Non-Accredited Book Reviews: Virginia Woolf.

Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967.

How does one begin to review Virginia Woolf? Both her wit and her prose styles [i] are intimidatingly brilliant. Too, a text like Orlando, like most of Woolf’s novels, does not so much possess a “plot” (in the conventional sense of that word) as a series of observations about life. Indeed, the cover of the Penguin edition I read [ii] claims that Orlando depicts “a brilliant panorama of changing society.” I thought this was awfully vague until I got about forty pages in to the text.

The premise of Orlando, you see, is that a young lord named Orlando, born in later 16th century England, lives through the major political, literary, and social events of the 16th and 17th centuries. It would be incorrect to say that he then lives through the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, because even though Orlando does live these next 300 years, “he” has become a she: the Lady Orlando.

This change of gender (which no one in the novel finds at all odd) allows Woolf, expectedly, to provide commentary on gender roles throughout the centuries: the Lady Orlando must give up her position in the military, learn to flirt, and to be a hostess for her male patrons. Though she has money and her ancestral manor, she is not wholly autonomous: indeed, one of the few questions London society raises about her change in gender is the question of whether she ought to be entitled to continue holding the legal rights to her property. Despite the outer change in Orlando, however, the reader who has seemingly direct access to the Lady’s thoughts, notes that the protagonist’s mind remains unchanged: at least, it does until Orlando begins to consciously perform as a woman. Even then, upon self-reflection, the Lady Orlando is able to reclaim her “male” thoughts and personalities.

One cannot help but read this text alongside Woolf’s famous conclusion to A Room of One’s Own, where she proposes the social cultivation of the “androgynous mind”. It may be more accurate, though, to simply read Orlando alongside itself[iii]. The Lord/Lady Orlando cannot be reduced to a mere duality:

For if there are (at a venture) seventy-six different times all ticking in the mind at once, how many different people are there not — Heaven help us — all having lodgement at one time or another in the human spirit? Some say two-thousand and fifty-two. So that it is the most usual thing in the world for a person to call, directly they are alone, Orlando? (if that is one’s name) meaning by that, Come, come! I’m sick to death of this particular self. I want another. Hence the astonishing changes we see in our friends. (217)

With multiple protagonists, multiple eras, and multiple fashions, societies, and cultural events occurring in a text shorter than 250 pages, one might begin to imagine the sheer amount of observations speedily condensed into this “panorama” of England, a panorama which takes the place of a single streamlined plot.

Reading Orlando is a strange experience: I found myself entertainingly caught up in Orlando’s daily visits with friends, politicians, and poets, with her walks about town, and her extended musings with her housemaid — with her daily life — but when I stop to think about why these mundane events are entertaining, I find myself pausing: because nothing truly notable happens, you see. Even notable events, like Orlando’s loves, are quickly forgotten. For twenty pages or so in the first chapter, Orlando falls in love with a Russian noblewoman, who jilts him, making him renounce love. While the event causes a change in his temperament (he grows a little), the event is seemingly forgotten until recalled as one of Orlando’s selves in the final chapter. That is, there is not much consistency of cause-effect in Orlando’s narrative – much like in real life.

Too, though we are party to Orlando’s thoughts, often s/he slips so gradually into a different person it’s difficult to notice the change, until, Woolf, recalling an earlier self, reminds us of how different Orlando has become. All that time, too, spent in Orlando’s mind, tends to obscure the changing time, since Orlando herself, having endless time at his/her disposal doesn’t seem aware of the passing time (too, being much like the rest of us, too caught up in her own life to make much observation of such things). Since the biographer narrating Orlando’s life only rarely makes notice of the changing time[iv], the reader must guess through details like changing styles, the reigning monarch, and the reigning poets. Even so, it’s a difficult task: we know, for example, about when the 18th century begins by the revelation that “Addison, Dryden, Pope” (118 ) are the wits and poets of the day, but as Alexander Pope’s life crosses the 17th and 18th centuries — and Orlando is friends with the poet for much of this time — it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what year it is at any given time. Too, as Orlando’s friendship with the poet waxes and wanes, Pope is not always present to mark the changing time, and Woolf does not mark for us the instance of his death.

The one persistent relationship in Orlando’s life is the one s/he maintains with his/her poem “The Oak Tree”: and while the relationship is not always the same — at times Orlando must write constantly, at times s/he renounces it altogether, sometimes she writes just for herself, and at others urgently feels the need for readership and discussion of her work — it remains constant (even when she has renounced writing altogether she carries the poem with her). Writing and texts, then, are a simply a part of Orlando’s ontology.

Orlando’s relationship with text allows Woolf to make extended commentary on the development of text, the print trade, and criticism, and is, for me, one of the most fascinating parts of the novel. It is interesting to note the novel’s literary preferences: Woolf is most satirical when writing of Addison, Dryden, and Pope [v], and most unchallenging of the works of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson[vi]. Of the 19th century, Woolf seems to have mixed feelings:

Accustomed to the little literatures of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, Orlando was appalled by the consequences of her order. For, of course, to the Victorians themselves Victorian literature meant not merely four great names separate and distinct but four great names sunk and embedded in a mass of Alexander Smiths, Dixons, Blacks, Milmans, Buckles, Taines, Paynes, Tuppers, Jamesons—all vocal, clamorous, prominent, and requiring as much attention as anybody else. Orlando’s reverence for print had a tough job set before it but drawing her chair to the window to get the benefit of what light might filter between the high houses of Mayfair, she tried to come to a conclusion.

And now it was clear that there are only two ways of coming to a conclusion upon Victorian literature—one is to write it out in sixty volumes octavo, the other is to squeeze it into six lines of the length of this one. Of the two courses, economy, since time runs short, leads us to choose the second; and so we proceed. Orlando then came to the conclusion (opening half–a–dozen books) that it was very odd that there was not a single dedication to a nobleman among them; next (turning over a vast pile of memoirs) that several of these writers had family trees half as high as her own; next, that it would be impolitic in the extreme to wrap a ten–pound note round the sugar tongs when Miss Christina Rossetti came to tea; next (here were half–a–dozen invitations to celebrate centenaries by dining) that literature since it ate all these dinners must be growing very corpulent; next (she was invited to a score of lectures on the Influence of this upon that; the Classical revival; the Romantic survival, and other titles of the same engaging kind) that literature since it listened to all these lectures must be growing very dry; next (here she attended a reception given by a peeress) that literature since it wore all those fur tippets must be growing very respectable; next (here she visited Carlyle’s sound–proof room at Chelsea) that genius since it needed all this coddling must be growing very delicate; and so at last she reached her final conclusion, which was of the highest importance but which, as we have already much overpassed our limit of six lines, we must omit. (205-206)

For the first time in the novel, Woolf mentions a female writer: Christina Rossetti, and also notes the growing democracy of print: for the first time in the novel, too, reading and writing is not restricted to males with wealth and “genius”; writing, however, also seems to values the opinions of pompous critics like Woolf’s fictional Nick Greene, who, two centuries later, has reversed his opinions of the genius of the Elizabethans, but who still seems to value only the old ways, allowing him to endlessly detest everything presently available to the everyday reader: there is an elitism in his criticism.

Yet Woolf seems to admire the multiplicity of voices available, and the merging of criticism and fiction. Though she makes no comment on the literature of the present day (where the novel ends), her own novel with its several voices, its combination of social, literary and political criticism, and fictional forms (including verse, conventional prose and languages, and a proto-stream-of-consciousness style), encapsulate the literary trends developing in the nineteenth century into a single text. Yet, because of the text’s awareness of its own limitations (in the form of the hesitant biographer), the text avoids the egotism of the 19th-century critic.

Woolf’s interest in 19th-century criticism has me intrigued: in pursuit of this intrigue, the next Woolf novel I plan to read is The Years, which, my Penguin edition tells me, is “Woolf’s most popular novel [in her lifetime and] is one of the most powerful indictments of ‘Victorianism’ ever written.” Before I embark on that venture, however, I’m going to go back and reread Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, if only so I can brush up a bit on her politics and poetics. Before I do that, however, I’m taking a Woolf break and finishing Marston’s The Insatiate Countess [vii]and then reading some Henry James for the first time.

End Notes

[i] prose styles. I do admire Woolf’s ability to write in very different styles: bits of Orlando read like Voltaire or Austen or Johnson* (that is, orthodoxically structured, with long clauses), while other bits (mostly in the final chapter), or a text like The Waves is fragmented and subjective.

[ii] Penguin edition. This is somewhat of an inauthentic reading experience, as Woolf’s usual publisher was Hogarth Press (she even mentions it in Orlando: page 188)!

[iii] alongside itself. Also, as I haven’t read A Room of One’s Own in its entirety in three years or so, I have a fear of misusing it.

[iv] changing time. I can recall only two instances in which the time is exactly noted: at the end of chapter four, when the biographer notes “The eighteenth century was over; the nineteenth century had begun” (159), and at the moment when “it was ten o’clock in the morning. It was 11 October. It was 1928. It was the present moment” (210-211).

[v] Addison, Dryden, and Pope. Of these men, Woolf writes the following:

‘Lord,’ she thought, as she raised the sugar tongs, ‘how women in ages to come will envy me! And yet—’ she paused; for Mr Pope needed her attention. And yet—let us finish her thought for her—when anybody says ‘How future ages will envy me’, it is safe to say that they are extremely uneasy at the present moment. Was this life quite so exciting, quite so flattering, quite so glorious as it sounds when the memoir writer has done his work upon it? For one thing, Orlando had a positive hatred of tea; for another, the intellect, divine as it is, and all–worshipful, has a habit of lodging in the most seedy of carcases […] Added to which (we whisper again lest the women may overhear us), there is a little secret which men share among them; Lord Chesterfield whispered it to his son with strict injunctions to secrecy, ‘Women are but children of a larger growth…A man of sense only trifles with them, plays with them, humours and flatters them’, which, since children always hear what they are not meant to, and sometimes, even, grow up, may have somehow leaked out, so that the whole ceremony of pouring out tea is a curious one. A woman knows very well that, though a wit sends her his poems, praises her judgment, solicits her criticism, and drinks her tea, this by no means signifies that he respects her opinions, admires her understanding, or will refuse, though the rapier is denied him, to run her through the body with his pen. All this, we say, whisper it as low as we can, may have leaked out by now; so that even with the cream jug suspended and the sugar tongs distended the ladies may fidget a little, look out of the window a little, yawn a little, and so let the sugar fall with a great plop—as Orlando did now—into Mr Pope’s tea. Never was any mortal so ready to suspect an insult or so quick to avenge one as Mr Pope. He turned to Orlando and presented her instantly with the rough draught of a certain famous line in the ‘Characters of Women’. (150-151)

[vi] Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson. Of whom the foolish critic Nick Greene makes light of:

Orlando was shocked by these doctrines; yet could not help observing that the critic himself seemed by no means downcast. On the contrary, the more he denounced his own time, the more complacent he became. He could remember, he said, a night at the Cock Tavern in Fleet Street when Kit Marlowe was there and some others. Kit was in high feather, rather drunk, which he easily became, and in a mood to say silly things. He could see him now, brandishing his glass at the company and hiccoughing out, ‘Stap my vitals, Bill’ (this was to Shakespeare), ‘there’s a great wave coming and you’re on the top of it,’ by which he meant, Greene explained, that they were trembling on the verge of a great age in English literature, and that Shakespeare was to be a poet of some importance. Happily for himself, he was killed two nights later in a drunken brawl, and so did not live to see how this prediction turned out. ‘Poor foolish fellow,’ said Greene, ‘to go and say a thing like that. A great age, forsooth—the Elizabethan a great age!’ (63)

[vii] The Insatiate Countess. This should only take me another afternoon, so another review may be forthcoming soon.

20 May 2008

Glossary of Terms:

Johnson, Samuel. An inferior Johnson. He wrote a few odds and ends in the 18th century. I mean, he’s not very well known, but I’ve heard rumours about a “dictionary” to which he made a few contributions.


5 thoughts on “Non-Accredited Book Reviews: Virginia Woolf.

  1. A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.

    * July 31, 1763, p. 132

  2. Dear Gaurav,

    Your commentary of 20 May 2008 was wholly offensive, but also wholly expected.

    I do admire your fearlessness in frequently posting misogynist comments on an archive with a 33% feminist mandate. Even more points for the audacity of posting them on a Woolf article.

    All that said, this is why you didn’t get your weekly post last week. I anticipated this rudeness, I did.

    With all my love,
    The English Undergraduate.

  3. And, as I am in the letter-writing spirit,

    Dear Samuel Johnson,

    I resent that you are more popular than Ben. I also resent you appearing in my database searches. Do be a good fellow and keep your corpulent egotistical nose out of my business.

    Sincerest thanks,
    The English Undergraduate.

    Post Scriptum: Rasselas is like a less-thrilling Candide. Where are all the earthquakes?

  4. Dear readers,

    On behalf of the English Undergraduate, we would like to remind you that all slanders against S. Johnson and other writers are meant in the spirit of good humourous (and somewhat snooty) fun. No real offense is intended. At least, none to which she will legally admit.

    Mssrs. Penn and Blotte.

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