This month is all about switching things up with Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. It’s a bit of an odd one, with a lot of internal contemplation and not as much action as one might like. Still, things get unexpectedly weird about halfway through, and I rather love that.
As our story begins, Orlando, our protagonist, is definitely male. He is definitely male because he’s practicing his swordplay on the severed head of an African (as one does when one is a creepy aristocratic child at the end of the 16th century). He is described as a fair young man, with eyes like drenched violets (whatever that means) and a great love for death and poetry writing. Preferably together.
After he gets tired of cutting the head down and tying it back up again, he goes to visit Queen Elizabeth, taking a shortcut and stumbling across a poet (he has romanticized poets to the point where they hold the keys to all of life’s mysteries). He later falls asleep and doesn’t get to talk to the queen at all, but she thinks he’s adorable.
Two years later he meets her again, and she decides he’d make a great treasurer and steward, despite his lack of job qualifications. She becomes his sugar momma and gives him land and titles and all sorts of lovely things, but gets upset when she sees him kissing a girl. He doesn’t learn, of course, and gets caught with various other girls despite ending up engaged to one of them.
Of course, none of these is the right girl until he meets a woman skating. It takes him a moment because he thinks she’s a boy at first, but he quickly catches on and starts coming up with such romantic nicknames as “a melon, a pineapple, an olive tree, an emerald, and a fox in the snow.” Swoon. It turns out this particular girl is Princess Marousha Stanislovska Dagmar Natasha Iliana Romanovitch. Naturally she is nicknamed Sasha. Presumably she is Russian, but the two prefer to gossip about the other nobles at the dinner table using French. Sasha can’t really stand the aristocracy, so Orlando takes her off sightseeing in London, but of course gets mad at any interest she shows in other men, despite being a womanizer himself. When they go to see Shakespeare (because this is the 1600s so of course they do) he gets morbid over Othello’s plight and can’t stop thinking about death and destruction. Still, he tries to convince Sasha to sneak over to St. Paul’s for a midnight rendezvous, but she never comes. He runs to the dock, but the Russian ship has vanished, presumably taking his princess away forever.
Six months later, on a lovely summer day after he’s been kicked out the court and all manner of disasters have occurred, Orlando goes into a coma for a week before becoming a hermit and hanging out in his family tomb. He chats with his favorite poet Nick Greene, feeling guilty about his own luxury in the man’s presence, and never gets the courage to discuss his own poetry. He decides at age 30 that he has done everything there is to do in life, found it all worthless, and he is done with men. Whether he means “men” in the general sense of mankind or the more specific sense of males, I’m not quite sure.
He spends years and decades and hours pondering over the truths behind life and art and human experiences and love, and doesn’t come to much in the way of conclusions. This is pretty much his MO. He later meets Archduchess Harriet Griselda and somehow falls in love. Of course when he starts to act on it and she becomes a little bit lusty, he runs in the other direction. How dare she ruin his romantic notions of romance with some kind of sexuality!
He instead becomes an ambassador in Constantinople, because why not. Later, the Turks rise up against the Sultan, but Orlando misses most of the fighting because he’s fallen into another week-long coma. People run through his house, but no one kills him because they figure he’s already dead. While people are going through his scattered papers, they also find a marriage certificate for Orlando and Rosina Pepita, a dancer. This is entirely random but necessary for later plot points.
Suddenly the novel gets a little bit trippy as it turns into a Greek drama. Orlando is visited by the Lady of Purity, the Lady of Chastity, the Lady of Modesty, and the Lady of Truth. They all descend on Orlando to claim him as their own, but Truth wins out. By the end of it, the trumpets blare and he stands up and discovers that he’s become a woman. (If you can shed some light on the metaphors going on here, please do.)
Orlando is strangely okay with this turn of events. She gets up, grabs her guns and her dogs, and goes horseback riding. She spends her time hanging out with a band of nomads but eventually they decide to kill her because she prefers sunsets to goat herds. Harsh. She leaves before they manage it, and decides to make her way back into English society. On board the ship home, however, she makes a horrific discovery about British expectations for women – wearing skirts, being chaste, acting feminine, and all those other awful things. She immediately sinks into a depression, wishing she could go back to Turkey where everyone wears basically the same outfit regardless of gender. She decides it would be better for women to be poor and ignorant if it means being closer to the human spirit of contemplation, solitude, and love (Orlando seems to be missing the point of humanity if she thinks solitude is a major component).
As Orlando starts to cozy up to the captain, she realizes she still prefers women. This is a bit of an inconvenience in her current time period. She finally gets home, only to discover that her estate is tied up in law due to the fact that she’s a) dead, b) a woman, and c) married to a woman with three sons who all want the estate. Darn that marriage certificate! Well, it explains the wife, but where did the sons come from? How much time has passed? Were they triplets, perhaps? So many questions without answers.
Orlando takes up residence and becomes a writer while the law sorts out her property situation. Once, she is pursued by Archduchess Harriet Griselda, who comes inside, takes off her coat, and turns into a man. Evidently she’s actually Archduke Harry, who had seen Orlando’s manly portrait back in the day, fell in love, and dressed up as a woman to pursue him. Orlando thinks that if this is love, love is pretty ridiculous. (I am inclined to agree on this note.) Harry comes back every day to visit Orlando and they try to amuse themselves by making a game out of betting on which flies will land on which bottles. Orlando cheats at this game, and when Harry cries about it, she drops a toad down his shirt. Are these people five years old? Time is obviously wonky here, so we may never know.
After this, she decides she wants “life and a lover” and so takes her carriage to London again. Our narrator digresses into a long yet relevant discussion of how it is often only the clothes that determine the gender of the wearer. No one, in fact, is able to determine whether Orlando is more man or more woman at this point – not even herself.
The dress gives it away, of course, and everyone points and stares at Orlando in the London streets as she forgets that women aren’t allowed to walk in public by themselves. Archduke Harry (who is apparently still stalking her) appears out of nowhere to offer her his hand. He’s forgiven her for the toad thing, and has had one set in emeralds for her. (How… romantic?) She declines it.
Orlando continues to participate in high society each evening (which seems a lot like an upper-class form of clubbing) and suddenly she’s passing the year 1712. She continues to chat with witty people who say nothing of importance. Ah, how little things have changed. She meets authors and poets like Mr. Pope, Mr. Addison, and Mr. Swift, but she is far superior to them as she glides into the nineteenth century.
During this century, she remarks how the cold seeps into everything, how men and women grow ever more distant, and how they find other words to conceal the vivacious nature of love, life, and death. (Nonsnarky interjection – I have to applaud Woolf here on her beautiful synopsis of the Victorian age.) Orlando, of course, prefers to write about the unchanging nature of the ages. Which she is allowed to do, I guess, because she’s some kind of philosophical vampire who never grows old.
Suddenly she notices her servant has a ring. Everywhere she goes, people have wedding rings. It’s like some sort of conspiracy! She’s a single woman at 31 years old! (How long has she been 31?) She realizes she needs to drop her Elizabethan habits and step into the Victorian age. She puts on a fancy dress, goes running through the fields in the manner of a Wuthering Heights character, breaks her ankle, and realizes she is Nature’s bride. As one does. A man riding his horse down the road notices she’s injured. She replies that she is dead and they get engaged a few minutes later. I guess Nature is okay with giving her up as a bride.
Her new fiance’s name is Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, Esquire. She’d better marry him, because I don’t know where she’s going to find a man with a sillier name than that. (She introduces herself as Orlando. She doesn’t even need a last name, that’s how cool she is.)
As Shel is leaving, Orlando passionately declares her love for him. Her. Wait. It turns out Shel was a woman all along? Shel is shocked to find that Orlando has been a man all along? I have been a little confused all long.
Later, Orlando gets a note from the Law office, in which she finds that her marriage to the Spanish dancer was annulled and her children are illegitimate because she is a woman. (Granted, if she had been a woman at the time, where would the children have come from? Scratch that, where did the children come from anyway? And how many centuries does it take to get a lawyer to annul a marriage?) In any event, her property is hers again, and the peasants rejoice (for some reason, their opinion matters). Shel and Orlando occasionally demand the other to prove their manliness/femininity but eventually just realize that they’re a bit of both. They get married, and have a very lovely wedding, complete with thunder and lightning and ominous portents.
When she gets home, Orlando commits the most daring act possible: She puts pen to paper and begins to write as a married woman. Surprisingly, she is not struck down by the hand of God. Our narrator wryly remarks that it’s okay for women to write, as long as they are writing about love and men. Heaven forbid women think of something other than men! When Orlando is done writing, she is shocked to discover that the world have continued on without her. I get this feeling a lot after finishing a good book.
She goes for a walk in London and suddenly sees her old poet friend, Nick Greene. He’s not surprised that she’s a woman now, and she’s not surprised he’s still alive after 200+ years. He’s still living in the past, however, and thinks that Tennyson, Browning, and Carlyle are all degenerates (my Victorian lit professor would be ashamed of him). He reads Orlando’s poem at long last (she’s been working on it since the 1600s) and is pleased to find that it is not modern in any way. He is determined to publish it and bring her royalties, and he carries it off with him. She used to keep it in her bra, so she feels its absence and stumbles out into a park to ponder how on earth one puts the minute details of life into literature. Perhaps she should read Mrs. Dalloway.
She goes on like this for a good portion of the book, having epiphanies about ecstasy and staring out the window, remarking the beauty of day-to-day life and occurrences. Then she has a baby.
Huh? Oh right, it’s the Victorian era, where babies occur spontaneously with no mention of sex or pregnancy.
The next time she looks out the window, it’s 1928. There are cars instead of carriages, and the world seems to be shrinking. She is only 36 years old when she goes shopping for cloth and starts hallucinating that she sees Sasha. She starts talking to herself until she has a full-blown identity crisis as to who she is, and realizes that she is so many things and has so many identities. (Guys, I’m calling it. Orlando is a Time Lord. It’s the only explanation for the identities, the regeneration, the time travel, and the lack of aging.)
With her identity both resolved and destroyed, Orlando seems to go off the deep end. She exchanges her skirt for breeches and a leather jacket to collect her winnings from Dryden, Pope, Swift, and Addison. She walks through her house, with its rooms roped off and “do not touch” signs plastered to everything. She has donated her house to history and as she looks around, she can see different eras colliding while nothing changes but everything has changed. She thinks about burying her now-published book in the backyard after realizing it’s priceless, but decides to leave it lying on the ground instead. As our own book draws to a close, Orlando starts screaming the name of her husband into the midnight sky while ripping her shirt open and hallucinating. At least, I assume it’s a hallucination, otherwise Queen Elizabeth is paying her a visit and Shel is falling out of the sky from an aeroplane with a goose leaping over his head.
That’s it. That’s how the book ends. And it is beautifully insane.