Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 18, 2013

Orlando (1928), by Virginia Woolf

OrlandoI’ve been re-reading Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a pleasure that comes about because The Folio Society sent me their luscious new edition to read.  I first read the novel not long after I finished university but I don’t think I fully appreciated it then, not least because the cheap paperback copy I had didn’t have the illustrations that (for the first edition) Woolf stipulated that it should.   This Folio edition has full colour reproductions of the paintings and photos, and a sparkling introduction by Jeanette Winterson as well.  (Click the link to see some of the illustrations on the Folio Society’s webpage).

I think that my re-reading was also enhanced by having seen the 1992 film and its lush images of Elizabethan life.

What I enjoyed most about this re-reading is that Woolf’s novel is playful.  When she’s not making conspiratorial jokes, mocking her own writing or satirising society in a manner reminiscent of Jane Austen at her wittiest, Woolf employs the art of exaggeration to great effect:

So, after a long silence, ‘I am alone’ he breathed at last, opening his lips for the first time in this record.  He had walked very quickly uphill through ferns and hawthorn bushes, startling deer and wild birds, to a place crowned by a single oak tree. It was very high, so high indeed that nineteen English counties could be seen beneath; and on clear days thirty or perhaps forty, if the weather was very fine.  Sometimes one could see the English Channel, wave reiterating on wave.  River boats could be seen and pleasure boats gliding on them; and galleons setting out to sea; and armadas with puffs of smoke from which came the dull thud of cannons firing; and forts on the coast; and castles among the meadows; and here a watch tower; and there a fortress; and again some vast mansion like that of Orlando’s father, massed like a town in the valley circled by walls.  To the east there were the spires of London and the smoke of the city; and perhaps on the very sky line, when the wind was in the right quarter the craggy top and serrated edges of Snowdon herself showed mountainous among the clouds.   (p. 6-7)

A very, very high oak tree indeed, Ms Woolf!  No wonder Orlando spends centuries writing a poem about it!

As Jeanette Winterson explains in the introduction, the book was first published in 1928 with the title Orlando: A Biography.  But the book is a romp, a fantastical novel masquerading as a biography.  It is derived from Woolf’s love for Vita Sackville-West and her indignation that as a woman in that era, Sackville-West could not inherit the fabulous family home, Knole.  Woolf’s protagonist Orlando begins the story as a man, able to participate in society, to become the favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, to have a career and to own a very valuable property. But one day he falls asleep and wakes up as a woman, only to find all these advantages suddenly and irrationally denied. Orlando is, after all, exactly the same person, it is only his gender that has changed.  (Though Woolf does concede that having to manage voluminous skirts can have an effect on the mind and body).

The sting in this moral fable is the way that Woolf plays with time,  because Orlando’s life spans four centuries.  The sexism inherent in the way that society treats Orlando the female is not, alas, something that could be dismissed as an anachronism.  Things actually get worse for women since the days of Good Queen Bess, and Britain and its archaic attitudes to gender linger on into the first decades of the 20th century.

Still, Orlando has some splendid adventures.  As a young man enjoying wealth and privilege he indulges himself in writing poetry – until becoming a favourite of Queen Bess, when he is appointed ambassador so that she can keep him by her.   After Elizabeth dies, he has an affair with Sasha – who might, or might not be, a Russian princess, portrayed unforgettably in the film sashaying about with the handsome young nobleman on the frozen Thames (courtesy of the 1608 Great Frost). 

But morals, Woolf says, were not the same then, and amid the violence and stark contrasts of Elizabethan society, young Orlando could enjoy low company as much as the high-born.  He hankers for immortality, however, and so he invites the poet Nick Greene to his house as a mentor – only to find that Greene doesn’t care for a life of luxury and he doesn’t care for Orlando’s poetry either.  This makes Orlando give up poetry for a while, and, indulging her droll sense of humour, Woolf has him take up house mansion renovations instead.

When the renovations are done, lo! he takes up entertaining, and makes the acquaintance of the Archduchess Harriet from Roumania.  As with Mr Greene, she is to make a startling appearance a few centuries later on in the novel, but for now, her alarming presence forces Orlando to make tracks, and he ends up in Constantinople.

Which is where he falls asleep for a week and wakes up a woman.

There is so much to chuckle over in this novel: Woolf satirises the vacuity of society, the claustrophobia of Victorian prudery, assorted poets of great stature, gender politics and of course the publishing industry. But what shines through the entire novel is her affection for Orlando, who – thanks to the portraits included as an integral part of the novel – is unambiguously Vita Sackville-West.

It’s a lovely book, and this is a lovely edition.

Author: Virginia Woolf
Title: Orlando
Publisher: The Folio Society, 2013, first published 1928
Source: Review copy courtesy of The Folio Society


The Folio Society


  1. I haven’t read this in ages. I think it is coming time for a reread. What a lovely edition you got too. I had no idea there were illustrations! Next time I read it I must be sure to get a copy that includes them.


    • Hi Stefanie, if you click the link on the word illustrations in the first paragraph, you can see some of the illustrations. This is what it says about them on the Folio Society website:
      ‘The first edition of Orlando included photographs of Sackville-West, some of them taken specifically for the book. Woolf ’s chosen images are included here, signalling Orlando’s dual identity and the author’s unabashed presentation of the novel as a paean to Sackville-West. She also included photographs of four portraits, which are still housed at Knole and Sissinghurst. Happily we were able to reshoot three of them in colour for this edition’.


  2. Do you know if the Folio Society is planning to do more Woolf volumes? They often do that — I have the Alexandra Quartet, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Daphne duMaurier for starters. My Woolf volumes are all tattered paperbacks from my student days — she strikes me as the kind of author who deserves the high quality production of Folio Society volumes.


    • Hi Kevin, I agree. A matched set would be just gorgeous. I want a Henry Green set too (that was the other one they sent me for review) and also the complete set of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle. I have Nana in a Folio Edition, but all my other Zola’s are paperbacks, which (no doubt) will end up being tattered paperbacks too!


  3. Thanks for your comment on mine. I’m just off out for the day and will re-visit your blog soon. I can’t describe how busy it’s been lately – daughter having a third baby hasn’t helped (childcare escalating!)


    • But how lovely to have grandchildren to spend time on, you lucky man!


  4. Great review. You have me eager to reread Orlando. And thanks for the link to the wonderful illustrations.


    • They’re gorgeous, aren’t they? And they do make a difference to how the book is read: I found myself mulling over resemblances, clothing and so on, in a way that I couldn’t when I read the book the first time.


  5. I have Mrs. Dalloway on my shelf patiently waiting to be read and that would be my first Woolf book. A fine review, Lisa.


    • Thank you, Celestine. I am curious about your TBR shelf, Celestine … the header on your blog shows such a restful, elegant, minimalist room, that I cannot imagine the messiness of books spoiling it.
      On a much more serious note, I see on your blog that ‘Prof Kofi Awonoor, Ghana’s former Chairman of the Council of State, a university don with specialty in English and Literature, a poet, writer and a former ambassador to the UN’ was gunned down in that massacre in Kenya. So many lives lost, from the wise to the humble. How right you are in your beautiful haiku that we strive for meaning when events like this occur.


  6. I’ve never really read woolf I have most of her books on my shelves in a imagine hope of reading her at some point this one if I remember is quite personal in its plot more than her other books where ,all the best stu


    • One of my favourites, is a little gem about her dog. It was called Flush. As one dog-lover to another, I think you’d love it.


  7. […] to me, sending me Muriel Sparks’ The Girls of Slender Means and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando for review so they already had my post office box address.  But alas, that is not where Australia […]


  8. […] Woolf is not required.  I’ve read eight of Woolf’s novels but (with the exception of Orlando reviewed here on my blog) that was so long ago I am not tempted even to write a brief review at GoodReads; and I have the […]


  9. […] amongst my Gay/Lit LGBTQIA books category, where its closest relation is Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.  That was written from an entirely different angle, but Pip Smith explores some of the same ideas […]


  10. […] We have just seen a magnificent stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.  (See my review of the book here). […]


  11. […] We have just seen a magnificent stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.  (See my review of the book here). […]


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