February 2013

Our choice this month was by one of the founders of Modernism and a key member of the Bloomsbury group – Virginia Woolf. Written for her lover Vita Sackville-West, Orlando is ostensibly a biography which spans four centuries and involves a gender change. Clearly no ordinary life! Indeed the tale is far more than a fictional biography for this lyrical stream of consciousness carries us seamlessly through a search for fulfilment and identity, a cultural history and a raising of gender issues.

Woolf shows why she is considered one of the greatest women writers in English in the way her imagery conjures up the spirit of successive ages. Orlando, born of a noble family in Tudor times, enjoys a gilded youth, impressing Queen Elizabeth 1 so much that he is invited to court. His contemplative side is also apparent in his desire to be a poet. This is the time of the great frost and one day while skating on the Thames, he meets the lovely Russian Sasha with whom he falls in love. With the melting of the ice her ship has to leave taking her home and leaving Orlando heart broken.

We next come to what Woolf calls ‘the dark mysterious and undocumented part of his life’ when he turns in his search for fulfilment from love to literature and continues with his life’s work, a poem called ‘The Oak Tree’. He is then sent as ambassador to Turkey where the major event of his life takes place. He falls into a trance and eventually wakes as a woman. One of our group likened this to puberty in a girl when she changes from being a tomboy to a young lady. The awareness of life as a female leads to musing on the differences between the sexes. Returning to England, Orlando enters the literary world of Addison, Dryden and later Pope, initially enjoying the excitement of conversing with the intellectual geniuses of the turn of the 18C. Woolf’s humour brings out the superficial nature of this social world, which after a while disillusions Orlando but also contributes to her understanding of life and herself.

One of our favourite sections was that on the Victorian era. The wonderful description of the cloud that hung over London at the beginning of the 19C and the dampness that seeped into all aspects of life suffocating spontaneity and passion demonstrated everything the Bloomsbury group hated about the Victorians. Despite not feeling comfortable in this period of restraint, Orlando makes a happy marriage to a man with the wonderful name of Marmaduke Banthrop Shelmerdine and realises that sex is only a part of identity and that character, values or family may be more important.

Finally we reach the brightness of the 20C which Orlando enjoys. She attains maturity, symbolised by getting her poem published. She has reached the end of her quest realising that identity is multifaceted, including feminine and masculine characteristics. We are each made up of different selves, which exhibit themselves during life, making up a complex personality. Significantly the date is 1928, the year that women gained full suffrage on equal terms with men.

We shall be discussing Beryl Bainbridge’s The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress on March 14.

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