On Orlando by Virginia Woolf

By Karen Brennan

When I first read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando – about thirty-five years ago – I did not like it at all. In those days, I had been reading Woolf passionately. Like most Woolf devotees, I loved the idiosyncrasies of her voice, the brave way she took on the modernism du jour – her thinking, her sensibility, her scenes, her sentences. I’d become smitten with To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway and my all-time favorite (still!), Between the Acts; I’d read and reread A Room of One’s Own, and a chunk of her nonfiction (notably, her memoir Moments of Being and parts of A Writer’s Diary).

What entranced me about Woolf was her ability, even in nonfiction to create scenes as sensual containers for emotion – a kind of alchemical magic, as I saw it – scenes which, moreover, approximated real life much more wittingly than the usual fare of literary realism. I loved the feeling of inhabiting her characters/narrators, which was always complicated by Woolf’s own understanding of isolation and her yearning for connection.

None of this did I experience in my first encounter with Orlando. Instead, this novel, antic to be sure, seemed to me to be too agenda-driven, too in love with its own conceits – its history lesson, its gender games. Moreover, the characters were not – like Clarissa Dalloway, like Mrs. Ramsey – complicated by contrary impulses, by their own failures to understand, but rather wooden and unchanging. Even Orlando with all his/her transformations from male to female, from Elizabethan nobleman with “fine legs” to twentieth-century woman driving a “motor car” seemed, in his/her soul, untouched by the alterations of time or circumstance. Finally, I felt in Orlando an overly self-conscious, almost smug wit, a “biographer” (Woolf’s narrator, recall, is a tongue-in-cheek biographer) too in control of her subject so that, in the end, the novel was unsurprising and static, even with all its gimmicky surprises.

I think it is this last perception of my long-ago self that I most dispute now. In fact, I was surprised to find I would be surprised each time I read Orlando – and I have read it now a number of times, mostly when I plan to teach it – to graduates and undergraduates, in creative writing, women’s studies or twentieth-century lit courses – and just this week, having been invited to write an essay about my “altered view.”

I am surprised each time, and I am surprised differently each time. More accurately, I am dazzled. Woolf’s sheer ambition, the incredible breadth of her project is what dazzles: the compression of 350 years of English literary history its one novel, the daring gender-play as commentary on the cultural history of women, the serious reflection of creative literary arts and what it means to be a poet in any age. I have come to read Woolf’s novel as a hybrid text that is perfectly at home in today’s literary scene among the various, joyous conglomerations of prose/poetry/fiction/essay/memoir that mark our postmodern dissatisfaction with boundaries and hierarchies. And I am so dazzled by her formal sophistication, her most daring innovation.

Just as Septimus Smith or Clarissa or Isa or Giles become sites for Woolf’s exploration of human consciousness, in the character of Orlando are situated the culture wars of gender, the aesthetic arguments of history, and Woolf’s dissatisfaction with whatever it is that makes us separate from one another. I love the democratic intelligence of those impulses, especially now when democracy seems so ghostly and unattainable.

Mostly though, I am inspired now, at this moment, by what I had completely overlooked (or taken for granted) the first time I read Orlando – which is how Woolf’s language carries her away, carries me away, flooding her subject matter with flights of pure, uncontrolled lyrical ecstasy – and how at the root of these ecstatic fights is always the particular, sensual world. Listen: “She saw two flies circling around and noticed the blue sheen on their bodies; she saw a knot in the wood where her foot was, and her dog’s ear twitching. At the same time, she heard a bough creaking in the garden, a sheep coughing in the park, a swift screaming past a window.”

Right now I happen to be sitting with a view of the ocean, a silvery rectangle of the Oregon coast alive with curling whitecaps, and because the sun is setting, the tips of the trees are glowing and because just now a soft-faced deer is grazing so close to where I am sprawled on a blanket that I could reach it with two giant steps – or perhaps because thirty-five years have passed and these problems of history and gender, I now know, will persist indefinitely, as well as all manner of personal trials and sorrows – perhaps this is why Woolf returns to us again and again to our own present, ecstatic moments. This is enough, she seems to finally be saying in Orlando. This is all we get.


Karen Brennan’s latest book, Television, a Memoir, a hybrid text, is forthcoming 2022 from Four Way Books. She is a Professor Emerita from University of Utah and teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.

Originally appeared in NOR 8.

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