Orlando – a study guide
plot, characters, video, resources, further reading
Orlando (1927) is one of Virginia Woolf’s lesser-known novels, although it’s critical reputation has risen in recent years. It’s a delightful fantasy which features a character who changes sex part-way through the book – and lives from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. Using this device (which turns out to be strangely credible) Woolf explores issues of gender and identity as her hero-heroine moves through a variety of lives and personal adventures.
Orlando starts out as an emissary to the Court of St James, lives through friendships with Swift and Alexander Pope, and ends up motoring through the west end of London on a shopping expedition in the 1920s. The character is loosely based on Vita Sackville-West, who at the time was Woolf’s lover. The novel itself was described by Nigel Nicolson (Sackville-West’s son) as ‘the longest and most charming love-letter in literature’.
Orlando – plot summary
The novel tells the story of a young man named Orlando, born in England during the reign of Elizabeth I, who decides not to grow old. He is briefly a lover to the decrepit queen, but after her death has a brief, intense love affair with Sasha, a princess in the entourage of the Russian embassy. This episode, of love and excitement against the background of the Great Frost of 1683, is one of the best known, and is said to represent Vita Sackville-West’s affair with Violet Trefusis.
Following Sasha’s return to Russia, the desolate, lonely Orlando returns to writing The Oak Tree, a poem started and abandoned in his youth. This period of contemplating love and life leads him to appreciate the value of his ancestral stately home, which he proceeds to furnish lavishly and then plays host to the populace. Ennui sets in and a persistent suitor’s harassment leads to Orlando’s appointment by King Charles II as British ambassador to Constantinople. Orlando performs his duties well, until a night of civil unrest and murderous riots. He falls asleep for a lengthy period, resisting all efforts to rouse him.
Upon awakening he finds that he has metamorphosed into a woman—the same person, with the same personality and intellect, but in a woman’s body. For this reason, the now Lady Orlando covertly escapes Constantinople in the company of a Gypsy clan, adopting their way of life until its essential conflict with her upbringing leads her to head home. Only on the ship back to England, with her constraining female clothes and an incident in which a flash of her ankle nearly results in a sailor’s falling to his death, does she realise the magnitude of becoming a woman; yet she concludes the overall advantages, declaring ‘Praise God I’m a woman!’
Orlando becomes caught up in the life of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, holding court with the great poets (notably Alexander Pope), winning a lawsuit and marrying a sea captain. In 1928, she publishes The Oak Tree centuries after starting it, winning a prize.
Orlando – Oxford World Classics edition
Orlando – Wordsworth Classics edition
Orlando – Vintage Classics edition
Orlando – free eBook edition
Orlando – audio book (abridged)
Orlando – a film screenplay
Blogging Woolf – web site
Virginia Woolf – biographical notes
Orlando – Sally Potter’s 1992 film adaptation
Selected Essays – by Virginia Woolf
Orlando – Sally Potter’s film archive
Virginia Woolf at Wikipedia – biographical notes, links
Virginia Woolf at Mantex – tutorials, web links, study resources
Orlando – film version
1992 film adaptation by Sally Potter
See reviews of the film at the Internet Movie Database
|Orlando||the protangonist – a man, then a woman|
|Sasha||a Russian princess, who Orlando loves|
|Shel||a gallant seaman, in love with Orlando|
|Archduke Harry||a cross-dresser who is in love with Orlando|
|Sir Nicholas Greene||a 17C poet then later a 19C critic|
|Alexander Pope||himself – an 18C poet|
|Rustum||an old Turkish gypsy|
|Queen Elizabeth I||English monarch, in love with Orlando|
|Rosina Pepita||a Spanish gypsy dancer|
|Clorinda||a mamber of St James’s court|
|Favilla||the second of Orlando’s loves at court|
|Euphrosyne||Orlando’s ‘intended’ before he runs off with Sasha|
Mont Blanc pen – the Virginia Woolf special edition
Virginia Woolf podcast
A eulogy to words
Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.
Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
Marsh, Nicholas. Virginia Woolf, the Novels. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
Mepham, John. Virginia Woolf. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
Reinhold, Natalya, ed. Woolf Across Cultures. New York: Pace University Press, 2004.
Rosenthal, Michael. Virginia Woolf: A Critical Study. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
Sellers, Susan, The Cambridge Companion to Vit=rginia Woolf, Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Showalter, Elaine. ‘Mrs. Dalloway: Introduction’. In Virginia Woolf: Introductions to the Major Works, edited by Julia Briggs. London: Virago Press, 1994.
Woolf, Virginia. The Common Reader. New York: Harvest Books, 2002.
Zwerdling, Alex. Virginia Woolf and the Real World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
“I feel certain that I am going mad again.”
Knole – Kent, UK
365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances and 7 courtyards
Other works by Virginia Woolf
Jacob’s Room (1922) was Woolf’s first and most dramatic break with traditional narrative fiction. It was also the first of her novels she published herself, as co-founder of the Hogarth Press. This gave her for the first time the freedom to write exactly as she wished. The story is a thinly disguised portrait of her brother Thoby – as he is perceived by others, and in his dealings with two young women. The novel does not have a conventional plot, and the point of view shifts constantly and without any signals or transitions from one character to another. Woolf was creating a form of story telling in which several things are discussed at the same time, creating an impression of simultaneity, and a flow of continuity in life which was one of her most important contributions to literary modernism.
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Between the Acts (1941) is her last novel, in which she returns to a less demanding literary style. Despite being written immediately before her suicide, she combines a playful wittiness with her satirical critique of English upper middle-class life. The story is set in the summer of 1939 on the day of the annual village fete at Pointz Hall. It describes a country pageant on English history written by Miss La Trobe, and its effects on the people who watch it. Most of the audience misunderstand it in various ways, but the implication is that it is a work of art which temporarily creates order amidst the chaos of human life. There’s lots of social comedy, some amusing reflections on English weather, and meteorological metaphors and imagery run cleverly throughout the book.
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Virginia Woolf is a readable and well illustrated biography by John Lehmann, who at one point worked as her assistant at the Hogarth Press. It is described by the blurb as ‘A critical biography of Virginia Woolf containing illustrations that are a record of the Bloomsbury Group and the literary and artistic world that surrounded a writer who is immensely popular today’. An attractive and very accessible introduction to the subject.
Buy the book here
Virginia Woolf links
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