Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century and Orlando is one of her most unique and fantastic works. The protagonist, Orlando, begins the novel as a young sixteenth century aristocrat and a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. She gives him an estate and orders him never to grow old. We then follow Orlando through the centuries, as he crisscrosses the world, falls in love, and becomes a woman. Profound and comic, Orlando is Woolf's deepest investigation of gender roles.
Goodreads description

I'm not too sure I agree with the Goodreads description - this book didn't come over to me as a deep investigation of gender roles. I am probably looking at it from a 21st century perspective when I say that the gender issue (which probably was remarkable at the time) was at best partly profound. Orlando's transformation was fun magic realism, but Orlando adapted with ease to the change. Woolf's view on the matter is: 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. 

Woolf is interested in how the individual adapts to their surroundings and how they are viewed. This includes the sex of the individual but also fashions, thus the Elizabethan Orlando is a lovesick youth much given to poetic similes and duels, the Jacobean Orlando suffers from melancholia and so on. This is enhanced by the mock biography format: For she had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may have many thousand.  Woolf plays with the different literary styles of the period, which might cause the reader some confusion, but is great fun and I only wish I was better read to enjoy them. 

The book seemed to me to be as much about literature and writing as about gender. Orlando writes poetry and novels and does so for over three hundred years, but s/he is not very good at it.  To put it in a nutshell, he was afflicted with a love of literature. It was the fatal nature of this disease to substitute a phantom for reality. but at the end Orlando was unaccountably disappointed. She had thought of literature all these years (her seclusion, her rank, her sex must be her excuse) as something wild as the wind, hot as fire, swift as lightning; something errant, incalculable, abrupt, and behold, literature was an elderly gentleman in a grey suit talking about duchesses. There's a laugh-out-loud scene where her attempt at writing is disturbed by an inkblot, to which Orlando adds wings and whiskers. S/he also tries to be patron of poets and writers, who welcome the money but are scornful of him/her, especially the poisonous Nicolas Greene. 

The magic realism in the book is not confined to the gender transformation, which in true magic realism fashion is not explained or regarded as unusual by Orlando and others. There is also the fact that Orlando and some other characters are immortal. Some we know to be dead even though they walk among us; some are not yet born though they go through all the forms of life; other are hundreds of years old though they call themselves thirty-six. In addition there is Orlando's longsightedness, for example Orlando is able to see the smoke of London and Mount Snowdon from his home.

There's an interesting take on magic at the end of the book: In the 18th century we knew how everything was done, but here I rise through the air, I listen to voices in America, I see men flying- but how is it done? I can't even begin to wonder. So my belief in magic returns.  This isn't developed, but it opens an interesting concept. I rather felt that is symptomatic of the novel, there is so much going on here, so many fascinating ideas, but in a slim book such as this not everything can be fully explored.

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