Orlando is the book that I’ve been most ashamed of never having read. It’s a queer classic! So when I was picking out which book should be my first read of 2016, it seemed the obvious choice. The funny thing about reading the classics is that I always go in thinking that I have a general idea what this book is about and what’s going to happen, and they always surprise me. The societal interpretation of the classics is never the same as the actual text. Which is all to say that I was pretty surprised when the book started with Orlando as a kid batting at a shriveled head strung up from his ceiling. Apparently, his ancestors had a habit of decapitating “savages” and keeping the heads as trophies. That’s the sort of bizarre and racist content that people usually don’t mention when discussing it.
This was my first Virginia Woolf book, and I spent most of the novel not sure whether I liked her writing style or not. It can be ornate, even long-winded or overwrought, but it’s also so clever and sometimes hilarious. The whole book is also framed as a biography, and the biographer narrating often interjects to talk about the difficulties of writing biographies, including one section where they explain that Orlando is not doing anything interesting right now, so they narrate what’s happening outside the window with the birds, instead. It’s her writing that takes central stage in the reading experience.
Orlando has some magical realism elements, including the sex/gender (conflated) change in the middle of the book, but also that Orlando lives for several centuries. This huge time range is accompanied with some odd pacing: often a moment will be described for several pages, even just to detail how little is happening, while decades pass within a paragraph. Enough happens in the first 50 pages that it could easily have been an entire novel to itself, but other points the action slows to a crawl. The machinations of the plot are fairly irrelevant, though: the focus is much more on Orlando’s internal life.
The unexpected highlight of reading this classic was the humor. I love Virginia Woolf’s winks throughout the novel, often feminist ones. One of my favourite things is when she pokes fun at her own writing, like writing–in the middle of a sentence that runs almost an entire page- “… nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldly length of this sentence”. She also has an expert way of describing the ridiculous ways people behave, like Orlando’s housekeeper, after Orlando comes home a woman overnight, conspiratorially telling the other servants over tea that she always had her suspicions. But the character I had the most fun reading about was Orlando themselves, especially as a young person, because he is incredibly melodramatic. At some point he just lays facedown on the ice, contemplating death. Later, he gets a bad review of his poetry, and after burning all of his work, he bids his servants to go get two more dogs (with haste!) that he can sulk with in his study because he is “done with men”.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that Orlando is worth the read as a classic novel and as a feminist one–but is it queer? I’ll wave away the magical sex/gender change, because the conflation of the two doesn’t seem to anything for trans representation, but is there queer content? Orlando is famously a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, but that aside, there are still some nods to Orlando as a queer character. She does get romantically involved with men as a woman, but there are two instances that suggest that she is still attracted to women:
And as all Orlando’s loves had been women, now, through the culpable laggardry of the human frame to adapt itself to convention, though she was herself a woman, it was still a woman she loved; and if the consciousness of being of the same sex had any effect at all, it was to quicken and deepen those feelings which she had had as a man.
Later, when Orlando mentions girls in her poetry, a “power” stops her, saying that the poetry about flowers is all well and good, “but–girls? Are girls necessary? You have a husband at the Cape, you say? Ah, well, that’ll do. / And so the spirit passed on.” but Orlando is extremely doubtful whether “if the spirit had examined the contents of her mind carefully, it would not have found something highly contraband”. Orlando feels that by marrying a man, she has escaped from being judged too harshly for her unorthodox inner life. The only disappointment I had with the book was the ending, which focuses on her husband in a way that doesn’t seem to reflect the rest of the novel. The romance and marriage between them didn’t really interest me, though it didn’t seem out of character, and having the story end with the spotlight on him seemed insincere.
I’m glad that I finally picked this one up, and I look forward to reading more Virginia Woolf (especially her diaries and letters). I wish this was one I had studied in school, because I’m sure I would get more out of it by digging a little deeper. I may have to have my own little study session around it! If you, too, have been putting off reading Orlando, consider this your signal to give it a try!
Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth. Roll up that tender air and the plant dies, the color fades. The earth we walk on is a parched cinder. It is marl we tread and fiery cobbles scorch our feet. By the truth we are undone. Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life–(and so on for six pages if you will, but the style is tedious and may well be dropped.)
Much as I despise cold weather, there’s something really wonderful about the rituals of early autumn. You pack up your shorts and sundresses. You begin wearing scarves and boots. You convince yourself that flannel is fashionable outside the lesbian bar. You slurp Oktoberfest ales every evening, and pumpkin spiced lattes every morning. You reach for increasingly heavier blankets at night. You stack books high beside your bed, snuggle in, and read, and read, and read. This fall, make sure All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen ends up in your stack.
All We Know is a triple biography exploring ideas of ephemerality and what it meant to be a woman in the anxious modernist moment of the 1920s and ‘30s. It tells the stories of three lesbians:
- Ester Murphy – A verbose intellectual who played an integral part in the literary scene of New York.
- Mercedes de Acosta – A muse, collector, seductress, and devoted fan who connected with some of the most celebrated actress and dancers of the twentieth century.
- Madge Garland – A powerful woman who was a key figure in building the fashion world in London and Paris as we know it today.
Despite their impressive influence and notoriety at the time, Murphy, de Acosta, and Garland are now largely forgotten. A brilliant biographer, Cohen deftly captures them in all their complexity, and writes a compelling analysis of how the era these women came of age in impacted the course of their lives.
Writes Cohen, “It was at this fraught moment that an American woman could first be said to have failed at something other than femininity and motherhood.” An important time for all women, this era holds special significance for lesbians and bisexuals. Particularly with the publishing of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (discussed on the Lesbrary here, here, and here), lesbians were a newly visible group in society. Murphy, de Acosta, and Garland all struggled with questions of exposure and discretion at various points in their lives — and this on top of being part of the first generation of independent women who had left home without marrying, setting out in a still largely misogynistic world to pursue other interests. Simply living through these times was an accomplishment, never mind all the actual successes they had.
So why have these women been forgotten, and why did the author choose to bring them to light now? In part, the answer lies in how society views the fields that these women excelled in. Over and over, Cohen questions the boundary between the inconsequential and the important. Why are fashion and interior decoration characterized as trivial, while painting is elevated as fine art? Why is talking seen as commensurate with failure, while writing and publication is seen as a mark of success? Why, when fans and stars both need and desire each other, is one dismissed while the other is lauded with accolades? From a certain perspective, the accomplishments of Murphy, de Acosta, and Garland can be seen as case studies in “beautiful uselessness.” Lisa Cohen asks readers to consider: why?
Early in the book, Cohen describes Murphy’s belief that history links the elusive past to the equally elusive present, and that some biographies can be written and read only at certain times, “not because of censorship or some progress toward openness, but because of what is was possible to understand when.” This fall — against the gorgeous backdrop of the changing leaves and continued (completely awful and depressing) political debate over women’s bodies and behavior — is the perfect setting to take in the lives of these women, and to try and understand.