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’.


Virginia Woolf


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.

OrlandoFollowing 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, and winning a prize.


Study resources

Orlando The Complete Works of Virginia Woolf – Kindle (£1.95) – Amazon UK

Orlando Orlando – Oxford World Classics – Amazon UK

Orlando Orlando – Oxford World Classics – Amazon US

Orlando Orlando – Wordsworth Classics – Amazon UK

Orlando Orlando – Wordsworth Classics – Amazon US

Orlando Orlando – Vintage Classics edition

Orlando Orlando – eBook editions – [FREE]

Orlando Orlando – audio book (abridged) – Amazon UK

Orlando Orlando – a film screenplay = Amazon UK

Red button Blogging Woolf – web site – [FREE]

Red button Virginia Woolf – biographical notes – [FREE]

Orlando Orlando – Sally Potter’s 1992 film adaptation – Amazon UK

Red button Selected Essays – by Virginia Woolf – Amazon UK

Red button Hyper-Concordance to Virginia Woolf’s works – [FREE]

Red button Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain – [FREE]

Orlando Orlando – Sally Potter’s film archive – [FREE]

Red button Virginia Woolf at Wikipedia – biographical notes, links – [FREE]

Red button Virginia Woolf at Mantex – tutorials, web links, study resources – [FREE]


Orlando – film version

1992 film adaptation by Sally Potter

Redbutton See reviews of the film at the Internet Movie Database


Principal characters
Orlandothe protangonist – a man, then a woman
Sashaa Russian princess, who Orlando loves
Shela gallant seaman, in love with Orlando
Archduke Harrya cross-dresser who is in love with Orlando
Sir Nicholas Greenea 17C poet then later a 19C critic
Alexander Popehimself – an 18C poet
Rustuman old Turkish gypsy
Queen Elizabeth IEnglish monarch, in love with Orlando
Rosina Pepitaa Spanish gypsy dancer
Clorindaa mamber of St James’s court
Favillathe second of Orlando’s loves at court
EuphrosyneOrlando’s ‘intended’ before he runs off with Sasha

Montblanc pen

Mont Blanc pen – the Virginia Woolf special edition


Virginia Woolf podcast

A eulogy to words


Further reading

Red button Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.

Red button Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Red button Marsh, Nicholas. Virginia Woolf, the Novels. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

Red button Mepham, John. Virginia Woolf. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

Red button Reinhold, Natalya, ed. Woolf Across Cultures. New York: Pace University Press, 2004.

Red button Rosenthal, Michael. Virginia Woolf: A Critical Study. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

Red button Sellers, Susan, The Cambridge Companion to Vit=rginia Woolf, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Red button Showalter, Elaine. ‘Mrs. Dalloway: Introduction’. In Virginia Woolf: Introductions to the Major Works, edited by Julia Briggs. London: Virago Press, 1994.

Red button Woolf, Virginia. The Common Reader. New York: Harvest Books, 2002.

Red button Zwerdling, Alex. Virginia Woolf and the Real World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.


Virginia Woolf's handwriting

“I feel certain that I am going mad again.”


Original inspiration

Vita Sackville-West


Knole – Kent, UK

Knole - Kent

365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances and 7 courtyards


Other works by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf To the LighthouseTo the Lighthouse (1927) is the second of the twin jewels in the crown of her late experimental phase. It is concerned with the passage of time, the nature of human consciousness, and the process of artistic creativity. Woolf substitutes symbolism and poetic prose for any notion of plot, and the novel is composed as a tryptich of three almost static scenes – during the second of which the principal character Mrs Ramsay dies – literally within a parenthesis. The writing is lyrical and philosophical at the same time. Many critics see this as her greatest achievement, and Woolf herself realised that with this book she was taking the novel form into hitherto unknown territory.
Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse Buy the book at Amazon UK
Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse Buy the book at Amazon US

 

The Complete Shorter FictionThe Complete Shorter Fiction contains all the classic short stories such as The Mark on the Wall, A Haunted House, and The String Quartet – but also the shorter fragments and experimental pieces such as Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street. These ‘sketches’ (as she called them) were used to practice the techniques she used in her longer fictions. Nearly fifty pieces written over the course of Woolf’s writing career are arranged chronologically to offer insights into her development as a writer. This is one for connoisseurs – well presented and edited in a scholarly manner.
Virginia Woolf - The Complete Shorter Fiction Buy the book at Amazon UK
Virginia Woolf - The Complete Shorter Fiction Buy the book at Amazon US

 


The Bloomsbury GroupThe Bloomsbury Group is a short but charming book, published by the National Portrait Gallery. It explores the impact of Bloomsbury personalities on each other, plus how they shaped the development of British modernism in the early part of the twentieth century. But most of all it’s a delightful collection of portrait paintings and photographs, with biographical notes. It has an introductory essay which outlines the development of Bloomsbury, followed by a series of portraits and the biographical sketches of the major figures.
Ralph Partridge Buy the book at Amazon UK
Ralph Partridge Buy the book at Amazon US

© Roy Johnson 2010


Virginia Woolf links

Red button Virginia Woolf – life and works

Red button The Bloomsbury Group

Red button Virginia Woolf: Selected Essays


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