Thursday 15 January 2009

Orlando Blooms

One of the re-reads I've already read this year (and there are four) is Orlando by Virginia Woolf. The reason I re-read it is because Orlando forms a significant aspect of my dissertation for this year. Nicola asked a while ago what my dissertation would be on - I'll probably elaborate at greater length another time, while I'm writing it no doubt, but I'll mention it briefly. It's called The Middlebrow Fantasy and The Fantastic Middlebrow - looking at the idea of the middlebrow in the interwar years, the use of the term and ethos in fiction, criticism and public arena, and how porous the boundaries between highbrow and middlebrow are. From this, I want to look at novels which I shall call the 'domestic fantastic' - not out-and-out fantasies like Lord of the Rings, but novels with an element of fantasy within a domestic setting or scenario. I think this use of genre and other worlds and consciousness of boundaries (temporal, spatial, mental) is interesting in relation to the middlebrow debate - how these two ideas feed into one another. Was that at all clear? I think I need to practise saying it to myself a few times before I try to explain it to anybody in person...

Anyway, back to Orlando. This is THE highbrow domestic fantastic text, as far as I'm concerned - for those not familiar with it, the novel is a sort of faux biography of Vita Sackville-West, only in the person of Orlando, a man who lives for hundreds of years and turns into a woman halfway through. This was the third time I'd read the novel - the second was when writing about Woolf and clothing, so that was my main focus. This time I made copious notes whenever Woolf mentioned boundaries or fantasy or class - in fact, those notes are waiting in a pile to be typed up properly, which I might achieve tomorrow. The constant scribbling made this re-read more of a struggle than the previous times, but I still think Orlando is a wonderful novel. Like all Woolf's writing, there is something about her writing which is lyrical without being pretentious; beautiful without distracting from the heart of the novel. And funny. People forget that Woolf can be amusing. I liked this section, when Orlando is being 'entertained' by supposedly witty society, which is governed only by the illusion of wit:

She was still under the illusion that she was listening to the most brilliant epigrams in the world, though, as a matter of fact, old General C. was only saying, at some length, how the gout had left his left leg and gone to his right, while Mr. L. interrupted when any proper name was mentioned, 'R.? Oh! I know Billy R. as well as I know myself. S.? My dearest friend. T.? Stayed with him a fortnight in Yorkshire' - which, such is the force of illusion, sounded like the wittiest repartee, the most searching comment upon human life.

Is Woolf gently mocking the image people had, and still have, of the Bloomsbury Group? Mayhap... rather a lot of Orlando is tongue-in-cheek, and all the more fun for it. I don't know if I'd recommend this as the first Woolf novel to read, but, if you've got one or two under your belt, this would be a great one to go onto. (And I must put in a good word for the beautiful new Oxford Worlds' Classics editions. Once I've fiddled with my camera I'll show you the ones I've bought - their choice of cover painting, by Charles Haslewood Shannon, is an exceptionally good choice - looks very much like (s)he could be either man or woman.)

Traditionally, when I mention Woolf here, the comments go rather silent... I'd be intrigued - what are your opinions on old Ginny? And have you read anything by her? I know some of her most vehement opponents haven't got as far as reading her work, and then there are some who love her diaries and letters but hate her fiction. And then, of course, there is poor Our Vicar who started listening to a radio production of The Waves and now looks physically pained whenever Virginia is mentioned...


  1. How right you are when you say Orlando is 'THE highbrow domestic fantasy text'.

    Virginia Woolf is a little bit like Rod Liddle, is she not?

  2. I've subtly altered that bit to make it more genre-based than Nigella-based...

  3. I shall comment, and hopefully say something worth reading!

    I am not sure if I am in the best position to talk about Virgina Woolf. A quick perusal of my shelves shows me I have quite a lot of her writing, but I have only read two. One (Mrs Dalloway) I loved, the other (Orlando) I absolutely detested, and only finished because I was studying it. What does this say about me I wonder?

    Anyway, I think with Woolf, there is a tendancy to see her as overly academic ... or as a woman one wouldn't have wanted to have round for tea. In her letters and other non fictional work there is a brittleness, no doubt born on her psychological suffering, that one cannot seem to overcome. Is it just me, or does she always seem to sound critical of those around her?

    I think there's also the prejudice that reading Woolf will be 'good for one'. She appears on top 100 lists regularly, and for people who don't get on with her style, that's not really helpful. Labeling books as 'classics' can sometimes do more harm than good.

    Gracious! I am rambling on, aren't I. And I don't suppose I have a point, other than to say I've not read much of her work. I can certainly see why Orlando would be useful for your essay, and I really want to read it once you've finished it! (Same goes for the one you wrote over Christmas!)

  4. When a teenager studying for Eng Lit A level I "discovered" VW as my sister had a copy of To the Lighthouse. I was intially attracted by the cover- Penguin Modern Classics, grey with a picture. I loved it, although I doubt if I really understood all the subtlties of her writing at that age. A copy of Orlando was in the house which I also read and enjoyed especially as we lived near to Knole. My mother spoke of her confusion with it, how there was no plot etc but to me it was so different from my school texts of Conrad and Hardy.

    A copy of A Room of Ones Own is on a shelf close to my desk and at times I like to read parts of it, so why The Waves and Mrs Dalloway sit unread on the shelves I am not sure. Time to get them out I think and see if I still enjoy her writing as much as I did.

    I recall having to write a short piece in the style of a favourite author. I know my VW piece got a good grade, a note of praise and also a raised eyebrow when questioned by the "old school" teacher on which books I had read of hers. [School was an all girls grammar]
    Now I live a short drive from Charleston so really should be reaquainted with this lady who courts controversy whenever mentioned.

  5. Virginia Woolf is one of those writers whose writing I really enjoy but whose books I have a hard time getting through. There are a couple of those, and I'm never really sure why that's the case.

    The first book of hers I read was Jacob's Room, which I found vastly boring until I realized that I shouldn't be trying to find a plot in it, and then I quite liked it.

    I've been halfway through Mrs. Dalloway for months and months, but I read Virginia Woolf so slowly that I keep getting distracted.

  6. You remind me that I have not yet read Orlando but would very much like to. My favourite is The Years - which is one of her novels that doesn't get much mention, but I found it the most accessible and beautiful and... and... oh I don't know, lovable. I wrote a post ages ago know about Woolf and the 'unthought known', which is a term by Christopher Bollas that gestures towards the mass of sense impressions we absorb in a generally non-linguistic way. If I recall right, I think I was saying that Woolf writes that unthought known in the way she moves around the margins of experience, illuminating the unspoken and the barely felt that hovers between encounters and events. Not having read Orlando, I don't know whether it applies, but it works well on novels like The Waves and To The Lighthouse. Good luck with the research - sounds fascinating!

  7. I like the sound of your dissertation.

  8. OK, my view on Woolf is that she is (in general) a much more interesting essayist than novelist. I think she was an extremely important figure in her time, and very influential, but I do not think she has stood the test of time as well as one might have expected.

    I anticipate that this is very much a minority view amongst your readers, and I'm not equipped to properly defend it as I haven't read a vast amount by her and I don't have the literary skills to put my case very cogently.

    Dark Puss

  9. I absolutely loved Orlando and thought it was one of Woolf's best works. Mrs. Dalloway and A Room of One's Own are also wonderful reads. However, I must admit that I have not read much else by Woolf and can not really give a reason as to why. Its strange because even though I really did enjoy her writing I never became obsessed with reading all of her works like I have for other writers (Vonnegut, Wodehouse, Atwood, Murakami). Yet, I would most definitely recommend her work to others.

  10. I have read and loved A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas, I often think of the arguments she makes in those books. As for her fiction, there are so many of her books in the TBR pile, along with The Common Reader and The Second Common Reader. I must admit to a suspicion that Peter the Flautist in correct in saying that Woolf is a more interesting essayist than novelist. Though as I have to read her fiction, I can't really justify that impression.

  11. I have read a few of VW's novels for courses and I think she is a monumental writer, but I feel I enjoyed most of her work after I had finished it, while looking back over it. I enjoyed To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway, but did not really get on with Orlando so well although the concept is brilliant. I enjoyed the film more.

  12. To the Lighthouse: very good, but I didn't love it;
    Mrs Dalloway: loved it;
    Orlando: found this very difficult to get through;
    The Waves: loved it, but I can totally understand people hating it;
    some shorter fiction: liked it, some of it a lot;
    A Room of One's Own: very good;
    Three Guineas: good, but annoyingly pushy (I did read a great article by Christine Froula on it though).

    I'm one of those people who prefer her letters and diaries to her other works, but I do have plans to read all her novels in chronological order.

  13. I loved 'Orlando' when I read it a good few years ago. I think it was a great achievement on Ginny's part, as in the hands of a lesser writer the transitions could seem clunky or incredible - but I remember finding the time and gender changes flowing quite naturally. I'm going through a Vita Sackville-West obsession at the moment (currently watching the adaptation of 'Portrait of a Marriage') so I think this is due a re-read! As is 'To the Lighthouse', when it comes to that.


  14. To the love love that book.


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