Earlier this year I was lucky enough to see the Royal Exchange Theatre (Manchester, UK) production of Orlando, starring Suranne Jones. It was a strange encounter. I was already familiar with the story, having read Orlando a number of years ago. It was a strange experience all the same. The story was narrated and acted, which created an unusual resonance, an off-tone which was somewhat distracting. Yet it was beautiful, at times compelling to the point of tears, and Suranne Jones leaped miles in my estimation as her performance was nuanced, gentle and brutal. I left the theatre unsure how I’d felt about the production. The story is magnificent, the delivery somewhat unsettling. I think this is a fair summation of how I feel about the book too.
It is, perhaps, unfortunate that my two initial introductions to Woolf – Mrs Dalloway and Orlando – put me off re-reading Woolf for some time, and in the course of my reading so far these remain the two that I feel most ambivalent and conflicted about. Orlando is probably what you would describe as exactly my kind of story. It confronts issues of gender, of the female ‘role’, it spans centuries of history, it has levity and adventure. There’s a lot to recommend it. Yet, again, I found myself struggling through it. I’m not entirely sure why.
The premise of Orlando is that Orlando, a boy, is born in the Elizabethan era. He is born into a wealthy aristocratic household and is fortunate to be taken under the tutelage of the Queen. Orlando the boy has numbers of adventures and encounters, until circumstances lead him to take a position as Ambassador in Constantinople. Here, in the throws of revolution, Orlando sleeps and sleeps and wakes one morning having become a woman. From that point on Orlando lives through the following centuries as a woman, landing in the ‘present’ in the end. It is an interesting premise.
That Orlando confronts the question of gender is quite obvious from the subject matter, and it is enables Woolf to use the text as a vehicle for exploring male and female roles though I think she manages to do this without it being a sledgehammer approach (though perhaps I’m biased there, I don’t know). For example here where Orlando approaches England for the first time as a woman and starts to realise what this will mean for her:
“She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented and exquisitely apparelled. ‘Now I shall have to pay in my own person for those desires,’ she reflected; ‘for women are not (judging by my own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented and exquisitely apparelled by nature. They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline. There’s the hairdressing,’ she thought, ‘that alone will take an hour of my morning; there’s looking in the looking-glass, another hour; there’s staying and lacing’ there’s washing and powdering; there’s changing from silk to lace and from lace to paduasoy; there’s being chaste year in year out…’ Here she tossed her foot impatiently, and showed an inch or two of calf. A sailor on the mast, who happened to look down at the moment, started so violently that he missed his footing and only saved himself by the skin of his teeth. ‘If the sight of my ankles means death to an honest fellow who no doubt has a wide and family to support, I must, in all humanity, keep them covered,’ Orlando thought. Yet her legs were amongst her chiefest beauties. An she fell to thinking what an odd pass we have come to when a woman’s beauty has to be kept covered lest a sailor may fall from a mast head. ‘A pox on them!’ she said, realising for the first time what, in other circumstances, she would have been taught as a child, that is to say, the sacred responsibilities of womanhood. “
There is more, of course. At its heart Orlando is a lightweight tale, full of silliness and raptures. Its premise is, of course, quite unrealistic and there is a sense throughout the novel that Woolf is having a little play with words, with spinning a yarn to the benefit and credit of her friends (inspired, as it was, by Vita Sackville-West). It is in spirit a fun novel, particularly in the early stages as Orlando falls in love with Sacha during the infamous winter storm that froze the Thames for several months and has his heart lifted then broken. These scenes are beautiful, evocative. Like here, as Sacha describes her home:
“Sacha, as if to reassure him, was tenderer than usual and even more delightful. Seldom would she talk about her past life, but now she told him how, in winter in Russia, she would listen to the wolves howling across the steppes, and thrice, to show him, she barked life a wolf. Upon which he told her of the stags in the snow at home, and how they would stray into the great hall for warmth and be fed by an old man with porridge from a bucket.”
I think where I lose the thread with Orlando is towards the end, where the writing becomes tumultuous and vivacious. It is, perhaps, a similar issue to that experienced in Mrs Dalloway when the spin and whirl of the writing becomes too much and I simply find it painful to go on reading. Towards the last ten pages or so the words jumbled and tumbled and spun and I really wasn’t sure what was going on. And perhaps the fact that it spins this way towards the end colours my whole experience of the book. I found myself just wanting to finish it, all semblance of enjoyment obliterated. Not a great experience to end with.
(I might still watch the movie though)