Orlando is a mock-biography Virginia Woolf wrote for and about her friend Vita Sackville-West.
Orlando starts out as a young nobleman in 16th century England. He decides not to grow old and so the novel goes on to chronicle his life until the “present day”, the early 20th century. During this time, Orlando falls in love, becomes an ambassador and changes his sex.
Orlando is a hard read and takes about forever. And, though I liked it, I kept asking myself: Is it really worth it to work so hard for this book?
I think my biggest problem – and what made this such a frustrating read – was that I didn’t get a feel for Orlando. I never knew who he was. If you’d ask me “what kind of person is Orlando?”, I wouldn’t know how to answer. (Except, maybe, to say “a petulant one” and that’s a crappy answer. And it feels like a lie.)
Which seems like an extra waste, because linguistically I plain loved “Orlando”. Okay, sometimes the prose got a little purple, but mostly it was jaw-droppingly gorgeous writing. Take for example:
For in all she said, however open she seemed and voluptuous, there was something hidden; in all she did, however daring, there was something concealed. So the green flame seems hidden in the emerald, or the sun prisoned in a hill. The clearness was only outward; within was a wandering flame.
More often than not, I don’t have a problem with just reading wonderful prose and not have much else that keeps me interested, but in this case I very badly wanted the book to mean something more because of the gender thing.
And here my expectations screwed with me. I expected some kind of revelation about gender politics (for a lack of better word) and what I got was… dated. I mean, I’m sure that in the 1920s, it was shocking, daring and ahead-of-its-time thinking. But it didn’t keep. It seems antiquated in a lot of ways.
What can I say? I can imagine that I would very much love the book if I had had different expectations. As it was, I was a little disappointed. And since Orlando stayed a stranger, zie couldn’t help me. But the prose is a dream.
Finally, a word on the edition I was reading: I read the Penguin edition (first published in 1993/printed in 2000) edited by Brenda Lyons with an introduction and notes by Sandra M. Gilbert. The introduction was interesting but the notes, the notes were absolutely essential. If you want to read it, I’d strongly recommend an annotated version.