‘The longest and most charming love letter in literature’ – Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

Originally published by Wordsworth Editions…

Towards the end of 1927 – following the publication of To the Lighthouse in May – Virginia Woolf took what she described as a ‘writer’s holiday’. Not that this meant a holiday from writing; rather it was a break from the intensity of her ongoing Modernist experiment. ‘For the truth is,’ she noted in her diary, ‘I feel the need of an escapade after these serious poetic experimental books whose form is always so closely considered.’ Instead, ‘I want to kick up my heels & be off.’ Then 45, with five increasingly complex and beautiful novels behind her, a couple of dozen short stories and two collections of essays, she was working on a book on ‘Fiction, or some such title to that effect’ and it was not going well. At her lowest ebb, bored and demoralised by literary criticism, inspiration suddenly and unexpectedly struck. As she promptly wrote to her friend Vita Sackville-West:

Yesterday morning I was in despair. I couldn’t screw a word from me; and at last I dropped my head in my hands: dipped my pen in the ink and, and wrote these words, as if automatically, on a clean sheet: Orlando: A Biography. No sooner had I done this than my body was flooded with rapture and my brain with ideas. I wrote rapidly until 12.

‘But listen,’ she concluded, ‘suppose Orlando turns out to be Vita…’ There was, however, no ‘suppose’ about it. Orlando, like Sackville-West herself – ‘Vita’ literally meaning ‘Life’ – was a force of nature: ‘How extraordinarily unwilled by me but potent in its own right,’ Woolf wrote of the project in her diary, ‘as if it had shoved everything aside to come into existence.’ But then, love’s always like that, isn’t it?

Orlando began, at least in name, on October 8, and it was written in a rush of creative exuberance. The first full draft was completed on March 17 the following year, and it was published by Hogarth on October 11, the same date on which Orlando’s narrative ends and the day Virginia presented the first edition to Vita. The novel is also formally dedicated to her and very clearly about her, with the protagonist’s adventures allegories of her own. (The first edition also contained several photographs of Vita as Orlando.) Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, later wrote of the novel that: ‘The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her.’

For readers more familiar with Woolf the Modernist, feminist and, indeed, depressive, Orlando might come as a bit of a shock, although that said, Woolf having fun is no less brilliant that any of her other fiction. She may have ‘kicked up her heels’, but she certainly didn’t dumb anything down, and likely couldn’t have even if she’d wanted. Conceptually, Orlando is just as elegantly crafted and intelligent as Woolf’s other novels and essays, but there’s a looseness of style that still sets it apart. It is, as Jeanette Winterson has written, the ‘most joyful of her books’. Just like love, Woolf’s prose is unrestrained, passionate and physical:

Flinging herself on the ground, she felt the bones of the tree running out like ribs from a spine this way and that beneath her. She liked to think that she was riding the back of the world. She liked to attach herself to something hard…

Orlando is sexy, playful, irreverent, and full of jokes (look out for a running gag about Orlando’s perfect legs). Woolf positions herself as a kind of metabiographer, commenting upon the form itself as she gleefully sends it up, in an act of rebellion against her late father Leslie Stephen, the inaugural editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, historian, literary critic and biographer of Swift and Dr Johnson as well as several eminent Victorian gentlemen. ‘It sprung upon me,’ she wrote to Vita, ‘how I could revolutionise biography in a night’. This ‘satire’ she further noted in her diary, ‘should be truthful; but fantastic’. Through the immortal and transexual Orlando, she also sets out to creatively explore the history of England and English literature, from the Renaissance to her present, from Elizabethan through Augustan, Romantic, and Victorian to Modernist. Key figures from each age – including, briefly, Shakespeare – appear as secondary characters and the protagonist, like Vita, is a writer; not a great writer, but aspiring to at least competent, as was the case with Vita. ‘She writes with a pen of brass’ Virginia once told Leonard Woolf. At the time, Vita, a prolific novelist, poet and journalist, was considerably more commercially successful and well-known than Virginia and she published with the Hogarth Press to help their sales through her celebrity. Orlando, then, subtitled ‘A Biography’, is by turns a fantasy novel – the hero reminiscent of the ‘gothic immortal’ archetype – a meditation on not just literature, biography and history but gender and even time, and a creative non-fiction transposing the life of Vita Sackville-West into a 400+ year saga…

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