Too Earnest

The sometimes serious, but generally frivolous, musings of a city girl now living in the woods.

Book Review: Orlando, by Virginia Woolf


This month, the book club is reading Orlando, by Virginia Woolf.  Let me start by saying that Emily hates it.  She doesn’t usually hate books, especially when the author is a cheeky feminist with the renown of Ms. Woolf.  But this one?  She hates it.  She’s like, “Nothing is happening.  Except there is time travel, or something.”

I love these moments.  Emily is far and away the smartest girl I know.  She is clever, she can be biting, and she is thoughtful.  So when a book stumps her, it is worth thinking about why.

And the thing is, she is right.  Nothing happens.  And there is time travel, or something.  And even more galling, perhaps, the main character sits and thinks and writes a lot.  It’s boring.  The author, speaking as Orlando’s biographer, even suggests as much toward the end of the book when Orlando sits for one of her writing spells.  In discussing the biographer’s job, Woolf complains, “Orlando sat so still you could have heard a pin drop.  Would, indeed, that a pin had dropped!  That would have been life of a kind.  Or if a butterfly had fluttered through the window and settled on her chair, one could write about that (pp. 267).”  Emily is not wrong; it is not a quick, plot-driven read.  Committing to Orlando definitely means getting involved in a cerebral reading experience. However, despite these periods of inactivity, Orlando is one of the most modern novels I have read in a while.

But let me go back for a second and give a quick plot overview, which, given the time travel, or something, is a little difficult.  But, spoiler alert, Orlando is born in the Elizabethan era and lives on until the 1920s when Woolf wrote the novel.  Oh, and in between, she transformed from a man to a woman.  There are poets, and great wits, and a few great loves involved, but generally speaking, Orlando–and Virginia Woolf–simply muse their way to the modern era.

Woolf wrote this novel very carefully, and as each historical era passes in Orlando’s life, she manages to simultaneously write in the fashion of the era and critique the prevailing politics of the time.  This is especially interesting to me during the pre-Victorian era when Woolf manages to discuss the repression of women, the narrowing of women’s roles and the Industrial Revolution, all while writing like Austen and including lots of poetry.  She conveys the gloomy, extraordinarily busy life of the newly smoky city of London, while also discussing how suddenly imperative it felt to Orlando, now a woman, to get married.  Orlando also felt a sudden need to publish her writing and became a part of the nascent publishing industry.  In this one chapter, Woolf manages to be cheeky about these silly mores for women, while also showing the extraordinary changes happening in England.  It’s good fun, though perhaps a little more for someone with more than a passing understanding of English history.

Let me go back to what I said before about this being a modern novel.  Now, some of you scholars will note that Woolf was literally a Modern writer, as in that is the name given to writers of her era and style.  I know.  But that is not what I mean.  One of the ways I think Orlando is rather modern is in the way that Woolf’s voice is present.  It is almost as if she was writing a mockuography–a mock biography–in the vein of This is Spinal Tap.  Her voice and commentary are very present, from the very beginning, which is quite different from my impression of Elizabethan writing.  Of course my impression of Elizabethan writing comes almost entirely from my experiences reading and watching Shakespeare, so it is a rather limited sample.


At book club meetings, we often debate whether our book is, in fact, feminist.  We debate whether the characters have to be round and flawed in order to be real women and thus feminist, or whether a character’s heroism is aspirational, and thus feminist.  We have debated whether or not a book that is relatively free of women characters, but well-written and sympathetic to the cause can be feminist.  We have also employed the Bechdel Test to see whether a book is feminist.  The Bechdel Test has three criteria:  1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it;  2. Who talk to each other;  3. About something besides a man.  Many of our books, sadly, do not meet this criteria.

But surely a book by a revered feminist, a wicked satirist, at that, would meet the criteria, right?  We picked this book, in part, because we had a few heated discussions about books that seemed to have female characters largely to have a female character and we wanted to read one that was full of unequivocally strong women characters and insightful commentary on the state of women.  And it does.  But it doesn’t really pass the test.  Orlando, as a woman, only talks to a few other women, mostly her servants.  And while they don’t talk about men, I guess, it seems that the power dynamic makes them not really dialogues, so I don’t think these count as conversations.  The other women she talks to are prostitutes she meets while dressed as a man; once she reveals her true sex, the tone of their conversation changes, sure, but it is largely about men.

Just goes to show you.


One comment on “Book Review: Orlando, by Virginia Woolf

  1. LM Myers
    January 2, 2013

    I’m about to read Woolf’s The Waves, which as I understand it makes Orlando look like an Ian Fleming novel. Alas, there are also frocks and petticoats. So be it–Woolf wrote the world she knew. On the upside, I suspect The Waves will pass the Bechdel test with flying colors–and on a few levels.

    Ps I still love Sally Potter’s movie version of Orlando. Tilda, be still my heart!

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