Orlando is a crazy book. I don’t know how Virginia Woolf did it. In the aftermath of Orlando, I am awestruck and perturbed, I am exultant and humbled.

Orlando reads like part journal, part historical novel, part fantasy. On one end it is snide social commentary – lots of ranting and lamentation about the sorry state of women, the degradation of art, class-based society. On the other it’s like an author’s personal reflections on her own frustrations about writing. Then holding all the pieces together is a lyrical ode to love, life and nature: beauty, mysteries, failings.

“Returning home, she saluted each star, each peak, and each watch-fire as if they signalled to her alone;”

“Yet, she could not deny that she had her doubts. She was married, true; but if one’s husband was always sailing round Cape Horn, was it marriage? If one liked him, was it marriage? If one liked other people, was it marriage? And finally, if one still wished, more than anything in the whole world, to write poetry, was it marriage? She had her doubts.”

Her words are like music. She captures the most fleeting and abstract of emotions and intuitions and gets it so right; like chance connections with strangers on a lone trip. She even paints the difficulty of doing this in such a beautiful metaphor:

“There flies the wild goose. It flies past the window out to sea. Up I jumped (she gripped the steering wheel tighter) and stretched after it. But the goose flies too fast. I’ve seen it, here—there—there—England, Persia, Italy. Always it flies fast out to sea and always I fling after it words like nets (here she flung her hand out) which shrivel as I’ve seen nets shrivel drawn on deck with only sea-weed in them. And sometimes there’s an inch of silver—six words—in the bottom of the net. But never the great fish who lives in the coral groves.”

Can you see the goose already, from sitting in the boat squinting upwards at the lush blue sky? Can you hear the flapping of wings, the sound of words escaping you? Have you now lowered your eyes, frustrated, to the glittering sea dancing under the late afternoon sun? Because I can, and I have, and this is what I do after every snippet of her magic – I reread ever so slowly, close my eyes, shut out the world, imagine, and then manage to feel some kind of peace.

But then she’s also unexpectedly funny:

“…we know not why we go upstairs, or why we come down again, our most daily movements are like the passage of a ship on an unknown sea, and the sailors at the mast-head ask, pointing their glasses to the horizon: Is there land or is there none? to which, if we are prophets, we make answer “Yes”; if we are truthful we say “No”; nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldy length of this sentence…

“The chief charges against her were (i) that she was dead, and therefore could not hold any property whatsoever; (2) that she was a woman, which amounts to much the same thing;”

I know Orlando was based on Vita Sackville-West – but I wonder if Orlando was also separately an experiment: a way of experiencing emancipation from being female in the most obvious method – being a man (Orlando switches from man to woman midway).

How many women out there have imagined what it would be like to be a man? I’ve thought about it a lot – idly weighing pros and cons when my mind wanders. For instance, I would very much like to be free of debilitating menstrual cramps, I would like to be less afraid of travelling or commuting alone. I would like to be able to dress without concern for roving eyes, I would like to stop subconsciously beginning or ending all my inward self-examination with “As a woman”.

But then I love getting away with vanity and indulging in pretty things. I love picking floral prints for dresses and bedsheets, I love braiding my hair. I love emoting and being able to cry freely at movies. I love not having to lift the water dispenser at the office. I love children, and I like that culture, science and religion are on my side in terms of the bond between mother and child.

“The man looks the world full in the face, as if it were made for his uses and fashioned to his liking. The woman takes a sidelong glance at it, full of subtlety, even of suspicion.”

“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….”…”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.”

And last of all, and perhaps most valuable to me right now, is the advice I get on reading and writing –

“In short, every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works, yet we require critics to explain the one and biographers to expound the other. That time hangs heavy on people’s hands is the only explanation of the monstrous growth.”

“What has praise and fame to do with poetry? What has seven editions (the book had already gone into no less) got to do with the value of it? Was not writing poetry a secret transaction, a voice answering a voice? So that all this chatter and praise, and blame and meeting people who admired one and meeting people who did not admire one was as ill suited as could be to the thing itself—a voice answering a voice. What could have been more secret, she thought, more slow, and like the intercourse of lovers, than the stammering answer she had made all these years to the old crooning song of the woods, and the farms and the brown horses standing at the gate, neck to neck, and the smithy and the kitchen and the fields, so laboriously bearing wheat, turnips, grass, and the gardens blowing irises and fritillaries?”

“I will write,” she had said, “what I enjoy writing”


All excerpts from “Orlando” – Virginia Woolf.