In the late 1500’s, Orlando, a young nobleman from an ancient British family, dedicates himself to literature. He encounters William Shakespeare and is appointed by Queen Elizabeth to be her companion. In London, he falls in love with a mysterious Russian beauty who soon abandons him. Devastated, he turns to poetry, but when one of his tragedies is ridiculed publicly by a London poet, Orlando retreats to his family’s magnificent estate and burns all of his poems except one, titled “The Oak Tree.”
When a strange guest arrives, introducing herself as the Archduchess Harriet Griselda of Roumania, Orlando becomes increasingly uncomfortable and decides to leave England. At his request, he is appointed as ambassador extraordinary to Constantinople and is next seen performing his official duties in that post. Life is generally tedious until he suddenly falls into a coma. After several days of suspended animation, Orlando awakes, having somehow been transformed into a woman.
Orlando joins a band of Thessalian gypsies, with whom she lives contentedly for some time. Finally, however, she is inspired by a vision of her ancestral home to return to England, where she finds herself in the eighteenth century and soon befriends such famous writers as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. Much of Orlando’s time is engaged in meditation about fame, time, and the nature of literature. Soon, with the remarkably elusive lapsing of time that characterizes this novel, the nineteenth century arrives, and Orlando finds herself unable to write meaningful poetry. Out one day for a long walk in the country, she experiences a sudden overwhelming vision of her innate kinship with nature, and, as she lies on the ground afterward, she is discovered by Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, with whom she immediately forms a passionate intimacy.
Shortly after their meeting, Orlando and Shelmerdine marry, and Orlando finds that she is able to write again. She completes her poem “The Oak Tree,” on which she has been working for some three hundred years, and takes it to London, where an old friend promises to see that it is published. She makes an effort to acquaint herself with Victorian literature, to which she generally objects, and, without warning to the reader, gives birth to a son.
At the end of the novel, Orlando finds herself in the year 1928, driving an automobile and trying to cope with shopping. Her poem has been a success, and she returns to her estate and visits the great oak that has been her refuge and inspiration over the centuries. At the oak, at exactly midnight, Orlando’s husband arrives in an airplane.
Form and Content
The genesis for Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography came about in an hour. The author recalls wanting to create a historical work outlining all of her friends in a single work. The idea of writing a biography appealed to her. It follows the title character over four centuries, touching on the social, political, and literary tastes of each. Woolf is able to poke fun at the foibles of passing generations, reflect on time, and comment on the schism between men and women.
Orlando is introduced as a sixteen-year-old English lad during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, around 1586. He is a handsome youth, given to literary ambitions as a poet and dramatist, a love of nature, and a deep respect for queen and country. In short, he is a true English gentleman. Elizabeth notices his noble qualities, his youthful enthusiasm, and his gorgeous legs, thinking him the proper English courtier. He becomes her surrogate son, lover, and appointed treasurer and steward of Elizabeth’s court.
Orlando’s life takes a turn during the reign of the succeeding monarch, King James I. Although engaged, Orlando falls in love with Russian Princess Sasha. She breaks his heart, leaving him while he waits in vain to elope with her. (Orlando would never trust women again, though he always remembered Sasha over the centuries.) Disgraced at court, he returns to his ancestral...
(The entire section is 4,360 words.)