I really like Virginia Woolf, and more than that I like the IDEA of liking Virginia Woolf.
Pro-writing, pro-women, literary boundary pusher and formal experimenter, she ticks all of the boxes I look for in a writer. Why I haven’t read her entire canon yet is almost a mystery. She’s EXACTLY the kind of writer I love. She is witty, she is deeply perceptive, she is intelligent and she offers searching and still relevant explorations of every aspect of the human condition.
Orlando is a pleasingly weird quasi-biography that charts the first 350ish years of the life of the eponymous lead, a character who halfway through turns from a he into a she. As a man, Orlando is a rake, a tragedian, a diplomat and a duke, as a woman she is a gypsy, a poet, a patron and a driver. She ages about thirty five years over the course of her life, spending her boyhood in Elizabethan London, running away after the ice age of the seventeenth century to spend her manhood in Constantinople. The first years of her womanhood are spent in pastoral idyll, before returning to her country pile in England and entertaining the greats of the eighteenth century, then industrialisation happens and before she knows it the wonder of invisible technology has rendered the science of the Victorian age as mysterious as the magic she used to read about in her childhood. And then she becomes a lauded poet.
Woolf, through her multi-gendered and multi-aged heroine creates a novel that offers explicit comments on the politics and realities of sexuality and gender as well as the pace of technological development, the burgeoning of the international world and the beginning of the collapse of the British Empire.
Orlando is both very, very funny and very, very beautiful. It offers poetry, literary criticism, satire, polemic and narrative. There is nothing missing – bar perhaps a little bit of occasional turning down of the level of concentration needed to enjoy it – stopping this from being a perfect novel.
Not as smashingly heartbreakingly movingly glorious as To The Lighthouse or Mrs Dalloway, but very, very funny and very, very clever. I’ll be reading The Waves very shortly…