One of the most prolific and influential modernist writers, Virginia Woolf wrote Orlando as a radically different response to the literary genre of biography. Her father, Leslie Stephen, had begun editing the massive Dictionary of Literary Biography when Woolf was born; in her diaries, she wrote that his serious immersion in that work had the effect of making her more clever but less stable. In Orlando, her response to the traditionally serious business of writing biographies, Woolf consciously uses exaggeration and fictitious sources to create the half-serious biography of a nonexistent person.
The work is, however, based on the life of a real person. Vita Sackville-West, who came from an aristocratic family and was a writer and intellectual, was also Woolf’s friend and lover. Like Woolf, she and her husband, Harold Nicolson, belonged to the Bloomsbury Group, a loose association of English artists, writers, and intellectuals in the early twentieth century that included the economist John Maynard Keynes, the artists Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell (Woolf’s sister) and her husband Clive Bell, and another writer of a new kind of biography, Lytton Strachey, who wrote Eminent Victorians (1918). Strachey’s book departed from traditional biography by painting subjective and critical portraits of four representatives of the Victorian age: Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, and General Charles George Gordon. Strachey did not, however, cross the line into fiction, as Woolf does in Orlando. By doing so, Woolf tacitly acknowledges that any biography is necessarily subjective and biased and that it includes fictional elements although pretending to be factual. Woolf’s work, too, pretends to be factual while wildly violating facts of time and gender. By breaking with the traditions of biography, Woolf was also breaking with the tradition that was the basis of her father’s work.
Sackville-West had grown up in the ancient castle at Knole, which had belonged to her family for many centuries. Much of Woolf’s description of the young Orlando is based on what she knew of Sackville-West’s early...
(The entire section is 900 words.)