about the author’s identity or the author’s political, social, and literary context? Historiography is a field that particularly interests me. Memory is not simply the recollection of past events:
Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind. Instead of being a single, downright, bluff piece of work of which no man need feel ashamed, our commonest deeds are set about with a fluttering and flickering of wings, a rising and falling of lights.
Life experience and authorial intent influence the understanding of past events.
Orlando is quite an enigmatic character. At the start of the novel, Orlando is a boy but becomes a woman at the age of 30. Therefore, gender and sexuality are prominent themes in this biography. Virginia Woolf wrote about gender as a social construct almost a century ago. She challenged the belief that gender is a binary:
Many people, taking this into account, and holding that such a change of sex is against nature, have been at great pains to prove (1) that Orlando had always been a woman, (2) that Orlando is at this moment a man.
Orlando’s love for literature and Sasha remain constants, but society dictates what people of different genders can and cannot do. As a trans/gender nonconforming individual, Orlando struggles to fit into the societies of early modern and modern England.But does it matter what people think? Where does individual identity stop and social influence begin?
Orlando: A Biography was the perfect book to read for The Literary Others reading challenge hosted this month by Adam @ Roof Beam Reader. If you have had difficulty reading Woolf’s works in the past, I recommend Orlando. It is more straightforward than her other works. Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style allows her to say things that simply cannot be communicated as powerfully in traditional prose. This is the second of her novels that I’ve read (the first was Mrs. Dalloway) and it simply reinforced my conviction that Woolf is one of the greatest prose writers in the English-speaking world.
And she fell to thinking what an odd pass we have come to when all a woman’s beauty has to be kept covered, lest a sailor may fall from a mast-head.