Orlando was a very successful self-published book for Virginia Woolf in 1928. She called it a biography but it is really a fictional exploration of the meaning of gender, a mild send-up of the formal biographical detail typically used to sum up a life, an homage to Woolf’s bisexual lover Vita Sackville-West, and a comic romp that represented a departure from her more sober novels.
The protagonist is a young nobleman, born and raised in England during the reign of Elizabeth I. During the course of the novel he is a sought after lover, first of the aging queen, then of a number of potential and actual high-born fiancées, soon of a mysterious Russian princess who captures his heart and abruptly vanishes on the morning tide. Heartbroken, he retires to his country estate where he contemplates the meaning of life, love, poetry and noble legacy on endless walks in nature. When Orlando is stalked by an archduchess who resembles a hare, and is considerably less captivating, he finds salvation in flight.
Calling on his noble connections, he wins an appointment as foreign ambassador to Constantinople where his extraordinary physical beauty, intelligence and charm win him friends and a new title. But bloody rioting in the city disrupts his boring exile and he falls into a long sleep from which he emerges a woman. Orlando is still Orlando in everything except gender, which fazes him, um her, not a whit. She flees the burning city with a band of gypsies and lives with them until her reverence for nature and gypsy pragmatism clash and Orlando ships out for home.
On the voyage, she discovers that a glimpse of her fabled legs will nearly send a sailor plunging from the mast, and that those legs are now encased in yards of skirt which will place a real drag on her freedom. But she also reflects that she might not mind the role of woman, a yield-and-resist pattern to replace the bluster-and-conquer persona that might be expected of her as a male. She returns to the endless writing and revising of a nature poem she began as a boy and, once back in England, explores what it means to be a writer, a woman, a sexual being with a new orientation.
Orlando was a larky but daring experiment for Woolf. The novel treats bisexuality, androgyny, lesbianism, the constraints of gender throughout the history of English society—Orlando only ages twenty years in the almost 400-year course of the book—the struggles of the writer, the responsibilities of property, and complex issues of identity. It is funny, satirical, and laced with a kind of magical realism that accommodates its bizarre turns.
I needed to immerse myself in a classic after a long diet of mostly current books—probably a reader’s reaction to Downton Abbey—and before I approach one or two self-published novels by e-book millionaires, the formula for the future if literary pundits can be trusted. Woolf self-published with more prosaic technology and left a lasting legacy. Orlando isn’t a thriller and it has no trolls. But it does take risks and is very readable and we can be glad there was Hogarth Press to help it find an audience so we can still read it today.
Orlando (Annotated): A Biography Virginia Woolf | Harcourt Brace & Company