To know where to begin when trying to describe Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is a task as monumental as the novel itself. It is a work at once both alluringly foreign, yet uncannily familiar. The story follows a young nobleman named Orlando in the court of Queen Elizabeth I, and the tribulations he experiences as he goes through life. This quasi-Bildungsroman narrative, modelled around the life of Woolf”s beloved friend and paramour Vita Sackville-West, is a gripping and enthralling tale from start to finish.
Taking the role of biographer, the narrator sets out to record (as fully as ‘records’ allow) the life and observances of Orlando, a character who seems a little closer to life than art. Through direct addresses to the reader, and occasional breaks from factual biographer to opinionated gossiper, the narrator constructs a very specific image of Orlando; an image which is then questioned and decimated as the novel progresses.
This is not a story that can be said to follow a conventional plot or storyline. Numerous fantastical and incredulity-inducing events occur that push the reader’s suspension of disbelief almost to breaking point. But rather than detracting from the narrative, these aforementioned moments only increase the joy of reading. Woolf’s flair for vivid imagery, comic timing and descriptive lists are impeccable, and make the book a compelling and hilarious read. One memorable example occurs early on when the narrator gives an incredibly feminine and detailed effectio of Orlando, seemingly arbitrary when reading but looked upon retrospectively as a passage of ingenuity by the end of the novel.
Speaking as an avid reader and writer myself, I particularly admire Woolf’s depiction of the ‘sickness’ which characterises Orlando: his obsession with reading. With joviality I nodded along with her description of how ‘he would read often six hours into the night’ for it to turn into a morbidly fascinated queasiness as she describes how ‘once the disease of reading has laid hold upon the system it weakens it so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the inkpot and festers in the quill. The wretch turns to writing’ (at this point, I recalled with shame the main reason that I was reading the book in the first place).
For a woman writing in 1928, this book is surprisingly modern in theme and content. Her attitudes to life and to love often appear to align much more closely with the current year than the one in which she was writing, and for that I can offer no words that sufficiently express the respect I have for her. Her plot twists, and the manner in which she consequently writes about them, belong in the Twenty-First Century. The messages it teaches and the heart-wrenching emotions it evokes are just two of the reasons that I believe Woolf to be just as relevant today as in her own time, if not more so.
In today’s society, there is much in Orlando for younger generations to relate to; not least the description of the cold weather bringing in the damp at the beginning of chapter five, which will be unfortunately familiar to many who have experienced modern student housing.
Despite all this, the one impression of Woolf’s work that remains with me above all else is simply that it is wonderfully, stunningly unfathomable. The only way to truly appreciate and realise what Orlando is about, is to read it for yourself; and I highly recommend that you do.