Orlando had so ordered it that she was in an extremely happy position; she need neither fight her age, nor submit to it; she was of it, yet remained herself. Now, therefore, she could write, and write she did. She wrote. She wrote. She wrote.
Part way into my book club’s discussion of Orlando, one of my friends spoke out with the intensity of someone who has reached a difficult conclusion. “I think that’s my problem,” she said. “The world is overwhelming enough: I want my books to be little, to focus in on something, not to open out onto everything.”*
I liked Orlando better than she did, but it’s hard not to sympathize with that sense that it’s a book that is always on the verge of spiraling off into chaos. There’s just so much in it. It kept giving me a crazy mental image of Woolf at her desk dipping her hand into a bowl full of confetti representing everything she knew and had read and, with a flick of her wrist, tossing her handful into the air and letting it settle onto her pages — except that the result of that would be random, and Orlando is full of stories and patterns and repetitions. Still, it feels ebulliently excessive and joyfully disorderly, at least to someone approaching it more or less for the first time. (I had read it before, sort of, years ago, but since then I had only returned to the marvelous opening of Chapter 5, in which “the Eighteenth century was over; the Nineteenth century had begun” — which I have used many times as a part comic, part provoking starting point for courses on 19th-century fiction.)
It is so many things all at once: a satirical but erudite sketch of 300 years of English history; a sideways look at literary history; a feminist polemic; a love story; a hymn to what in A Room of One’s Own she calls being “man-womanly” and “woman-manly.” It offers meditations on time, on biography, on our many selves, on writing in general and poetry in particular, on nature, on gender. What doesn’t it address, really? And it does it all in those paragraphs that only Woolf writes: they start out so purposefully, then come unmoored and drift away, only to make their way confidently to what turns out to have been their destination all along.
I won’t pretend that I found reading Orlando entirely pleasurable. I was often a bit bored, a bit frustrated, a bit irritated. If I hadn’t spent a lot of time on A Room of One’s Own in class recently, trying my best to coach my students to cope with its meandering structure, I would probably have allowed myself to react even more negatively, but I tried to learn my own lesson and find the logic and the rhythm of it. I do think that A Room of One’s Own is easier to make sense of than Orlando, because after all, it states its thesis right away and proceeds to explore and defend it. Does Orlando have a thesis? Why should it? It’s a novel, after all. Does it have a point? a central “aboutness”? I’m not sure. I think if it does, it might lurk in one of the sentences I underlined as I was reading: “we write, not with the fingers, but with the whole person.” Or it might be in here somewhere: “when the shrivelled skin of the ordinary is stuffed out with meaning it satisfies the senses amazingly.” Or here: “everything was partly something else, and each gained an odd moving power from this union of itself and something not itself so that with this mixture of truth and falsehood her mind became like a forest in which things moved; lights and shadows became like a forest in which things moved; lights and shadows changed, and one thing became another.”
But why does it have to have one point or be about something? I think my friend is right that it’s about everything — at least, everything Woolf cared for. One of our group found it very sad, and there is a lot of failure and disappointment and heartbreak in it, but overall it didn’t seem dark to me. It seemed to me like Woolf was playing, having fun. It’s a pretty strange game, I suppose, but how else is a mind like hers supposed to enjoy itself? When I was bored, I think it was because I didn’t understand how to play along. That might get better if I kept rereading it, but I expect I would never quite be able to catch or match the spirit of the book.
Even this time, though, I did find plenty of moments delightful, beautiful, or wonderfully sharp. The parts I liked best (besides the onset of the Victorian period, which remains my favorite section) were soon after Orlando becomes a woman and she has to reconsider everything about her place in the world. It’s not that the gleefully surreal fantasy of the first half gives way to something altogether different, but you can sense the angry political Woolf of Three Guineas when Orlando has thoughts like “what an odd pass we have come to when all a woman’s beauty has to be kept covered, lest a sailor may fall from a mast-head. ‘A pox on them!'”
*Or at least, to the best of my recollection, she said something very close to this! It was a convivial night out and I wasn’t exactly taking notes.
Why, these musings are LOVELY – what a wonderful post
I am sympathetic to your friend. Woolf is one of my favourite novelists, but my encounters are as if with a complicated acquaintance. When you ask her how she is feeling, she will take the time to actually tell you. There are moments when you think, “Why can she never just say that she’s feeling okay?” (But that observation applies to many of her works: not just Orlando.) During these “conversations,” I find myself realizing that my interactions with other acquaintances are insufficiently meaningful, and I warm to the challenge. Most importantly, I long for the depth and complexity when we are apart. I’ve probably tortured this comparison enough. It’s just to say that reading Woolf, and reading Orlando, is what reading is to me.
The book itself has been good to me in the classroom. My students get the idea that modern dramatists were challenged by the sense that it had all been done before. But they see that the novel has a shorter pedigree, and they often claim that it could not possibly have been exhausted by the time Woolf inherited it. Then we ask why a single character ‘s story can’t be told over three hundred years, or why a single character has to be a single character. I love thinking about why other novelists think their job has to be to cover all the “highlights,” as Woolf seems determined to leave out many of the good bits. Writing as labour, the role of the photographs in the text… It’s good enough for me to use in any modernist course, but I usually pair it with Andre Breton’s Nadja for genre bending.