Is it just me or is Virginia Woolf's profile some kind of cultural icon? I have struggled to get through Orlando; I loved Mrs Dalloway but drowned in The Waves and never managed To The Lighthouse (though it is still vaguely on the list). You have, I suppose, to remember that Woolf is all about the writing, and actually when I think about it, Orlando is about writing, being a writer. Orlando struggles to be a writer, for five hundred years. Decades seem to pass where s/he sits and contemplates the trees, and in some ways the gift of time seems so essential, and something that writers often struggle with the most. It is what Woolf also writes about in A Room of One's Own, both physical and psychological space being so necessary for writing.
"Of the two forces which alternately, and what is more confusing still, at the same moment, dominate out unfortunate numbskulls - brevity and diuturnity - Orlando was sometimes under the influence of the elephant-footed deity, then of the gnat-winged fly. Life seemed to him of prodigious length. Yet even so, it went like a flash. But even when it stretched longest and the moments swelled biggest and he seemed to wander alone in the deserts of vast eternity, there was not time for the smoothing out and deciphering of those thickly scored parchments which thirty years among men and women had rolled tight in his heart and brain." (p.60)
""I'll be blasted," he said, "if I ever write another word, or try to write another word, to please Nick Greene or the Muse. Bad, good or indifferent, I'll write, from this day forward, to please myself."; and here he made as if he were tearing whole budget of papers across and tossing them in the face of that sneering loose-lipped man. Upon which, as cur ducks if you stoop to shy a stone at hime, Memory ducked her effigy of Nick Greene out of sight; and substituted for it - nothing whatever." (p.62-3)
From her position of immense privilege Orlando gets to observe the world, and Woolf uses her centuries of life to allow learning and much reflection on the human condition. Some things that I came across struck such a chord with modern politics:
"No passion is stronger in the breast of man than the desire to make other believe as he believes. Nothing so cuts at the root of his happiness and fills him with rage as the sense that another rates low what he prizes high. Whigs and Tories, Liberal party and Labour party - for what do they battle except their own prestige? It is not love of truth but desire to prevail that sets quarter against quarter and makes parish desire the downfall of parish. Each seeks peace of mind and subservience rather than the triumph of truth and the exaltation of virtue - but these moralities belong, and should be left to the historian, since they are as dull as ditchwater." (p.94)
As Orlando, now a woman, returns to England from Turkey she sits on the ship and begins to realise the implications of her transformation:
""And that's the last oath I shall ever be able to swear," she thought; "once I set foot on English soil. And I shall never be able to crack a man over the head, or tell him he lies in his teeth, or draw miswrote and run him through the body, or sit amongst my peers, or wear a coronet, or walk in a procession, or sentence a man to death, or lead an army, or prance down Whitehall on a charger, or wear seventy-two different medals on my breast. All I can do, once I set foot on English soil, is to pour out tea and ask my lords how they like it. D'you take sugar? D'you take cream?" And mincing out the words, she was horrified to perceive how low an opinion she was forming of the other sex, the manly, to which it had once been her pride to belong." (p.100)
And a little further on, still thinking of her change from man to woman, but reflections that have some interesting insights into the whole transgender issue, clothes being somehow symbolic for how people present their gender to the outside world:
"The difference between the sexes is, happily, one of great profundity. Clothes are but a symbol of something hid deep beneath. It was a change in Orlando herself that dictated her choice of a woman's dress and of a woman's sex. And perhaps in this she was expressing rather more openly than usual - openness was indeed the soul of her nature - something that happens to most people without being thus plainly expressed. For here again, we come to a dilemma. Different though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above. Of the complications and confusions which thus result everyone has had experience; but here we leave the general question and note only the odd effect it had in the particular case of Orlando herself." (p.121)
Though not, I felt, specifically a feminist treatise she does dwell periodically on the lot of woman, and, here, on the impact of the now victorian age on the once wild and reckless Orlando:
"So she stood mournfully at the drawing-room window (Bartholomew had so christened the library) dragged down by the weight of the crinoline which she had submissively adopted. It was heavier and more drab than any dress she had yet worn. None had ever so impeded her movements. No longer could she stride though the garden with her dogs, or run lightly to the high mound and fling herself beneath the oak tree. Her skirts collected damp leaves and straw. The plumed hat tossed on the breeze. The thin shoes were quickly soaked and mud-caked. Her muscles had lost their pliancy. She became nervous lest there should be robbers behind the wainscot and afraid, for the first time in her life, of ghosts in the corridors. All these things inclined her, step by step, to submit to the new discovery, whether Queen Victoria's or another's, that each man and each woman has another allotted to it for life, whom it supports, by whom it is supported, till death do them part. It would be a comfort, she felt, to lean; to sit down; yes, to lie down; never, never, never to get up again." (p158-9)
Ok, I'm going to leave it there because the book has to go back to the library and I have in no way captured anything of the essence of Orlando. I read somewhere that it is supposed to be a love letter to Vita Sackville West; the photographs through the book are her. It is about a man who becomes a woman, so in one sense presents the different life experience of the genders, but as I began saying it is also about the struggles of a poet and a human being to get to grips with the big questions. A short book but dense with images and ideas, it could take a decade of serious study, and I'm sure someone out there is doing just that.