Stephen Carver looks at Orlando

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

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.

Written in the cheery third person voice of a scholarly biographer, besotted by her subject and acutely aware of the limitations of the form, Orlando begins in 1586, when the subject, the handsome son of a noble family, is 16 years old and working on a play entitled Aethelbert: A Tragedy in Five Acts. Composition has stalled and he wanders the grounds of the family seat – based on Knole, a huge Jacobean house near Sevenoaks where Vita grew up – until he comes to an oak tree that becomes ever after a pastoral symbol of the changing and changeless English landscape and the subject of a poem he spends the rest of the book and several centuries writing. He soon becomes a favourite of the queen and is rewarded with lands and titles, ‘For the old woman loved him’. He takes several lovers at court before falling head-over-heels in love with the wild Russian Princess, Sasha, against the vivid backdrop of the ‘Great Frost’ of 1608. Sasha breaks his heart, and he returns to a literary life, befriending the (fictional) poet Nick Greene, who betrays his hospitality by lampooning him in a satirical pamphlet. Sick of love and literature, Orlando withdraws from society to the security of his ancestral home, where he falls into a deep sleep for a week, an event his biographer admits is inexplicable:

The biographer is now faced with a difficulty which it is better perhaps to confess than to gloss over. Up to this point in telling the story of Orlando’s life, documents, both private and historical, have made it possible to fulfil the first duty of a biographer, which is to plod, without looking to right or left, in the indelible footprints of truth; unenticed by flowers; regardless of shade; on and on methodically till we fall plump into the grave and write finis on the tombstone above our heads. But now we come to an episode which lies right across our path, so that there is no ignoring it. Yet it is dark, mysterious, and undocumented; so that there is no explaining it. Volumes might be written in interpretation of it; whole religious systems founded upon the signification of it. Our simple duty is to state the facts as far as they are known, and so let the reader make of them what he may.

With a light touch, Woolf thus gets to the conflict at the heart of the biographer’s art: despite the certainty of Victorian scholarship, some aspects of the subject’s life are simply unknowable, while those events that are known are open to a plurality of subjective interpretations. Modernist ontology subtly supplants Victorian epistemology, while at the same time no further explanation is required or given in the narrative as to why Orlando, from this point in his life, barely ages. Orlando sets about lavishly refurbishing his home – as had Vita’s ancestor Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, between 1603 and 1608 – until the persistent attentions of the grotesque, androgenous and disturbingly alluring Archduchess Harriet compel him to leave the country. Appointed Ambassador Extraordinary to Constantinople by the king, now Charles II, he is raised from Earl to Duke, a reference to another of Vita’s ancestors, Lionel Sackville, who was created the 1st Duke of Dorset in 1720. In Constantinople, Orlando ‘became the adored of many women and some men’ while the English Civil War, the plague and the fire of London pass him by, discharging his duties and throwing parties with equal vigour and aplomb. (Vita had lived there when her husband, Harold Nicholson, was a young diplomat, and adored the city.) After a dalliance with (and possibly a secret marriage to) a gypsy witch who may or may not have cursed him, he once more falls asleep for a week. Upon awakening, Orlando is now a woman, and remains so for the rest of the story, a journey of personal development motivated by the endless search for ‘Life and a Lover’. To find out whether she achieves this goal, and what happens along the way, you’ll just have to read the book…

Like Orlando, Victoria Mary Sackville-West, Lady Nicolson, was an English aristocrat. She was born at Knole in 1892, the only child of cousins Victoria Sackville-West and Lionel Sackville-West, 3rd Baron Sackville. She was always known as ‘Vita’ to distinguish her from her mother. Her maternal grandmother, Josefa Durán y Ortega, was a famous Romani Spanish dancer who had popularised flamenco under the stage name Pepita de Oliva. Vita was proud of her Roma lineage, and saw herself as a ‘gypsy’ in the most romantic sense: as fiery, passionate, impulsive and a little gothic. She was tutored at home by a governess while her parents had little to do with her. To overcome the loneliness and isolation, she wrote prolifically as a child, producing (like the young Orlando) numerous stories, poems and plays in English and French. Finally released into Helen Wolff’s exclusive Mayfair school for girls as a teenager, Vita met her first loves, Rosamund Grosvenor (the granddaughter of Robert Grosvenor, 1st Baron Ebury), and Violet Keppel, the daughter of George Keppel, the third son of William Keppel, 7th Earl of Albemarle, and Alice Keppel (née Edmonstone), Edward VII’s favourite mistress. Debuting in 1910, Vita was courted by dukes and earls while having a fling with the historian Geoffrey Scott which destroyed his marriage. She was then pursued by the young bisexual diplomat, Harold Nicholson, and the couple married in 1913, maintaining an open relationship thereafter. Rosamund had been Vita’s first lover, but the love of her life was Violet. Even after both women had married, they continued their relationship, eloping to France several times with Vita posing as Violet’s husband in her male alter ego ‘Julian’. The husbands finally broke them up in 1921, after Harold threatened divorce over the growing scandal and told Vita that Violet had slept with her husband, which she had promised never to do. Although it was Vita who left Violet, Woolf makes her the character of ‘Sasha’ in Orlando, who ditches Orlando after agreeing to elope with him to Russia. Of all his and her lovers, it is Sasha for whom Orlando carries the torch until almost the end of the novel.

Vita met Virginia, who was ten years her senior, at a Bloomsbury dinner hosted by the art critic and pacifist Clive Bell in 1922, Woolf noting in her diary that she had just met ‘the lovely gifted aristocratic Sackville West’, indicating the three features that no doubt appealed. Woolf was well aware of Vita’s ‘Sapphism’ and admired her free spirit. Although the more commercially successful novelist, Vita revered Woolf’s writing and despite the difference in social rank they bonded over literature and, on a more personal level, their miserable childhoods and indifferent parents. Woolf even confided to Vita the dark family secret that she’s been sexually abused by her stepbrother as a child. It was through Vita’s support that she finally began to recover from the trauma.

Woolf’s self-confidence grew with the friendship. Vita believed that Virginia’s nervous ailments had been misdiagnosed, and encouraged her intellectual projects, getting her to challenge her self-image as a dowdy and sickly recluse. When she was 15, Woolf’s father and his doctor had linked Virginia’s ‘nervous condition’ to too much reading and writing, prescribing vigorous exercise, such as gardening, to offset symptoms and prevent nervous breakdown. As an adult, she still stuck to this belief and forced herself to undertake arduous physical activities. Vita showed her that her writing was indicative of her intellectual and emotional strength, not weakness, and taught her how to manage her moods by switching between positive activities while ditching those that made her feel worse (like gardening). Vita’s advice was simple but profound: essentially that Woolf should pursue her creative passions but learn how to rest when she needed to. As a result, this period in Woolf’s life is one of enormous productivity – she wrote To The Lighthouse, Orlando, The Waves, and A Room of One’s Own – just as it was for Vita. As the Woolf specialist Professor Louise DeSalvo wrote, ‘neither had ever written so much so well, and neither would ever again reach this peak of accomplishment’. Virginia came out of her shell and for the first time in her life felt able to enjoy a physical relationship. The friends became lovers in 1925, and despite both being married their letters demonstrate the depth of their passion: ‘I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia,’ Vita wrote from Europe the following year. The key theme of longing for someone or something absent in To The Lighthouse reflects Woolf missing Vita, who frequently spent extended periods abroad.

Woolf has two inter-related projects in Orlando. The novel certainly is a love letter to Vita, as well as her ancestors, who fascinated Virginia and about whom Vita had written in her family history Knole and the Sackvilles in 1922. This can be seen in the detailed and poetic evocation of Knole, a house Vita adored but lost because her late-father’s title and estates could only be passed to a male heir, in this case his younger brother. ‘You made me cry with your passages about Knole, you wretch,’ Vita wrote to Virginia upon reading the novel. She had fought for her home in court, and lost, and Orlando faces the same challenge, because a woman cannot be a knight and a duke. There are, of course, other parallels with Vita’s life too numerous to mention, such as her fantasy of running away with gypsies – which Woolf gently satirises as Vita was always too fond of her comforts to ever do this in reality – and the success of her prize-winning but rather old-fashioned Georgic poem The Land (recreated as Orlando’s epic pastoral The Oak Tree). In this sense, Woolf was writing a biography, but there’s more to Orlando than simply Vita, and the novel stands on its own terms whether or not the reader knows anything about her. The other face of Orlando continues the rebellious experiment of Woolf’s High Modernism by other means, where the laws of time and space do not apply and both textual and physical boundaries are ignored. Her love of the beautiful non-binary aristocrat is thus the catalyst rather than the core of the novel.

Similarly, Orlando is not just what would nowadays be called a Queer or an LGBT novel, though we can’t reject the label either. Were we to place it in that genre alone it would be a liberating and exhilarating read, and it’s notable that it was published in the same year as Radclyffe Hall’s tragic lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, with its undercurrent of self-loathing and guilt, and the anguished cry to God that concludes the narrative: ‘Give us also the right to our existence!’ This soul-searching analysis of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s theory of ‘sexual inversion’ by a gay author was judged ‘obscene’ and banned by the English courts for ‘defending unnatural practices between women’ whereas Orlando was a bestseller in the UK and US, providing Woolf with financial security for the first time in her life.

In Orlando, sexuality and gender fluidity are neither questioned nor presented as in any way aberrant; they are just there within the story, which is probably how Woolf got away with it. Orlando changes sex without batting an eyelid and loves both men and women. Like Vita, she cross-dresses to escape the social constraints of her gender, especially during the miserable 19th century; Archduchess Harriet turns out to be a man, and Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine is androgynous and non-binary:

‘Oh! Shel, don’t leave me!’ she cried. ‘I’m passionately in love with you,’ she said. No sooner had the words left her mouth than an awful suspicion rushed into both their minds simultaneously.

‘You’re a woman, Shel!’ she cried.

‘You’re a man, Orlando!’ he cried.

Never was there such a scene of protestation and demonstration as then took place since the world began.

This brings us back to the co-existence of ‘truth’ and ‘fantasy’ in the novel. It was ‘fantastic’ for Vita/Orlando to live for centuries, but perfectly ‘truthful’ that she, or anybody else, might throw off one gender and adopt another as easily as changing clothes. To Woolf, the creative intelligence was necessarily androgynous. As an expert on Elizabethan literature, she loved the scale and possibility of Renaissance thought: that Shakespeare could write his sonnets to men and women, and that he could understand and capture, for example, the masculine bravery of men in battle and the feminine intensity of women in love. And this was opposed to the stuffy Victorian world of her youth, the period of ‘separate spheres’ and ‘angels of the house’, in which her brother went to Cambridge and she and her sister were taught ‘light’ subjects at home.

Orlando lives through both eras, and the contrast in the novel is necessarily extreme:

The age was the Elizabethan; their morals were not ours; nor their poets; nor their climate; nor their vegetables even. Everything was different. The weather itself, the heat and cold of summer and winter, was, we may believe, of another temper altogether. The brilliant amorous day was divided as sheerly from the night as land from water. Sunsets were redder and more intense; dawns were whiter and more auroral. Of our crepuscular half-lights and lingering twilights they knew nothing. The rain fell vehemently, or not at all. The sun blazed or there was darkness. Translating this to the spiritual regions as their wont is, the poets sang beautifully how roses fade and petals fall. The moment is brief they sang; the moment is over; one long night is then to be slept by all. As for using the artifices of the greenhouse or conservatory to prolong or preserve these fresh pinks and roses, that was not their way. The withered intricacies and ambiguities of our more gradual and doubtful age were unknown to them. Violence was all. The flower bloomed and faded. The sun rose and sank. The lover loved and went. And what the poets said in rhyme, the young translated into practice. Girls were roses, and their seasons were short as the flowers’. Plucked they must be before nightfall; for the day was brief and the day was all. Thus, if Orlando followed the leading of the climate, of the poets, of the age itself, and plucked his flower in the window-seat even with the snow on the ground and the Queen vigilant in the corridor we can scarcely bring ourselves to blame him.

But when Orlando enters the 19th century, what she sees to her dismay are: ‘widow’s weeds and bridal veils’ and ‘crystal palaces, bassinettes, military helmets, memorial wreaths, trousers, whiskers, wedding cakes, cannon, Christmas trees, telescopes, extinct monsters, globes, maps, elephants, and mathematical instruments’. And it is always raining. Nick Greene, meanwhile, the whiny and talentless dilettante from Shakespeare’s London reappears as the greatest of Victorian literary critics and arbiter of public taste, championing only writing that looks backwards and never forwards.

Woolf’s horror of Victorian moral, sexual and aesthetic values is palpable. Instead, Orlando invites us to dream bigger, to imagine a potential existence where we can be what and who we want, which would include cutting the mooring line with gender in a way that still feels radical, even when compared with the most contemporary trans manifestos. And this was always the ethos of the artists and thinkers that formed the so-called ‘Bloomsbury Group’. Sexual permissiveness was the norm, with bisexuality, homosexuality and lesbianism openly discussed and cheerfully practiced, with extramarital affairs accepted, condoned, and even encouraged. As Dorothy Parker famously said of them: ‘They lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles.’

Virginia and Vita’s affair drifted back into friendship in the 1930s, but as Orlando shows, their intimacy had a profound effect on Woolf and her writing. Orlando precedes both Woolf’s ground-breaking feminist essay A Room of One’s Own (1929) and her most sophisticated literary experiment, The Waves (1931). In reading the extended essay, the unrestrained creative exuberance and sexual energy of Orlando can still be felt. A Room of One’s Own is no mere intellectual exercise: every argument, every analogy, every point about men and women and creativity is written with as much emotion, as much feeling, as thought. Like Orlando, Woolf’s argument is a passionate cry for self-actualisation, by implication ultimately not just for women but for all of us, for life as it should be, not as it is: life as it could be lived, free of prejudice, convention and hypocrisy, where we love who we want to love, and we love ourselves as well. If Vita taught Virginia anything, it was that. Whereas The Well of Loneliness was defensive and bleak, Orlando is a novel of tremendous hope and, indeed, love in its broadest sense: love as life. And on Pride Day, what better message could we take with us than that?

Stephen Carver

Image: Virginia Woolf sculpture in the garden at her home Monk’s House at Rodmell in East Sussex.

Credit: Kathy deWitt / Alamy Stock Photo