Forgive me, my Woolf in Winter friends: I must admit that I did not actually re-read Orlando with you over the course of the past two weeks. I am currently fighting hip-deep through the wilds of Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch; as delightful as I knew Woolf would be, I feared that if I once turned away from Cortázar he would blindside me with a cleverly-aimed exhalation from his ever-present Gauloise and I would be turned to stone. Or at least to a stylishly pretentious 1960s hipster. You can understand why I would want to avoid that risk at any cost. HOWEVER. Never fear, because the day I am no longer able to write about Orlando is the day you should all break into my house and cart me off to the old folks' home.

Woolf wrote this novel as a break from more serious endeavors, and as a kind of love-letter to or mock biography of her sometime-lover Vita Sackville-West, whose family, like Orlando's, could date their genteel pedigree back to the days of Shakespeare, and who, like Orlando, had a passionate attachment to her family home (which she, being female, could not inherit). One of my favorite, favorite things about this novel is the way in which it transformed a passing infatuation, waning even as Woolf worked on this manuscript, into a vibrant, funny creative project. The end result is a sort-of-novel that doesn't offer up easy answers to the problem of loving another person or that of making art, but which manages to be delightful and playfully satirical while also, this being Woolf, incorporating a good deal of depth, and playing on themes of artistic androgyny that she develops more seriously in A Room of One's Own. Were I to receive such a love letter? I would be putty in the sender's hands. (In fact, Orlando was pretty central to my courtship with my own partner, and a model for our own humble attempts at cooperative art projects.)

She was certainly feeling more herself. Her finger had not tingled once, or nothing to count, since that night on the moor. Yet, she could not deny that she had her doubts. She was married, true; but if one's husband was always sailing round Cape Horn, was it marriage? if one liked him, was it marriage? If one liked other people, was it marriage? And finally, if one still wished, more than anything in the whole world, to write poetry, was it marriage? She had her doubts.

One of the things that strikes me, thinking about Orlando on the heels of the Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse readalongs, is Woolf's relative patriotism in this novel. Throughout her works she is critical of the British Empire for its cost in human life abroad (Septimus Smith) and of English society in general for its repressiveness ("women can't write, women can't paint"; William Bradshaw's goddess of Conversion). And yet, as Peter Walsh notes, even in people who actively dislike Empire, "there were moments...of pride in England." While she continues to poke fun at the ridiculousness of Britishness in Orlando, Woolf's lighter tone and farcical approach allow her to portray her country more as one would the foibles of an exasperating yet beloved great-aunt, and less in a mood of white-hot rage or tragedy. The character Orlando, after all, is an embodiment of the "spirit of the age" in Britain, and Woolf can't be in enamored of Orlando without feeling some tenderness toward the country - even in its most Victorian stages.

Once there, she followed what had now become the most imperious need of her nature and wrapped herself as well as she could in a damask quilt which she snatched from her bed. She explained to the Widow Bartholomew (who had succeeded good old Grimsditch as housekeeper) that she felt chilly.

        "So do we all, m'lady," said the Widow, heaving a profound sigh. "The walls is sweating," she said, with a curious, lugubrious complacency, and sure enough, she had only to lay her hand on the oak panels for the fingerprints to be marked there. The ivy had grown so profusely that many windows were now sealed up. The kitchen was so dark that they could scarcely tell a kettle from a cullender. A poor black cat had been mistaken for coals and shovelled on the fire. Most of the maids were already wearing three or four red-flannel petticoats, though the month was August.

I love the fantastical and hilarious way in which Woolf has even Orlando's physical surroundings mirror the "spirit of the age" (whatever age s/he might be living through at the moment). In the Great Freeze of Elizabethan England we get carnivalesque scenes of apple-sellers completely frozen in the ice; the diplomatic seventeenth century brings tent-labyrinths with endless cups of strong coffee; the Romantic era sets the reader adrift in lightning storms and wind-wracked forests; the nineteenth century is ushered in with an monumental, over-decorated monstrosity and an oddly pervasive foggy chill. Orlando and the other characters are swept along irresistibly with the changing zeitgeist, and I laugh out loud every time I read the distressingly fast-forwarded transition from the freewheeling eighteenth century to the damp, dark nineteenth. All representations are caricatures, of course, but they're lovingly crafted and well-realized to a fault.

And then there's the brilliant character of Nick Greene, who spends eternity lamenting the fall of "modern literature" from its glory days--usually located a few centuries before his current diatribe, whenever that might happen to be. From a penniless Elizabethan playwright complaining of pains in his back, running down Shakespeare for a money-grubbing hack, and mocking Orlando's poetry in print in order to make a quick pound, he evolves into "the most influential critic of the Victorian age." Orlando, however, somehow prefers his earlier, less respectable incarnation, gossiping about poets and pressing Orlando for a pension, paid quarterly:

There was one knob about the third from the top which burnt like fire; another about the second from the bottom which was cold as ice. Sometimes he woke with a brain like lead; at others it was as if a thousand wax tapers were alight and people were throwing fireworks inside him. He could feel a rose leaf through his mattress, he said; and knew his way almost about London by the feel of the cobbles. Altogether he was a piece of machinery so finely made and so curiously put together (here he raised his hand as if unconsciously and indeed, it was of the finest shape imaginable) that it confounded him to think that he had only sold five hundred copies of his poem, but that of course was largely due to the conspiracy against him. All he could say, he concluded, banging his fist upon the table, was that the art of poetry was dead in England.

I must admit that the semi-personal nature of Orlando does lead to some flaws as well as delights. At times it feels in-jokey, too self-consciously clever, and the overwhelming Britishness of it can get to seem like a bit much for those who aren't, like me, firm Anglophiles. It also has that awkward trait in which white authors attempt to depict non-white people sympathetically and end up othering them in a somewhat cringe-worthy way (although, I do like the moment when the gypsy leader tells Orlando that he won't hold her father's Dukedom against her). Despite these drawbacks, though, this novel has a warm place in my heart, and I look forward to many re-reads, even if I must now plough on with Cortázar. Onward!

(If you loved the atmospheric lyricism of Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, consider joining us for the final Woolf in Winter discussion. Claire will be hosting The Waves two weeks from now, on Friday, February 26.)


  • Great post, Emily (and I completely understand about your dilemma with Cortazar, haha--while I was reading him months ago, I made the mistake of looking away, and then poof!). I just borrowed Orlando from the library, and methinks I'll get started on it right away. Thanks! Happy weekend, :]

  • Emily, for someone who read this awhile back, you certainly pulled through. I can't comment on Cortazar as I had never read him but once again your post is so illuminating. I can definitely see Orlando's attachment to his home. There were so many things going on that I didn't know which ones to focus on. But now I will always know what to expect of her novels. Never a beat missed; never a dry moment.

    I didn't even realise that the VW's feelings were waning at this time; it certainly didn't appear so! She felt utterly and completely head over heels with VSW! I was thinking along the same lines.. I'd be putty over the sender, too, if this was a love letter written to me.. wow. Amazing, is all I can say.

    The Great Freeze certainly had some of the best moments. I loved the mysterious Russian atmosphere that Sasha brought.

    I didn't mind that the book was self-consciously clever. One of the things that made it so fun to read was that it was particularly illuminating towards the sort of person VW was, even if she didn't herself feature in the story. Myself not being an Anglophile, I didn't cringe anywhere, so no worries on that part. (Or am I too dense?) :)

  • Definitely sounds like I need to re-read this one. I've read it twice and really didn't get it either time.

    I can't wait to hear your thoughts on Hopscotch as part of the "tortured artist self-destructs" genre. I hope it was better than Gasoline was for me.

  • I too am eagerly anticipating your thoughts on Hopscotch! I liked it well enough when I read it last summer. :)

    Great post about Orlando. I found the book partly funny and partly cringe-worthy and partly awesome. The atmospheres of the passing centuries were a favorite aspect. More of my thoughts later!

  • Like Claire, I do not mind that the book is self-consciously clever. It is kind of funny that Woolf intended this to be one quick, unstudied construction, and then took much longer than intended. Perhaps she was not capable of that kind of spontaneity. But I will take her planned spontaneity and humor any day over no humor at all.

    Also liked "It also has that awkward trait in which white authors attempt to depict non-white people sympathetically and end up othering them in a somewhat cringe-worthy way." My one criticism of the book as well. But that gipsy moment does redeem the flaw a little. Too funny.

    See Lena's post about a first time reader's thoughts on this being an "in the know" novel. Really interesting.

    Have you seen the movie? Thoughts?

  • Great review! It's very funny to me that today I have read 3 (very different) reviews of this book, and each one showed a different cover! The thoughts about love and marriage are so interesting - I've wondered similar things myself (not because of my husband sailing around Cape Horn, but perhaps the metaphorical equivalent).

  • Re: Frances's comment on Lena's post about this being an 'in the know' novel, I also agree. I was lucky that the edition I read (Penguin Modern Classics) had the best notes and it helped me to understand the significance and the people behind the characters and events and little details in the story. If not for those notes, I would've enjoyed the story still but would've missed out on the underlying meanings.

  • I am loving your Woolf posts! You write so well about the books you make me want to start rereading immediately! It's been so long since I read Orlando that the details are very fuzzy but I do remember I loved it in spite of the flaws. Have you seen the movie? I thought it was pretty well done.

  • I love that you pointed out the way the weather changes along with the whole spirit of the times. The fluid and natural way Woolf seemed to swirl things around to indicate the changing centuries really worked for me, which was important as I'd worried the idea of "Orlando lives for centuries" would be handled in a much less appealing way.

  • Sasha: Yikes, good luck disentangling yourself from all those berets and black turtleneck! ;-) Seriously, thanks for stopping by. I hope you enjoy Orlando!

    Claire: I don't mind the cleverness too much either, obviously. :-) I can understand how other people might, though. I'm also so steeped in her biography at this point that I really enjoy the level of in-jokiness, since it's always fun to be on the inside of an in-joke! Never a dry moment, indeed.

  • EL Fay: Hopscotch is definitely more...impressive...than it sounds like Gasoline was for you. Anyway, I'll leave it for later, but suffice to say my review will be epic. I'll be curious if you ever get back to Orlando - it SEEMS like something you'd really like, what with all the examination of gender fluidity, etc.

    Sarah: Atmospheres of the passing centuries are totally a high point for me (among many). And it's thanks to your review last year that I picked up Cortázar last week! So thanks!

  • This is very helpful. I perhaps should have read it before I wrote my post, because for me, this book was a bit of a disaster. Maybe I don't know enough about Woolf to appreciate it.

    Though I have to admit, I did very much like Nick Greene.

  • A very enjoyable post. I especially like your run-through of the different eras, something I really didn't start to connect with until the 19th century chapter.

    As for the movie, I saw it when it first came out and wish I hadn't because in the beginning I had to keep pushing away the face of Tilda Swinton as I read. I would NOT have chosen her to play the part. Her persona is just too cool, while my developing impression of Orlando--making allowance for the two wacky premises, double-gender and living for centuries!--was of a warm-hearted creature with long, dark, curly hair and infinite varieties of facial expression.

  • Frances: I have a PLETHORA of thoughts about the movie. The short version: I thought it was OK, but the flaws I mentioned that don't really bother me in the novel (the self-conscious cleverness, especially) got to me more in movie form. I don't like that thing that Sally Potter & her clique of British directors do where they have characters directly address the camera. Too, they cut out some of the more bizarre stuff, which I thought was a shame as it would have really shone in film form (peoples' limbs freezing off in the Great Freeze section, for example). Also, Billy Zane: WHY???? SOOOO not my idea of Bonthrop. There were certain details I thought worked well, though. I like the giant topiary teacups, and Quentin Crisp as Queen Bess was pretty great. OK, this is actually not that short. I'm stopping now.

    Jill: I love the section with Bonthrop, & I love Woolf's thoughts on space in marriage, even when love is present. Even when Vita & Virginia were in love with each other they both talked about how much they liked being married & how much they loved their husbands. Which I think is interesting.

  • I can't wait to read Claire's version of Orlando featuring illuminating notes about the characters (who they were, their importance, etc.)or having read a biography of VW.

    I think my favorite thing about Orlando was having so many little details that I felt were important and related to other novels of hers. I have pages of notes (in my real journal) where I tried to make those tiny connections to see if they pan out. Moreso than Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse, this one requires a little VW knowledge.

    Good luck with Cortazar!

  • Cracking me up about the movie! Loved it visually but those direct stares into the camera really did amp up the self-conscious cleverness index. Quentin Crisp could have made the whole thing for me. And yes, yes, yes to the Billy Zane reaction. How does he even approach androgyny?

  • Claire: I am still wading through all these posts in an attempt to get to Lena's, but yes, I agree that having some knowledge of Woolf's (and Sackville-West's life) helps a lot, in this book probably more than others.

    Stefanie: I'm so glad you're enjoying them! :-) Re: the movie, my tangent to Frances above may be enough for you, but I had mixed feelings about it, balancing Sally Potter's self-satisfaction and the horrible casting choice of Billy Zane on the one hand with the amazing Quentin Crisp, giant topiary teacups, and Tilda Swinton on the other. Also, the cinematography was gorgeous!

  • Nicole: I get that concern! I think she does a beautiful job of creating this oddly swirling, exaggerated stage, where the external world is in some ways just a reflection of peoples' internal landscapes.

    Amy: Who wouldn't like Nick Greene? I'm glad my post was helpful in understanding the book, although it's also...maybe it just wasn't for you? From your post it sounded like you "got" quite a bit. But anyway, thanks for reading along, regardless of your opinion on the novel! :-)

  • Julia: I actually loved Tilda Swinton as Orlando, although I HATED (as previously noted) Billy Zane as Shel, and I hated the changes to the plot around their relationship (which I now can't even 100% remember, but I remember that I hated them). And the physical reflection of the "spirit of the age" is one of my fave things about this book. :-)

    Lena: It really is a book of little details, isn't it? I can see how it would be off-putting to read it without any of the background information (although, I read it before I knew anything about Woolf - but I can't remember if that bothered me at the time! I know I enjoyed it but I honestly can't remember that much more about my first reading.) Anyway, if you do pick up the Hermione Lee biography you're in for a treat. Lee does a BEAUTIFUL job. I read her Wharton bio on the strength of the Woolf one, even though I don't really like Wharton that much!

  • I agree with your comment about how you would react if you received a love letter such as this - I would feel exactly the same way! There is no way I could resist!

  • Frances: Right?? Billy Zane. What were they thinking?

    Karen: *Swoon!* :-)

  • You and Frances and Lourdes (the only three readalong posts I've read so far tonight) have written so eloquently about Orlando, Emily, that I'm almost sorry to say I hated it so. Funny to hear about that movie casting, though: Tilda Swinton sounds fine and she's a pretty interesting actress IMO, but Billy Zane is indeed comically bad in almost everything I've seen him in in. One of the few guys I know who could even ruin a trailer!

  • Oh Richard, always such the gallant. No need to feel badly for trashing a book you hated - there would be no fun in agreeing without the occasional disagreement, after all. :-) And yeah, Billy Zane. So terribly, terribly bad.

  • I'm really eager to see the movie. My boss and one of my co-workers at the theater were talking about the movie on their own the other day, and then they saw that I was reading the book and we all had to laugh at the coincidence. I am nervous about Tilda Swinton in the role of Orlando, as she seems likly to play him/her rather coldly. But I trust your opinion! I'm already annoyed that they messed around with the plot involving Shel - so typical. Anyway, I'll compare notes with you after I watch it. :)

  • You make me want to read Orlando again! I read it once a long time ago, and liked it, but ... that was a long time ago, and I'm curious what I would think now. I'm also very curious what you will think of Hopscotch, as I have that book on my shelves, and it makes me nervous ... :)

  • I've never read Orlando, but just this morning was looking through A Writer's Diary, where on Wednesday, November 7, 1928, Woolf writes,

    "And I cannot think what to write next. I mean the situation is, this Orlando is of course a very quick brilliant book. Yes, but I did not try to explore. And must I always explore? Yes I think so still. Because my reaction is not the usual...Orlando taught me how to write a direct sentence; taught me continuity and narrative and how to keep the realities at bay. But I purposely avoided of course any other difficulty. I never got down to my depths and made shapes square up, as I did in the Lighthouse."

    Emily, I was wondering what you thought of Woolf's assessment of her own book?

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography