Lessons learned…a review of Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

Well, the last two chapters flew by. But what do I think about Orlando? I’ve always found it hard to instantly understand what exactly I think of a book having just finished it. I somehow need time to let it ‘sink in’ a little. And the prospect of putting fingers to keypad and sharing these ideas is certainly a tad scary.

I think first and foremost in my mind is the appreciation for Woolf’s use of language and the totally unpredictable description she uses. Time and time again I’ve read descriptive passages from books feeling as though I know exactly how the author will describe a setting or a person and so on, not so with Woolf. Expect the unexpected, don’t suppose you know what’s coming and don’t dare to think you can imagine how it will be described. Her writing, as I mentioned yesterday, really is beautiful in itself – taking story, subject and situation aside, there’s no denying the stand-alone beauty of each line. Take, for example, a passage from the book’s final chapter,

A porpoise in a fishmonger’s shop attracted far more attention than a lady who had won a prize and might, had she chosen, have worn three coronets one on top of another on her brow…’.

Secondly, I suppose, as a reader one has a certain obligation to attempt to puzzle-out what exactly the author is trying to say, what lessons might we learn from our reading? What self truths are now more apparent? Surely, Orlando whose central character lives for three hundred years – through trials, changes, judgements and much more, should have something to say about the human self (male or female), and how life changes us as it thrusts us unrelentingly through the years? And, I think, for me, it is exactly this question which the book raises – what do we really know about ourselves? What are our passions? What motivates us? What inspires us? As a reader we look on as Orlando (very slowly!) comes to some of these conclusions, perhaps even without knowing he/she has done so. We see him/her come to understand that nature is his/her biggest love, how his/her love of literature and literary success has changed him/her, and, at the end of a very long and very eclectic life, we see him/her struggling to come to terms with the many different versions of himself/herself:

…it cannot be denied that the most successful practitioners of the art of life, often unknown people, by the way somehow contrive to synchronise the sixty or seventy different times which beat simultaneously in every normal human system so that when eleven strikes, all the rest chime in unison…Of the rest some we know to be dead though they walk among us; some are not yet born though they go through the forms of life; others are hundreds of years old though they call themselves thirty-six. The true length of a person’s life, whatever the Dictionary of Natural Biography may say, is always a matter of dispute.’

I’ve read other reviewers who’ve said that they could never relate to Orlando, that he/she always seemed hidden. I can see what they mean. After all, it’s not narrated in the first person, Orlando never speaks to the reader except through an intermediary. Also, he/she lives a life that one in a million people could directly relate to – through the centuries of his/her life the world undergoes such vast changes that most minds would be broken if they had to live through it. His/hers is not. And I think the lesson of the novel is, perhaps, to cling to one’s passions though the world alters around you. Keep what inspires you close to your heart and you can’t go far wrong.

And, so, yes, I did enjoy reading Orlando. It did make me think and question. And I did become fond of Orlando as a character, even if he/she did have a husband with the most ridiculously absurd name I’ve ever heard, what was it?… you’ll just have to read it and find out.

As for me? On to book number two…Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. Two-hundred-and-fifty pages more this time, could take a little longer, methinks.


Filed under 20th century, Books, Fiction, Novel, Virginia Woolf

2 responses to “Lessons learned…a review of Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

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