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Orlando: Times may change, great legs are forever

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Virginia Woolf's love letter to her ex's beautiful legs and deplorable writing skills


Virginia Woolf
2024 First Vintage Classics
© 2024 Carmen Maria Machado
198 pages

Content warning: Racism

When I used to hear about Great Art, I assumed its creation mirrored its exalted treatment: with a sense of transcendence, in service of a sublime muse, an enlightened homage to the great beauty the writer saw in the world.

Then I learned that the Sistine Chapel was created as a "fuck off" to the Pope, Goya's royal portraits were snide satires, and Orlando was Woolf's way of taunting both her ex's artistic ambitions and her own father's intellect.

So, when creating Great Art, it turns out spite works too.

Comparing Orlando to Well of Loneliness (last week's review) is interesting. They're both 1928 releases. Both are written by rich, white Queer women. Both display casual racism and classism. Both are based on real people: Orlando on Woolf's lover Vita Sackville-West and Well of Loneliness on Radclyffe Hall's own life. One difference: Orlando was a popular success; Well of Loneliness was banned.

It's like comparing the proselytizing influence of Queer Eye vs Boys Don't Cry. Queer Eye, like Orlando, is campy and welcoming, its characters playing flattened façades hiding complicated selves. It draws viewers in with markers of other social value, such as wealth, status, and looks, without doing anything that would alienate the straight crowd, like two men kissing. Well of Loneliness, in comparison, is realistic and also, crucially, fucking sad.

In brief (something the book struggles with), Orlando is born a dude with legs hot enough that Elizabeth I summons him to court. He has various adventures and romances, finally going to Constantinople as a diplomat, where he takes a nap and wakes up a woman, still with hot legs that, the narrator complains, the public is now deprived of.

Orlando also happens to live for 300 years. During their extensive life, Orlando struggles with various forms of fulfillment and flits from one thing to the next, trying on for size types of love, art, marriage, and shopping. They have incredible adventures, such as trysts on pirate ships and daring escapes, which are noted but not described.

Instead, long, meandering pages describe Orlando's circuitous prose and winding thought patterns. The book paints human existence as a struggle with time, some moments taking years and some years taking moments, and in the same way, we're drawn into a spiraling thought or miserably long description, only to suddenly jump over a major life event, such as an engagement or the birth of a child, in a single sentence. What can I say? Woolf knows her way around a punch line.

Orlando is funny and a bit bitchy. It's very obviously written for a lover. It reads like the first conversation you have with a friend when they just met The Love of Their Life (for that week) and spend all dinner describing how they're a genius of prop comedy for brushing their teeth with a mascara wand.

That doesn't mean it's a kind description. Orlando is flighty and jumps from one interest to another, sexually adventurous but prone to hurting their lovers and themselves. They're interested in writing, but after spending 300 years penning a poem that is published to much acclaim, they are simply done with the whole thing. They're a gifted diplomat, but without any thought or effort. They fetishize the Romani and consider themselves one of them, while the Romani conspire to murder them for being too self-absorbed.

In short, it's a book written about someone Woolf deeply loves and is deeply annoyed by.

Woolf was hurt by Sackville-West's promiscuity (even though both were married to men during their entire affair). While they were both writers, Sackville-West was more popular and far faster than Woolf. In her youth, Sackville-West was driven by the art, but as she grew, she started writing mostly to finance her gardening career. Woolf was also frustrated when Sackville-West lost out on her inheritance, an estate that shows up in the novel, and Sackville-West accepted it rather than fighting.

Orlando is gifted, gorgeous, and accomplished yet unable to make anything meaningful out of it. Orlando ponders their sadness, seen here in the form of being haunted by a gray goose that they can never quite catch. Most critics interpret the goose as a stand-in for true creative genius and Woolf's way of spitefully whispering "you'll never be as gifted as me," like most artists who are critical darlings but struggle with popular success. But the goose could be any of the many things that Sackville-West simply could not dedicate herself to catching — including, perhaps, Woolf herself.