This book is a fictionalized biography. Orlando, a young nobleman in Elizabethan England, falls in love with a Russian princess during the frost fair held on the frozen Thames during the Great Frost of 1608. She is unfaithful to him and flees back to Russia. He takes refuge in writing, working on a poem called The Oak Tree.
Orlando is later appointed by King Charles II as ambassador to Constantinople. During a night of civil unrest there, he falls asleep for several days, and wakes up to find that he has turned into a woman. Orlando returns to England where she becomes involved in the intellectual life of the 18th and 19th centuries. Her story ends in the 20th century, when she gets married, bears a child, and publishes the poem that she has worked on for most of her life. The passage of time is fantastical, as Orlando is 36 years old at the end of the book.
Orlando has been called “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” as it was inspired by Woolf’s sexual and romantic relationship with Vita Sackville-West, another member of the Bloomsbury Group.
“He — for there could be no doubt of 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.”
The beginning suggests that Orlando is going to be to your typical adventure hero, and then the book subverts this characterization as Orlando turns out to be a writer and poet and most of the book is focused on her internal experience.
I’ve tried to read this one before and didn’t finish it. I think I like it slightly better than To the Lighthouse, the first book I read by Virginia Woolf.
There’s a great review by Ted Goia at Conceptual Fiction:
Some memorable quotes —
Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim…
on nature and poetry:
He was describing, as all young poets are for ever describing, nature, and in order to match the shade of green precisely he looked (and here he showed more audacity than most) at the thing itself, which happened to be a laurel bush growing beneath the window. After that, of course, he could write no more. Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces.
…And so, the thought of love would be all ambered over with snow and winter; with log fires burning; with Russian women, gold swords, and the bark of stags; with old King James’ slobbering and fireworks and sacks of treasure in the holds of Elizabethan sailing ships. Every single thing, once he tried to dislodge it from its place in his mind, he found thus cumbered with other matter like the lump of glass which, after a year at the bottom of the sea, is grown about with bones and dragon-flies, and coins and the tresses of drowned women.
‘Another metaphor by Jupiter!’ he would exclaim as he said this (which will show the disorderly and circuitous way in which his mind worked and explain why the oak tree flowered and faded so often before he came to any conclusion about Love). ‘And what’s the point of it?’ he would ask himself. ‘Why not say simply in so many words–‘ and then he would try to think for half an hour,–or was it two years and a half?–how to say simply in so many words what love is. ‘A figure like that is manifestly untruthful,’ he argued, ‘for no dragon-fly, unless under very exceptional circumstances, could live at the bottom of the sea. And if literature is not the Bride and Bedfellow of Truth, what is she? Confound it all,’ he cried, ‘why say Bedfellow when one’s already said Bride? Why not simply say what one means and leave it?’
So then he tried saying the grass is green and the sky is blue and so to propitiate the austere spirit of poetry whom still, though at a great distance, he could not help reverencing. ‘The sky is blue,’ he said, ‘the grass is green.’ Looking up, he saw that, on the contrary, the sky is like the veils which a thousand Madonnas have let fall from their hair; and the grass fleets and darkens like a flight of girls fleeing the embraces of hairy satyrs from enchanted woods. ‘Upon my word,’ he said (for he had fallen into the bad habit of speaking aloud), ‘I don’t see that one’s more true than another. Both are utterly false.’ And he despaired of being able to solve the problem of what poetry is and what truth is and fell into a deep dejection.
Surely, since she is a woman, and a beautiful woman, and a woman in the prime of life, she will soon give over this pretense of writing and thinking and begin at least to think of a gamekeeper (and as long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking).