Themes: imaginary biography; change of gender
Side note: every quote used in this review are from the book we are going to talk about, unless otherwise marked. Before we get into the heart of the matter, I’d like to tell our wonderful readers that I am not a native English-speaker - that is why you will certainly find mistakes in this review, but also in my understanding of the book. Love you all, have a wonderful life!
“The taste for books was an early one. As a child he was sometimes found at midnight by a page still reading.”
I’ve read this book right after another one that is utterly different: No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, and I must say that I certainly appreciated Orlando that much because of that. Let me explain. I did not read these books out of pleasure. I had to read them for school. I first started reading Woolf’s one because I had it for free on my phone while waiting for the physical version of it. I had read a summary of the book and was eager to discover it. I did not like it. I didn’t even read half the first chapter before I abandoned. And when I received the two books, I started with NCFOM because I was thinking “I probably won’t read both: let’s read the one that I know I will like - and understand”. And while I enjoyed reading it, it took me weeks to finish it, so much that the last thirty pages were really challenging. And that is why I was thrilled when I read Orlando. Totally different genres, totally different narrations: this is what I needed after NCFOM. Indeed, it went from quick facts, only facts, to beautiful long sentences. Now that I introduced my reading, let’s cut to the chase!
“First masculine, then feminine, Orlando begins life as a young sixteenth century nobleman, then gallops through the centuries to end up as a woman writer in Virginia Woolf’s own time. Written for the charismatic bisexual writer Vita Sackville-West, this playful mock biography of a chameleon-like historical figure is both a wry commentary on gender and, in Woolf’s own words, a ‘writer’s holiday’ which delights in its ambiguity and capriciousness.” That is what you can read at the back of my copy of Woolf’s Orlando (a 2019 Penguin Classics, if you ask - and yes, it smells nice).
As a member of the LGBTQIA+ community myself, I must say that I was thrilled when I learnt what this book was about. It is the first classic that I read which deals with this kind of “issue” - not as in LGBT are problematic, but as in how they (we) are perceived in society. Moreover, it is not about homosexuality - which is one of the main themes nowadays, the most “respected” of the LGBTQIA+ in heteronormative point of view. It is about gender identity.
I was shocked. Shocked that a college teacher would make us read that. Shocked that an early 20th century woman had written this kind of stuff. Shocked and delighted.
“but how speak to a man who does not see you? who see ogres, satyrs, perhaps the depths of the sea instead?”
Before I continue, I have to say that I finished it a few days back, and started reading it weeks ago, so I am fully aware that my goldfish memory doesn’t remember much - that is how my brain functions: I remember feelings, not facts. So, yeah. Please be lenient. I won’t talk to you about any events happening in the book. I would be spoiling you. Instead, I can tell you how it felt.
As a reader and an author myself, I felt like the writer fully understood me. Most of the quotes I have included in this review are moments I had to close the book to take in a big fresh breath of air as I felt my heart pounding; moments when I felt whole and complete. As I read it for school, I often had a pencil with me, and I tried to annotate it. Maybe that is why I also read Orlando with a critical mind, trying to analyse everything. Because of that, I was not fully into the book, I was not living with the character, as I’m used to when I read. Maybe it was also the fact that I didn’t fully understand everything. In any cases, it was another experience. And I liked it. It enabled me to highlight some important passages and to think about why they were written like that.
At times, it was funny. I can’t deny that Woolf’s sense of humour really got me, though sometimes I was unsure she was criticising through irony or if she was really feeling that way. On others, I felt sad for Orlando - the character, not the book. S/He went through some tough stuff, and s/he felt misunderstood by her/his society, even when that latter changed. It felt as if Orlando could not fit in anywhere, could not fit in any era. And I could relate to that.
I was also really happy of how the author dealt with the change of identity of her character. As I already said before, there were times when I did not know if she was using humour or not to criticise, so I chose to understand it as irony. Consequently, I might be biased, but it was satisfying to see a 20th century author understand gender identity better than some people of our century. She even uses “they” to talk momentarily about Orlando through their change of gender, proving to everyone that non-binary gender have always existed - even if we could not fully understand it before.
“The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity.”
I will not lie: finishing Orlando was as hard as finishing No Country For Old Man. I endured it. By the time there were twenty pages left, I was tired of the figures of speech, the illusions, and the dream-like scenes I did not know whether they were real or the character’s hallucinations. I rushed it. I did not understand half of what I read. But in the end, I am glad I finished it anyway. I did not DNF, and that is all I am proud of.
And for those who wonder: yes, I absolutely recommend this book. Personally, I had to read it in its original version - which I prefer doing when I know the language - but it was hard. Maybe I would have enjoyed - and understood - it better if I had read it in my native language. So if you’re not fluent in English, I would also recommend either reading a translation or in a bilingual version so that you can appreciate it better. But in either case, go for it! It is an absolute must-read: it deals with gender identity and was written in the early 20th century by a woman! And if I did not convince you yet, it is well-written, full of poetry, wit, and is also well-researched, as they are a lot of historical facts; for this, I would also recommend reading it in a noted edition so that you can fully enjoy it.
“All the time she had writing the world had continued.”
Keep dreaming, Lua ☾
NCFOM = No Country For Old Men
DNF = Did Not Finish