Monday, 1 August 2011

Orlando - Fantastic Life.

An incredible piece of work. Quite unlike anything I have read before but in some ways one of the most significant.

Ostensibly a fantasy, Woolf herself apparently called it a writer's holiday, but don't worry it's not about goblins or medieval characters called things like Spatcock as that genre usually has. It covers the life of the aristocrat Orlando over a 500 year span during which she changes gender from male to female. It ends literally at the current day - 1928 - coinciding with the date of publication.

The historical sweep is massive and one part of the work is its overview of English history and literature. Yet part of its brilliance is the work's combination of this with its dissection of the intimate and the exploration of what it means to be human and how to live.

I particularly enjoyed the summaries of the 19th Century and its imposition of a moral code vis a vis marriage which attempts to declare itself as universal yet in Orlando's experience is in direct contrast to her previous 300 years of life! The chaotic baroque period of the 17th century is also done very well. And of course as a modernist the 20th Century scenes are remarkably observed - but by an outsider.

For Orlando is that, an outsider, not simply because of Gender but throughout history she is ancilliary to great events - from the Elizabethan period to the Civil War to World War 1 - these do not really figure in her life.

Literature and Biography are constant themes as well. On the face of it this is written as a biography of Orlando - who in many ways reflects Vita Sackville West - an adventurous aristocratic woman who Wolf had a love for and sometime relationship. Yet the limits of biography and indeed writing about the human experience are commented on by the writer throughout. The work opines that one individual has a thousand characters or more yet a biography has to distill that to one or two at most, outlining that writing can never really do that.

As a parallel there is a character who appears twice - a hack writer who rips off Orlando - in the Elizabethan times he attacks the current writers Shakespeare, Marlowe et al as a pale reflection of the Classical Roman and Greeks. Then he re-appears in the 19th and 20th Century to attack modern writers and praise the Shakespearean era. This reflects attack on Virginia Woolf's work which moves away from traditional narrative to try and be a closer reflection of human experience.

The last chapter set in the "modern day" does this to amazing effect - all of the character's 500 years of life bubble around her head as she walks around her estate and come out in different ways. Many writers Becket, Joyce, Flann OBrien etc do this but this is one of the more accessible examples of this I have read.

It is also experimental in other ways - it uses faux illustrations like a normal biography mostly of Vita S-West to represent Orlando. It also pre-figures magic realism by a few decades with its surreal elements, use of nature and animals and obviously the central scene of her sex conversion.
The change of gender is obviously crucial in the work yet I dont think it is a bold statement on transgenderism or transvestism - rather its an exploration of the flexibility of gender in some ways particularly over a long historical period. What it means to be a woman and a man is explored - the nature of attraction and love. All Orlando's partners are fairly ambiguous sexually - from a Russian princess to a sea captain.

In part I guess this is about Virginia Wolf expressing her love for Vita but it is more I think about a love of people or life and how gender only is only one part of it. The nature of sexual relationships is not really explored indeed she has quite a witty side swipe at DH Lawrence's work on that issue.

But gender aside the work explores life and what is important - the strength of nature, home comforts and friendship. One of my favourite chapters occurs when Orlando is in Turkey and has just become a woman - ends in a debate with gypsies over what is important - a 365 bed -roomed house versus wandering across the earth.

It is an aristocratic vision which Orlando has - the nature of work or labour which is so significant to most of us because of the nature of society is never an issue to him/her because she never has to do it. Even in the last scenes she visits a department store where goods are brought to her and taken from her car by her servants. This liberation from work, which I think intrigued Woolf who was from a more traditional bourgeois life, allows the experimentation of thought and gender. Orlando's house is more like a town than a normal house - similar to Vita's mansion which significantly due to property laws although an aristocrat was not allowed to inherit because of her gender.

There is so much more to the work though - the nature of mortality - interesting as the character is more or less immortal: the clock on the mantlepiece as Woolf says. The awkward conversations that men and women can have - there is one hilarious scene with an Archduke! Shakespeare is also commonly referred to - the master of English literature because I think the book also deals with the nature of English identity particularly around its ruling class.

A masterpiece, definitely, and not easy but if you dig around it I think some of the secrets of happiness and life are here.

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