“Orlando: A Biography” is a novel written by Virginia Woolf and published in 1928. The book is a work of satire and was inspired by Woolf’s partner Vita Sackville-West’s riotous family. The novel has received many accolades since being published and is considered a classic works of feminist literature today.
The story in the book spans a period of time over 300 years from 1588 to 1928 and follows the immortal life of the titular character Orlando, a young nobleman who starts out the novel by becoming the steward, treasurer and eventual lover of Queen Elizabeth I. At one point he falls in love with a Russian princess named Sasha only to be spurned by her. Heartbroken, Orlando locks himself inside his large mansion house and decides to do nothing but write.
A short while later he is sent to Constantinople by King Charles II and is made a duke. However, while there he is seen helping a woman into his room via his balcony and his men later find him in a trance. Orlando stays in the trance for one week, unable to be awoken. After he finally wakes he realizes quickly that he has somehow undergone a sex change and is now biologically a woman. Soon Orlando begins to develop romantic feelings for the men around her and feels that she must make decisions about her sexuality and gender. During this time she begins to notice that apart from changing sexes she now also appears to not be noticeably aging.
The plot of the novel consists of Orlando coming to terms with her new sex and her new found immortality.
The novel opens in England, where a sixteen year-old boy named Orlando is lamenting his bad luck at being too young to participate in the currently ongoing wars in France and Africa. He wishes to fight although he considers himself a poet and a lover of nature. Orlando, we’re told, comes from a rich family whose noble bloodlines go back thousands of years. Orlando himself is quite a good looking boy and knows he’s destined for great things. The boy hears the sound of a nearby trumpet and knows that it marks a visit from the queen of England, Queen Elizabeth I. Orlando runs home and when he meets the queen, we’re told that she takes an immediate liking to him. Her majesty honors his father with the gift of a large house.
The novel then skips forward two years. The queen remembers Orlando and calls him to her court naming him steward and treasurer as she thinks him the perfect example of a nobleman. Soon, Orlando becomes the queen’s favorite and even lover but one winter she catches sight of him kissing another woman. Outraged, the queen sends Orlando away. After this, Orlando finds that he enjoys seeking out “low company” and begins to dress down in peasant-like clothes and patronize local London pubs and inns. He enjoys this for a time before ultimately returning to court after he hears of the death of the queen and the coronation of a new king, James I. Orlando considers a few different court ladies to choose for marriage but finds himself dissatisfied with his choices.
Around this time there is a great frost in Britain that covers much of the country with ice and kills many people. The king, perhaps obliviously, decides to turn the unfortunate weather into something more positive and creates a winter carnival at court with a ice skating rink. While attending the carnival, Orlando sees a figure that he instantly falls in love with. He is not sure whether the person is male or female but considers that unimportant.
As she approaches him he discovers that she is a Russian princess named Sasha. The two quickly become friends, conversing through a shared understanding of French and soon fall in love.
But just as quickly as it came their passion for each other quickly fades and Orlando eventually finds Sasha embracing a Russian sailor. Sasha insists that there was nothing untoward about the embrace and Orlando pretends to believe her but inwardly suffers doubt. The two plan to run away together but when Orlando arrives at their meeting place at the appointed time he finds that Sasha has stood him up. He begins to ride his horse away and sees that the river has now unfrozen and the Russian ship that Sasha arrived on is now sailing away. Furious, Orlando hurls insults at the ship as it departs.
The next summer Orlando is exiled from court and leaves in disgrace. He chooses to lock himself in his huge mansion and live in solitude, only taking time to write and read. By this point, we’re told that Orlando is 25 and has himself authored over forty-seven books, poems and plays. But he finds himself having difficulties starting another and decides to halt his solitary life at least long enough to seek the help of a friend who puts him in contact with a famous writer named Nick Greene. Orlando is delighted to have Greene over at his mansion but soon finds that he doesn’t share much in common with the man and finds him boring. For his own part, Greene announces the he cannot write while in Orlando’s house and must leave immediately. Once he returns to his own house he soon pens a satire all about a bored, lonely nobleman like Orlando. Orlando is embarrassed and humiliated by this and burns all of his own books while vowing never to befriend anyone again, choosing to keep only dogs for company.
Many years are passed with him living this way until he is 30 and decides to begin writing again. After he writes about his ancestors and his estate, he decides to refurbish all 365 of the rooms in his mansion and invites his neighbors over to see his work, earning their approval. Orlando begins to add to a poem he has been working on called, “The Oak Tree” and finds his writing much improved.
One day, while writing, Orlando spys a woman riding by his window. Upon introducing himself she says that she is a cousin of the queen, a Romanian archduchess called Harriet. Orlando feels himself overcome with lust for her but shuns this feeling and confusedly asks the king to send him as an ambassador to Constantinople in an effort to escape. Orlando is so charming and does such a good job as ambassador that the king soon raises his status to Duke. In celebration of his new title, Orlando throws a raucous party. Thousands of people attend including many women who are in love with him. That night, after the party ends, Orlando is seen lowering a rope down from the balcony off his room to help a woman climb up. He is then seen kissing her passionately. The next morning, his servants find him asleep in his room, alone with a mess of papers and clothes surrounding him. After unsuccessfully attempting to wake him, the servants look through the papers and find a marriage license between him and Rosina Pepita, a young dancer.
On the seventh day of Orlando’s stupor an uprising happens. The Turks ascend against the sultan and loot the town. They attempt to detain or murder every one of the outsiders, however discovering Orlando lying still in a stupor, they think him dead and take his robes. As Orlando lies in the daze, three ethereal, feminine figures enter: Lady of Purity, Lady of Chastity, and the Lady of Modesty. They move around Orlando’s body and attempt to claim him, yet trumpets sound. The figures are daunted that nobody needs them any more. They suddenly decide that this is a spot for Truth and not for them, so they depart. The trumpeters blow one note at Orlando, “the Truth” and he finally awakes. He stands upright, exposed, and discovers that he has somehow transformed into a woman.
Orlando finds that he is not upset by the drastic change, and considers himself a beautiful woman. He thinks that, aside from biology, he is still “precisely what he had been”. He – now she, is undaunted and leaves Constantinople on a donkey accompanied by a gypsy that she had been in contact with before the uprising. Riding into the mountains, Orlando falls in with the gypsy’s tribe. Soon, however, she finds that she and the gypsies have different values. They have a more practical view on life while she has a love of nature and poetry.
She returns to England after a short while and the narrator tells us that it is good that she did for some of the young men of the tribe were planning to kill her. As Orlando sails back to England, she thinks about the differences between being a man and being a woman. She wonders whether it is better to be the man or the woman, the pursuer or the one who is pursued. She is saddened by the amount of time it takes her to get dressed and make herself presentable each day.
She meets the Captain of the ship, a man called Nicholas Benedict Bartolus and feels an attraction to him. As someone who has been both genders, she finishes up by rebuffing both genders similarly; ladies for their restricted part and power in the public eye, men for the way they skip about like masters but get struck stupid the second they see a woman.
The boat stays off the bank of Italy and Orlando consents to go with the Captain inland. When she gives back the following morning, she talks more like a lady than a man, and it is clear that her sentimental recess with the Captain has made her more ladylike. She cheers in being a lady, upbeat to tackle the scourges of destitution and obliviousness with a specific end goal to be free of the masculine quest for force, glad that she might invest her energy in examination and adoration. She finds that despite the fact that she is presently a lady, she is still attracted to other ladies, and that she can understand Sasha’s motivations more now. But Orlando is still hesitant, she doesn’t want her new gender to make her powerless or chain her to any man.
As the ship anchors in the London, Orlando marvels at the changes the city has undergone. When she returns home she finds her servants confused but content with her sudden change of gender and that many lawsuits have been brought against her. The charges are that now at several hundred years old, she is dead and therefore cannot own property, she is a woman which also makes her unfit to own property and that Rosina Pepita is claiming that her three sons own Orlando’s estate instead. Orlando puts off dealing with the charges and instead devotes her time to writing instead.
One day, Harriet returns. After Orlando invites her in, Harriet reveals that in fact, she is man and was one all along. The “Archduke Harry” begs Orlando’s forgiveness for the deceit and tells Orlando that he only did it because he was in love with her when she was a man. Harry asks Orlando to marry him and run away to his castle estate in Romania. Orlando isn’t sure what to say and Harry decides to give her time to think, while returning everyday to see if she has arrived at an answer. Soon the two find that they have little in common and nothing to talk about. Finally they end up playing silly games until eventually Orlando cheats, hoping that Harry will notice. He does and is angered. Orlando then drops a small frog down Harry’s shirt which angers him further. Harry leaves in a huff and Orlando thinks about how glad she is not to have to marry him.
Orlando begins receiving invitations to balls from the prominent ladies of London and is soon whisked into high society once again but finds herself still disinterested with speaking to the writers of the day, even though it is a different day now. She begins wearing her old, men’s clothes occasionally and switching back and forth between clothing for men and for women when she feels like it. She discovers that living as both genders is interesting and uses both to their advantage, using her male person to easily eavesdrop on conversations.
At the very end of the chapter, Orlando observes an enormous cloud moving in over London from her perch atop a hill and thinks about how the Eighteenth Century was over and now the Nineteenth had begun. The nineteenth century starts with that cloud hanging over London. The narrator tells us that none of the world’s colors are as bright and sogginess saturates each home. The soddenness strikes inside, as men feel a chill in their souls, and adoration and warmth are “swaddled in fine phrases”.
The genders become more separated. Ivy and greenhouses are getting to be congested; the narrator portrays the suffocation of overabundant development. Queen Victoria is now ruler of England and Orlando’s housekeeper notes that her majesty has been seen wearing a crinoline, a fluffy underskirt that was useful in hiding pregnancies. The narrator tells us that in that day, women had to hide their pregnancies out of modesty as long as possible. This revelation causes Orlando to speculate about whether she will bear children.
She begins work again on her poem “The Oak Tree” which she has been writing now for 300 years, since 1586 and thinks about how, though the poem has changed many times with her maturation, she – and it are still the same deep down. Orlando feels that she is not right in this century and that it is contrary to her nature. But concedes that she must find a husband in accordance with the times.
Distraught, Orlando takes a walk into the woods and soon wonders across a man on a horse. She tells him of her situation and soon the man, Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, agrees to marry her. The two begin to get acquainted and Shelmerdine informs her that he is a seaman and adventurer. Soon Orlando tells Shel that she loves him and they have an odd moment. Shel acknowledges Orlando is a man, and Orlando acknowledges Shel is a lady at the same time. Orlando thanks Shel and says that she has still never felt more like a real female.
Following a couple of days of Shel and Orlando being a couple a message comes. It is from the Queen. The letter says that the majority of Orlando’s claims have been settled: the Turkish marriage is invalidated, Rosina’s children affirmed illegitimate, and Orlando’s sex is announced to be female without question. She is presently in full possession of every all of her titles and property, however the claims were expensive to the point that Orlando is now very poor. The town celebrates when they hear the news that Orlando’s suits are settled, and she at the end of the day gets numerous welcomes from imperative English rulers and women. Rather than attending, Orlando chooses to invest her energy alone with Shel. The two quickly marry and Shel leaves soon after on his ship. Left alone in her house, Orlando begins work on “The Oak Tree” again and finishes it promptly getting it published soon after.
Orlando discovers that she is pregnant and gives birth to a son around the turn of the 20th century. Finding herself unhappy with life, Orlando decides to bury her book (which is now in it’s seventh edition) in the garden under a huge oak tree. But once she gets to is she decides not to and thinks the errand very silly. Looking out over her land she thinks that her husband will soon come home to her. It is night, and the primary stroke of midnight sounds. She hears a plane above, and she exposes her bosoms to the moon, waiting impatiently for Shelmerdine. Shelmerdine, now a sea captain jumps to the ground. As he does this, a wild flying creature springs up and Orlando shouts, “It is the goose… the wild goose!” The twelfth stroke of midnight sounds on Thursday, October 11, 1928 and the novel ends.
Orlando – the entire story of the novel revolves around Orlando and follows him/her through his/her 300 year life. It is never explained why Orlando (or indeed a few other characters in the book) possess the gift of immortal life, nor does she/he ever seem particularly surprised by her longevity.
Nor is she/he bothered by her sex change into a woman. Orlando as character, has a tendency to be agreeable, accepting whatever happens as a matter of course and going along with it.
Based upon Woolf’s real-life partner, Vita Sackville-West, Orlando shares a considerable amount of West’s qualities: most fundamentally, a profound respect for history and family convention. Orlando’s sex change in the novel has vital influence in his character advancement. While she/he begins as a youthful, affluent aristocrat who enjoys tarrying about the illustrious court, Orlando closes the novel a profound, intelligent, self-reflective woman.
This change is then reflected into her writing of “The Oak Tree” poem which transforms from a silly, overly-involved dramatic piece becomes a mature epic poem.
As Orlando ages she begins to understand that she is made out of many selves and parts. These parts join to frame the individual she is at the present minute. She is also piece of nature, and therefore not completely immortal. At long last, by developing and by achieving middle-age, Orlando finds that she has finally reached what she was searching for, someone who loves and accepts her.
Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine – Marmaduke or “Shel” as he is referred to in the novel, represents something for Orlando that she finds important as she grows and matures. Their courtship is comically abrupt and, as in the classic romantic novels of the day, Shel sweeps Orlando off her feet and marries her instantly, changing her life forever. Orlando chooses to find a husband primarily to comply with the “spirit of the age”.
But in Shel she finds more than just a husband, but someone who truly understands her. Another individual who doesn’t consider himself defined by his gender. In this way, Shel’s character is mostly likely meant to represent Vita Sackville-West’s real life husband, Harold Nicholson who was openly bisexual. Because Shel does not see himself as falling into any sexuality or gender category, Orlando finds him to be an acceptable husband and, best of all, equal to her.
Princess Sasha – Sasha’s character is the first to evoke a few different things in Orlando at the start of the novel that quickly begin to become themes in his life. First, a deep sexual desire that precludes any reference to gender. When Orlando first meets Sasha, she is wearing heavy clothes and moving quickly. He cannot tell if she is a man or a woman but feels that he is attracted to her regardless. This effect is carried out through the rest of the novel as Orlando comes to terms with his gender and sexuality and whom he finds attractive.
Second, a sense of despair upon her leaving. Before Sasha spurns him, Orlando wants for nothing in his life. He is a rich, young, attractive nobleman who is a favorite of the queen and has never experienced any misfortune. After Sasha stands him up during their plan to run away together, Orlando experiences real loss and pain for the first time.
Perhaps as a result of this, Orlando remembers Sasha many times through the rest of the novel, often hallucinating visions of her later on. Orlando realizes toward the end of the novel that now that he/she is a woman, she understands Sasha’s motivations more and forgives her. Sasha’s character is most likely based on Vita Sackville-West ex-lover, Violet Trefusis.
Archduchess Henrietta/Archduke Harry – despite the fact that Harry seems, by all accounts, to be an impeccable match for Orlando (he is likewise a rich aristocrat who dresses in garments of an alternate sex), their personalities don’t match by any means. Harry is a comedic character and functions as comic relief in the novel. Harry’s persona of Archduchess Harriet is created specifically in order to trick Orlando into falling in love with him whereas Orlando’s change of sex is genuine and permanent.
Initially falling in love with Harry when he is Harriet, Orlando later realizes that she does not particularly like Harry and was only dazzled by his good looks. Harry, however, still finds himself infatuated with Orlando and tries with no success to get her to agree to marry him. Woolf utilizes the character of Archduke Harry to spoof the great fictional romantic heros of eighteenth century romance books, who often did absurd things to demonstrate their affection. Is it thought that his character is based on the real life Henry, Lord Lascelles, another of Vita Sackville-West’s suitors.