Orlando (1928) is a short work of fiction, highly acclaimed and thought to be the most accessible of Virginia Woolf’s works. Frankly, I found it tedious and long in the tooth. It took me forever to read, getting lost in long passages of description. I had to look hard for the insights and gems.
Look, I get it. The longest love letter in the world, the history of literature written chiefly by men, the male and female characteristics vascilate in each of us, lesbian sexuality is normal – at a time when women had only just been given the right to vote and were still, largely, at the mercy of their men. It all fits in well with Woolf’s themes and remains relevant today.
Orlando starts as a boy in a wealthy aristocratic family and wakes up a woman one day some centuries later. Becoming a woman gives Orlando insights that the male expectations of women as ‘obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely appparelled’ sets up an unfair, cultural expectation. As a woman Orlando realises that women ‘can only attain these graces … by the most tedious discipline.’ She counts the hours required for hairdressing, looking in the mirror, lacing, washing, powdering and changing. Woolf ponders on the ‘odd pass we have come to’ when the need for female modesty is a consequence of the inability of males to control themselves: Orlando shows inch or two of calf and causes a sailor on the mast to dangerously miss his footing.
Sadly, this odd pass remains a fact of life 75 years later. I look around me here in Copenhagen and see beautiful women covered up to save her beauty for her family. I continue to hear the argument that women who dress in certain ways ask to be raped. And I see corporate interests encourage ‘the most tedious of discipline’ to change women – and young girls – from what they are to something they are not, but expected to be in accordance with standards created by our culture.
Cultural expectations cause the Captain to pay special attention to Orlando on account of her flowing skirt and she concludes that ‘it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.’ Frightening thought but no doubt there is some truth in ‘you are how you dress’. The cultural expectations help determine exactly who you are from how you dress.
Woolf challenges this with her works. According to Woolf it is the ‘spirit of the age’ that determines what an author can write:
‘The transaction between the writer and the spirit of the age is one of infinite delicacy, and upon a nice arrangement between the two the whole fortune of his works depends. Orlando had so ordered it that she was in an extremely happy position; she need neither fight her age, nor submit to it; she was of it, yet remained herself.’
This is a happy place to be, though I wonder if there is a hidden deference – is the role of writers and artists not to push the boundaries of the spirit of the age? The spirit of the age may determine the platform from which an author can push away. I think perhaps Woolf overstates the confluence between her aspirations as a writer and the spirit of the age in England in the 1920s. This dissonance comes out clearly in her clever essay A Room of One’s Own – and is perhaps reflected in her struggle with mental illness and the sad end to her life. That said, in 2015 women can be pleased that women like Woolf wrote what she wrote and pushed the boundaries she pushed.
I went to the first lecture of a series by the Royal Danish Library, named after Woolf’s essay. This lecture by Louise Zeuthen, author of Krukken (2014), a biography of Danish author Suzanne Brøgger. Known since her debut, Fri os fra kærligheden (Deliver us from love – 1974) as a feminist writer, Zeuten emphasised how Brøgger found the room to write by creating a myth about herself and through it her own emancipation from her mother and her much older, French lover. The corrollory with Woolf is the insight that one’s self-identity is a contract negotiated through the expectation of others and the culture. Significantly, as female writers and users of language, each of us must find our own voice that sets us free – yet as Zeuthen concludes we cannot cast away 1000s of years of cultural meaning embedded in our language. Perhaps being of ‘the spirit of the age’ means to use the language to extend and change, ever so gently, this embedded cultural meaning?
What do you think? If you read Orlando, did you like it? Is it gripping and beautiful – or did you too find it tedious? What does it mean to be of the spirit of the age?