Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Rereading Orlando has been a delightful experience. Like the character Orlando, I feel as if the thinking the novel inspired allowed whole ages to pass and hence here I am writing the review long after my allotted week has passed.

Those of you who haven’t yet read Orlando need only know that the novel is a mock-biography of a young boy of noble birth alive in the Elizabethan era, who grows up through the ages and many different kinds of life into a woman still alive in the present of Woolf’s time, 1928.

There are some wonderful and pertinent contemplations of what it is to be conscious, of what makes up a person gendered or otherwise. The idea of trying to fit an entire life of a person into a book is ridiculed – how can you represent all that thought that is never uttered or recorded? It is also very funny – and this was a surprise because I don’t remember finding it funny when I read it last.

London and England almost feel like characters in their own right as they shift and change with the ages and seasons. As we move through the ages so the weather changes to reflect England’s history. And this shifting and changing is at the heart of the novel and what it says about how humans think and behave: how we shape ourselves is dependent upon the time and place of our life; our behaviour, whether man or woman, is a fashion that can be cast off. Owning our own self – in the rare moments when the many selves within us forge a sense of oneness – requires a recognition of this fashion and a bravery to act regardless of its dictates. This counts in writing as well, something Orlando does throughout his/her long life.

There are such beautiful passages where the flow and complexity of consciousness is rendered so vividly it feels like a true reflection of thought. There are also moments that just make you want to laugh, such as when Orlando meets a writer friend she hasn’t seen for centuries and is disappointed to discover that literature, which she had thought so wild and swift, ‘was an elderly gentleman in a grey suit talking about duchesses’ (p267). In fact, I could easily quote lines from every other page or so. However, I’m going to leave you with one quote that for me sums up the spirit of the novel:

‘Yet still, for all her travels and adventures and profound thinkings and turnings this way and that, she was only in process of fabrication. What the future might bring, Heaven only knew. Change was incessant, and change perhaps would never cease. High battlements of thought, habits that had seemed durable as stone, went down like shadows at the touch of another mind and left a naked sky and fresh stars twinkling in it.’ (p168)

If you haven’t read Orlando, I thoroughly recommend it. You will find some moment or phrase that gives you that feeling of looking out on fresh twinkling stars.

This week I’m reading Men by Marie Darrieussecq.