I must apologize, readers, for the small delays to this blog–I’m working two jobs this summer, and sometimes my wonderful ideas for blog posts get lost somewhere between eating, seeing friends, and passing out completely from exhaustion. My summer has been and will remain beyond fun, but alas, sometimes Better Know a Book gets paused. My apologies.
But fear not, for there are plenty of posts to come. Today, I’m tackling another book from my favorite writer, the Woolfinator–Orlando. For anyone who thinks Woolf is an uber-serious, stuffy, boring writer, they have clearly never come near this gem. It’s a fun, whimsical ride through British history, defying gender norms and ideas of love even today. It’s a love letter to love, but also, an actual love letter, and one that almost always gets wrongfully shafted on summer reading lists.
Quick Read?: Let yourself get into the flow of it–once you do, it is definitely very quick.
Difficulty: Not very. It does help to know some British history, but even then.
Synopsis: Written in faux biographical form, Orlando opens during Elizabethan era of English history, where our hero, Orlando, is a young lord in Queen Elizabeth I’s court. He is a handsome young man, with lovers in, ahem, very high places, but when the Russian princess Sasha comes to visit, Orlando is beyond smitten. After an intense and short affair, Sasha must leave suddenly, leaving Orlando devastated, resorting to poetry to heroic valor for his country to soothe himself. Yet somehow, magically, Orlando lives not for decades, but centuries, and finds himself an ambassador to Turkey from England. It is there that, during days of slumber after a battle, that he turns into a woman (through a beautifully written passage). As he/she parades through British history, Orlando meets with historical figures, including many writers and poets, to try and understand poetry and love, both of which he abandoned once Sasha left. He/She does this up until the 19th century, living amongst history and the present day. A charming, whimsical work, it flows just like Orlando’s beloved poetry, filled to the brim with the euphoric feel only being in love can really give.
What makes this book awesome? It’s entirely possible you ended up reading all that just to think Holy crap, this book sounds weird as hell, I don’t get it. But that’s truly it–Orlando is just a magical human being who transcends both time and gender, and is able to make larger assertions and ideas about both through his experiences. Woolf writes about his/her life in a way that is seamless and entirely believable. It seems natural that Orlando discussed poetry with Alexander Pope just as it seemed natural that he went ice skating with Queen Elizabeth I’s court. So if you’re worried this will just be too weird, just trust your imagination. It’s only weird if you allow it to be–if you don’t allow it to be, it’s a beautiful love story.
And yes, it’s humorous! Woolf pokes fun at a lot of historical eras, figures, and writers. Even if you only know a tiny bit about these ideas, you can still pick up on the humor, and really is giggle-worthy. The narrator is just as taken aback by Orlando as we are, and it is this exasperation on their part that causes us to laugh as well. This book is proof, if any of them are, that Woolf actually had a wonderful sense of humor.
The way she writes gender is fascinating as well. She makes Orlando extremely androgynous, with very feminine and masculine traits all at once. It is gender-bending even by today’s standards, and shows the effect of time on our ideas of gender, our relationships, and on society’s beliefs as a whole. Many believe this to be one of the first pieces of lesbian literature, though few realized this at the time it was published, thanks to its magical traits.
Some great facts to know:
- When folks say Orlando is a love letter, they mean it. It’s not just to English history or a love letter to love either–Woolf had an affair with noted painter and eccentric Vita Sackville-West. Their affair prompted the novel, as noted in Woolf’s own diary. (Their letters to one another are a hoot, for the record). No one recognized the lesbian elements to the story until much later on, thanks to the warping of time and reality throughout.
- Because no one recognized these elements, it was one of Woolf’s best-selling works while she was alive.
- There has been a movie adaptation of it, as well as several stage adaptations, given that it is one of the least cerebral of her works, and the most straightforward (seriously, isn’t that ridiculous? a book about time travel and gender bending is your most straight forward book? You crazy, Virginia).