Ellan Read

sometimes witty book reviews

Orlando: A Biography

orlando
First published: 1928
Found: When I went hunting for ‘unconventional biographies’ in the library
Pages/read time: 333, two weeks with several other books in between

Comments:
As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking.

Part biography of Vita Sackville-West, part Sackville-West’s extraordinary family history, part satirical account of the history of English literature – all the magnificent* work of Virginia Woolf. Woolf and Sackville-West were lovers for nearly a decades and friends for many years after that. Orlando: A Biography is, as Sackville-West’s son put it, ‘the longest and most charming love letter in literature.’

The title character, Orlando, starts his life as a young English noble in the sixteenth century. He’s the son of a wealthy family, obsessed with reading and eventually lands himself in the favour of Elizabeth I. Probably because of his incredibly shapely legs. As a member of the Queen’s court in London he is promoted time and again by the queen and generally left to the activities a man could get away with for most of human history. Then is falls in love with a Sasha, a noblewoman from Russia. She runs his heart into the ground then sails back to Russia in the arms of a simple sailor. Crushed, Orlando sleeps for a week.

When he wakes he barely recalls Sasha and makes up his mind to furnish his already sizable house and estate with countless valuable items. This done, he tries to be a writer. Because writers are his heroes. He tries to impress and patronise a whole range of them. But they crush his heart too and so he asks the (now) King to send him away. He becomes the ambassador to Constantinople. Here he executes his duties with such great aplomb that he is made a duke. Yet, just as he is made a duke, the embassy is stormed by the locals and Orlando falls asleep again for another week.

[S]he had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand.

This time upon waking Orlando is a woman. This does not appear very remarkable to either the writer or the protagonist. She spends a while living with gypsies, finally returning to England some time in the eighteenth century to find her estate at the heart of a fierce legal battle. The main problems appear to be that 1) she should be dead and 2) she’s a she. Awaiting the court’s decision, she returns home to find the cook and her elk hounds awaiting her with enthusiastic welcome. Over the course of the next century or so Orlando variously develops affections for men, women, men dressed as women and finally, again, poetry.

By the nineteenth century her writing is recognised as a great talent, published and her diminished estate re-inflated by the royalties she earns thus. She’s married to an equally non-gender conforming husband and has a fascination, as she always did, with nature. Woolf, besides leading us through great restrictions that both genders have faced over the last three centuries via the lackadaisical maze of her protagonist’s life, has also lead us along the wending path of Orlando’s equally serendipitous thoughts. They usually run something like this:

“A toy boat, a toy boat, a toy boat,” she repeated, this enforcing upon herself the fact that it is not articles by Nick Greene or Jone Donne nor eight-hour bills nor covenants nor factory acts that matter; it’s something useless, sudden, violent; something that costs a life; red, blue, purple; a spirit; a splash; like those hyacinths (she was passing a find bed of them); free from taint, dependence, soilure of humanity or care for one’s kind; something rash, ridiculous, “like my hyacinth, husband, I mean, Bonthrop: that’s what it is – a toy boat on the Serpentine, it’s ecstasy – ecstasy.”

Having not read any Woolf for a while, I found the going tough to start with. But after twenty pages or so, the words and ideas start to flow into one another in a pleasant flowing of adjectives, minimal dialogue, and lots of metaphors. Not only a tribute to Sackville-West, this is Woolf’s thorough questioning of traditional style, prose and biographical norms. Woolf includes an index, and spent much time in the Sackville-West family papers and archives gathering snippets of real documentation to pad her (still) unconventional narrative arc. She comments frequently, satirically, on the various demands and strange customs of the gender binary; the stiff and single-minded approach a biographer must take to documenting the tedious yet extraordinary thing that is a person’s lived existence; and on the nature of literature and its creators.

Once you drop the need for direction or context, Orlando becomes a wild rollick through the words, colours, smells, sentiments and history of three-ish centuries. And she has some pretty killer one-liners:

Nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates happiness from melancholy.

Reading Suggestion: If you can, borrow a first edition print like I did. I’m not sure why that made reading it better – but it did.

* I am totally bias. No, really.

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