The Short Version: A young boy of beauty and grace is born during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. But his life is not to be ordinary and will instead last for centuries – and he will, one morning, awake to find that he is now she and a whole new swath of life’s adventures have been opened.
The Review: Virginia Woolf doesn’t strike me as the sort of person who’d write a fairy tale, but this comes surprisingly close. I don’t mean in content, although Orlando’s longevity and gender are certainly the stuff of magic, but rather in tone: this book reads with far more whimsy than I expected. There is a sense of invention on the page, as though Woolf was much more obviously making it up as she went along than most “serious novelists” are meant to show. This creates a paradoxical experience for a reader who comes to this expecting Virginia Woolf to be, well, that Virginia Woolf who wrote The Waves or To the Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway.
The thrill, though, is the discovery that this Woolf exists too: one who has a light touch and a sense of humor not clouded by the seriousness of those other texts. The experience of reading this book feels, at times, almost like eavesdropping on a conversation between two best friends – which, to some extent, it is. The novel is dedicated to Vita Sackville-West, who provides the inspiration (and occasional image) of Orlando and who Woolf was certainly in love with. The joy of telling a story, the giggliness of love (both romantic and platonic), and a sense of wonder at the world suffuse the entire book – and more than make up for any shortcomings that are to be found.
Just last week, I was producing the third annual Public Forum presentation of Thornton Wilder’s The Long Christmas Dinner and, as I was reading this book at the same time, I had occasion to think more specifically about the passage of time (and how Wilder was almost certainly inspired by Woolf in his work) and how we as readers don’t necessarily need all that much for our minds to do the rest of the work. It’s very rare in this book that we’re told how much time has passed between a particular moment and the next one; in fact, it’s relatively often that we discover scenes actually took place years or even decades apart when they seemed to flow seamlessly right into one another. The British Civil War is barely given a thought, for example, but we spend quite a bit of time around the turn of the 17th Century. The early days of the 20th Century flash by almost like a post-script but we’re given much exploration of a few specific years in the 19th.
The resultant sensation is, again, one of fantasy and magic: Orlando is only about 36 when the novel ends (at the “present” moment, October 1928) and yet she’s lived for nearly four hundred years at that point. This (as well as the reappearance of another apparent immortal late in the novel, one Nicholas Greene) is barely remarked upon. We don’t know how, we don’t know why, it quite simply is that these characters have survived for centuries.
Curiously, a little more attention is paid to Orlando’s gender transition – but with the best possible outcome. The narrator, our “biographer”, is perplexed by the fact that a man could suddenly wake up one day as a woman and, on a basic logistical level, this does make some sense. Bodies don’t exactly metamorphosize overnight (or even, in this case, over a light-coma-sleep that lasts for several). But it is about gender transition and fluidity where Woolf is at her most forward-thinking: “The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatsoever to alter their identity.” No one has put it better, to my mind, the idea of transgender and what it actually “means”. A person is still that same person, no matter what gender or sexuality or identity they are a) born with, b) identify with, and even c) change to over the course of their life. It is only their future that alters, in that they are something other (even if it is just a matter of accepting/announcement/embracing it) than they previously were. At a time when identity politics are the next big front in the culture war, I can’t think of a better or more succinct way to think about the big issue at hand.
Aside from her forward-thinking politics, it should be noted that Orlando contains some of Woolf’s most fun writing. The depictions of the Great Frost of 1608 (the things and people frozen under the River Thames, in particular) as well as just Woolf’s effusive descriptions of reading, writing, and the world – the prose often teeters on the edge of needing a tighter editorial hand but Woolf always errs on the right side of that line, keeping things from indulging too greatly. My favorite of these moments comes when she describes the young Orlando as suffering from a “disease”: reading too much. Sound familiar to anyone else?
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. While it sometimes stays a little too ethereal, a little too fantastical without any grounding, Woolf is at her most playful here and that makes for a fascinating view of an author more famous for her very serious side. This is a novel that, in some ways, is about the joys of writing – and the joys of the world at large, too. We can’t all live for centuries like Orlando but that doesn’t mean there isn’t magic in the world. Coupled with the tremendously accepting stance on gender & sexual identities, this book feels in many ways far ahead of its time, redeeming even some of the messiness that it sometimes displays.