Before I started “Orlando” by Virginia Woolf I expected it to be a complex and critical novel that is playing with the conventions of time, space, gender and genre. However, I did not expect it to be as satirical and humourous. I buddy read the novel together with Mariana from @booksofmyown. You can find her book blog here.
“Orlando” is the biography of a protagonist of the same name. We first meet him/her as a 16 year old during the Elizabethan period. Orlando gets his heart broken, is mocked by a poet and pursued by a very persistent Archduchess — and he whines a lot. Eventually he becomes a diplomat in Constantinople and one morning awakes as a woman. She returns to England, has to settle some legal disputes because of her sex change and publishes a poem that she wrote for a few centuries. The biography ends in the late 1920s when Orlando is aged 36.
The novel is satirical take on what we usually see as a biography. The biographer who narrates the story often intervenes and comments upon the historical accuracy and the sources which describe certain events in Orlando’s life. A shift occurs in the narration and the narrator’s attitude towards Orlando when he/she changes the sex. While the narrator is more distant towards Orlando as a man, they are closer to Orlando as a woman and provide us with more insights, and compassion.
“Orlando” is bending the norms of the genre similarly as it bends the conventions of gender and identity. Within centuries Orlando ages merely twenty years which once again highlights how Virginia Woolf juxtaposes the time as it is measured by calendars and clocks with the time as it is experienced by people themselves. As the biographer explains throughout the novel: “The true length of a person’s life, whatever the “Dictionary of National Biography” may say, is always a matter of dispute.”
Personally I was very annoyed with Orlando during the first half of the novel. He is the embodiment of white rich male privilege yet he keeps whining for years because one person broke his heart and another makes fun of him. This fixation on his ‘Luxusprobleme’ (luxury problems) was incredibly annoying. Orlando becomes more interesting again when she has to adapt to her new position as a woman in society. Due to this sex change the novel questions gender roles and exposes their constructedness.
I enjoyed the quiet humour of the novel as for example the frequent comments on Orlando’s legs that become a running gag. To me it felt like Virginia Woolf had fun while writing this novel that she considered her ‘writer’s holiday’.
However, Woolf repeatedly uses racist terms or at least problematic terms for Black people throughout the book which is something that really spoiled the reading experience for me. I noticed the same in her novel “The Waves”. Even when these books are considered classics and written in another zeitgeist, the uncritical re-publication of these derogatory words seems unnecessary to me.
Overall, the book was quite enjoyable and I am glad I read it. But it was not my cup of tea and I don’t know whether I would read it again, if I had the choice to and it’s not required reading for a class. Still it is a very pretty addition to my book collection.
Have you read this book or do you want to read it?
Trigger Warning: Racist language