Completed 8/27/2019, Reviewed 8/27/2019
I haven’t read much classic literature. I often find it difficult to read, being so different than contemporary writing. Often I find the prose, while beautiful, gets in the way of plot and characters. “Orlando: A Biography” is one such book. It is beautifully written, with lush prose and imagery. However, there is little to no plot, only a concept really, that the main character begins the tale as a man and halfway through the book, wakes up a woman. Woolf acknowledges in the book that there isn’t a cohesive story. Rather, it’s a biography, so it jumps from point to point in Orlando’s life. It is a fantasy, though not in the traditional sense, but in that something fanastical happens and the characters react to it.
The book has been described as a love-letter to Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West, where VSW’s life is thinly recounted as the character Orlando. There was an introduction, a preface, and annotation. There is a little information about VSW. Unfortunately, the notes weren’t noted with numbers in the text. They were all just gathered at the end, seventy pages worth. Bouncing back and forth between the text for that many notes would have been somewhat tiring, but it probably would have added a lot of understanding of VSW’s life as well as Woolf’s jokes, irony, and satire. Needless to say, I think I missed a lot of this.
The story begins in the 1500s with Orlando is a nobleman. It recounts some episodes from his youth, including an encounter with Queen Elizabeth I. As he grows older, he falls in love with a Russian noblewoman during the Great Frost, when the river Thames froze over. The relationship does not succeed, and Orlando takes a post as an ambassador in Turkey. There, he one day wakes up to discover he’s become a woman. She eventually returns to England where she lives for over three hundred years.
The prose really is gorgeous. It had a very pacifying effect on me, often making me sleepy. Now, I do often fall asleep while reading, but the nature of this book was simply very lulling. There is nothing really dramatic that happens to keep the adrenaline pumping, no action to speak of, just beautiful words and sentences. Perhaps if I was more trained in the classics, I would have found this riveting in and of itself.
I give this book three stars out of five. It’s good, but not exactly my cup of tea. I’m not quite cultured enough to appreciate this type of literature. Perhaps if I read this for a class, I would have gotten much more out of it. I’m glad I read it though, if nothing else, as an exercise in the classics.