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.)