Thursday, 3 January 2013

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

About the book
Orlando, a novel by Virginia Woolf, was first published in 1928. It is a semi-autobiographical story based partly on the life of Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s lover. In the edition I have, there are 165 pages.

Synopsis (Taken from the back of the book)
"The longest and most charming love letter in literature," playfully constructs the figure of Orlando as the fictional embodiment of Woolf's close friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West. Spanning three centuries of boisterous, fantastic adventure, the novel opens as Orlando, a young nobleman in Elizabeth's England, awaits a visit from the Queen and traces his experience with first love as England, under James I, lies locked in the embrace of the Great Frost.

At the midpoint of the novel, Orlando, now an ambassador in Costantinople, awakes to find that he is a woman, and the novel indulges in farce and irony to consider the roles of women in the 18th and 19th centuries. As the novel ends in 1928, a year consonant with full suffrage for women, Orlando, now a wife and mother, stands poised at the brink of a future that holds new hope and promise for women.

What I thought
Being a book I had to read for my Gender and Sexuality class this year at university, this was not a book I was looking forward to at all. I haven’t had the best of luck with Virginia Woolf over the past couple of years and after reading the first couple of pages, I wanted to read it even less.

The beginning of the book is extremely hard going and slow to get into. Set in the Elizabethan England, there is a lot of information about who is ruling the country at the time and where Orlando stands in the middle of it all. The language used is quite pretentious and needlessly long winded. These were the main reasons for me not being able to get into the story immediately and not wanting to continue reading. However, after putting the book down for a couple of weeks and giving it another shot, I found it easier and easier to read as I continued.

Orlando spans over a couple of hundred years which is extremely strange and different for a novel and I didn’t quite understand why for a while. Orlando, at the beginning of the story, is a man who a nobleman during the rule of Queen Elizabeth, then going on to be an Ambassador in Constantinople. Part way through the story though, Orlando falls asleep and wakes up a woman. Another strange part of the story. Anyway, as Orlando changes to be a woman, still having all knowledge of her life previously as a man, the times change throughout the story. This is the main theme of the book. Having been both a man and a woman, Orlando is able to see how the treatment of women changes throughout time and also from both points of view.

I actually really enjoyed the way that Woolf changed the era being written about. I thought that this would bug me and that it would make the plot flow at a slightly weird pace. Strangely, this is something that I felt made the plot flow quite well as the time periods are quite blurred at times and the change happens so quickly that you barely notice. It was also interesting to see how Orlando changed over time, both when he went from man to woman and also how thoughts changed about different things. As the book ends in 1928, there are so many changes in the world compared with when the story first started.

Orlando is also very funny – this I wasn’t expecting at all. Through Orlando’s experiences as a woman, it becomes clear that she doesn’t really know what to do in certain situations. She explains at one point that if she had still been a man, you would have taken out a sword and cut someone’s head off. Things like this she cannot do as a woman so the funny parts of the book came when Orlando found herself in a dissimilar situation. I laughed a fair amount through reading this book and this isn’t something I have experienced with a Woolf novel before.

Even though I had a bad experience with this book to begin with, it turned out that I really quite liked it. If you haven’t been a fan of Woolf in the past, like me, you may find this novel a bit better. 

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