Orlando by Virginia Woolf isn't a book I expected to write about on this blog. I have a rocky relationship with it and figured I would never attempt a second read. But the things we do for family!
Orlando is the tale of a privileged individual from the Elizabethan finding immortality and a change of gender and eventually love. The novel is written as one of those interminable Victorian biographies — such as the Amelia Peabody mysteries by Elizabeth Peters. It's not a trope I'm particularly fond of and the fact that Virginia Woolf sticks with that approach until practically the last chapter makes sitting through this book a chore.
The other thing that annoys me about how this book is written is the way each chapter emulates the writing style of the era in which it is set. It makes for an inconsistent tone, with the fictional biographer's interludes being an attempt to sew together all these tones.
My first attempt at reading this book was doomed from the get-go. It was one of a large pile of literature to read for a science fiction print to silver screen upper division course I was taking. While I am normally a very organized student, I somehow blanked on the Orlando reading assignment until the night before it was due. Suffice it to say, I didn't do well on that assignment as the novel isn't easy to skim.
Nearly thirty years later my oldest is in college and was assigned Orlando. She and novel clicked. As she is transgender, Orlando's overnight gender change was a huge deal to her. On her enthusiastic instance, I decided to re-read the book. I also opted to read the book in the way that she had, namely, as an audiobook.
For a week, the life and times or Orlando was my background. I listened while painting, while doing chores, while working on puzzles before bed. Most of that week was spent slogging through the early eras of Orlando's life — the time as a boy and as a young man of means.
Things turned around for me in the chapter where Orlando is transformed from man to woman during a lengthy coma. While this transformation scene is the first overtly magical one in the novel, there's already a hint that things aren't right. Orlando's early adulthood — late twenties, and early thirties — take way more years than what he ages.
Orlando's new gender, though, gives the narrator and author the permission to admit that other funky stuff has been going on. The immortality is but one example of Orlando's strange relationship with time.
Orlando's experience of time is what puts this novel on the Road Narrative Spectrum. It's a rare British example — an outlier. Despite Orlando's magical transition from male to female, she remains from start to finish, a privileged traveler (00); Orlando has real estate, a title, and money. Orlando's destination is uhoria (CC) as represented by immortality and by glimpses of places out of time as portals sometimes open up during moments of emotional despair. The route is the labyrinth in that Orlando is transformed (literally and figuratively) through the experiences of a long life.