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Art and Culture

Likely Stories: Orlando

Jim McKeown
Orlando reviewed October 2 on Likely Stories


Magic realism from the great modernist writer Virginia Woolf.



I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

On October 5, 1927, Virginia Woolf began writing a story she had worked through her mind for months.  Woolf, an early modernist influenced by James Joyce, is most certainly an acquired taste.  The novel, Orlando, is, as she wrote, a fictional “biography beginning in the year 1500 & continuing until the present day” (Nissley, A Reader’s Book of Days 316).  Before grad school, I had read Mrs. Dalloway, which I greatly enjoyed.  But after a class in modernist literature, Orlando immediately became another favorite of her works.  I decided to revisit this unusual novel.

The story begins with Orlando, a handsome young man, heir of titles and lands dating back to William the Conqueror.  He becomes a favorite of Queen Bess.  As Woolf writes, “For the old woman loved him.  And the Queen, who knew a man when she saw one, though not, it is said, in the usual way, plotted for him a splendid, ambitious career.  Lands were given him, houses assigned him.  He was to be the son of her old age; the limb of her infirmity; the oak tree on which she leant her degradation.  She croaked out these promises and strange domineering tenderness’s sitting bolt upright in her stiff brocades by the fire which, however high they piled it, never kept her warm” (9).

Woolf, an ardent feminist, details the habits and peculiarities of men, and then turns her attentions to the onerous life of women with all the strictures placed upon them in regard to marriage, ownership of property, and public, as well as private, activities.  She also comments on Elizabethan, Enlightenment, Victorian, and 20th century attitudes towards women.

Woolf writes, “crime and poverty had none of the attraction for the Elizabethans that they have for us.  They had none of our modern shame of book learning; none of our belief that to be born the son of a butcher is a blessing and to be unable to read a virtue; no fancy that what we call ‘life’ and ‘reality’ are somehow connected with ignorance and brutality; nor, indeed any equivalent for these two words at all” (13).  Yes, these lines – so relevant today -- found themselves on paper in her distinctive purple ink.

Orlando constantly struggles with loneliness and isolation concomitant with his position among the nobility.  As he rises to the title of Duke, he begins to detest the hypocrisy of the upper class and the shallow gossip of those who pretend to intellectualism.  Orlando befriends, Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, and John Dryden and attends gatherings with Swift, Johnson, and Boswell.  Pope and Addison visit Orlando, and they have tea and conversations worthy of those eminent men.

Half way through Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, my well-foxed old paperback began to fall apart, as did Orlando’s life.  He awakes one morning to find himself transformed into a woman.  I admit I did not enjoy this novel this time around.  So, I find myself perplexed.  Do I dare reread Mrs. Dalloway?  I think not.  I will hold that one in my memory.  From 1995 or thereabouts, 5 stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read my book blog at RabbitReader.blogspot.com.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and HAPPY READING!