HE – FOR THERE could be no doubt about his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it – was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. It was the colour of an old football, and more or less the shape of one save for the sunken cheeks and a strand or two of coarse, dry hair, like the hair of a coconut.
The opening two sentences of Orlando certainly make you want to know more… Just what is going on here?
Virginia Woolf’s best known work is 90 years old this year so it seems appropriate to write about it now. The book is strange reading it now; it must have been extraordinary to readers back in 1928 with it’s bizarre plot twist halfway through. Although for me it’s what Woolf does with the character of Orlando before and after that point that is interesting rather than the twist itself but it must have been quite a jump for the casual reader in 1928. I have split this blog into two because I really want to be able to discuss the plot line and that will require me to include a lot of spoilers so this part talks generally about the book and part two will summarise the plots within it and contain the spoilers, so if you haven’t read Orlando this blog is perfectly safe.
Although it is a short novel (just over 200 pages) there is a lot packed into the book and part of the conceit of it is that it claims to be biography. Virginia writes in first person as the biographer and frequently employs the literary equivalent of the theatrical trick of ‘breaking the fourth wall’ by talking directly to the reader about the difficulties of finding material to work from in compiling the biography. There is even a short index at the back as you would expect in such a work. One particular passage near the end of the book sums up this stylistic method rather well.
It was now November. After November comes December. Then January, February, March and April. After April comes May. June, July, August follow. Next is September. Then October, and so behold, here we are back at November again, with a whole year accomplished.
This method of writing biography, though it has its merits, is a little bare, perhaps, and the reader, if we go on with it, may complain that he can recite the calendar for himself and so save his pocket whatever sum the Hogarth Press may think proper to charge for this book.
As can be seen ‘the biographer’ can be quite chatty to the reader but also quite pompous, these brief interludes give you time to absorb wherever the plot has suddenly taken us next, but it is also Virginia’s way of ridiculing historical biographers who she clearly thought took themselves far too seriously.
From the way she writes about it Woolf was clearly also not a fan of ‘Society’, that endless round of functions and engagements that the upper classes seemed so devoted to right up to her time. There are many disparaging passages in the book about this foolish waste of time and money where nothing seems to be done or said that was memorable. She is also less than enamoured by her own profession of writing, or at least the majority of what was being written at the time, one particularly favourite quote of mine from the book is.
For it is rash to walk into a lion’s den unarmed, rash to navigate the Atlantic in a rowing boat, rash to stand on one foot on the top of St. Paul’s, it is still more rash to go home alone with a poet.
The book is definitely an oddity, so many different things happen and great numbers of historical characters are introduced and yet there is the constancy of the huge family house which is used to pull Orlando back to normality when things get too strange only to bore after a while and lead into another adventure. It really becomes one of the characters in the story and is the solid anchor around which the shifting tale is woven.
The house featured in the book is clearly based on Knole in Kent, one of the largest houses in England; and one I know well, as it is 17 miles from where I used to live at the end of the 1990’s. It was the family home of Vita Sackville-West and like her house at Sissinghurst it is now owned by the National Trust. I used to go there regularly to explore the 1,000 acre park or wander round the house, it has according to Vita 365 rooms just as Orlando’s vast house does; although she also said that “I do not know that anyone has ever troubled to verify it”. The house was also the source of great sadness for Vita as if she had been born a man she would have inherited it as her parents only child but as a woman she was passed over in favour of her cousin. As explained in my previous blog about Vita, she and Virginia were lovers for many years and there is a lot of Vita’s family history interwoven in the book.
The dig at writers and specifically poets mentioned above was also somewhat aimed at Vita who was clearly not in Virginia’s league and for all that she loved her Virginia really didn’t rate her as a poet or author. There is also, at the start of the final chapter some discussion as to whether it is even proper for a married woman to be a writer. Clearly it is fine for an unmarried female to dabble in writing for her own amusement and also what is marriage anyway…
She was married true: But if one’s husband was always sailing round Cape Horn was it marriage? If one liked him, was it marriage? If one liked other people, was it marriage? And finally, if one still wished, more than anything in the whole world, to write poetry, was it marriage? She had her doubts.
Both Virginia and Vita were married throughout their relationship and Vita in particular took other lovers at the same time both male and female. Orlando was written at what is now recognised as the peak of their love for each other when both were also at their creative best, probably feeding inspiration off each other. It was also a time of female emancipation in Britain, 1928 was not only when this book was written but it was also the year that woman finally gained full voting equality with men and more pointedly a couple of pages later Woolf includes the line…
as long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking
I struggled initially with the plot of the book (see part 2) but I’m glad I persevered, this is the first of Woolf’s novels I have read although I had read her best known feminist work ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and ‘The Common Reader’ before. Maybe it’s time to get that copy of ‘To The Lighthouse’ off the shelves where it has languished for a few years.
Of equal interest, to me at least, is the background to the three copies of the novel that I possess and two of whose covers have punctuated this essay. The top one is the first Penguin Books edition (number 381) from July 1942 and therefore published under wartime restrictions. This meant that fewer copies were printed than might have been the case before the war and also that the paper quality is poor to say the least, making the book quite fragile.
The second cover at first glance look to be the same, but this was printed in Cairo in 1943 for the troops fighting on the African front. This explains the price in piastres printed on the cover. If possible these books, there were 20 titles printed in English and 1 in French as part of this programme, are even more fragile than the ones produced in England at the same time and few have survived their time in the Africa campaign. Books for the troops were in short supply, especially in Africa and as any soldier will tell you a culture of ‘hurry up, and wait’ means that there is a lot of quick movement followed by long periods of not a lot apparently happening so any reading material was eagerly seized upon. Quite what the troops made of this very strange book is not recorded, I can think of many more suitable novels from Penguins extensive catalogue which would have been a lot more popular.
The third copy I have is the American Penguin edition from April 1946 and this being far more capable of surviving having its pages turned is the copy I read for these essays. However as the illustrated cover includes a massive spoiler for the book I have used this in part 2 of my discussion of Orlando. There is also an interesting tale behind this imprint. Penguin wanted to sell books in America during the war but clearly shipping books across the Atlantic was out of the question, as was using up the paper ration that they had been allocated on books which would not then end up on sale in the UK so they sought an agent to produce the books for them. They settled on Ian Ballantine and he originally printed books that looked like their UK equivalent but soon switched to illustrated covers to appeal more to the American reader. In the end under his control over 180 titles were printed in the US as either Penguin or Pelican before in 1948 Penguin Books withdrew from this enterprise as they could now export again. The titles were re-branded as Signet (for the Penguins) and Mentor (for the Pelicans) and Ian Ballantine with his wife Betty continued to publish under those brands before also creating Bantam, New English Library and of course Ballantine books. The Ballantine book group was acquired by Random House in 1973 which in turn merged into Penguin Random House in 2013 thereby bringing the story full circle.