What is the book?
Written in 1928, Orlando: A Biography – to give it its formal title – is a lovers’ in-joke made high art. It was the fourth novel to be published by Virginia Woof, whose inter-war writing changed the shape and course of literature.
One of Woolf’s most popular and accessible books (in that it deploys considerably less stream-of-consciousness narratives than The Waves or To the Lighthouse), it tells the story of an aristocratic boy who, at 30, turns into a woman and goes on to live for 300 years, meeting notable literary figures during their long life.
Woolf was inspired to write Orlando thanks to her infatuation with Vita Sackville-West, a writer and garden designer who was also part of the bohemian Bloomsbury Group. The two women, both of whom were (largely openly) married to men, enjoyed an affair that spanned two decades and was, while rich with love and affection, rarely sexual.
Nevertheless, the pair’s relationship was deeply nourishing and well-documented, in letters and diaries, and, more abstractly, Orlando. The book represents the best of what existed between Sackville-West and Woof: effervescent and giddy, it is also radical, challenging the expectations of gender and history to remain a totemic text on feminism and sexual politics today. Writing it brought Woolf, whose adult life was besieged with depression and nervous breakdowns, great happiness – she said she enjoyed creating Orlando “as much as I’ve ever enjoyed anything.”
Why talk about it now?
This week, Portrait of a Lady on Fire will finally come out in British cinemas after a glittering run through the awards ceremonies. As evidenced by this year's Oscars, women directors still don't get their share of the spotlight, and work made by women, that reflects the relationships and creativity of women, is all too rare (The last Palme d'Or-acknowledged French film about sapphic love, Blue is the Warmest Colour, was directed by a man). In the same way that director Celine Sciamma contorts the male gaze to examine the budding relationship between Marianne and Heloise, so Woolf challenged expectations of gender and sex nearly a century ago. And, as painter Marianne twists and turns to capture her muse, so Woolf does with Sackville-West in the form of Orlando.
Vita loved Orlando, declaring herself a narcissist, so in love with she was the titular character. She called it, “the loveliest, wisest, richest book that I have ever read”.