It is said that ‘Orlando’ is one of the finest masterpieces of Virginia Woolf. Published in 1928 it is certainly intense and ahead of its time. It is true that the background of the story involves a very traditional environment, such as the English Court and Queen Elizabeth I, but different to other books depicting this era, the importance of the Queen is left behind to focus more on Orlando as a person.
Orlando is described by an alleged biographer, who was common in those times, as he came from a wealthy family who had connections with the Court. As a teenager Orlando was wild. He had the likes of the Queen and did everything he pleased, but he felt in love with Sasha, who it seems he did not recognize as a man or a woman when he first saw her. She was Russian and Orlando was engaged to be married to an English aristocrat, but dared to disappoint the Court just to escape with her. After a betrayal he went on hiding to his old mansion with his servants and forgot about London and its mundane life. There he got obsessed with writing, loved poetry since a very young age. But after being disappointed again by a critic, he burnt everything and left only the writing of his heart ‘The Oak Tree’. This poem was not going to see the light until de very end of the book and after a lot of things happened in Orlando’s life.
But what I rescue the most about this book is not only the story in itself, and the natural way in which Victoria Woolf explained Orlando’s change of gender, but also his character and the way he faced his disappointments with the Queen and the Court, his lover, and his critics. He allowed himself to mourn but after sometime he was radical. With statements like ‘I am done with men’ he erased from his memories and his sensibilities all trace of those moments, to move on and flourish into something completely different, thus convincing himself immediately that his current one was actually his path in life and not the one before. He changed with the wind, from the Queens’ protégé to an outsider, from a diplomat to a writer, from a man to a woman, from a single man to a married woman.
The narrative of this story is already a huge achievement considering that it happens in the Sixteenth Century and was published in 1928. But the most captivating is its literary richness. On one paragraph, for example, Woolf describes his lover’s hands, and in other she describes the smell of roses. The descriptions are so lived, so perfect, that the feelings are transmitted from the pages into the same senses. In other part of the narrative, Orlando realizes that the difficult part of becoming a woman is not only the change in the appearance, but also the loose of freedom that it is to be a man. She needed to be beautiful every day and for that she would lose time getting ready, but also the problem was what was expected of her. She needed to cover, for all the parts of her body, even her ankles were now appealing to men. She needed to show obedience and a lack of intelligence and understanding of the important matters of life, like leading an army or sentencing someone to death. Her only destiny was to drink tea and ask men how they’d like it.
And the final part of the story is the cherry on the cake, for when Orlando examines her life, especially the hardest moments, only to laugh at the drama she created for herself. Only to see that it was when she was directly involved in those situations that they hurt. But later in time she saw that everything happened the way it needed to happen, that she didn’t have major problems and her life was full of adventure and beautiful anecdotes. She saw the people that hurt her the most and the more she laugh, of when she saw them like savours but they were nothing short of exceptional, just normal people who comes and goes.
And at the end she was happy, for whom she was, for whom she had become, for whom she were at the past.