The plot of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando hangs on two key conceits: the title character transforms from male to female; the title character is immortal. Orlando has been a staple of gender studies courses since probably before such courses existed, and is in many ways the pioneer text (or one of the pioneer texts) of an entire genre. And that’s great and all—there are plenty of stunning passages where Woolf has her character explore what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman and how power and identity and all that good stuff fits in—but what I enjoyed most about Orlando was its rambling, satirical structure.
Orlando functions like an inverted picaresque, detailing the adventures of an aristocrat who finds him- (and then her-) self flung into every sort of damn predicament: Elizabethan intrigues; ice-skating during the Great Frost; a dalliance with a Russian princess; an attempt at artistic patronage; an attempt at art; an ambassadorship in Constantinople; an encounter with the Fates (I suspect); time with a band of gypsies; time with Alexander Pope; a marriage to the great sea captain Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine; and, finally (if that adverb might apply to an apparent immortal), the publication of her great small work The Oak Tree. Sorry to laundry-list plot points, but, gosh, don’t you want to read this now—or at least listen to the audiobook, like I did?
Woolf seems to be channeling Voltaire’s Candide at all times, subtly ridiculing era after era, until Orlando finally emerges into Woolf’s (Modernist) present—it’s the fuzziest moment of the novel for our protagonist, as if she, or the author operating behind her, cannot parse out the post-industrial landscape. It’s also the moment at which Woolf’s prose becomes its most fluid and free—its most Woolfian, I suppose.
I thoroughly enjoyed Clare Higgins’s smart, confident reading of this unabridged production (BBC/Chivers). At not quite nine hours long, it’s a great way to spend a few afternoons of chores or gardening, or perhaps a week’s commute. It made me fish out Mrs. Dalloway, which I haven’t read since my undergrad days, and shove it into a “to read” stack. It also prompted me to revisit Sally Potter’s admirable 1992 film adaptation starring Tilda Swinton, whose very being seems like call and cause enough for an Orlando movie. I recommend both the audiobook and the film. Great stuff.