Posted by: Sally Ingraham | February 13, 2010


DSC00391by Virginia Woolf

Two things alone remained to him in which he now put any trust: dogs and nature; an elk-hound and a rose bush. The world, in all its variety, life in all its complexity, had shrunk to that. Dogs and a bush were the whole of it.

My co-workers can attest to the struggle I had while reading this book. As the long evenings of early February past at the movie theater, between infrequent customers I read Orlando, picking it up ruefully, heaving sighs, muttering nearly spiteful things…and moments later letting loose loud barks of laughter.

I quickly realized that Orlando was a different sort of Woolf creation, and I tried to embrace it. Everything about the book is somewhat fascinating. It’s the biography of a person who’s life spans four centuries, the story of a boy who is the pet of Queen Elizabeth, the lover of a Russian princess, Ambassador to Turkey. It’s the tale of a beautiful man with fabulous legs who mysteriously becomes an equally lovely woman, one who never ages past her thirties. It’s a book about the turning of centuries, one that asks questions about gender, about why and how people write, how art consumes and completes life.

Orlando, in Woolf’s own words, was her attempt to take a break from ‘these serious poetic experimental books‘. With it, she wanted to ‘kick up my heels & be off.‘ It was a love letter to her friend Vita Sackville-West, whom Orlando is closely based off of. Woolf also wanted to play with ideas about the role of the biographer, and indeed the anonymous biographer’s voice in Orlando is nearly a character in itself – one that seeks to present both the truth and the personality of its subject, using a blend of reality and imagination.

There’s plenty of room for imagination in this book, which smoothly combines elements of historical fiction and fantasy. Even as her seemingly immortal character changes genders at will, Woolf vividly brings to life several centuries of English life. Reality feels solid, and even Orlando, for all his/her quirks, seems firmly caught up in it.

Lots to like here. It was a day to day thing with me. Some days the voice of the biographer grated on my nerves and the bizarre events seemed to spiral into silliness. I felt myself smirking and coming close to rolling my eyes. Other days I found the whole thing highly amusing, and the dry wittiness seemed perfectly balanced. Throughout I wasn’t as struck by the style, even though there were some amazing passages. This book wasn’t so much about style though, of course.

With Mrs. D and TTL I felt as though Woolf was inviting me to participate – at times while reading Orlando I felt more like I was being left out. I wouldn’t say that I felt like Woolf was being a snob, because I know that for her the book was a joyous thing. I wanted to experience that joy with her, but instead I found myself closer to a kind of pleasant melancholy, interspersed with both genuine laughter and moments of indignant, ‘Oh come on – seriously?’

All of these reactions combine to leave me without a concrete opinion about my feelings toward the book. That’s all right with me, since I already know that with Woolf it takes a read or two. I still feel pretty strongly that I want to read it again, but not as immediately as I’ve felt with the other books. I feel a certain degree of annoyance toward Orlando, partially because I wanted to like it so much more. Like I said, there’s a lot to like, a lot that should appeal to me, but after this reading all I can summon up is a shrug.

woolf in winterThis review comes a day late for the Woolf in Winter party, hosted this time round by Frances. I spent some of my limited free time yesterday reading other reviews as they went up, and really appreciated the pleasure and insights I found, and the less enthusiastic opinions too.

My final word for the moment is, and I find this somewhat funny, that for me Orlando suffers from too much plot! I can’t wait to read The Waves (hosted by Claire on the 26th). I’m imagining myself sinking beneath the exquisite waters of Woolf’s prose once again, luxuriating in it, coming up for air only at the last moment… Mmm, delightful.


  1. Sarah, I get your feeling of being left out. I felt the same thing sometimes, but, because of the notes on my edition, it helped to reel me in and so I didn’t mind.

    We came in the opposite direction though. You wanted to like it; I thought I wouldn’t, and was surprised when it was so easy.

    My fave thing about it is probably the absurdity and the fantasy elements. I like things that feel magical, and probably if this was just all clever without the fantastical elements, might’ve failed for me. As it is, I enjoyed it as a fantasy!

    Looking forward to The Waves, too, but also kind of scared..

    • I knew some of the background, and I did find the intro in my edition helpful. I think I’ll read the intro first next time around and see how that effects my experience.

  2. Sarah! It’s such a relief to find someone who isn’t glowing over Orlando. Pretty much loathed it myself, and was beginning to wonder what was wrong with me; was I reading the same book as everyone else? Your opening paragraphs made me smile, far more than Virginia did in this work of hers which, so far, I like the least. Still, it’s interesting to read everyone’s perspective.

    • Yes, I couldn’t bring myself to gush about this one, although I didn’t loath it! The perspectives provided by group reads are definitely a great asset to the reading experience.

  3. I felt a great deal left out too. After writing my post, I thought more about how I don’t know that much about Woolf’s life, and maybe reading the Hermione Lee bio would give me enough insight to, if not adore, at least understand Orlando better.

    But yeah, I’m ready to move on to The Waves.

    • Like you, I felt like I ‘got’ it, in its essentials, but I didn’t find the humor as satisfying as I had hoped to. I understood the elements of fantasy, but they seemed a tad silly at times. It just didn’t draw me in as well as the other books. Oh well! 🙂

  4. Sarah, your extraordinarily mixed review and Bellezza’s comment above were kind of reassuring to me since I was beginning to think that Anthony (who gave up on the book early on from what I understand) and I were the only ones who didn’t love this book. Of course, I’ve only read a handful of the other review posts so far so maybe there are more “haters” out there! I would have dropped this book quickly if I wasn’t reading along with the group, but I decided to stay the course because a) you all are such fine company, and b) I’m using Woolf in Winter as a sort of crash course on the writer for better or worse. Even when she reminds me of Sigrid Undset, ha! P.S. Nice post even if you don’t qualify for hater status on this one!

    • Thanks Richard, especially since I don’t make hater status! I am really enjoying the ‘crash course’ aspect of reading all this Woolf at once – although as you mentioned in the comments on your post, it is a bit daunting. I’m getting tired! But I’m looking forward to The Waves and I’ll probably keep going from there – if a little more slowly. Shall we finish reading Woolf this year? 🙂

  5. Sorry it was such a struggle. But I think you have added something new to our big Woolf conversation – a book that suffers from too much plot! 🙂 Glad you are not discouraged though. See you for the infinitely more complicated The Waves.

    • Definitely not discouraged! Thanks for stopping by – I’m still having trouble commenting on your page… Can’t figure out why.

  6. “I quickly realized that Orlando was a different sort of Woolf creation, and I tried to embrace it. Everything about the book is somewhat fascinating.”

    Really liked this line from your review, Sarah. I just joined the Woolf in Winter series with Orlando. I was not one of the “haters,” just because I loved how there was so much going on in the book. I had read some of Woolf, years ago, so the kind of snotty tone was something I expected. Plus these days I’m loving any book that can make me laugh.

    I was looking forward to The Waves…but now I agree with Claire, who in the first comment, said she’s also a bit scared….I’m already having trouble getting past the first few pages. A test of concentration.

    • A test of concentration indeed! The Waves might take a little work. 🙂 I didn’t find Woolf snotty in the other books I’ve read of hers, and I wouldn’t necessarily call it that here, but she certainly had running inside jokes. I both liked, and disliked that aspect. It was GREAT to have Woolf make me laugh – I just didn’t care for the times when she made me roll my eyes…!

  7. […] UK – 1992 This was the great movie that I mentioned. Oddly enough, I liked it much more than the book! Under Potter’s direction it translated surprisingly well into a movie, and while I had […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: