Orlando – Virginia Woolf – part 2

This blog follows on from Part 1 but goes through the entire plot line so should not be read if you have not previously read the book or do not mind knowing what happens.

The book is split into six chapters and each is effectively a stand alone tale dealing with a specific period in Orlando’s life. The first chapter makes perfect sense as you read it, Orlando is a boy when Queen Elizabeth I visits his fathers’ great house and so captivates Her Majesty that he is invited to court towards the end of her reign, where he grows up to be a young man about town and is still around the court when James I becomes king after the death of Elizabeth. By the end of this chapter you are happily reading a novel set in the time of the Stuarts where Orlando has loved and lost the Russian noblewoman Sasha and you are wondering what will befall him next.

Chapter two has him exiled from court due to the scandal with Sasha and spending time back in the family house attempting to write great works but being unsatisfied with them all and holding parties. This is a not so subtle reference to Virginia’s lover Vita Sackville-West who is also trying to write ‘a great work’ but Virginia doesn’t rate her as an author and doesn’t believe she is capable of achieving this ambition. Orlando also at this time meets Romanian Arch-duchess Harriet who attempts to seduce him but without success. Ultimately Orlando is getting bored stuck at home so that he requests a job from the King and is sent as ambassador to Turkey. This is also a reference to Vita as she lived in Constantinople (as it was then) when her husband was sent to the embassy there from 1912 to 1914.

If you know English history a few comments in the book may be ringing bells by now but the storyline still flows without many issues. The third chapter deals with his time in Turkey initially as ambassador but then the book takes a dramatic swerve. There are a few pages that read like sections of an ancient Greek play, with Purity, Chastity and Modesty introduced as characters parading through his bedroom with trumpet calls and overblown narrative until Orlando finally awakes as a woman. As a plot twist it is certainly unusual and gets odder as people seem relatively unfazed by the change and as the embassy had been attacked during an uprising whilst Orlando slept he/she goes off to live with gypsies for a while. This last part is again a link to Vita who had a highly romanticised view of the Romany people as free living and unconstrained by the pressures of modern life. The book has her living with them for a while and then realising that she is really an interloper and misses the green lands of her home, this is Woolf pointing out to Vita that for all she may fantasise about the gypsy life she would not cope with the reality.

Chapter four has her decide to return to London and her home in Kent where she again meets the Arch-duchess who reveals herself to actually be Arch-duke Harry and this time as a man tries to seduce the now female Orlando with much the same result. Again nobody appears to be surprised by this. She throws herself into London society and meets many famous writers before taking to disguises to explore the seedier side of London to stop life getting too dull. By the end of this chapter the aspect of the book that was ringing bells earlier has now been made explicit but without any explanation, I’ll get to it later.  The fifth chapter takes place entirely in the great house without providing much detail as to what goes on. By the end however the court cases started when she returned from Turkey as a woman and caused all sorts of issues with who owned what and if she really was Orlando are settled although they have used up most of her fortune and she marries somebody she has barely got to know just in time for him to leave to go to sea.

The book ends with her finally finishing her great work “The Oak Tree” and it being praised and even winning a prize before her husband returns to her from foreign climes and she rushes to greet him.

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This cover is a bit problematic for me as the inclusion of the aircraft gives away the one aspect I left out in the summary above and that is the time travelling aspect of the novel. You start reading the book and it is clearly set at the end of the 1500’s with the reign of Elizabeth I coming to an end. Orlando is mentioned several times lying under the tree so what is the plane doing there?

In fact you slowly become aware of the drift of history through the book. As stated above Orlando was clearly a young man at the end of Elizabeth’s reign and much later on in the book we discover that the poem he has been working on since boyhood is dated 1586, so that would probably place him as born in around 1575, Elizabeth died in 1603 and we know he was at court during her reign for a period of years. The next monarch mentioned is James I (1603 to 1625) during whose time Orlando is largely banished from court after his relationship with Sasha at the frost fair. There were two of these during his reign (1608 and 1621) so Orlando is roughly 33 or 46 at this point. The first of these sounds more likely from his behaviour so let us say he retires to his country house in 1608, this is all quite plausible up to this part of the novel.

The next time period mentioned is when he goes to be Ambassador to Turkey after getting tired of being at home. I’m not surprised he was getting bored by then as the Monarch he asks for the job is King Charles II (he is described as being with his mistress Nell Gwyn so we know which Charles we are talking about). His reign was from 1660 to 1685 and he started his relationship with Gwyn in 1668 so as a minimum Orlando is now 93 and has spent at least the last 60 years holding parties at home. This is the first time that the time-scale appears to have stretched, as up until he goes home in 1608 it is quite believably a tale about a late Elizabethan gentleman, nobody appears to be surprised by this and he is still clearly a young man in the novel. Charles II is still on the throne when Orlando is made a Duke and subsequently changes sex. We then hit her time with the gypsies and this is also clearly several decades. On return to England she sees the dome of the new St Paul’s cathedral (consecrated 1697) and the captain of the ship refers to the late William III (died 1702) so we are now in the reign of Queen Anne (1702 to 1707) and this is explicitly stated later in the book as Orlando enters society as a young and eligible woman at the age of 130!

At last a positive date… Well sort of. There is a mention of 16th June 1712 being a Tuesday, it was actually a Thursday but never mind, it is the first specific date in the novel and this is when Orlando decides to quit society only to decide not to the next day due to an invitation that she really wanted to go to. There she meets Alexander Pope and through him various other writers such as Swift who quotes from Gulliver’s Travels, a book printed in 1726 so time is still moving on apace. She sees Johnson and Boswell (circa 1770’s) and chapter four concludes with the dawning of 1st January 1800 with a dark cloud over London. Chapter five includes a statement that she had been working on the poem “The Oak Tree”

… for close on 300 years now. It was time to make an end.

so that takes us up to the 1860’s. This is another huge leap in the time line of the book as it is only 8 pages into the chapter. It’s an odd chapter, using damp weather as a metaphor for the changes in society through the Victorian age, no more gay parties and bright lights, now the houses are cluttered and cold, the people withdrawn and everything is dark and covered up as society becomes more straight-laced and women are expected to be ‘the little woman at home’ safely married off. It’s also no wonder the court proceedings have used most of her fortune, they would have started in the early 1700’s and concluded roughly 160 years later as Lord Palmerston and Gladstone are mentioned with the court documents and Palmerston died in 1865. It is worth noting however that it does leave Orlando with the house, which as I stated in the previous essay on the book Vita specifically didn’t get as she was a woman so maybe this is a put in as a solace to Vita that although it may take 160 years a woman will eventually inherit what would be hers by right if she had been a man.

The sixth, and final, chapter brings us to the present day, well 1928 which is when the book was written anyway. It begins slightly before then at the end of the Victorian age as she finally gets her poem The Oak Tree published with the help of Nicholas Greene but most of the chapter is set on the 11th October 1928 starting in London with a very confused shopping trip. She drives out of London to the great house in Kent and is there as her husband finally comes home this time by aeroplane whilst she lies under the tree as she used to as a boy centuries earlier

It is not only Orlando who straddles time in the novel, several of the fictional characters fail to grow old with her, the Arch-Duchess/duke is also mentioned in chapter five as married and settled in Romania so he is also as old as Orlando and others survive well beyond a normal lifespan such as Nicholas Greene, the poet and critic who first met Orlando in the Elizabethan age and meets her again in the Victorian. Sasha from the frost fair in 1608 is also glimpsed during the shopping trip in 1928 and is described as late middle aged. Orlando’s husband, Shelmerdine, is also timeless, at least since coming into contact with Orlando, for they meet and marry in the 1860’s when her court cases have completed but he is clearly still only in middle age by 1928.

The book is complex and at times infuriating as it leaps about but still an enjoyable read, I’ve also had quite a bit of fun reading through it again trying to identify all the historical events that can be dated for this essay.

Orlando – Virginia Woolf – part 1

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Garden – Vita Sackville-West

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Well the weather still isn’t admitting it’s spring, it’s pouring down with rain as I write this, but maybe this will give it a prod in the right direction. The winter seems to be hanging on way too long when it is definitely time to think of that jewel of English houses, the garden.

Bubbles of colour striking through the bleak
Dun soil, surprising in a week,
As the low desert flowers after rain
Leap into being where they were not seen
Few hours before and soon are gone again
So in our English garden comes the Greek
Blue wind-flow’r cousin of the meek
Bashful anemone of English woods,
As thick as shingle strewn on Chesil Beach;
So comes the Lady Tulip, with her streak
Of pink that ribs her white; and through the green
Of young fine grass, The Glory of the Snow,
So blue, a smear of fallen sky; come each
In quick succession as they grow and blow
In liberal April, host to little guests;

Vita Sackville-West was a poet, a novelist, a prolific letter writer, a lover, but above all else was a gardener and amongst her works one of the least well known but most evocative of that side of her is a short collection of verse entitled The Garden. My copy is the first edition from 1946 published by Michael Joseph, which I bought from the shop at Vita’s own garden Sissinghurst Castle in Kent now run by the National Trust. Although she would live until 1962 this was her final book of verse, with 11 volumes of poetry preceding it and indeed she only wrote 3 novels after 1946, out of the 17 she produced in total, as she gradually faded from literary fashion.

Nowadays if Vita is remembered at all it is for two things, her garden at Sissinghurst and her 10 year affair with Virginia Woolf which was the inspiration for Virginia’s best known novel Orlando. I will cover this aspect of her life more fully when I write about Orlando in a later blog. But it is sufficient to say here that although Vita was married to novelist and diplomat Harold Nicholson they both had several same-sex relationships during the marriage and her relationship with Virginia brought her into contact with The Bloomsbury Group although she never appeared to be comfortable there and never became an accepted member.

Her time with Virginia however was probably the peak of both of their literary output. Whether this was coincidence, or the result of their two personalities so strongly bonded feeding off each other for inspiration we will never know; but certainly Vita would never have this vitality in her work again and Virginia although still as successful after they split had written her best by 1935 when they parted.

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As for this work, the book has 5 separate but linked poems, The Garden, Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn. The verse quoted above is from Spring and as suggested by the titles we progress through the year from winter planning…

                                                    – so in Winter
The Gardener sees what he will never see

Here, in his lamp-lit parable, he’ll scan
Catalogues bright with colour and with hope,
Dearest delusions of creative mind,
His lamp-lit walls, his lamp-lit table painting
Fabulous flowers flung as he desires.
Fantastic, tossed, and all from shilling packet
-An acre sprung from one expended coin,-
Visions of what might be.
We dream our dreams.
What should we be, without our fabulous flowers?
The gardener dreams his special own alloy
Of possible and the impossible.

The dreams of what will come after the cold and rain of winter has been banished lead on to awakening buds and early flowers in the quote from spring to summer where Vita clearly has a wasp problem, or at least a problem with wasps as there are 2 or 3 pages of verse complaining about them whilst enjoying the fruits of her labours. Oddly although Vita, rather than Harold, was the gardener of the two the poems always refer to ‘The Gardener’ as a man whenever a gender is required in the text.

But then in Autumn we find the gardener busy again

But in October, later, shall you stand
With paper sack of bulbs and plunge your hand
And carelessly fling your bulbs both large and small
To roll, to topple, settling sparse or thick,
Over the grass, and plant them where they fall,
(Legitimate device, a sanctioned trick,)
Thus in a drift as though by nature planned
Snowdrops shall blow in spreading tide,
Little white horses breaking on the strand
At edge of orchard; and the orange-eyed
Narcissus of the poets in a wide
Lyrical river flowing as you pass
Meandering along the path of grass

As for Vita’s actual garden it is presented as a series of ‘rooms’ each with their own theme, these are separated by hedgerows or walls and each allows for a glimpse into one or two adjacent rooms through carefully placed gaps. The division of the design between Vita and Harold appears to be that he came up with the rooms and the network of interconnects and Vita filled them with flowers to make best use of the deliberately restricted views out of each one. Fortunately it is possible to go high up one of the towers and look down on the patchwork to appreciate how cleverly the structure is put together and at ground level you are constantly getting glimpses of new vistas whilst being able to concentrate on the theme of the room you are in due to the clear boundaries imposed. The formal gardens are roughly 4 hectares (almost 10 acres) in size and are 1 of 145 Grade 1 listed gardens and parks in England. They were largely laid out through the 1930’s with the exception of the famous ‘white garden’ which was created after the war to replace a rose garden from the original plan. There is an excellent description of the entire garden in the Historic England listing for Sissinghurst. This compartmentalised structure to the garden is mirrored in the way the book is produced with what is basically one long poem split into the seasonal sections and preceded by the section just called The Garden which is the subject of this final quote

Much toil, much care, much love and many years
Went to the slow reward; a grudging soil
Enriched or lightened following its needs;
Potash and compost, stable dung, blood, bones,
Spent hops in jade-green sacks, the auburn leaves
Rotted and rich, the wood-ash from the hearth
For sticky clay; all to a second use
Turned in a natural economy,
And many a robin perched on many a sod
Watched double-trenching for his benefit
Through the companionable russet days,
But only knew the digger turned the worm
For him, and had no foresight of the frost
Later to serve the digger and his clod
Through winter months, for limitations rule
Robins and men about their worms and wars,
The robin’s territory; and man’s God.

I visited Sissinghurst many times when I lived in Kent and somewhere I have a box of photos I have taken there, but until I find and scan them a few of some other peoples shots will have to do to illustrate the work of a poet and artist of flowers. I first read this book of poetry in Vita’s own garden and it will always transport me back to warm summer days in the Garden of England in the late 1990’s.

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