Books I’m in Love With: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

(Post by Tina Lawson)

I went into the book cold. I think too much is ruined, inadvertently or advertently, by a synopsis; I get that we’re into putting a story into a box, and that it’s helpful to parse out for many people. “Is this book for me?” Like a dating profile. But I will finish the book, no matter what – I’m a Lifer whether it’s good, bad, or somewhere struggling in between. I’ve learned a good deal this way and been exposed to books I’d otherwise never would have picked up in a million years (Narrow Road to the Deep North, I’m looking at you).

It doesn’t matter that Orlando was a required text for my Feminist Worlds seminar; Virginia Woolf’s whole bibliography is on my to-read list, so it was bound to come sooner or later. I had read Virginia Woolf’s Writer’s Workshop by Danell Jones several months prior and noticed that Orlando stood out as one of the bestsellers for Woolf; she called it a “folly … a dalliance.” And I assumed until I actually read Orlando that it was just another one of those romances that serious readers shirk off (but secretly indulge in behind closed doors.)
It may have been a folly, it may have been a dalliance, but it is nothing short of revolutionary as far as the context of the times, the subject matter, and the reception of the novel. Whereas Woolf’s contemporary Radclyffe Hall, and her book, The Well of Loneliness, received negative backlash for its content, Woolf and her Orlando was celebrated. Maybe it’s the whole man-turning-into-woman that feels harmless, especially when she eventually participates in a conventional sex-marriage (a woman who turned into a man). Hall’s work tried to explain same sex relationships, the isolation of a lesbian, and her desire, without the compromise Woolf makes in her work’s conclusion. Woolf’s protagonist, despite her origin as a man is, for the majority of the novel, in a state of flux in regards to her obligations to society on what being a woman entails, not just to the outside world, but to herself. Hall’s protagonist does not fare as well as the end.
To be frank, this book was right up my alley and very appropriate for the times when UCLA’s current Common Book, Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, ruminates on what a feminist is like in a postmodern era, and the ripple effect of Caitlyn Jenner’s own transformations could mean for the transgender/LGBT community.

I’ve included some of my favorite passages that coincidentally have much in common with our current contest, “.and time ticks away.” :

Here he came then, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. He saw the beech trees turn golden and the young ferns unfurl; he saw the moon sickle and then circular; he saw — but probably the reader can imagine the passage which should follow and how every tree and plant in the neighbourhood is described first green, then golden; how moons rise and suns set; how spring follows winter and autumn summer; how night succeeds day and day night; how there is first a storm and then fine weather; how things remain much as they are for two or three hundred years or so, except for a little dust and a few cobwebs which one old woman can sweep up in half an hour; a conclusion which, one cannot help feeling, might have been reached more quickly by the simple statement that ‘Time passed’ (here the exact amount could be indicated in brackets) and nothing whatever happened.

But Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second. This extraordinary discrepancy between time on the clock and time in the mind is less known than it should be and deserves fuller investigation.

                                                                                            Orlando, Chapter Two

Woolf’s titular character is preoccupied with change and permeance, surviving over 300 years, dabbling in poetry, politics, and frequent womanizing. I’ve met some people who said that they would only read current bestsellers; coming from a fervent bookreader, if you enjoy genderbending, if you like experimental prose from the 1920s, if you want something that has a heart, try Orlando, a book I fell in love with.

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