Virginia Woolf is one of those authors who I’ve always felt slightly intimidated by but after finally reading one of her books I’m pleased to say I’m no longer afraid of her. I’m glad I chose to begin with this book because I found it witty, engaging and surprisingly easy to read, as well as being a very original and fascinating story. In Orlando, Woolf has surely created one of the most unusual protagonists in literature: a character who lives for four hundred years and changes gender midway through his/her life.
The book, although obviously a work of fiction, is presented as a biography. We first meet Orlando as a young sixteenth-century nobleman, during the final years of the reign of Elizabeth I, and the biographer follows our hero/heroine throughout the centuries. The book covers a period of four hundred years and during this time Orlando ages only slightly. At one point in the story Orlando sleeps for a week and awakens to find that he is now a woman – and gradually her perceptions of the world and the roles of males and females begin to change. No explanation is given for Orlando’s remarkable life span or gender change; it’s simply accepted that those things have occurred.
As you would expect, over the course of four hundred years Orlando has a lot of unusual experiences and adventures, both as a man and as a woman living through the Elizabethan age, the Great Frost (one of the most memorable episodes of the story, for me), the Restoration period, the 18th century, and the Victorian era. One thread that runs through the entire story is Orlando’s love of literature and attempts at becoming a writer. The story finally comes to its conclusion in 1928, at which point we can look back at everything Orlando has been through and what she has learned about gender, love and what it means to be an artist.
I’m not a fan of the stream of consciousness writing style but although there’s some of that in Orlando, particularly in the second half of the book, much of it was in the form of a more conventional narrative and I didn’t find it hard to read at all. I was aware that this book has been described as a love letter from Woolf to her friend, Vita Sackville-West, but I deliberately avoided reading the introduction first as I wanted to enjoy the book on its own merits as a novel first. But after I’d finished the story it was interesting to turn back and find out more about the inspiration behind it and how some of the events that take place in the story relate to aspects of Sackville-West’s and Woolf’s own lives.
Orlando is a very clever and imaginative piece of writing. I’ve heard that this is one of Woolf’s more accessible books and now that I’ve read it, I think I would advise other people who are new to her work to try this one first too.