Saturday 20 November 2021


FOR A LONG TIME I THOUGHT ORLANDO WAS JUST ANOTHER STUFFY ENGLISH CLASSIC. Then I found out this 1928 novel has proto-science fiction elements and a trans character. I was intrigued, so I read it - was read it, rather - and while the prose is undeniably beautiful, full of witty observations, including some self-deprecating humour against the artist-type (“When Orlando had done telling her that she was a fox, an olive tree, or a green hill-top, …”)   plot-wise, I found it to be a snobby tale  — a beautifully written snobby tale might I repeat — about the meanderings of a rich person.  

I may have been spoiled by Lucy Maud Montgomery's (fanciful but hearty) farmlife stories, but I found Orlando disappointing in that it only concerns itself  with rich people and the artists and intellectuals they keep around for entertainment. Let me tell you, this story is so only for, and about, rich eccentrics. Probably the most white feminist book ever? Woolf sounds like the unbearable type who travels 'abroad' and calls the locals 'peasants'.  

I know I am probably being selfish and ungrateful of the advancements Woolf brought for women writers and queer writers, but let's face it. The queer subtext of Orlando only caters to rich lesbians - a rich lesbian, Vita Sackeville-West - who could be comfortably batty in a time when homosexuality in men was a crime in Britain. 

“We find inspiration where we can and sometimes that's in the wardrobe of our much adored, but slightly bigoted, great Aunt.

I certainly do not think Orlando-the-character should be heralded as a trans icon, since he was never intended as one. Judging from Wikipedia, Orlando's gender swap seems to be a mere a metaphore to create a world in which Vita would have been able to inherit the family estate. While reading the novel, it seemed clear that this literary device spoke more to the dreams of a rich eccentric woman than to the trans experience. 

I have no doubt that Orlando has unwittingly been a beacon for trans-writers and readers in search of a story similar to theirs. We find inspiration where we can and sometimes that's in the wardrobe of our much adored, but slightly bigoted, great Aunt. I only wish that culturally, we would stop retroactively trying to make these books woker then they are and giving them all this attention with movie adaptations and whatnot. Instead, we should be saying, “yes, that is all very good, thank you very much, now let's hear what stories and progress they can inspire next.

Orlando should be read, but critically so, and appreciated for the things it truly accomplishes, like its lush descriptions of ice skating and portrayals of what it is like to be a (rich) woman in a man's world, and an artist, that is, to yearn for this world to have more magic, more colours, more beauty, more urgency. More. 

“Every single thing, once he tried to dislodge it from its place in his mind, he found thus cumbered with other matter like the lump of glass which, after a year at the bottom of the sea, is grown about with bones and dragon-flies, and coins and the tresses of drowned women.
… 'And what's the point of it?' he would ask  himself. 'Why not say simply in so many words--' and then he would try to think for half an hour,--or was it two years and a half?--how to say simply in so many words what love is. …Why not simply say what one means and leave it?' 
So then he tried saying the grass is green and the sky is blue and so to propitiate the austere spirit of poetry whom still, though at a great distance, he could not help reverencing. 'The sky is blue,' he said, 'the grass is green.' Looking up, he saw that, on the contrary, the sky is like the veils which a thousand Madonnas have let fall from their hair; and the grass fleets and darkens like a flight of girls fleeing the embraces of hairy satyrs from enchanted woods.”

Moreover, it's an astonishing piece of early speculative fiction that imagines the turn of the 20th century through the eyes of a living ancestor. 

“Then she got into the lift, for the good reason that the door stood open; and was shot smoothly upwards. The very fabric of life now, she thought as she rose, is magic. In the eighteenth century we knew how everything was done; but here I rise through the air; I listen to voices in America; I see men flying--but how it's done I can't even begin to wonder. So my belief in magic returns.”

That is all I have to say about Orlando, however. Next. 

Cover: Hendrick Avercamp. A Scene on the Ice. c.1625. National Gallery of Art, Washington.

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