Book Review: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Book Review: Orlando by Virginia Woolf January 15, 2016

OrlandoOrlando by Virginia Woolf

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have never before had the pleasure of reading Virginia Woolf. This classic was recommended to me by a friend in my writing group because of the subject matter of my NaNoWriMo novel. I picked it up in December, put it down for several weeks to finish some other reading challenges, and picked it up again in the first days of 2016.

Orlando is a wonderfully realistic fantasy in which the fantastical aspects are simply presented as factual, without explanation. There are really only two; one is that Orlando somehow lives some 400 years, only entering middle age in the early 20th century, and other characters live unnaturally extended lifespans as well. The other is that about halfway through the book Orlando changes gender.

Modern reviewers are consistently expressing their admiration of Woolf’s controversial subject matter, since “even today” our standards of gender behaviour, and people who are transgender, challenge us and create a lot of social uproar. While certainly Woolf’s achievement here is noteworthy, it’s not the amazing flout of social mores that we think it is. The 1920s were, in many ways, far more permissive than our “modern” sexual mores; women were crossdressing (that’s when they started wearing pants regularly,) and gay and lesbian couples often lived openly together.

The beauty of this book is twofold. The first is in Woolf’s challenge to gender-based stereotypes, and in particular, sexism. Which was awesome, and is still awesome now. The second is Woolf’s amazing sarcastic wit, as she systematically criticizes society, writing, views of writing, gender, politics, dating customs, marriage, and more. If you’re not familiar with the early 2oth century, somewhat florid style of writing, you might miss her keen-edged intellect and savvy sense of humour, so I recommend giving it time to digest and not rushing through it.

It’s worth noting that the early 20th century terminology and racist attitudes can be a little jarring, even as Woolf brilliantly takes down centuries of sexism and repression of women. Also, it won’t appeal to the action-oriented, as much of the book’s central conflict is internal.

Two things: one is that I *hate* the covers of this book I have seen, because they imply a bad romance novel, and that is not in the least what the book is about. The covers, I am sure, are meant to depict the pivotal moment that Orlando changes gender, but it’s not communicated well before you read the book, and in the future I’d like to recommend that cover artists do something with the portraits included of “Orlando” in the text instead. The second thing: don’t watch the (highly acclaimed) movie starring Tilda Swinton (who does a great job in the role, don’t get me wrong) unless you’re trying to get a sense of period costuming and atmosphere; because first, they changed key details of the plot; second, the movie is somewhat dull and badly edited so that much of the plot is confusing unless you’ve read the book; and third, they made the only unforgivable sin in my opinion that you can do in a movie adaptation, and that is that they changed key points of Orlando’s character. For instance, they have a scene of a pregnant Orlando searching a war-torn American battlefield looking for her husband, which is something that proud, independent Orlando from the novel would never, ever do.

I see why this is considered a literary classic and has stood the test of time. Highly recommended.

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