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Orlando (thoughts)

February 13, 2010

I’m a day late to the party, hosted by Frances of Nonsuch Book, because yesterday I was, erm, indisposed. I was quite upset to miss the scheduled day for Woolf in Winter’s discussion of Orlando, but constant nausea puts a damper on an kind of coherent blogging!

That being said, I still want to talk about Orlando, so I was happy to wake up feeling much better. Orlando was my first Woolf ever: I read it when I was 15 or 16, and it began my affection for Woolf, that has only increased over the years. The idea of revisiting it, now that I’m better acquainted with Woolf’s other work and her life (if you haven’t read Hermione Lee’s biographer of her, you’re missing out), intrigued me. And it certainly didn’t disappoint!

The main scene I remembered about Orlando from my first reading: the Elizabethan court skating on the Thames, and Orlando falling for a Russian princess. I have no idea why that stuck in my head, except for the obvious reason (Woolf is an incredible author), but it was just as delicious the second time around. I love Woolf’s version of Elizabeth’s era, and it’s so fun to come along with her for the ride. I also love how she looks at the shifting social mores over the centuries.

Honestly, though, what really struck me on my rereading is Woolf’s playfulness. I’ve always said that I began reading Woolf when I was too young to realise that she was supposed to be difficult, and that’s why I’ve been able to love her writing from the beginning. And that’s certainly part of it, but now I think a lot has to do with me randomly deciding to start with Orlando. The writing is so much lighter than any other Woolf I’ve read! Sure, she’s still dealing with her ‘themes’ like gender and sexuality, how perceptions shape reality, society v. the individual, etc. But the touch is lighter. Usually, when I read Woolf, I can see the time she took over every word. I can imagine her labouring to get each sentence absolutely perfect. But Orlando feels more dashed off, which isn’t to imply it’s shoddy quality at all. Her characterisation, her observations of society, are still spot on. Her almost disturbingly perfect portrayal of Orlando’s thoughts, the way a human mind works, is still there. The continual, effortless flow of narrative is definitely all Woolf. And in addition to all this, it’s more immediately accessible than any other Woolf I’ve read.

There is a fun magical realist touch to this, what with Orlando’s gender change, and his/her centuries-long life, all accepted without question. Since magical realism is one of my favourite writing styles ever, that’s just an extra bonus to me. ;)

It’s funny…even though I loved this book when I first read, and love it now, I’m finding that I don’t really have much to say about it. Woolf does that to me! :) (For the last Woolf in Winter, we’ll be discussing my fave Woolf ever, The Waves, and I hope I have more to say about that one!) All I really want to say is that, for those who are new to Woolf, and who are perhaps a bit nervous about her, I’d highly recommend picking up Orlando. I bet you’ll be amazed by how hilarious and fun Woolf’s writing is. In the meantime, here’s a little taste, that I’m sure all you book lovers will appreciate:

The taste for books was an early one. As a child he was sometimes found at midnight by a page still reading. They took his taper away, and he bred glow-worms to serve his purpose. They took the glow-worms away, and he almost burnt the house down with a tinder.

To put it in a nutshell, leaving the novelist to smooth out the crumpled silk and all its implications, he was a nobleman afflicted with a love of literature. Many people of his time, still more of his rank, escaped the infection and were thus free to run or ride or make love at their own sweet will. But some were early infected by a germ said to be bred of the pollen of the asphodel and to be blown out of Greece and Italy, which was of so deadly a nature that it would shake the hand as it was raised to strike, and cloud the eye as it sought its prey, and make the tongue stammer as it declared its love. It was the fatal nature of this disease to substitute a phantom for reality, so that Orlando, to whom fortune had given every gift–plate, linen, houses, men-servants, carpets, beds in profusion–had only to open a book for the whole vast accumulation to turn to mist. The nine acres of stone which were his house vanished; one hundred and fifty indoor servants disappeared; his eighty riding horses became invisible; it would take too long to count the carpets, sofas, trappings, china, plate, cruets, chafing dishes and other movables often of beaten gold, which evaporated like so much sea mist under the miasma. So it was, and Orlando would sit by himself, reading, a naked man.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2010 8:05 am

    Always fun to re-visit a favorite, isn’t it? Orlando always leaves me feeling happy, amused. I will need to remember that as I wade through The Waves next, definitely a more challenging novel. Hope you will join us, Eva.

  2. February 13, 2010 8:08 am

    I love the paragraphs you have chosen from the book. He was very persistant to continue reading, even when everyone stopped him. I will definitely consider reading this one.

    Lovely to hear you are feeling better today.

  3. February 13, 2010 8:20 am

    “So it was, and Orlando would sit by himself, reading, a naked man.” Wow, I missed this sentence the first time around, and now I’m wondering if it ties in to the scene of Orlando’s nakedness when he is transformed into a woman. The whole discussion throughout the novel of clothing, and how it affects both one’s sense of oneself and the perceptions of others; but here, at crucial moments, he is naked. No artifice, no pretensions.

    • February 13, 2010 10:39 am

      Nice comment. There’s a similar scene of nakedness in “The Lady in the Looking Glass.” Isabella comes in from the garden, and the looking glass reflects her as a naked, old, completely bare woman without any friends or thoughts, whereas outside of the looking glass, Isabella leads a rich and deeply complex life. Something to think about: what does nakedness represent for Woolf, and does it always mean the same thing? Or does its meaning change depending on what text you’re reading?

  4. February 13, 2010 9:05 am

    It is very helpful to me to read reviews such as yours, in which the reviewer is clearly enthralled by Virginia Woolf’s work. Me? Not so much. But, I can a much deeper appreciation of her when I read reviews such as yours, Emily’s, France’s, Claire’s. I can’t figure out if I think she’s too difficult (I doubt it, because I love difficult authors), or if she simply doesn’t speak to my heart. I wish she did. I wish I could feel the same deep admiration. But, the best I can come up with is a simple appreciation. Can we still be friends? Your post came off so beautifully, you made seem writing about her so easy, while I struggled over what I wanted to say.

  5. February 13, 2010 10:34 am

    I really like the image you evoke of Woolf laboring over each and every word, and how you can feel her lovingly and painstakingly crafting her work as you read along. I’ve often felt similarly when reading The Waves, or her short stories.

    I’ve not yet read Orlando, but you’ve inspired me to do so soon. Thanks for the lovely review.

  6. February 13, 2010 11:57 am

    It must be a lot of fun to read a book you read so many years ago, especially to compare your opinions now with what you felt when you first read it! Lovely review!

  7. February 13, 2010 1:26 pm

    Glad you’re feeling better, Eva.

    Loved reading your enthusiastic review of Orlando, since I also the enjoyed novel. My favorite scenes are in the beginning also–except for the first page, which if I had browsed this in a bookshop, I might have put it back.

    I look forward to reading what you have to say about The Waves.:)

  8. February 13, 2010 2:13 pm

    I think I’ll have to give this one a go.

    I’m fascinated with Woolf and her life. But I have such a strange relationship with her writing. I first came across her work in uni when we were given Mrs Dalloway to read. At first I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get into it and found it too hard going. Only after a number of years, and appreciating Woolf on a more personal level, did I pick up Mrs Dalloway and try again. Now I love it!

    A year or two ago I tried to read To The Lighthouse and failed at that again. :S I decided to give it a couple of years … then go back to it.

    You’ve made me want to give Orlando a try because I didn’t know it centred around the Elizabethan court (a favourite period in history of mine) and you said the writing’s a bit lighter. Maybe that’s what I need. :)

  9. kiss a cloud permalink
    February 13, 2010 2:43 pm

    Eva, I loved that naked man passage! Almost put it on my post but stopped myself as I already had written a bazillion quotes on there, lol. I really loved the fantastical and magical aspect of this book, as, like you, magical realism is a favourite of mine, as well as fantasy being my fave genre outside of classic and contemporary lit. I was so surprised at the easiness of it, compared to Mrs D and TTL, where I had to read super slowly and kept backtracking. Well, I backtracked a little here, too, but not as much. :)

    Anyway, I’m both scared and elated to move on to The Waves! It’s the first Woolf that caught my attention because, having the habit of basing my reading choices upon the first sentence or first page, The Waves was a winner. But then, I had no idea it was one of her most challenging works! Probably why it isn’t as popular as Mrs D? I’m very happy to hear it’s your fave Woolf; makes me more confident to go through with it.

  10. February 13, 2010 3:06 pm

    I can’t say it was my favorite of the bunch, but I’m looking forward to The Waves. Interesting, though, I’ve already seen comments by some who love The Waves and some who hate it–it’ll be interesting to see how we all respond. This has been such a great read-along.

  11. February 13, 2010 3:48 pm

    If it is any consolation, Eva, I’m a day late to the party also and without your legitimate excuse. I first read it ages ago, too, and the same scene stuck in my head, sort of: I confused the frost, with the Great Fire, but remembered Orlando sitting on the bank of the Thames…I always learn so much from reading others’ responses to these books. Thank you.

  12. February 13, 2010 8:14 pm

    I love your review – I will give this book a go!

  13. February 13, 2010 8:19 pm

    While I haven’t read as much Woolf as I would like, I still love her style. She gives such depth to everything. it is just amazing.
    “The Waves” is actually my favorite Woolf (of what I’ve read), so I am excited to see your reactions to it and your thoughts!

  14. February 13, 2010 8:36 pm

    I love what you say about reading Woolf before you knew she was supposed to be difficult. Wish I had – but I can’t remember ever not knowing she was difficult, like James Joyce – and I’ve been intimidated right out of reading her. (For now.)

  15. February 14, 2010 12:01 pm

    Orlando was the first Woolf I read, too, and I agree with you – I too stumbled into reading her before I heard much about her, and probably benefited by that. I loved your Orlando post, and look forward to everyone’s reactions to The Waves!

  16. February 14, 2010 12:17 pm

    Also for me Orlando was my first experience of Woolf’s writing, and I totally understand, when you write that you don’t have much to say about her books. I feel exactly the same way! I love, love, love her writing, but seem to be unable to write about her novels.
    The scene of Orlando skating on the Thames is very vivid in my mind, too, probably partly because of the movie, though. :)


  17. February 14, 2010 12:23 pm

    Fantastic post Eva. I think you’re right about the whole feel of this book and it being way more accessible than her others, at least for those intimidated by Woolf. This is my first go around with any Woolf and while I enjoyed and appreciated Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse I often felt overwhelmed. Not the case with Orlando! Looking forward to what you have to say about The Waves, I’m a little nervous now, reading that it’s her most difficult, but will soldier on. Besides, with so many fantastic people reading along, how could I sit it out?


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Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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