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Orlando (Annotated): A Biography Paperback – Jul 3 2006
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About the Author
VIRGINIA WOOLF (1882-1941) was one of the major literary figures of the twentieth century. An admired literary critic, she authored many essays, letters, journals, and short stories in addition to her groundbreaking novels.
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HEFOR THERE could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise itwas in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. It was the colour of an old football, and more or less the shape of one, save for the sunken cheeks and a strand or two of coarse, dry hair, like the hair on a cocoanut. Orlando’s father, or perhaps his grandfather, had struck it from the shoulders of a vast Pagan who had started up under the moon in the barbarian fields of Africa; and now it swung, gently, perpetually, in the breeze which never ceased blowing through the attic rooms of the gigantic house of the lord who had slain him.
Orlando’s fathers had ridden in fields of asphodel, and stony fields, and fields watered by strange rivers, and they had struck many heads of many colours off many shoulders, and brought them back to hang from the rafters. So too would Orlando, he vowed. But since he was sixteen only, and too young to ride with them in Africa or France, he would steal away from his mother and the peacocks in the garden and go to his attic room and there lunge and plunge and slice the air with his blade. Sometimes he cut the cord so that the skull bumped on the floor and he had to string it up again, fastening it with some chivalry almost out of reach so that his enemy grinned at him through shrunk, black lips triumphantly. The skull swung to and fro, for the house, at the top of which he lived, was so vast that there seemed trapped in it the wind itself, blowing this way, blowing that way, winter or summer. The green arras with the hunters on it moved perpetually. His fathers had been noble since they had been at all. They came out of the northern mists wearing coronets on their heads. Were not the bars of darkness in the room, and the yellow pools which chequered the floor, made by the sun falling through the stained glass of a vast coat of arms in the window? Orlando stood now in the midst of the yellow body of an heraldic leopard. When he put his hand on the window-sill to push the window open, it was instantly coloured red, blue, and yellow like a butterfly’s wing. Thus, those who like symbols, and have a turn for the deciphering of them, might observe that though the shapely legs, the handsome body, and the well-set shoulders were all of them decorated with various tints of heraldic light, Orlando’s face, as he threw the window open, was lit solely by the sun itself. A more candid, sullen face it would be impossible to find. Happy the mother who bears, happier still the biographer who records the life of such a one! Never need she vex herself, nor he invoke the help of novelist or poet. From deed to deed, from glory to glory, from office to office he must go, his scribe following after, till they reach what ever seat it may be that is the height of their desire. Orlando, to look at, was cut out precisely for some such career. The red of the cheeks was covered with peach down; the down on the lips was only a little thicker than the down on the cheeks. The lips themselves were short and slightly drawn back over teeth of an exquisite and almond whiteness. Nothing disturbed the arrowy nose in its short, tense flight; the hair was dark, the ears small, and fitted closely to the head. But, alas, that these catalogues of youthful beauty cannot end without mentioning forehead and eyes. Alas, that people are seldom born devoid of all three; for directly we glance at Orlando standing by the window, we must admit that he had eyes like drenched violets, so large that the water seemed to have brimmed in them and widened them; and a brow like the swelling of a marble dome pressed between the two blank medallions which were his temples. Directly we glance at eyes and forehead, thus do we rhapsodise. Directly we glance at eyes and forehead, we have to admit a thousand disagreeables which it is the aim of every good biographer to ignore. Sights disturbed him, like that of his mother, a very beautiful lady in green walking out to feed the peacocks with Twitchett, her maid, behind her; sights exalted himthe birds and the trees; and made him in love with deaththe evening sky, the homing rooks; and so, mounting up the spiral stairway into his brainwhich was a roomy oneall these sights, and the garden sounds too, the hammer beating, the wood chopping, began that riot and confusion of the passions and emotions which every good biographer detests. But to continueOrlando slowly drew in his head, sat down at the table, and, with the half-conscious air of one doing what they do every day of their lives at this hour, took out a writing book labelled Æthelbert: A Tragedy in Five Acts,” and dipped an old stained goose quill in the ink.
Copyright renewed 1956 by Leonard Woolf
Annotated Edition copyright © 2006 by Harcourt, Inc.
Preface copyright © 2005 by Mark Hussey
Introduction copyright © 2006 by Maria DiBattista
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at www.harcourt.com/contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.
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From the Elizabethan period, during which Orlando works as a steward for the queen and also serves as her lover, he progresses to the reign of James I, experiencing a profound love for a Russian princess, Sasha, who is herself exploring the role of a man. When the relationship ends, he retreats, devastated, to his estate, with its 365 rooms and 52 staircases, which he redecorates over the next few years. An interlude in which he is wooed by the Archduchess Harriet/Archduke Harry leads to his ambassadorship to Constantinople, a period spent with the gypsies, and his eventual return to England--as a woman. New experiences and observations await her there.
Throughout the novel, Woolf matches her prose style to the literary style of the period in which Orlando lives, creating always-changing moods and sheer delight for the reader. Some constants continue throughout the four centuries of Orlando's life. Orlando is always a writer, always recording his thoughts, and always adding to a poem he has begun as a child entitled "The Oak Tree." He is always returning to his 365-room house whenever he needs to recuperate from his experiences, and some characters repeat through time. (Orlando is betrayed by Nick Greene during the reign of James I, but he is encouraged by Nicholas Greene in the Victorian period.)
Literary historians make much of the fact that Woolf modeled Orlando on Vita Sackville-West, Woolf's lover, and that this study of gender roles was an early exploration of lesbianism, bisexuality, cross-dressing, and transgender identities. The novel is pure fun to read, however, and though it raises serious and thoughtful questions about sexuality and the ways that it controls our lives, there is no sense that Woolf wrote the novel specifically to make a public statement or prove a point. Her themes of gender and its relation to social expectations, of imagination and its relation to reality, of the importance of history in our lives, and of the unlimited potential of all humans, regardless of their sex, transcend the specific circumstances under which Woolf may have written the book. A playful and delightful novel, which broke new ground with its publication. Mary Whipple
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Orlando was born a young aristocratic man in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, and when the dying monarch visited his home she became his new court favorite (and briefly lover). His passionate, curious personality attracted many other women over the years -- until he fell in love with Sasha, a mercurial but faithless Russian princess (supposedly based on Sackville-West's ex-girlfriend). Bereft of true love, he devoted himself to poetry and entertainment.
But then he's assigned to be an ambassador to Constantinople, and something strange happens -- while a bloody revolution rages, he sleeps for a full week... and wakes newly metamorphosed into a woman. With the same mind and soul but a female body, Orlando sets out on a new life -- and discovers that women aren't quite as different from men as she once thought.
"Orlando: A Biography" is a very weird book, and was even more so when it was written since "magical realism" didn't exist as a literary style in 1928. Virginia Woolf makes no explanations about Orlando's immortality or unexpected gender switch. It's simply accepted that once he was a man, and then she became a woman, and that s/he has lived from the Elizabethan era until at least the 1920s (and who knows, maybe Orlando still wanders among us?).
And Woolf's writing is at its peak here. Her prose is soaked in luxurious descriptions that constantly tease the senses -- silver and gold, frozen flowers, crystalline ice, starlight and the exquisite expanses of nature's beauty. At times the sensual writing seems almost feverish, and Woolf adds an almost mythic quality by inserting spirits of feminine virtues (Modesty, Purity and Chastity appear to try to hide Orlando's feminine body), and by having her hero/ine encounter great poets, queens and men of the sea.
And Orlando him/herself is a truly fascinating character -- s/he can be sweet, passionate, romantic, wild and melancholy, and s/he has an almost magnetic charisma. He starts off the story as an elusive romantic teenager, suffers a heartbreak that matures him as an artist, and post-metamorphosis she becomes a woman of the modern world. Both in mind and body, Orlando is a very different woman at the end than the boy s/he began as.
"Orlando: A Biography" is a truly spellbinding book -- Virginia Woolf's prose enthralls the senses while her main character explores the boundaries of gender. A must-read, for everyone.