|Vita and Virginia.|
The idea was born on the 5th October 1927. In her diary, she wrote,
And instantly the unusual exciting devices enter my mind: a biography beginning in the year 1500 and continuing to the present day, called Orlando: Vita, only with a change about from one sex to another.
She then wrote to Vita (9th October),
Yesterday morning I was in despair.... I couldn't screw a word from me; and at last dropped my head in my hands: dipped my pen in the ink, and wrote these words, as if automatically, on a clean sheet: Orlando: A Biography. No sooner had I done this than my body was flooded with rapture and my brain with ideas. I wrote rapidly till 12... But listen: suppose Orlando turns out to be Vita; and it's all about you and the lusts of your flesh and the lure of your mind (heart you have none, who go gallivanting down the lanes with Campbell).... Shall you mind? Say yes, or No...
And Vita responded (11th October):
My God, Virginia, if ever I was thrilled and terrified it is at the prospect of being projected into the shape of Orlando! What fun for you; what fun for me.... You have my full permission.I've read Orlando three or four times now, it's almost become a bit of a comfort read, and I decided to read it again last week because it was so cold here and I remembered the description of The Great Frost of January 1608:
The Great Frost was, historians tell us, the most severe that has ever visited these islands. Birds froze in mid-air and fell like stones to the ground. At Norwich a young countrywoman stared to cross the road in her usual robust health and was seen by the onlookers to turn visibly to powder and be blown in a puff of dust over the roofs as the icy blast struck her at the street corner... The severity of the frost was so extraordinary that a kind of petrification sometimes ensued; and it was commonly supposed that the great increase in rocks in some parts of Derbyshire was due to no eruption, for there was none, but to the solidification of unfortunate wayfarers who had been turned literally to stone where they stood.This is the essence of Orlando to me: the magic in the reality and the blurring of fiction and fact. Virginia Woolf was the daughter of Leslie Stephen, the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography (1885 - 1891), and the granddaughter of Sir James Stephen, editor of Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography. Woolf writes in Orlando,
The true length of a person's life, whatever the Dictionary of National Biography may say, is always a matter for dispute.
She objected to biographies for their attempts and instance on pinning down facts. In Orlando, she goes on -
Here he came then, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. He saw the beech trees turn golden and the young ferns unfurl; he saw the moon sickle and then circular; he saw - but probably the reader can imagine the passage which should follow and how every tree and plant in the neighbourhood is described first green, then golden; how moons rise and suns set; how spring follows winter and autumn summer; how night succeeds day and day night; how there is first a storm and then fine weather; how things remain much as they are for two or three hundred years or so, except for a little dust and a few cobwebs which one old woman can sweep up in half an hour; a conclusion which, one cannot help feeling, might have been reached more quickly by the simple statement that 'Time passed' (here the exact amount of time could be indicated in brackets) and nothing whatever happened.More interesting to Woolf than 'facts' is the inner life, the psyche or soul, the essence that she felt Russian writers attempted to encapsulate (in 'The Russian Point of View' she suggested that "it is the soul that is the chief character in Russian fiction"). This is, like Orlando, fluid, and transcends time and gender. Orlando is a young man in the beginning of the novel, which starts during the reign of Elizabeth I, and by the end Orlando is female, 35, on Thursday 11th October 1928, in the reign of George V. By doing this, she not only writes her biography of Vita and her critique of biographies in general, she also considers women, the role of women and gender inequality, relationships, and even marriage in the 19th Century. Orlando is so very dense, yet entirely readable and accessible, unlike some of it's other Modernist counterparts.
On the day of the publication Vita wrote to Virginia,
For the moment, I can't say anything except I am completely dazzled, bewitched, enchanted, under a spell. It seems to me the loveliest, wisest, richest book that I have ever read, - excelling even your own Lighthouse. Virginia, I really don't know what to say, - am I right? am I wrong? am I prejudiced? am I in my sense or not? It seems to me that you have really shut up that 'hard and rare thing' in a book: that you have had a complete vision; and yet when you came down to the sober labour of working it out, have never lost sight of it nor faltered in the execution. Ideas come to me so fast that they trip over each other and I lose them before I can put salt on their tales; there is so much I want to say, yet I can only go back to my first cry that I am bewitched. You will get letters, very reasoned and illuminating, from many people; I cannot write you that sort of letter, I can only tell you that I am really shaken, which may seem to you useless and silly, but which is really a greater tribute than pages of calm appreciation, - and then after all it does touch me so personally, and I don't know what to say about that either, only that I feel like one of those wax figures in a shop window, on which you have hung a robe stitched with jewels. It is like being alone in a dark room with a treasure chest full of rubies and nuggets and brocades. Darling, I don't know and scarcely like to write, so overwhelmed am I, how you could have hung so splendid a garment on so poor a peg.Orlando made Virginia Woolf a household name, selling in six months twice as many copies as To the Lighthouse sold in a year. Not everyone loved it - Arnold Bennett said it was impossible to join in with a discussion at a dinner party unless one had read Orlando, a somewhat catty observation of how "fashionable" the book had become. E. M. Delafield's Provinical Lady noted that she had been able to talk very intelligently on Orlando at parties until she had got around to reading it for herself, and Angela Carter once remarked that it was a "slobbering valentine to an aristocrat". But to me, Orlando really is magic. It questions, provokes, entertains, and and Vita said, dazzles and illuminates. It's so perfectly Woolf, in short.
Finally, some illustrations (in colour where possible) from the first edition of Orlando. The Russian Princess is modelled by Angelica Bell, Virginia Woolf's niece, and Orlando as a woman by Vita Sackville West.
And a gif of Tilda Swinton in Sally Potter's film adaptation of Orlando (1992):