What can be said about Orlando that hasn’t already been said, antithesised, argued, counterpointed, reargued, and typed up as a dissertation already?
Not that I would be privy to any of the academic work that has been done on this book, it’s just that I was very aware of the book by reputation, and know how highly many people value Woolf as a thinker and personality… but I just did not get this book.
Again, like reading Zulieka Dobson, I read with a growing suspicion that I was reading a book in that obscure genre of “Magical Realism”. Finding out a little more after finishing it, Woolf wrote it for her close friend (and one-time lover) Vita Sackville-West, as a kind of in-joke about the history of her family. This actually helped reconcile me to Orlando, furnishing an explanation for its purpose. The book starts in the 1600s and concerns the tale of Orlando, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth, who falls in love with a Russian, becomes a foreign diplomat, turns into a woman, meets Alexander Pope, gets tied up in a legal dispute for 150 years regarding her estates, marries a ship captain, stares out the window for another fifty years, and then gets in her car and drives over to Oxford Street to buy some bath salts.
Fair enough. As a plot Orlando is rather unconventional, and though rather absurd (especially when condensed in this fashion), it does give a lot of opportunity to discuss some very meaningful questions. For instance, how is the same person treated differently if they suddenly become a different gender? How do those around them act different? How do they find love? Additionally, how would we consider the passing of the centuries if we experienced them contracted into our lifetime? The main character of Orlando is, in the course of the book, famous and infamous, noble and common, male and female, loved and hated. And what opportunities will Woolf now take to develop the conflicts leading from these contrasts?
Almost none. Orlando, in fact, beset by a complete lack of conflict, most conspicuously absent from the Orlando him/herself. When he is a man he has passions, obsessions, poetry, and love. Once he wakes up a woman, he loses all of that. She (Orlando) is very blaise and doesn’t find it much to write home about, deciding instead to live as a gypsy for a little while. Then she gets kicked out of the tribe and decides to head back home to England. Her old servants are happy to see her again and take her gender transmutation in good humour, and in fact no one really hassles her about it. She is aware of how society limits her participation now she is a woman, but she is not angry about this, at least not to the point where she actually does something. And then the years start to pass and she’s in the late Victorian era, the poem she’s been working on for three hundred years becomes a smash hit but she doesn’t care. She marries a man who she loves completely but doesn’t ever want to be around (which is fine because he’s not), and then the book ends when the story reaches October 11, 1928 (the book’s publication date).
It all just fell very weakly for me. This was frustrating because I went into it really wanting to know what a distinct female perspective was on these different themes — I wanted to know what Woolf thought of gender politics throughout British history, I wanted to know what she thought the differences were between male and female sexual identity, about duty, about love. And I put the book down with almost no further understanding of that.
And yet — look at how I’ve written perhaps the longest review in this series about this short little book. And reading some of the other reviews online, I can see that many people are very passionate about this book, and I would hate to begrudge them their love.
If this book does have a purpose, it is not to explain, but to comfort. It was not written for me to understand something outside of myself, it was written for someone different in order to recognize something particular in themselves.