The history of English Literature, 1590-1922, told as the biography of a wannabe poet who simply doesn’t age. Everything normally stated as cause and effect in such chronologies is flung into reverse. Fashions cause the weather to change to suit them. The popular style of writing at any time makes houses alter their shape. Victorian novels are so long because the rain made the ink runnier so everyone made bigger sentences. To a modern reader it’s somewhere between 1066 And All That and Italo Calvino.
There’s a serious point underlying all this malarkey. Actually, two; one social and one personal. The social point is that all orthodox histories of Eng Lit – and her dad’s Dictionary of National Biography – made out that writing was Man’s Work, except when it was frivolous faff such as Gothic Horror or love stories. Basically, when there was any kudos attached or money to be made, most women were shoved aside (hence Woolf’s famous line about ‘Anon’ being more than likely female) or made to seem like freakish exceptions. When writing was a sideline, then women were ‘permitted’ to become famous ‘authoresses’. This is as back-to-front as anything in Orlando. The personal point is that her, um, friend Vita Sackville-West (how far they took it is still being debated) didn’t inherit the Knowle estate. The house that Orlando builds is, at the end, described as having 365 rooms. As with Howard’s End the ownership of the house equates to the rights to history and culture.
We could go on for pages about what’s behind this book’s basic joke but the main thing to say is that the description of the journey from Sonnets to Modernism is entertainingly done and avoids any idea that it’s a series of improvements, that everything was leading up to what we had when the book came out. That annoying idea of literature as ‘progress’ from something fusty and irrelevant to something nearly perfect is one you get even now when anyone does documentaries on the subject, so this book’s still got a purpose beyond just amusing anyone who’s ever given up on a Dickens.
If you’ve ever been afraid of Virginia Woolf, start here and then see how much of the deadpan playfulness is in her more apparently solemn work. The ‘straight’ novel she wrote at roughly the same time, Mrs Dalloway, is also on our shelves. They’ve both been made into misguided films (Sally Potter’s Orlando was at least in the spirit of the original and fun on its own terms, but both the official Dalloway film and The Hours were accidentally hilarious). If you’re feeling braver, there’s The Years, outwardly more orthodox but a bit slipperier.
By Tat Wood