Author: Virginia Woolf
Published by: University of Adelaide
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Where I got the book: Free online from the University of Adelaide
Content Warning: Anti-Romani bias, orientalist othering, pro-colonial discourse, use of racial slurs
“Virginia Woolf’s Orlando ‘The longest and most charming love letter in literature’, playfully constructs the figure of Orlando as the fictional embodiment of Woolf’s close friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West. Spanning three centuries, the novel opens as Orlando, a young nobleman in Elizabeth’s England, awaits a visit from the Queen and traces his experience with first love as England under James I lies locked in the embrace of the Great Frost. At the midpoint of the novel, Orlando, now an ambassador in Costantinople, awakes to find that he is a woman, and the novel indulges in farce and irony to consider the roles of women in the 18th and 19th centuries. As the novel ends in 1928, a year consonant with full suffrage for women. Orlando, now a wife and mother, stands poised at the brink of a future that holds new hope and promise for women.” (Source)
I’m angry I never read this in school. When I came up with the idea for Lady Classics, I’d only read two classic books written by women, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and Beloved by Toni Morisson, both of which I hated at the time and had to take a seperate literature class in grade 12 to do so. I’d never read a book written by a woman for a novel study in any of my English classes. Orlando always sounded like a book I’d enjoy but I never got around to reading it. I’m upset I didn’t do so earlier.
Let’s start with the prose though. This is the first books of Woolf’s that I’ve read so I can’t compare it to her other work. But holy shit, the language. Orlando is melding of poetry and prose that breathes a fairy tale to life. A satire of a biography, Orlando purposely pokes fun at genre conventions, using Orlando’s love for poetry to shape the text and the narrative.
Overall though, I love this book because of it’s optimistic tone and the delight the biographer takes in writing the narrative of Orlando’s life. Orlando is also very centered in a female and queer gaze. The biographer describes Orlando’s perfect calves multiple times, men and women alike adore and idolize Orlando, she looks amazing in both a dress and a suit. But what I loved the most is that although Orlando wakes up a woman one morning, her sense of self doesn’t change. Orlando is still Orlando and still has all the same hopes, dreams, strengths and weaknesses she had as a man. As the centuries progress, Orlando conforms to the sensibilities of each era until she’s finally had enough of it all. It’s through these conformations that Woolf’s unnamed biographer cleverly comments on the rigidity of gender roles for both men and women.
My main problems with the book is very overt pro-British colonial discourse that shapes a fair amount of the narrative. Due to when the book was written and the time periods it takes place in I’m not terribly surprised but it was unexpected to read colonial orientalist discourse in a book that’s considered a queer and feminist classic. There’s a lot of colonial othering that shapes Orlando’s understanding of the world and her position in British society that’s uncomfortable to read in parts.
My other main problem with the book is that I should have gotten a paper copy. There’s nothing wrong with the ebook’s formatting but I just have a harder time retaining information when reading digital books and having a paper copy would have really helped my understanding of a couple difficult parts. Orlando is a book I’d like to read again but when I do I’ll be sure to get a paper copy of the book.