“He – for there could be no doubt of his sex” is how this book opens, and it is one of my favourite opening lines in literature. Anyone who has been following this blog for a while knows how I feel about Virginia Woolf, and in particular this book. Orlando. This is my 3rd or 4th time reading the book, and this time I took more away than I ever have before.
Orlando is a book written long before its time and it is no spoiler to say that the character of Orlando starts as a boy of 16 in an Elizabethan court and one day, some years later, wakes up as a woman. This book astounded me this time because Woolf was essentially pointing out that sex and gender are two different things in this book. Gender is a social construct which is built around stereotypes of what society expects from people of a particular sex. It explores things like Male Privilege in a time where that wasn’t even a talking point, illustrated by Orlando (as a woman) needing to marry in order to claim her estate.
I don’t think I will ever be able to coherently express my feelings for this book. I absolutely adore it. Parts of this book I just read over and over again. There are so many beautiful passages in these pages, I wish I could share them all but I’d basically just be typing the book out. I think though, the passage below sums up this book quite well:-
“And as all Orlando’s loves had been women, now, through the culpable laggardry of the human frame to adapt itself to convention, though she herself was a woman, it was still a woman she loved; and if the consciousness of being of the same sex had any effect at all, it was to quicken and deepen those feelings which she had had as a man.”
I also feel it important to mention that this book was a love letter from Woolf to her female lover, Vita Sackville-West, on whom Orlando was based. They definitely don’t write love letters like this any more! This book is, ultimately, about freedom to be yourself, and to love who you want to love, and to be happy with whoever makes you happy.
I said when I first read this book 3 years ago that every time I reread it I would find something new to love, and this time around I took it more slowly and enjoyed the prose – because Woolf writes the most beautiful prose. I don’t regret it.
Honestly, I urge anyone to read this book, and when you do take it slowly. It may be a 220 page book but it’s a book that needs time taken on it to fully appreciate!