Dan Sandman

47: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

In Books, Fiction on 21/11/2014 at 12:00 pm

Orlando by Virginia WoolfOne thing that can be overlooked is just how funny Orlando (1927) is. Literary critics have tended to focus Here on its feminism, there on its treatment of historical fiction, then on Woolf’s relationship with her lover Vita Sackville-West. But Orlando is at heart a comedy – of the laugh out loud whilst reading variety – that plays with reader expectations. It’s a little bit like Twelfth Night (1602) by William Shakespeare – or any of Shakespeare’s comedies – where boys play woman dressed up as boys, and characters wax lyrical about the meaning of love.

The basic plot is completely implausible, and perhaps Woolf really is mocking the (mostly male) historical fiction and biography writers of the past, with their scholarly search for ‘truth’. Yet at the same time, there is obviously a respect for history – its figures, its architecture, its Queens – and a desire to explore history by adventuring into new imaginative language. Indeed, as the impossible story flows, and Orlando turns from being a he to being a she, moving from Tudor times to the ‘present moment’ (at time of publishing), it is the lushly embellished language that takes center stage, with Shakespearean beauty.

In the spirit of, what critics would call Modernism (with a capital M), Orlando is a forthright attempt to break up received ideas surrounding novel writers, the English language, established gender roles, historical writing created by men, autobiographical writing (especially that which claims ‘truth’), and just about anything that Victorian Literature does well.

And yes, it succeeds triumphantly in doing so.

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