on 10 October 2012
Being a book I had to read for my Gender and Sexuality class this year at university, this was not a book I was looking forward to at all. I haven't had the best of luck with Virginia Woolf over the past couple of years and after reading the first couple of pages, I wanted to read it even less.
The beginning of the book is extremely hard going and slow to get into. Set in the Elizabethan England, there is a lot of information about who is ruling the country at the time and where Orlando stands in the middle of it all. The language used is quite pretentious and needlessly long winded. These were the main reasons for me not being able to get into the story immediately and not wanting to continue reading. However, after putting the book down for a couple of weeks and giving it another shot, I found it easier and easier to read as I continued.
Orlando spans over a couple of hundred years which is extremely strange and different for a novel and I didn't quite understand why for a while. Orlando, at the beginning of the story, is a man who a nobleman during the rule of Queen Elizabeth, then going on to be an Ambassador in Constantinople. Part way through the story though, Orlando falls asleep and wakes up a woman. Another strange part of the story. Anyway, as Orlando changes to be a woman, still having all knowledge of her life previously as a man, the times change throughout the story. This is the main theme of the book. Having been both a man and a woman, Orlando is able to see how the treatment of women changes throughout time and also from both points of view.
I actually really enjoyed the way that Woolf changed the era being written about. I thought that this would bug me and that it would make the plot flow at a slightly weird pace. Strangely, this is something that I felt made the plot flow quite well as the time periods are quite blurred at times and the change happens so quickly that you barely notice. It was also interesting to see how Orlando changed over time, both when he went from man to woman and also how thoughts changed about different things. As the book ends in 1928, there are so many changes in the world compared with when the story first started.
Orlando is also very funny - this I wasn't expecting at all. Through Orlando's experiences as a woman, it becomes clear that she doesn't really know what to do in certain situations. She explains at one point that if she had still been a man, you would have taken out a sword and cut someone's head off. Things like this she cannot do as a woman so the funny parts of the book came when Orlando found herself in a dissimilar situation. I laughed a fair amount through reading this book and this isn't something I have experienced with a Woolf novel before.
Even though I had a bad experience with this book to begin with, it turned out that I really quite liked it. If you haven't been a fan of Woolf in the past, like me, you may find this novel a bit better.
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.
on 16 May 2014
So descriptively well-written that you feel that you as present there at every historic period and involved in the whole of Orlando's progress. Chanel4 DVD also worth watching. For once it did nor spoil my mental picture from reading the book.
on 20 March 2014
The story is an interesting reflection on the relative positions,and attitudes,of men and women in society.to look at this problem through different Eras,and from both sides of gender,Orlando has a stretched time scale: she ages but 15 years in an 80 year period,then is reincarnated as a male,and exists in succeeding centuries,to see the different attitudes as time passes.
on 22 January 2013
The story though complex, is largely irrelevant, as is much of Virginia Woolf's writing. What counts is the delicate description of form, feeling and atmosphere. In this she is a master. The book delights from beginning to end. One could compare it to Dorian Gray in the longevity of the protagonist but where Gray is sexual, Orlando is sensual. He/she is a delightful creation. I loved this book!
on 18 October 2015
Loved this book because I had no idea what to expect going into it and so the satirical side of it took me completely by surprise. I was very happy to find something that provided a great take on the subject but that also managed to interject comedy into it so effortlessly. I found myself laughing out loud at many points (my family members will back me up on this) and, though it was confusing at times, the fact that it was such a surreal read made it all the more enjoyable. Thoroughly recommend. Also, the delivery was very prompt and the book itself in great condition physically.
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.
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.
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.
on 14 October 2005
'Orlando' is a sprawling fantasy, in which the title character survives for 400 years, during which time he is transformed from a man to a woman. The book examines the changing roles of women over the historical eras it spans, notably Elizabethan, Stuart and Victorian England, and also examines the role of gender in relationships, as both Orlando and his/her lovers are frequently portrayed as being of ambiguous sex. The book was apparently written to commemorate Woolf's own desire for her close friend Vita Sackville-West, and the themes of love and gender crop up repeatedly.
Unfortunately, I just didn't enjoy reading 'Orlando' at all. The story sprawls and meanders, whimsically changing scene and settings throughout, without any real structure emerging. This (for me) obscured any points that she was trying to make and, although I think that I understood the themes she was writing about, I still wasn't clear how she felt about them. The story was horribly put together and this made reading a bit of a chore. In addition, the writing was very simplistic, resulting in incredibly boring prose and a story that was far too fast paced to get my teeth into. I found this hard work for a short book. On top of all that, Woolf's style has some of the things that irritate me most about some writers, not least the constant asides to the reader or referrals to herself as the author, informing us about what we should all be thinking about the events in the book at a particular point. All this made 'Orlando' a book that I won't be picking up again in a hurry.