Published by Penguin Classics on September 28, 2000 (first published October 11, 1928)
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Virginia Woolf's Orlando 'The longest and most charming love letter in literature', playfully constructs the figure of Orlando as the fictional embodiment of Woolf's close friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West. Spanning three centuries, the novel opens as Orlando, a young nobleman in Elizabeth's England, awaits a visit from the Queen and traces his experience with first love as England under James I lies locked in the embrace of the Great Frost. At the midpoint of the novel, Orlando, now an ambassador in Constantinople, awakes to find that he is now a woman, and the novel indulges in farce and irony to consider the roles of women in the 18th and 19th centuries. As the novel ends in 1928, a year consonant with full suffrage for women. Orlando, now a wife and mother, stands poised at the brink of a future that holds new hope and promise for women.
Orlando is a beautiful novel. The writing is smooth and descriptive. Orlando, man or woman, is charming and intelligent and introspective. He/she cares about literature and nature, love and (sometimes) people. It’s rather plotless. Time passes, fashions change, but not much really happens. And the things that do, like Orlando becoming a woman rather than a man or living 300+ years, are treated as no bigger, no life-changing than day to day events. Orlando handles everything with grace and honesty. at heart, she is the same person he had always been.
Reading Orlando in 2020 is not the same as reading when it was first published. When Orlando becomes a woman, she cannot inherit her own home. She can’t be an Ambassador again. She feels she needs to be more aware of others see her. We forget that at the time women were just gaining the vote when this was published, and Woolf uses her book to show the gender inequality that still exists. Orlando is a gentle read, but it challenges the conventions of the time, challenges homophobia decades before society would. She shines a light on society but in a playful way. She managed to avoid the censors at the time too.
I think that Orlando is still relevant today and worth reading. For me, the first part went a bit slow, but once I kind of immersed myself in the book, read for a few hours at a time, I truly enjoyed it.