‘Orlando’ by Virginia Woolf

My rating: 3 stars

Orlando by Virginia Woolf is one of those books that I can understand why it’s so celebrated but that I didn’t particularly enjoy reading. The messages conveyed are quite relevant and thought-provoking. However, I didn’t really feel a strong connection with any of the characters nor was I gripped by the story being told.

The book is a fictional biography about Orlando, who at the beginning of the tale is a sixteen-year-old noble boy from the 16th century. He loved being alone, was shy and wrote poetry. For a period of time he went to live at Queen Elizabeth’s court and she was very fond of him. He got engaged to Lady Margaret when King James was the one sitting on the throne, but one day he meets the muscovite Sasha, who becomes the only one he wants to pay attention to. He stops being clumsy and is full of grace. However, their story doesn’t have a happy ending.

Afterwards Orlando chooses to live in solitude, wants to avoid falling in love and is eager to spend his time only in the company of books. In fact, he loves reading and aspires to be a poet, which was uncommon at the time.

“Many people of his time, still more of his rank, escaped the infection and were thus free to run or ride or make love at their own sweet will. But some were early infected by a germ said to be bred of the pollen of the asphodel and to be blown out of Greece and Italy (…). It was the fatal nature of this disease to substitute a phantom for reality, so that Orlando (…) had only to open a book for the whole vast accumulation to turn to mist.”

Would anything change if Orlando became a woman? Would he feel different? The book touches on quite interesting themes, such as the difference between women and men’s rights (regarding the right to hold property, their daily life, demeanour and judgments made) and the recognition of writers through the centuries. Both the narrator and Orlando also muse on how a person can have characteristics of both sexes. “Different though the sexes are, they intermix”. What people expect from a woman or a man is associated with previously formed ideas.

The events being narrated span quite a few centuries, but Orlando doesn’t age accordingly. On the one hand, that helps to convey how it was like to live in different periods of history and how a person changes with the passing of time, starting to feel like one has more than one personality, more than one self. But, on the other hand, having Orlando live for all that time is one of the reasons why it was so difficult for me to relate and feel close to the characters.

The writing style left me with mixed feelings. When some of the events are more painstakingly described and narrated, the prose is quite special. Nevertheless, some of the events happening during Orlando’s long life are told in quick succession, which was a bit confusing and off-putting. Also, sometimes the stream of consciousness left me with a headache, as being inside Orlando’s thoughts for too long was extremely draining principally at the end.

I ended up rating Orlando with three stars chiefly because of the topics discussed. I definitely see why it was ground-breaking, and it also features some funny moments. But not feeling a connection to the characters bothered me.


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