‘Orlando’ may not be Woolf’s most famous novel but it certainly is her most fun and playful novel. While her other works can be tough to peruse, require a lot of concentration and have been viewed as tedious and heavy reads, ‘Orlando’ is an enjoyable read. It seems as if Woolf was taking a break from all her other ‘heavy’ novels to write something ‘light’ and so she penned Orlando. This however does not entail that the novel is a mere story with nothing in terms of depth and meaning. On the contrary Woolf uses her story to make comments on a number of aspects of her society. First and foremost, the novel was written to underline the issue of how the female sex was denied any rights of inheritance. Her friend and lover, Vita Sackville West, who came from a prestigious lineage was denied the inheritance of her ancestral Knole House on account of her being a woman. Woolf highlights this and several other aspects in her novel.
Orlando is the name of the protagonist of the novel and many critics have asserted that Orlando is modeled after Vita herself who at the end of the story is able to inherit his lands. The novel is truly modernist in its approach as it uses the idea of the fluidity of time which is the main crux of the novel. Modernists were fascinated with deconstructing the notions of time and its linearity. Consequently, ‘Orlando’ spans four centuries with the protagonist living through various time periods. The time periods are also distinctly described in terms of literary periods. The story starts in the Elizabethan Age with Orlando, a man, who owns vast lands and a huge house and has the privilege of gaining an audience with the Queen herself and ends in 1928. In the four centuries, Orlando falls in love with a Russian princess, becomes a successful Ambassador in Constantinople, writes a novel-Oak Tree, gets it published, meets his literary idols in cafes and undergoes one important change (which if revealed can be a spoiler) that Woolf uses to state the ideas of bisexuality and also gets married among other things. For literature fans, the novel is a fun ride through the various ages, like studying the background of English Literature but in a cool way rather than in a the drab manner of reading up a Daiches or Boris Ford volume. It gives a sweeping survey of the literary periods of English literature but also critiques them simultaneously. The quirky character, Nick Greene, is an author but also a pompous critic who Orlando meets in the Elizabethan Age and then in the Victorian Age but his manner of appreciating the older works rather than the contemporary ones does not change over the centuries. For example, in the Elizabethan Age, he mocked Shakespeare and Marlowe while extolling the Greek writers and their works. He termed the latter as ‘great’ and the former as just a shadow of the latter’s greatness. However, in the Victoria Age, he calls the Elizabethan Age as having produced great literature and the Victorian Age as being wishy washy in the literature it produces. Woolf uses Nick Greene cleverly to prick the hallowed literary canon and to show that what constitutes ‘great’ works is rather subjective and fickle.
Apart from contradicting ideas of male inheritance and taking a jibe at literary tradition, Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ is also very English in its essence. The importance of home, one’s roots, one’s land is highlighted in subtle ways. The work that Orlando writes, ‘Oak Tree’ is itself a symbol of that. Moreover, his sense of Englishness comes through when he is ambassador in Constantinople where he adores the foreign and exotic but also longs for English landscapes. The novel does have hues of the English pride and a respect for British imperialism.
Overall, ‘Orlando’ is a cheerful and lively read and even if you have a love-hate relationship with Virginia Woolf or hate her outright, this novel should not be given a miss.