Thursday, 29 January 2015

Book Review – Orlando: A Biography

Orlando: A Biography
by Virginia Woolf (1928)

I decided to read this classic because of the personal name Orlando, as well as references to Woolf's novel, being used by Robert Galbraith alias J.K. Rowling in The Silkworm. In The Silkworm, Orlando is a female character – but although a grown woman, in some ways more like a child. In my own head however the name is (or was) a male one (think Orlando Bloom). So that for a start called for some research (especially since I know from before that Rowling tends to put a lot of meaning into the choice of names for her characters).

The first brief introduction to Woolf's novel that I found only informed me that …

Orlando tells the story of an individual named Orlando, born as a biological male in England during the reign of Elizabeth I. Orlando lives for more than 300 years and, at around 30 years of age, mysteriously changes biological sex to female.”

At the same time though, it’s also described as being

“a semi-biographical novel based in part on the life of Woolf's presumed lover Vita Sackville-West”

Together, this sounded rather strange to me… but tickled my curiosity to have a closer look at. And to satisfy such urges is easy enough these days, when a Kindle edition of Woolf's Complete Works  can be downloaded in an instant at less than $4!

I turned to the first chapter of Orlando and started reading; and soon found myself hooked. Actually Orlando's journey through the time and shifting cultures of three centuries, and even the transition from one sex to another, turned out to make a lot more sense than the summary quoted above.

While the plot does have some strange time twists, I found those to be written with a twinkle in the eye; and I did not have any trouble picking up the subtext as the experience of a Reader and a Writer; as well as growing from Child to Woman (with some confusion perhaps in the middle) - and at the same time conveying quite a clever analysis of the shifting position of women (and not least women writers) in the context of society during those three centuries (from the Elizabethan age until 1928); and also the general explosion of literature during the same period:

While she had been sitting in Hyde Park the bookseller had delivered her order, and the house was crammed – there were parcels slipping down the staircase – with the whole of Victorian literature done up in grey paper and neatly tied with string. She carried as many of these packets as she could to her room, ordered footmen to bring the others, and, rapidly cutting innumerable strings, was soon surrounded by innumerable volumes. Accustomed to the little litteratures of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, Orlando was appalled by the consequences of her order. --- Orlando’s reverence for print had a tough job set before it …

I have to confess that this quote reminds me a lot of my own experience with the Kindle… (LOL)

Anyway – I really enjoyed this book, and feel that I also learned quite a lot from it.  (For one thing – just to relate to my latest read – it did make me understand better how Rowling weaved the theme of gender issues into The Silkworm in various ways, both in the case plot and in the relationships of the background characters.)


  1. Wow!!! I had no idea!!! Now this is a novel, right? Or maybe a bio with other things added? I have never heard of such a thing, though I do know about babies being born with both genders. A doctor I knew would operate and remove one. But enough about this. So was she also kind of a vampire since she lived 300 years? Funny...such a very famous and strange novel and I knew nothing about it, I am rather shocked. 1928... Oh my GOSH!! It must have been such a scandal, it's a wonder she wasn't run out of town on a rail!!!

    1. Yes Ginny, it is a novel; but as I understand from Wikipedia partly based on the life of Vita Sackville-West. I don't know enough to have an opinion about to which degree - but she did not live 300 years! :) It's more about the psyche I think, and the conventional roles applied to men and women, and how confusing the experience of time can sometimes be. I suspect that if I had read this novel back in my 20s, I might have found it harder to understand than I did now (being a bit closer to 300 years old...)

  2. Did you know the book was made into a film in 1992? Tilda Swinton played Orlando - and from what I know of the film and the book (without having watched or read it myself), I think she was the perfect choice for that role.

    Good job you don't need the help of a footman to handle all your book orders on the kindle :-)

    1. Yes Meike, once I started looking things up, I came across references to the film as well. (I tried to write my review without looking at too many others beforehand.) It seems to be sold out on DVD though - at least not available from the Swedish websites I usually buy from.
      I did find the book quite entertaining throughout, it had me smiling a lot and I marked lots of quotes.

  3. It's very easy to back up books (real and electronic) with the best of intentions. I know how that feels!

  4. Back in my pre-internet university days (back in the 70's and early 80's, in Sweden), getting hold of other English classics than the ascribed study course books was quite a quest... Now that I suddenly got instant and free (or cheap) access to them all, I felt like a child in a sweetshop... I wanted everything, even if I can't possibly eat (read) it all! :)


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