One morning, Virginia Woolf sat down to work on a critical piece of fiction and, having first dropped her head in her hands in despair: “dipped my pen in the ink, and wrote these words as if automatically, on a clean sheet: Orlando: a Biography. “No sooner had I done this than my body was flooded with rapture and my brain with ideas. I wrote rapidly till 12.”
A year and two days later, she laid down her pen, having written the date – 11 October 1928 – as the book’s final words.
Virginia Woolf was the loyal daughter, not only of an erudite and distinguished biographer, but also of his library, her early dependence on which formed the foundation of her entire intellectual life. Her later biography of Roger Fry must have satisfied this debt in a quite particular way. But at this point she wanted to write freely – “wildly” – as an imaginative novelist, and Orlando gave her the chance to split the atom: a fantastical biography – inspired by a very real human being – but essentially a whim of imagination, a wild-goose chase. She called it her “writer’s holiday”.
Vita Sackville-West was the intended recipient of “the longest love letter in the world”, as Sackville-West’s own son Nigel Nicholson described it. She was certainly its primary inspiration. Writing to her on the day of Orlando’s inception, Woolf asks: “Suppose Orlando turns out to be Vita… there’s a kind of shimmer of reality which sometimes attaches itself to my people, as the lustre on an oyster shell… shall you mind? Say yes or no.
Your excellence as a subject arises largely from your noble birth (but what’s 400 years of nobility, all the same?) and the opportunity this gives for florid descriptive passages in great abundance. Also, I admit I should like to untwine and twist again some very odd, incongruous strands in you… and also it sprung upon me how I could revolutionise biography in a night: and so if agreeable to you I would like to toss this up into the air and see what happens.”
Sackville-West was an object of true fascination for Woolf. She offered, beyond the specifics of a sincerely personal and sympathetic relationship, a kind of experiential harmony of so much that was dear to Woolf at second hand: the maternal abundance of her own – beloved and sorely missed – mother; the liberated sensual life Woolf looked for in herself and found inhibited; the kind of uncomplicated noble confidence she craved. “I want coronets; but they must be old coronets; coronets that carry land with them and country houses; coronets that breed simplicity, eccentricity, ease,” she wrote in 1936.
Twisting copious incongruous strands, then, this elegant fictional portrait gives us the Lord Orlando: proto Emopoet prince; the beautiful, sensitive, brave, lonely, saucy, questing, spaniel-loving toff, with a house the size of a town and a family with exotic as well as indigenous branches to its tree; the romantic who carries in his/her breast through four centuries the life-stained manuscript of his/her one great poem, “The Oak Tree”.
Sackville-West had famously won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize for her long poem “The Land” the year Orlando was begun. During the suffocating Victorian period, feeling herself under pressure to find a mate, Orlando flings herself down in the wild moor’s heather, declaring herself – definitively – nature’s bride, none other’s.
Woolf tells us her fantastic prince/ss is Vita but she leaves herself out of the mix and that feels shy of the whole picture. Orlando’s ancestors, their courtyards and acres, treasures and traditions, cramped their descendant’s style no less than Woolf’s was pinched by the honour she owed to her father’s Dictionary of National Biography. “Forefathers and How to Survive Them” is as good a subtitle for this book as any other.
The subject of inheritance had long intrigued Woolf. She writes of herself as “descended from a great many people, some famous, some obscure”, and grew up in a house inhabited by a domestic group made up of three families converged (her parents brought four children between them to their marriage and proceeded to have four more). She constantly played with the various atmospheres of her childhood as one might with marbles in a pocket.
Between the “communicative, letter-writing, visiting, articulate, late 19th-century world” that surrounded her parents in their house in Kensington and the rapturous remove of their family idyll in St Ives in Cornwall, which formed the hallowed mine for so much of her most tender writing, Woolf describes an origin of ingrained, almost synthetic, watchfulness: “the feeling of lying in a grape and seeing through a film of semi-transparent yellow”. Orlando shares this sensitivity; his existential connection to the changing seasons of each century is remarkable. He suffers from glooms that last seven days following deep crises.
By the time she was in her mid-twenties, Woolf had experienced the trauma of serial bereavement and had been institutionalised following the onset of what was to become a pattern of nervous collapses throughout her life. It is poignant to view this fantasy through the prism of the consciousness of someone for whom immortality might seem particularly elusive.
Woolf wrote of the limitations of memoir – “they leave out the person to whom things happened” – and so with Orlando she fuses memoir and biography, that discipline so revered in her father’s study and which she so eagerly wished to revolutionise in a night. We could say that Orlando is Woolf’s avatar dressed up in Sackville-West’s clothing.
In their letters to each other, we can trace the inspiration for Orlando’s fellow poet Nick Greene’s hilarious hypochondria, his obsession with money and with the backbiting criticism of his contemporaries, as Sackville-West teases Woolf with the charge of similar tendencies. By the same token, we can read Woolf parodying Lady Sybil Colefax’s attempts to “lion-hunt” from the perspective of the artist harassed by the great hostess (“she would exclaim, ‘Oh how I long to be a writer!’ and I would reply ‘Oh Sybil! If only I could be a great hostess like you!’”).
“It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop.”
So wrote Vita Sackville-West, celebrated writer, celebrated hostess. I love this quote. It reminds me of Woolf catching moths as a child with her father. There is something so practical, so physical a gesture informing the attitude of both these writers: so typically muscular, so bodily and lived. The catching of wayward things with nets and then pinning them down.
Woolf often talked about the passing of time, but denying the power of time to pass seems so integral an aspect of her work as a writer. All her pasts are rekindled, all her memories refreshed by the magical vivacity of her writing. Some butterflies survive the bottle and prove immortal.
By the time she came to write Orlando, she had written three novels, all concerned with the project of revisiting – reanimating – intimately lived experience. This reanimation, together with an acceptance of the inevitability of transformation, multiplicity, inclusion and evolution, marks Woolf as a profoundly spiritual writer, as well as the formally modern one she is esteemed to be.
This book, this slender plaything of an excursion, is, perhaps, the most transgressive experiment she ever made: the merging of a double-exposure portrait, in the vernacular of her paternal inheritance, as a kind of talisman of hopefulness and carefree abandon toward something better than a brightening future – rather a glorious, trustworthy present.
I must declare now, at this border, that my own relationship with Orlando is complex and entwined, a kinship’s entanglement.
I was at school near Sevenoaks, within a short walk of Knole, and one of my school chums was a Sackville-West. Like Orlando – like Vita – I had grown up in an old house and looked like the people in the paintings on the stairs, mainly ruffed, mustachioed, velvet-covered men. We all posed formally in front of bits of furniture, strung together on a high family tree like so many forgotten party balloons caught in the branches. Like Orlando, I wrote poetry. In my adolescent fantasy I read this book and believed it was a hallucinogenic, interactive biography of my own life and future.
For me, this trifle of phantasmagoria has always been a practical manual. A tourist guide to human experience, the best of wise companions. At least, it was my first: a message in a bottle from an imaginary friend.
I reread it now, 35 years later, and I am struck by its capacity to change like a magic mirror. Where I had originally seen it as a book about writing, about becoming a writer, I now see it as a book about reading, about taking one’s place in the chain. Where I once assumed it was a book about eternal youth, I now see it as a book about growing up, about learning to live.
For five years I was privileged to work alongside Sally Potter’s development of her feature-film adaptation of this book. I played the part of Orlando. Twenty years later, Orlando is still the name by which I am best known in Russia, to which I readily answer on streets throughout the world. In my attic is a box containing two of the costumes Orlando wore in the film. One day, I know my son will find them and try them on. One day – soon, I expect – my poetry-writing daughter, his twin, will pick up Woolf’s book and try it on for size.
There was a period, stretched out as it was over many years – time’s bloomers, after all, having strong elastic – when Orlando felt far from trifling, like maybe the most solid thing any writer could offer a teenage reader. It gave reliable faith in everything being true all at once: boy and girl, bloodline and blood pulse, England and everywhere else, solitude and society, literature and living, the quick and the slow, the quick and the dead, now and then, a trick of the light.
I see now that at any point in a life of any length, when our relentless distractions lapse for a moment and there is that sudden flash of inspired clarity in which we see that all that life is about is nature, breathing in and out and keeping your head high until you drop, Orlando is the book to put under your pillow and rest upon.