selena's Reviews > Orlando

Orlando by Virginia Woolf
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Feb 12, 10

bookshelves: 2010, literary-fiction
Recommended to selena by: Woolf in Winter
Read from February 09 to 11, 2010

“And instantly the usual exciting devices enter my mind: a biography beginning in the year 1500 and continuing to the present day called Orlando: Vita, only with a change from one sex to the other.” 5 October 1927, Diaries of V. Woolf

A love-letter to envy though I fear its meaning is beyond anyone but the writer and the recipient. I can see why Vita’s son would call this “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” Its mock biography format was new to me, I don’t recall ever reading a book written this way. But I often felt like I was missing something; I know so little about Virginia and especially Vita. Is Sasha meant to represent someone in particular? Is Virginia meant to be Shelmerdine or is that the role Vita’s husband plays? Or is she the obvious narrator we live through, who gives life to Vita’s story? Part of my experience with Orlando was the research.

Sasha the Russian is Violet Trefusis – maybe Vita’s most fervent love – who like the Russian betrayed her in the end. Vita’s husband takes Shelmerdine’s role (his role in the novel speaks volumes about their relationship and friendship). And it seems that Virginia has given herself the most important role, that of biographer, which is in some ways above that of a lover because it immortalizes her subject.

I can’t help but think to myself that I would have gotten so much more out of this novel if I knew about this ahead of time; perhaps if I knew, I would understand the oblique inner-circle references Virginia meant to convey. But even without it, I cannot help but be amazed at their openness. Clearly Virginia knew all these things about Vita and her life – they were so free, so confident with one another (and with the world, having allowed this novel to enter the world of the judgmental, and unfortunately conservative, public).

It was the last thirty pages of the novel won me over. It begins with Orlando pondering this idea that our lives cannot be measured by time or age but by the “successful [practice:] of the art of life…” going on to state clearly that “[t:]he true length of a person’s life, whatever the Dictionary of Natural Biography may say, is always a matter of dispute (pg 306).” Hearing this in the context of a mock-biography of a subject who literally changes genders and ages only twenty years in centuries seems almost obvious but it felt as though this was a chief reason for penning this tale. Vita (like Virginia, too) was able to practice this “art of life,” her story, Orlando, is Virginia’s answer to “the dispute.”

It ends with (what seemed to me) a reference to Virginia’s previous work, A Room of One’s Own. Centuries Orlando has spent in her four hundred and seventy-six rooms and in the end reflects upon them.

“They had known each other close on four centuries now. They had nothing to conceal. She knew their sorrows and joys. She knew what age each part of them was and its little secrets – a hidden drawer, a concealed cupboard, or some deficiency perhaps, such as a part made up, or added later. They, too, knew her in all her moods and changes. She had hidden nothing from them; had come to them as child, as man, crying and dancing, brooding and gay. In this window-seat, she had written her first verses; in that chapel, she had been married. And she would be buried here, she reflected, kneeling on the window-sill in the long galley and sipping her Spanish wine (pg 316).”

Maybe Vita also knew the importance of her own room and space? Is this what they found in each other (on top of their apparent mutual love and attraction)?

What I know for sure of Virginia’s life is that when her body was found, days after she committed suicide in the River Ouse, her remains were buried under a tree in the garden of her home with her husband. I couldn’t help but think of Orlando’s poem “The Oak Tree,” meant to capture Vita’s poem, “The Land,” for which she received much recognition. It leaves me wondering about Virginia’s connection with the nature that surrounded her. Was this yet another reason that she felt so close to Vita?

With Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, the influence of the water is apparent and once seen becomes hard to un-see, almost overwhelmingly so. With Orlando, it is the constant presence of a tree with spine-like roots jutting forth from the ground.
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02/09/2010 page 296

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