And Death Shall Have No Dominion
by Virginia Woolf
Hogarth Press, 1928, Harcourt, 2006
reviewed by Seana Graham
I read Orlando sometime after college at the behest of a friend. It was perhaps more her kind of book than mine at the time, and though I went on later to read and admire much more of Woolf, Orlando wasn’t one of my favorites. Years later I saw the highly praised movie version starring Tilda Swinton in the title role, thinking I would understand what it was all about a little more. I didn’t.
But a theatrical version was playing here in Santa Cruz this summer and the members of my book group hit on the bright idea of reading the book and then going to see the play. As it turned out, the play sold out fast and only a few of us managed to see it. I wasn’t one of those few. But I was glad to have a reason to read the book again, as I not only “got it” better than I had in the past, but derived a lot more enjoyment out of it.
Orlando, for those not familiar with the novel, is the story of a boy who ends up turning into a woman. He/she also ends up living several hundred years, starting out in Elizabethan England and surviving without much trouble into the present day, or Woolf’s at least. Neither gender bending nor abnormal longevity are presented with much more than a momentarily raised eyebrow, if that. The story is told from the point of view of a well-intentioned but slightly irritable biographer, who begrudges Orlando his/her contemplative and other quieter moments because they are hard to render in an interesting way.
The book apparently was written as something of a joke, and an insider joke at that. Many aspects of the story are based on the family history of Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s friend and sometime lover. Orlando’s family estate is based on the Sackville family estate, Knole. In addition, many of the historical or quasi-historical figures are based on Woolf’s own coterie, a fact that may add another layer if you have an interest in the Bloomsbury crowd. The not altogether serious nature of the story apparently released Woolf from some of the quandaries she had faced in writing before and the novel flowed from her pen. As Maria DiBattista, who wrote the introduction to my edition, notes, the novels preceding Orlando are heavily preoccupied with death. But Orlando quite literally banishes death, at least for its protagonist.
While Orlando may have been conceived of as a joke it has plenty else to recommend it. The pleasure of Woolf’s prose just in itself is worth the time:
The green arras with the hunters on it moved perpetually. His fathers had been noble since they had been at all. They came out of the northern mists with coronets on their heads. Were not the bars of darkness in the room, and the yellow pools which chequered the floor, made by the stained glass of a glass coat of arms in the window? Orlando stood now in the midst of the yellow body of an heraldic leopard. When he put his hand on the window-sill to push the window open, it was instantly coloured red, blue and yellow, like a butterfly’s wing.
But in addition to beautiful imagery, it is a wisdom book of sorts, musing on memory and what a strange thing it actually is to rely on, as well as the role of women in the world, which would be further developed in Woolf’s later non-fiction, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas. The feminist themes of Orlando and these later works are perhaps what gave her popularity a boost in the last part of last century, and made her an icon of a later period than her own.
However, there is something else glimmering in this “only a joke” book. You could call it it’s fantasy element, but only in the sense that fantasy utters some truth that mere realism cannot. I find that Jeannette Winterson’s reflections on this aspect express it best:
Orlando refuses all constraints: historical, fantastical, metaphysical, sociological. Ageing is irrelevant. Gender is irrelevant. Time is irrelevant. It is as though we could live as we always wanted to; disappointments, difficulties, sorrow, love, children, lovers, nothing to be avoided, everything to be claimed. Not locked. Not limited. Ecstasy.
Scientists are vying to discover the recipe to extend human life well beyond our current conceptions even as I write this. But I like to think that, in Orlando, Virginia Woolf has already shown us the artist’s way of doing just that.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She also reviews for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California and is currently working on a screenplay. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.