Turnabout is fair and playful reading
For a blustery November that needed a touch of levity, the Beamers were fortunate enough to slide through the centuries with Virginia Woolf’s quasi-biography of her friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West, published as Orlando. Taking a noble Englishman and turning a him into a her, the novel turns out to be an exuberant stroll along the Thames that took the Beamers along and gave us a fine appreciation for country life and city society.
Dear Sir or Madam
Published on October 11, 1928, a date referenced in the work itself, Orlando is viewed as a feminist classic and a study of gender roles and expectations. Almost surprisingly for the author of A Room of One’s Own, which directly addresses the strictures placed on women who wish to write, Woolf is much less direct, more oblique, in Orlando, nestling her observations and criticisms of gender policing (like essentialism) amid a welter of playful comments and very mild disdain. Orlando, the protagonist, merely wakes up one morning, in his thirtieth year, away on assignment as Ambassador to Turkey, to discover she is a woman, a change that provokes a series of new experiences, such as running from Istanbul to join a Gypsy camp.
An Unexpected Party
The Beamers were impressed with the lively sense of invention that Woolf indulges. I thought that the book was a perfect template for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), the November-long challenge to fledgling or struggling authors to sit down and write a novel in 30 days. Orlando has much of the qualities of a book written in a flurry of enthusiasm and unconstrained by conventions of literary or social makings. Alan, expecting a serious work of (capital-l) Literature, was very pleasantly surprised, as well. Not that a flurry of enthusiasm does not make for a heavy pull over some high piles of words, though. The prose, while poetical and quotable (particularly in the German edition that was also one of Alan’s surprises) was sometimes a bit too wordy, as Nick discovered, needing to fast-forward to find a plot point before the next sentence tsunami was unleashed. Still, it is hard to dislike a book that calls itself out for its excesses (“…Nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldy length of this sentence…”).
History is Re-written by the Poets
And the diversions into English history did divert the Beamers. Chuck, who likes a book that lets the reader into another world, enjoyed all the simple details of places and persons who populate the 350 years of Orlando’s life. The scene of ice skating on the frozen Thames (historically accurate, at the legendary Frost Fair of 1608) took a number of Beamers like Liz right into the chill of Europe’s Little Ice Age. Others like the literary gossip offered up by Orlando’s client poet, Nicholas Greene, dishing on Shakespeare, Addison, and Pope, as the centuries pass. Woolf, we found, did pack quite a bit of history and social commentary into what may appear to be just a lightweight lark.
Boys will be Girls, and Girls will be Boys
The gender fluidity of the novel is one feature for which it is famed, but for science fiction and fantasy readers, accustomed to characters who alter and remake themselves, it seems almost expected. It does provide us with an affinity for the characters who change so easily, though. Orlando is not the only gender-fluid character, having one suitor who appears first as Archduchess Harriet and then as Archduke Harry, and a husband whose femininity matches up with Orlando’s masculinity. Fran felt that the book’s theme was less about gender and more on the process of struggling with personal discovery, which Liz identified in Orlando’s cries of “What then? Who then?” over the different identities that she could (must?) assume.
Chuck noted that Orlando could only complete his/her poem, “The Oak Tree”, after becoming a woman, when freed of the social conventions against noblemen taking up the pen as well as from the responsibilities assumed during his masculine days. Liz added that 250 years of practice may also have contributed to the success of the task. Fran noted that women could always write; the trick was getting published. Kathy commented that it was not coincidental that Orlando writes in the later Victorian time, when women could publish under their own names, a perquisite denied to Mary Ann Evans (“George Eliot”). And the progress of women’s liberation did seem to leave some of the book’s discussion in the past, Alan felt.
Reading Above our Station?
Class also is a theme of the work, perhaps more for we later readers, used to a more egalitarian (though not class-free) culture. Orlando is free to pursue her course of discovery thanks to a large estate and a title, and even a lawsuit out of Dicken’s Bleak House (ala Jarndyce v. Jarndyce) that drains away half her inheritance, leaves her well-off by any standard of living. Orlando mixes with all levels of society, and she can be suitably chastened by not measuring up to the standards of a troop of Gypsies, who politely do not mock her for her “abrupt” family history of a mere 400 or 500 years (back to the English Conquest) when theirs is measured in thousands of years, or for the shame of being cooped up in a house with an absurd 365 bedrooms, when one was more than enough. Admirable characters include the ‘working women’ of Leicester Square, among whom Orlando finds company and conversation more animated and inspiring than among the high reaches of Society (where true Wit is actually taboo, as it breaks up the unmemorable chit-chat necessary for pleasant socializing).
Enjoying a Relaxed Romp
Overall, the book garnered high marks from the Beamers, 7’s and 8’s being the standard, in spite of its ’round-about style that makes it more of a work to sip than one to gulp straight down (as Alan had to admit). The narrator voice (“biographer”) may talk directly to the “reader”, but it may have been a good idea to also include a few sidebars with the “editor”. But, given how the novel was published by Hogarth Press, which Woolf and her husband Leonard owned and ran, it may be no surprise (particularly in these days of self-publishing) to find that the editorial hand was severed at the wrist. Still, if more self-published works turn out as well as Orlando, then we readers have much to cheer.