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In her most playful and exuberant novel, Virginia Woolf writes the "historical biography" of Orlando, a young boy of nobility during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. A wild ride through four centuries, the novel shows Orlando aging, magically, only thirty-six years between 1588 and 1928. Even more magically, he also changes from a man to a woman. As she explores Orlando's life, Woolf also explores the differing roles of men and women in society during various periods, ultimately concluding that one's role as a man or woman is determined by society, rather than by birth.
From the Elizabethan period, during which Orlando works as a steward for the queen and also serves as her lover, he progresses to the reign of James I, experiencing a profound love for a Russian princess, Sasha, who is herself exploring the role of a man. When Sasha departs for Russia without him, he retreats, devastated, to his estate, with its 365 rooms and 52 staircases, which he redecorates over the next few years. An interlude in which he is wooed by the Archduchess Harriet, who is also the Archduke Harry, leads to his ambassadorship to Constantinople, a period spent with the gypsies, and his eventual return to England--as a woman. New experiences and observations await her.
Throughout the novel, Woolf matches her prose style to the literary style of the period in which Orlando lives, creating always-changing moods and sheer delight for the reader. Some constants continue throughout the four centuries of Orlando's life. Orlando is always a writer, always recording his thoughts, and always adding to a poem he has begun as a child entitled "The Oak Tree." He is always returning to his 365-room house whenever he needs to recuperate from his experiences, and some characters repeat through time. (Orlando is betrayed by Nick Greene during the reign of James I, but he is encouraged by Nicholas Greene in the Victorian period.)
Literary historians make much of the fact that Woolf modeled Orlando on Vita Sackville-West, Woolf's lover, and that this study of gender roles was an early exploration of lesbianism, cross-dressing, and transgender identities. The novel is pure fun to read, however, and though it raises serious and thoughtful questions about sexuality and the ways that it controls our lives, there is no sense that Woolf wrote the novel specifically to make a public statement or prove a point. Her themes of gender and its relation to social expectations, of creativity and its relation to reality, of the importance of history in our lives, and of the unlimited potential of all humans, regardless of their sex, transcend the specific circumstances under which Woolf may have written the book. This is one of the most playful and delightful novels of the twentieth century. n Mary Whipple
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on 6 December 2002
A writer's holiday is what Virginia Woolf called this novel. It was more fun and less compulsive writing for her than her previous and later novels. Orlando is a fantastical novel which begins somewhere in 1500 and ends in 1928. The main character is Orlando who lives for this long period of time and also morphs from man into women. Woolf wrote this novel for her friend (lover) Vita Sackville-West and is one of the best love letters ever. it's written as a biography and the author often directs herself at the readers. There are also a lot of gender issues which are touched upon in the book and it's great to read the subtility with which she handels these things.
Although Orlando is one big fantasy I think it's the most accesible novel Woolf has written. It still has her distinct style. But the changes of scenery and times are very entertaining. It's such a nice idea to have a couple of centuries encapsulated in one book.
A must read (even if you think Woolf is to difficult.or boring!..she isn't!!)
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on 23 June 2008
I had to study this book in the first year of my degree. I am very glad of this, as I might not have encountered this amusing and original work of Woolf's otherwise. The tone of 'Orlando' is quite different to that of her other well-known novels such as 'To The Lighthouse' and 'Mrs Dalloway' - I would say that it is more 'accessible'. Despite its somewhat surreal plot (a sixteenth-century nobleman ends up as a twentieth-century female writer), the historical periods are described with realistic detail, and the reader's perceptions are challenged throughout. The themes of gender, race, truth, art and freedom, which are prevalent in the book, are still as relevant today as they were in 1928.

The Oxford World's Classics edition is well worth buying over cheaper ones; not only is the cover pleasant to look at, but there is a wealth of extra material in the form of notes, a pictorial insert, a lengthy bibliography, and an interesting and useful introduction. Highly recommended!
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This is probably Virginia's Woolf's most accessible novel. It tells the story of Orlando, who starts life as a charming boy in Elizabethan England and then lives through the remaining centuries till Woolf's own time (early 20th century England) after changing sex halfway through the novel. It sounds weird but it works fabulously.

Witty, lyrical and playful, with Woolf's distinctive prose this is definitely the place to start if you've never read one of the best novelists/writers of the 20th century.
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No lover in the world ever wrote a valentine more exquisite than Virginia Woolf's tribute to her lover Vita Sackville-West. That tribute was "Orlando: A Biography," a magical-realism tale about a perpetually youthful, charming hero/ine who traverses three centuries and both genders -- and Woolf's writing reaches a new peak as she explores the hauntingly sensuous world of Orlando.

Orlando was born a young aristocratic man in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, and when the dying monarch visited his home she became his new court favorite (and briefly lover). His passionate, curious personality attracted many other women over the years -- until he fell in love with Sasha, a mercurial but faithless Russian princess (supposedly based on Sackville-West's ex-girlfriend). Bereft of true love, he devoted himself to poetry and entertainment.

But then he's assigned to be an ambassador to Constantinople, and something strange happens -- while a bloody revolution rages, he sleeps for a full week... and wakes newly metamorphosed into a woman. With the same mind and soul but a female body, Orlando sets out on a new life -- and discovers that women aren't quite as different from men as she once thought.

"Orlando: A Biography" is a very weird book, and was even more so when it was written since "magical realism" didn't exist as a literary style in 1928. Virginia Woolf makes no explanations about Orlando's immortality or unexpected gender switch. It's simply accepted that once he was a man, and then she became a woman, and that s/he has lived from the Elizabethan era until at least the 1920s (and who knows, maybe Orlando still wanders among us?).

And Woolf's writing is at its peak here. Her prose is soaked in luxurious descriptions that constantly tease the senses -- silver and gold, frozen flowers, crystalline ice, starlight and the exquisite expanses of nature's beauty. At times the sensual writing seems almost feverish, and Woolf adds an almost mythic quality by inserting spirits of feminine virtues (Modesty, Purity and Chastity appear to try to hide Orlando's feminine body), and by having her hero/ine encounter great poets, queens and men of the sea.

And Orlando him/herself is a truly fascinating character -- s/he can be sweet, passionate, romantic, wild and melancholy, and s/he has an almost magnetic charisma. He starts off the story as an elusive romantic teenager, suffers a heartbreak that matures him as an artist, and post-metamorphosis she becomes a woman of the modern world. Both in mind and body, Orlando is a very different woman at the end than the boy s/he began as.

"Orlando: A Biography" is a truly spellbinding book -- Virginia Woolf's prose enthralls the senses while her main character explores the boundaries of gender. A must-read, for everyone.
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on 26 June 2014
I have not read much from Woolf, but the two works I have had the opportunity to: A Room of One's Own and The Voyage Out left me in thrall of her incandescent intelligence and the talent to turn a phrase. Where the other two works felt totally invested in getting my attention and holding it, Orlando felt more unruly, more of an ephemeral, "aesthete" piece that was more of a posing showcase of the best Woolf can do with a novel's format and how deeply felt her feminism is. It's also an exhibit of how fierce a modernist she is, the first evidence of it in Orlando being penned on the border of fiction and biography with an intrusive biographer-narrator who, very oddly, seems to be on the shoulder of and writing looking back at our century old titular character all at once and somewhat unsuccessfully, keeps letting us know the difficulties of chronicling such a life.

Orlando, born a man in Elizabethan England is driven to solitude, nature and poetry. The Queen of England takes much fancy of this earnest young man who in his straitjacketed world, gets married and finds himself head-over-heels in love for the daughter of a visiting Muscovite ambassador during the Great Frost. With the Frost's thawing, the enigmatic Russian love deserts him and he, already driven to melancholy in his happiest moments (only a knife's edge separates these, according to him), falls into an unrousable sleep for a few days. Waking up in the century after, he travels to Turkey as a British Ambassador in the Crusades and does much wandering and soul-searching with the gypsies. Sailing back to England and falling in another one of his sleeps, he finds himself transformed into a woman and thrusted into the subservient social-role of a female in Victorian England and much later into the vulgar age of modernity with new sights and manners in late Edwardian era.

Fashioned on her real-life author friend Vita Sackville-West and as an ode to her, while I enjoyed all of Woolf's subversions and flights, I am unsure if she is able to turn a mind-bending premise of a century-spanning mock-biography into a novel. There are moments of brilliance galore: equivalent to a real biography, there are pictures of our mock-real-Orlando punctuating the text; she with her command of the language remains fiercely quotable on issues of time, gender roles, gender identity, unattainable ideals of Truth, beauty and companionship.

While individually compelling, the sum total of these solipsistic fantasies, allusions and melancholic streams-of-consciousness fail to lend the narrative any engine. Woolf repeatedly alludes to an inviolable, central hard fibre, the "core" of every human's nature, to which gender and sex are mere trifles and afterthoughts, which I wholly agree to and applaud her for lacing this in her prose: this and her reverence for the aching beauty and constancy of Nature. But despite my philosophical alignment, Orlando remains strongly a beautiful idea, almost always an arm-length short of a fictional person you'd care or root for. Only when tethered in real-life interactions with her/his lovers at the start and towards the end, we get any sense of him. Certainly he cannot be a mirror to the changing world and social mores through the centuries (the most obvious reading of Woolf's choice of such a long-living character) encased as he/she is in a somewhat static internal life of his own "self".

While Orlando observes and we observe him observing himself turn into an anachronism, all his/her thoughts on gender roles, the farce of society and the ugliness of rushing modern world, they skate off the written page as they veer and shoot at all directions all at once, like shifts in seasons and a person's moods. With such a vacillating, spinning central figure, the fictional piece wobbles like a badly manufactured spinning top and Woolf couldn't care less. She is here to amuse us and muse with us. And it's best if one takes this fantastic escapade of hers each page at a time. I for one, missed her more considered fiction and character creation of The Voyage Out and will be on a hunt to find that in her other tomes.
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VINE VOICEon 9 July 2011
Virginia Woolf is one of those authors who I've always felt slightly intimidated by but after finally reading one of her books I'm pleased to say I'm no longer afraid of her. I'm glad I chose to begin with this book because I found it witty, engaging and surprisingly easy to read, as well as being a very original and fascinating story. In Orlando, Woolf has surely created one of the most unusual protagonists in literature: a character who lives for four hundred years and changes gender midway through his/her life.

The book, although obviously a work of fiction, is presented as a biography. We first meet Orlando as a young sixteenth-century nobleman, during the final years of the reign of Elizabeth I, and the biographer follows our hero/heroine throughout the centuries. The book covers a period of four hundred years and during this time Orlando ages only slightly. At one point in the story Orlando sleeps for a week and awakens to find that he is now a woman - and gradually her perceptions of the world and the roles of males and females begin to change. No explanation is given for Orlando's remarkable life span or gender change; it's simply accepted that those things have occurred.

As you would expect, over the course of four hundred years Orlando has a lot of unusual experiences and adventures, both as a man and as a woman living through the Elizabethan age, the Great Frost (one of the most memorable episodes of the story, for me), the Restoration period, the 18th century, and the Victorian era. One thread that runs through the entire story is Orlando's love of literature and attempts at becoming a writer. The story finally comes to its conclusion in 1928, at which point we can look back at everything Orlando has been through and what she has learned about gender, love and what it means to be an artist.

I'm not a fan of the stream of consciousness writing style but although there's some of that in Orlando, particularly in the second half of the book, much of it was in the form of a more conventional narrative and I didn't find it hard to read at all. I was aware that this book has been described as a love letter from Woolf to her friend, Vita Sackville-West, but I deliberately avoided reading the introduction first as I wanted to enjoy the book on its own merits as a novel first. But after I'd finished the story it was interesting to turn back and find out more about the inspiration behind it and how some of the events that take place in the story relate to aspects of Sackville-West's and Woolf's own lives.

Orlando is a very clever and imaginative piece of writing. I've heard that this is one of Woolf's more accessible books and now that I've read it, I think I would advise other people who are new to her work to try this one first too.
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on 28 July 2010
A treatise on what it takes to be an author disguised as a tribute to a bi-sexual friend. Told as a fable covering 400 years of history this is beautifully written but without an obvious narrative so that at times it is slightly laboured.

This work is generally described as a tribute to Woolf's bisexual friend, Vita Sackville-West and it's true that Orlando starts the book as a boy and changes into a woman during its course and there are other points of reference as well but in truth it is a hymn to being an author, and all that it takes and entails to become a real writer.

The book is written as a biography of Orlando but comes across as more of a biography of an author or perhaps even autobiography. It is written in a very simple style like a fable or fairy tale with straightforward language used in layers to produce penetrating descriptions of scenes and emotions. An object under scrutiny is described in four, five, or perhaps a dozen different ways to build a convincing picture. The setting at England's royal court, the strangeness of much of what happens and the enormous timescale enhance the feeling of reading a myth.

Orlando is born into a noble English family in the last days of the reign of Elisabeth I and dies in 1928 some 400 years later and the book follows his (later her) story. This covers a variety of extraordinary adventures and experiences most notably changing sex, but including various types of love and intercourse with different kinds of society and the artistic world and importantly Orlando writes and loves literature.

This last is a constant thread through the book as Orlando right from the start is a would-be writer and may even have seen Shakespeare at work. Although she is stung by the cruel opinions of the poet Nicholas Green into burning most of her work, she keeps one poem - the Oak Tree - which is worked on and over for four hundred years until, meeting Green again in the Victorian age, it is published.

At the end, the reader is asked to look back over all that Orlando has experienced as man and woman, and felt and done and the huge time span over which she has done it; to understand that only armed with these experiences, and with endless revision of the work, can an author be created. This is finally expressed as being a multitude of people inside all of whom have a voice (Woolf suffered from mental illness so this may have been a resonant image for her).

The cleverness of the writing is hidden by the use of simple words and phrases but this does create a very emotional and evocative picture of a life and world. However, the book drags, because it never becomes clear where it is going - it's like modern maths, you are just supposed to discover it - and that puts a lot of weight on simply enjoying the writing.

This was one of Woolf's most popular books during her lifetime but I suspect that most modern readers will prefer her other works.
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on 26 April 2011
Virginia Wool's biography of Orlando is a superbly written page turner of a book. Freer and more humorous than some of her other works, it's an enjoyable read.
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on 1 August 2008
I don't know much about VW but I imagine she was probably quite good company. The type of person you don't mind bumping into but wouldn't make a special effort to meet. This story, although sprawling in places is punctuated by some beautiful phrasing and the occasional funny, witty line. But for me it just never got going...

The first third of the book is enjoyable enough but it seemed to lose a sense of pacing to me around halfway. I also felt that the more political/historical/gender points that she was trying to make where both obvious and heavy handed or so abstract that I was left feeling none the wiser.

I'm no stranger to stream of consciousness prose but this book could lose a chunk in editing and be better for it. More wistful than deep and I rarely felt sympathy for any of the characters in the story.
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