Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Off My Shelf: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

An occasional series where I share a review of a book I've had sitting on my shelf for a while and finally get around to reading/ rereading. I'm blackmailing myself to get through some of the backlog by posting about them!

Orlando is a re-read for me. I picked up a library copy several years ago, then bought a Folio Society edition last year. I should have started on one of my many unread books (Folio subscription addiction), but this one called to me, partly because it's short and my long reads keep getting interrupted at this time in life, but partly because the prose was playing in my head every time I glanced at the spine.

Vita Sackville-West
Vita Sackville-West
Orlando is Virginia Woolf's attempt to turn biography on its head. It's fiction, but is presented as non fiction, even including an index. Orlando's life itself refuses to conform to the template for all standard biographies. His story begins as a sixteen year-old nobleman in the Elizabethan age, and when it ends, she is thirty-six, and the year is 1928 (Woolf's present day). No, that wasn't a typo - Orlando wakes up part way through the book to discover he has become a woman.

Perhaps the only convention that Woolf aims for - and she even achieves that unconventionally - is to evoke the spirit of each age Orlando lives through. She explores the question of  how much we are an individual, and how much we are shaped by the world around us. Only in the Victorian period does Orlando feel out of sync with her life, which she remedies by taking a few minutes to find a husband and embrace the conventionality of the age.

Like Orlando, Woolf and her circle, the Bloomsbury Group, tended to bend and transgress societal boundaries. Although she and her husband had a deep love for one another, her life was coloured by an intense Sapphic affair with Vita Sackville-West, whose family owned the Knole estate in Kent. Orlando, of course, is Vita, not even thinly disguised - several photographs of 'Orlando' included in the book are of Vita.

Orlando is described as Woolf's love letter to Vita Sackville-West. While this is indisputably true, I also read it as a love letter to England. The anchor in Orlando's life is the great oak tree on his estate, whose roots, he feels, are the ribs that help anchor it - and him - to the earth. Although a prevailing theme of the novel is literature, its symbol is Orlando's poem "The Oak Tree", four hundred years in the making. The Spirit of the Age is found not only in the literary lights, but in the very atmosphere of the country, from the bold weather of Elizabeth's reign to the fertile, damp miasma of the Victorian age. Poetry, literature, life, love - Orlando never finds the answers to these questions, that bend and twist with each new century. Only the land remains a constant one can trust.

Admittedly, Woolf is not for the casual reader. But if you are serious about literature, enjoy quirky novels, and a good dose of poetry - or you're an Anglophile or bibliophile - Orlando is worth a read.


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