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 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 – Amazon UK

Orlando Orlando – free eBook editions

Orlando Orlando – audio book (abridged) – Amazon UK

Orlando Orlando – a film screenplay = Amazon UK

Orlando The Complete Works of Virginia Woolf – Kindle edition – Amazon UK

Red button Virginia Woolf – biographical notes

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

Red button Selected Essays – by Virginia Woolf – Amazon UK

Red button The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf – Amazon UK

Red button Virginia Woolf – Authors in Context – Amazon UK

Orlando Orlando – Sally Potter’s film archive

Red button The Cambridge Introduction to Virginia Woolf – Amazon UK

Red button Virginia Woolf at Wikipedia – biographical notes, links,

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

Orlando – film version

1992 film adaptation by Sally Potter

Redbutton See reviews of the film at the Internet Movie Database

Principal characters
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

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

Virginia Woolf – web links

Red button Virginia Woolf at Mantex
Biographical notes, study guides to the major works, book reviews, studies of the short stories, bibliographies, web links, study resources.

Virginia Woolf web links Blogging Woolf
Book reviews, Bloomsbury related issues, links, study resources, news of conferences, exhibitions, and events, regularly updated.

Virginia Woolf web links Virginia Woolf at Wikipedia
Full biography, social background, interpretation of her work, fiction and non-fiction publications, photograph albumns, list of biographies, and external web links

Virginia Woolf web links Virginia Woolf at Gutenberg
Selected eTexts of the novels The Voyage Out, Night and Day, Jacob’s Room, and the collection of stories Monday or Tuesday in a variety of digital formats.

Virginia Woolf web links Woolf Online
An electronic edition and commentary on To the Lighthouse with notes on its composition, revisions, and printing – plus relevant extracts from the diaries, essays, and letters.

Virginia Woolf web links Hyper-Concordance to Virginia Woolf
Search texts of all the major novels and essays, word by word – locate quotations, references, and individual terms

Red button Virginia Woolf – a timeline in phtographs
A collection of well and lesser-known photographs documenting Woolf’s life from early childhood, through youth, marriage, and fame – plus some first edition book jackets – to a soundtrack by Philip Glass. They capture her elegant appearance, the big hats, and her obsessive smoking. No captions or dates, but well worth watching.

Virginia Woolf web links Women’s History Walk in Bloomsbury
Tour of literary and political homes in Bloomsbury – including Gordon Square, Gower Street, Bedford Square, Tavistock Square, plus links to women’s history web sites.

Virginia Woolf web links Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain
Bulletins of events, annual lectures, society publications, and extensive links to Woolf and Bloomsbury related web sites

Virginia Woolf web links BBC Audio Essay – A Eulogy to Words
Charming sound recording of radio talk given by Virginia Woolf in 1937 – a podcast accompanied by a slideshow of photographs.

Virginia Woolf web links A Family Photograph Albumn
Leslie Stephen compiled a photograph album and wrote an epistolary memoir, known as the “Mausoleum Book,” to mourn the death of his wife, Julia, in 1895 – an archive at Smith College – Massachusetts

Virginia Woolf web links Virginia Woolf first editions
Hogarth Press book jacket covers of the first editions of Woolf’s novels, essays, and stories – largely designed by her sister, Vanessa Bell.

Virginia Woolf web links Virginia Woolf – on video
Biographical studies and documentary videos with comments on Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group and the social background of their times.

Virginia Woolf web links Virginia Woolf Miscellany
An archive of academic journal essays 2003—2014, featuring news items, book reviews, and full length studies.

© Roy Johnson 2010

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