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Who’s Afraid of Virginia and Vita?

[Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, photograph of Vita Sackville-West as Orlando, 1927]

It must be remembered that when bright colours like blue and yellow mix themselves in our thoughts, some of it rubs off on our words.

For too many decades I repeatedly rejected opportunities to read Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando and I probably had a different reason each time.  But I recently watched Sally Potter’s better-than-mediocre film version with Tilda Swinton and immediately decided the time was ripe to give the book a chance.  Should I have been surprised when I found myself enjoying it tremendously?  The book follows the life of Orlando, from his birth in the sixteenth century through “the twelfth stroke of midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-eight,” the final words on the final page.

One of the chief pleasures of reading Orlando is watching Woolf as she modulates the voice of her narrator between several registers.  Much of Orlando purports to be the work of a writer with a penchant for using flowery language and routinely complaining about the frustrations of a biographer.  (“We have done our best to piece out a meagre summary from the charred fragments that remain; but often it has been necessary to speculate, to surmise, and even to make use of the imagination.”)   On occasion, however, Woolf treats her mock biographer like a lowly studio assistant, grabbing the pen and inkpot away when a juicy bit of writing comes along.  One of my favorite such moments is Woolf’s extended description of one of the Great Frosts that resulted in the freezing of the Thames, which turned the frozen river into a thoroughfare of ice.  Here’s just a tidbit.

Here and there burnt vast bonfires of cedar and oak wood, lavishly salted, so that the flames were of green, orange, and purple fire.  But however fiercely they burnt, the heat was not enough to melt the ice which, though of singular transparency, was yet of the hardness of steel.  So clear indeed was it that there could be seen, congealed at a depth of several feet, here a porpoise, there a flounder.  Shoals of eel lay motionless in a trance, but whether their state was one of death or merely of suspended animation which the warmth would revive puzzled the philosophers.  Near London Bridge, where the river had frozen to a depth of some twenty fathoms, a wrecked wherry boat was plainly visible, lying on the bed of the river where it had sunk last autumn, overladen with apples.  The old bumboat woman, who was carrying her fruit to market on the Surrey side, sat there in her plaids and farthingales with her lap full of apples, for all the world to see as if she were about to serve a customer, though a certain blueness about the lips hinted the truth.

The crux of Orlando comes a little less than halfway into the book.

And now again obscurity descends, and would indeed that it were deeper!  Would, we almost have it in our hearts to exclaim, that it were so deep that we could see nothing whatever through its opacity.  Would that we might here take the pen and write Finis to our work.  Would that we might spare the reader what is to come and say to him in so many words, Orlando died and was buried.  But here, alas, Truth, Candour, and Honesty, the austere Gods who keep watch and ward by the inkpot of the biographer, cry No!  Putting their silver trumpets to their lips they demand in one blast, Truth!  And again they cry Truth! and sounding yet a third time in concert they peal forth, The Truth and nothing but the Truth!

The fearful Truth (fearful, at least, to the biographer) is that Orlando awakes one day to find that he has become a she.  This change of gender results in Orlando seeing the world anew through the eyes of a woman armed with direct comparisons to her previous existence as a man.  Men, needless to say, do not come off well.  In part, the gender change (or gynomorphosis, as Maria DiBattista calls it in the Introduction to the Harcourt edition of the book) points to the coded layer of Orlando.  Hidden in somewhat plain sight within Orlando is a coded homage to Woolf’s relationship with Vita Sackville-West and a great deal of the book takes place within Orlando’s country house, which is overtly based upon Knole, the 15th century residence inherited by Vita and famous for having 365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances and 7 courtyards.

In her own short Preface to the book, Woolf states her perpetual debt to a handful of her predecessors – Daniel Defoe, Sir Thomas Browne, Laurence Sterne, Sir Walter Scott, Lord Macauley, Emily Brontë, Thomas DeQuincey, and Walter Pater.  But it’s Defoe and Sterne who serve as the godparents for the sense of linguistic abandon, farce, and goofy experimentalism that define Orlando‘s DNA.  Nevertheless, Woolf seemed to have enjoyed creating a narrator who abuses this great heritage of English writing most of the time.  “Love, birth and death were all swaddled in a variety of fine phrases,” the narrator admits.

…she was like a fire, a burning bush, and the candle flames about her head were silver leaves; or again, the glass was green water, and she a mermaid, slung with pearls, a siren in a cave, singing so that oarsmen leant from their boats and fell down, down to embrace her; so dark, so bright, so hard, so soft, was she, so astonishingly seductive that it was a thousand pities that there was no one there to put it in plain English, and say outright “Damn it, Madam, you are loveliness incarnate,” which was the truth.

Orlando is illustrated with eight images, four of which represent paintings in the collection at Knole and four of which are photographs made specifically for the book.  Rather smartly, the purported historical photographs are each styled differently, with the portrait of Angelica Bell as a Russian princess harkening back to the 19th century photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron, Virginia Woolf’s great aunt.  First published in 1928, Orlando came out in the same year as Andre Breton’s Nadja.  Together, these were the first works of fiction that included photographs as part of the text to be published since Georges Rodenbach‘s groundbreaking novel Bruges-la-Morte (1892).  Nadja, too, is a biography in its way, the story of the author’s obsession with a young woman who may or may not exist.  But the forty-four illustrations in Nadja never include an image of the titular character.  Both books, however, format the illustrations as full page plates with accompanying titles rather than inserting them into the text as someone like Sebald does.  Orlando represents one of the surprisingly few photographically-illustrated novels for which the photographs were also fictionalized, with real people posing as characters in the novel.

[Vanessa Bell, Angelica Bell as a Russian princess, 1928]

[Lenare, studio portrait of Vita Sackville-West in the manner of Sir Peter Lely, 1927]

[Leonard Woolf, photograph of Vita Sackville-West as Orlando, 1928]

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sackville-West looks like she could kill and not think twice.

    That description of the Great Frost! That paragraph is better than most books.

    June 26, 2012
  2. lovely review Terry; I haven’t read Orlando(yet, but will do); but I imagine similarities with Patrick White:”Twyborne Afair”: gender androgyny; again stunningly poetic; not dissimilar to Woolf in its image-rich denseness. Steve

    October 7, 2014
    • Steve, I haven’t read this Patrick White title, but sounds intriguing. Best, Terry

      October 7, 2014

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