Orlando. The book, not the place.

I am working on my Brownie badges, I can see I am not going to win them overnight and that is fine. We will just keep the Brownie Points themed season going until I’ve collected all the badges that I realistically can, or until it’s not fun any more.

I am mainly working on what is going to be my first badge, the Bookworm badge. I arbitrarily decided that I have to read 3 books from start to finish to earn it. I’ve just finished the second one. It was Orlando, by Virginia Woolf, published in 1928. If you would like to read it, there is a free online copy here.

Orlando is a fantasy, a biography of a fictional character who lives for 400 years and who changes sex, from male to female, about half way through. In this biography, Woolf explores a number of interesting themes. It is partly a novel about biography. It explores the nature of biography. It asks how much we should trust narrators. It disputes the idea that “factual truth, recounted objectively”, as the usual aim or conceit of a biography, is even possible.

The book also takes up the idea of being on a quest for fulfilment, which I think is partly what TLYW is about. Where will fulfilment come from? From being alive for a long time? From the small details of everyday life? From big adventures, such as travel? From a succession of lovers? From writing? This is a difficult question. We pursue fulfilment in all of these ways through and here at TLYW and I haven’t found any final answers yet.

In my opinion, the most interesting parts of the book are chapters five and six, the final chapters. At this point, Orlando is a woman and so much time has passed that the nineteenth century has begun. These things are significantly connected. Compared to previous centuries, the nineteenth century is a very dull and moralistic age and a very restrictive era in which to be a woman. Orlando looks around and sees that there is little licentiousness, little wildness. Everybody is married. Everybody is paired off, chained to each other by the plain, undecorated gold rings on their fingers, there are not even any sparkling jewels, just plain, dour little wedding bands. People are not joined to each other by passion but by convention and respectability. Orlando finds it distasteful and stifling. But at the same time, it makes her wonder whether she should be married. Is she doing something wrong? Everyone is married except for her. She goes to the park and lies down in the grass and tries to feel as though she is married to Nature, without much success. Then a man, Marmaduke Bonthrop, rocks up on his horse, strikes up a conversation and after a few minutes they are engaged. I think that says quite a lot about the struggle of women to be independent in ages and cultures that do not want women to be single and live alone.

Because Orlando has been a man, she is sharply aware of how specific an experience it is, being a woman. The expectations that are placed upon women. The ways that women are reduced and confined. They are supposed to be married. They don’t get into sword fights. Flashing an ankle makes sailors fall off the rigging. It’s all very stupid. It also results in male authors of biographies of, and novels about, women, struggling to say anything interesting about them. Women don’t do anything, in these books. All they do is take their clothes off.

But Orlando was a woman — Lord Palmerston had just proved it. And when we are writing the life of a woman, we may, it is agreed, waive our demand for action, and substitute love instead. Love, the poet has said, is woman’s whole existence. And if we look for a moment at Orlando writing at her table, we must admit that never was there a woman more fitted for that calling. Surely, since she is a woman, and a beautiful woman, and a woman in the prime of life, she will soon give over this pretence of writing and thinking and begin at least to think of a gamekeeper (and as long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking). And then she will write him a little note (and as long as she writes little notes nobody objects to a woman writing either) and make an assignation for Sunday dusk and Sunday dusk will come; and the gamekeeper will whistle under the window — all of which is, of course, the very stuff of life and the only possible subject for fiction. Surely Orlando must have done one of these things? Alas — a thousand times, alas, Orlando did none of them. Must it then be admitted that Orlando was one of those monsters of iniquity who do not love? She was kind to dogs, faithful to friends, generosity itself to a dozen starving poets, had a passion for poetry. But love — as the male novelists define it — and who, after all, speak with greater authority? — has nothing whatever to do with kindness, fidelity, generosity, or poetry. Love is slipping off one’s petticoat and — But we all know what love is. Did Orlando do that? Truth compels us to say no, she did not. If then, the subject of one’s biography will neither love nor kill, but will only think and imagine, we may conclude that he or she is no better than a corpse and so leave her.

So there you go. I think that says it all, really. The text message is the modern-day ‘little note’, isn’t it. And now I question myself, because TLYW is not only about the quest for fulfilment, it is also substantially about love, making one’s life revolve around love and its pursuit, thinking of men, writing them little text messages and taking one’s clothes off, because that is what men like and they don’t require women to love them, or love anything, in any other way. And that is why I am a feminist failure and a sell-out.

1 Books point. In other news, I had another weekend of very energetic Home Improvements and so I am claiming 1 Home point as well.


5 thoughts on “Orlando. The book, not the place.”

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