Orlando: A Biography

Orlando: A Biography

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Overview

An annotated edition of “Woolf’s most intense work,” a fantastical biography that spans from the court of Elizabeth I to the year 1928 (Jorge Luis Borges).

Begun as a “joke,” Orlando is Virginia Woolf’s fantastical biography of a poet who first appears as a sixteen-year-old boy at the court of Elizabeth I, and is left at the novel’s end a married woman in the year 1928. From Orlando’s early days as a page in the Elizabethan court, through first love, heartbreak, and gender transformation, we follow Woolf’s protagonist across centuries, through adventures in Constantinople and friendship with the poet Alexander Pope. All along, Orlando pursues literary success with her long poem, The Oak Tree.
 
Part love letter to Vita Sackville-West, part exploration of the art of biography, Orlando is one of Woolf’s most enduringly popular and entertaining works. It has inspired a number of adaptions, including a film version starring Tilda Swinton. This edition, annotated and with an introduction by Maria DiBattista, author of Imagining Virginia Woolf, will deepen readers’ understanding of Woolf’s brilliant creation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547543161
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 07/03/2006
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 202,354
File size: 2 MB
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) was one of the major literary figures of the twentieth century. An admired literary critic, she authored many essays, letters, journals, and short stories in addition to her groundbreaking novels.

Date of Birth:

January 25, 1882

Date of Death:

March 28, 1941

Place of Birth:

London

Place of Death:

Sussex, England

Education:

Home schooling

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE
HE—FOR THERE could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. It was the colour of an old football, and more or less the shape of one, save for the sunken cheeks and a strand or two of coarse, dry hair, like the hair on a cocoanut. Orlando’s father, or perhaps his grandfather, had struck it from the shoulders of a vast Pagan who had started up under the moon in the barbarian fields of Africa; and now it swung, gently, perpetually, in the breeze which never ceased blowing through the attic rooms of the gigantic house of the lord who had slain him.
 Orlando’s fathers had ridden in fields of asphodel, and stony fields, and fields watered by strange rivers, and they had struck many heads of many colours off many shoulders, and brought them back to hang from the rafters. So too would Orlando, he vowed. But since he was sixteen only, and too young to ride with them in Africa or France, he would steal away from his mother and the peacocks in the garden and go to his attic room and there lunge and plunge and slice the air with his blade. Sometimes he cut the cord so that the skull bumped on the floor and he had to string it up again, fastening it with some chivalry almost out of reach so that his enemy grinned at him through shrunk, black lips triumphantly. The skull swung to and fro, for the house, at the top of which he lived, was so vast that there seemed trapped in it the wind itself, blowing this way, blowing that way, winter or summer. The green arras with the hunters on it moved perpetually. His fathers had been noble since they had been at all. They came out of the northern mists wearing coronets on their heads. Were not the bars of darkness in the room, and the yellow pools which chequered the floor, made by the sun falling through the stained glass of a vast coat of arms in the window? Orlando stood now in the midst of the yellow body of an heraldic leopard. When he put his hand on the window-sill to push the window open, it was instantly coloured red, blue, and yellow like a butterfly’s wing. Thus, those who like symbols, and have a turn for the deciphering of them, might observe that though the shapely legs, the handsome body, and the well-set shoulders were all of them decorated with various tints of heraldic light, Orlando’s face, as he threw the window open, was lit solely by the sun itself. A more candid, sullen face it would be impossible to find. Happy the mother who bears, happier still the biographer who records the life of such a one! Never need she vex herself, nor he invoke the help of novelist or poet. From deed to deed, from glory to glory, from office to office he must go, his scribe following after, till they reach what ever seat it may be that is the height of their desire. Orlando, to look at, was cut out precisely for some such career. The red of the cheeks was covered with peach down; the down on the lips was only a little thicker than the down on the cheeks. The lips themselves were short and slightly drawn back over teeth of an exquisite and almond whiteness. Nothing disturbed the arrowy nose in its short, tense flight; the hair was dark, the ears small, and fitted closely to the head. But, alas, that these catalogues of youthful beauty cannot end without mentioning forehead and eyes. Alas, that people are seldom born devoid of all three; for directly we glance at Orlando standing by the window, we must admit that he had eyes like drenched violets, so large that the water seemed to have brimmed in them and widened them; and a brow like the swelling of a marble dome pressed between the two blank medallions which were his temples. Directly we glance at eyes and forehead, thus do we rhapsodise. Directly we glance at eyes and forehead, we have to admit a thousand disagreeables which it is the aim of every good biographer to ignore. Sights disturbed him, like that of his mother, a very beautiful lady in green walking out to feed the peacocks with Twitchett, her maid, behind her; sights exalted him—the birds and the trees; and made him in love with death—the evening sky, the homing rooks; and so, mounting up the spiral stairway into his brain—which was a roomy one—all these sights, and the garden sounds too, the hammer beating, the wood chopping, began that riot and confusion of the passions and emotions which every good biographer detests. But to continue—Orlando slowly drew in his head, sat down at the table, and, with the half-conscious air of one doing what they do every day of their lives at this hour, took out a writing book labelled “Æthelbert: A Tragedy in Five Acts,” and dipped an old stained goose quill in the ink.  Soon he had covered ten pages and more with poetry. He was fluent, evidently, but he was abstract. Vice, Crime, Misery were the personages of his drama; there were Kings and Queens of impossible territories; horrid plots confounded them; noble sentiments suffused them; there was never a word said as he himself would have said it, but all was turned with a fluency and sweetness which, considering his age—he was not yet seventeen—and that the sixteenth century had still some years of its course to run, were remarkable enough. At last, however, he came to a halt. He was describing, as all young poets are for ever describing, nature, and in order to match the shade of green precisely he looked (and here he showed more audacity than most) at the thing itself, which happened to be a laurel bush growing beneath the window. After that, of course, he could write no more. Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces. The shade of green Orlando now saw spoilt his rhyme and split his metre. Moreover, nature has tricks of her own. Once look out of a window at bees among flowers, at a yawning dog, at the sun setting, once think “how many more suns shall I see set,” etc., etc. (the thought is too well known to be worth writing out) and one drops the pen, takes one’s cloak, strides out of the room, and catches one’s foot on a painted chest as one does so. For Orlando was a trifle clumsy.  Copyright 1928 by Virginia Woolf
Copyright renewed 1956 by Leonard Woolf
Annotated Edition copyright © 2006 by Harcourt, Inc.
Preface copyright © 2005 by Mark Hussey
Introduction copyright © 2006 by Maria DiBattista
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at harcourt.com/contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Table of Contents

CONTENTS
Preface: Virginia Woolf 
Chronology 
Introduction 
Orlando: A Biography 
Notes to Orlando: A Biography  
Suggestions for Further Reading: 
Virginia Woolf
Suggestions for Further Reading: 
Orlando: A Biography

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Orlando 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 60 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A superior and important novel by one of the geniuses of the English language. What does not add up, as I write this, is the 2 1/2 star rating which fails to characterize the two positive reviews. One reviewer entered a 5 star. Perhaps the other did not click on the 'stars' feature, something that would unfortunately be computed as a zero! In any event, Orlando deserves as many stars as B&N has to offer.
Hera on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a great novel. Witty, clever and a great conceit. Too bad the rest of her novels aren't so good to read.
themulhern on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is one of a kind; I have heard people condemn the book vehemently but I myself enjoyed it tremendously.The key to enjoying the book is to recognize the humour; I've laughed out loud at many of the passages. If the humour is not the kind you appreciate or even recognize you will surely dislike the book as much as I like it.The lengthy paragraphs are a deliberate device of the author. It is an intriguing introduction to English literature; I found myself a good deal more interested in the Augustan poets after I finished the book.
deebee1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was a joy to read. Exuberant, fanciful, exemplifying literature at its finest. This semi-biographical novel is partly based on the life of Vita Sackville-West, an intimate friend of Woolf. Orlando is a character who is liberated from the restraints of time and gender. He starts as a young nobleman in the Elizabethan era and ends as a modern woman three hundred years later. Woolf explores the theme of femininity and roles of men and women within certain cultural (English mainly and Oriental) and historical contexts through some bizarre and outrageous devices (e.g. Orlando is not the only androgynous character). The reader is taken on a wild and playful ride, from his days as a young steward of the queen and on the throes of passion for a Russian princess, his devastation on her desertion, to a period of ambassadorship in Constantinople where he awakes one day as a woman, to time spent with the gypsies, and eventually, to her return to modern-day England. The 2 constant things through all this was her passion for writing, and search for love -- the fulfillment of which she finally found towards the end of her 300-year journey (signifying the drastic difference of the social milieu and implications for women in general). The novel is full of wit, and where Orlando has moments of ambiguity and confusion (owing mostly to social restraints of the era) -- which she would after a round of internal debate, invariably junk, i found hilarious. This publication of this book in 1928, was a hallmark in literature, especially in regard to women's writing and gender studies, for obvious reasons.
girakittie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Very stylized writing, difficult for me to read. The prose was overblown and did not further the plot. Did not finish, which is rare for me.
joririchardson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A poetically worded, yet hazily written, work of flowery and dramatic prose."Orlando," which is a supposed biography, recounts the life of a young man who begins as a handsome courtier in Queen Elizabeth I's court, and hundreds of years later is (well for one thing, is inexplicably still alive) is transformed into a married middle-aged woman.For a book written in the early to mid 1900's, writing a story about a transvestite - before the word even existed - is certainly a giant leap of literary creativity and openness. However, perhaps also due to this very same reason, I thought that Woolf was unclear about how exactly this took place. One day, Orlando simply is described as, "now certainly a woman." How did this come about? What did Orlando think of this? Events in the story do, of course, hint answers to these questions, but nothing is ever expressed concretely. I often felt confused about Orlando, not sure how to picture him/her in my head, and unsure of his identity. The reader does not get to know their main character here.Also, although the wording of "Orlando" is undeniably beautiful - rippling along in metaphors and comparisons of poetic license - this does not go so far as to say that it is necessarily well-written. Certainly, Woolf was one of the most brilliant writers of her time. But, this particular book is most likely not her best. It is loosely written, leaving much to assumption and imagination, and the plot is scattered and unstructured at best. The book wanders aimlessly through time, much like the character herself/himself."Orlando" could be placed amongst Woolf's most inventive works, but most likely not among her best.
soniaandree on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a great book, extremely well written and the storyline is interesting. Orlando, who is Elizabeth I's favourite pet companion, lives an adventurous life through the following ages and centuries, in different nations. His/her change of gender in Turkey sends her into a confusion of the genres, whilst reflecting the ages' preoccupations. Whilst elevated, the language is lyrical, sometimes poetical and practical, with a focus on Orlando's own narrative inner voice, her reflections on life, society and her role within a seemingly linear chronology.Orlando's life is a reflection of Vita Sackville West's familiar grounds and life. Some readers may interpret the book as a declaration of love or as a philosophical discussion about gender and a nation's historical changes through Orlando's life. It is open to interpretation and it is well worth reading the book for the multitude of questions it opens. A highly recommended classic.
nmhale on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was the first novel by Woolf that I read, and her masterful skill with words held my attention, which is impressive, considering that the plot of this story begins with Orlando, a young boy, and ends hundreds of years later with Orlando, a mature woman. Orlando, the same person. Woolf offers no apologies for the passage of years, and only a very funny "explanation" of how Orlando changes gender midlife. The book claims to be a biography, and this tongue-in-cheek premise sets the stage for the droll humor that permeates the rest of the novel. Yet the novel manages to be profound and dramatic within this construct.Nevertheless, Woolf's language play is even more incredible than the storyline. She creates metaphors that are poetry in prose, and her creative use of lists is another strong technique. She also uses some very clever allusions. I love the characters Purity, Temperance, and Chastity, who physically make an appearance when Orlando changes gender and try to cover her, while cleverly providing a reason for Woolf not to describe how the miracle takes place. Her writing is lyrical.I read this book twice. First, just because I wanted to, and the second time for a group read. I'm very glad that I read it a second time. The first time, I was captivated by her use of words, but the story lost me several times, and I put it down frequently. The second time, already knowing what to expect plot wise, I was able to appreciate the craft of the novel, and at the same time, understand the story and characters more deeply and stay focused. This book has a lot to offer. Orlando's life spans several ages of London life, from Queen Elizabeth, through James and Victoria, and through the eyes of her main character, Woolf offers interesting criticism of each. Her perspective on gender is another central theme, which she can explore from two angles, thanks to her character's unique personality. Not content with those broad motifs, Woolf further ponders the themes of love and life. With her language, intriguing characters, and complex themes and metaphors, this story is well worth a read, and then another, to fully appreciate this work from Virginia Woolf.
MorgannaKerrie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ms. Woolf always writes a brilliant novel.
stunik on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
. . character liberated from the restraints of time and sex. Born in the Elizabethan agte to wealth and position, Orlando is a lusty young nobleman at the beginning of the story and three centuries later a modern woman. the hero-heroine sees monarchs come and go, hobnobs with the great literary figures of every age, and slips in and out of each new fashion. In the Vicorian Age she dutifully puts on layers of petticoats, marries, and bears a child. In the twentieth century she drives a motor car and publishes a poem she has been writing since youth. The author leaves her at "the present moment." She is 36.-
k8_not_kate on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
While the scope and idea of this novel was and is exciting, I felt it lacked something. Orlando's adventures felt more like aimless (and not-quite-interesting) wanderings than an exciting odyssey. After finishing the book and feeling a little like I had wasted my time, I read some background on it that explained that the biography was a kind of tribute to Woolf's androgynous lover, Vita Sackville-West. Knowing that gives the novel a little more meaning, but doesn't make it all that much more interesting. As other reviewers have noted, the story up to the point where Orlando leaves London for Constantinople is much more exciting than the rest and is what most of my three stars a owed to.
Othemts on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A fantastic novel in which a young courtier from the time of Elizabeth magically lives for four centuries without aging, even more magically changing sex from man to woman halfway through. This humorous book satirizes the politics of all the eras Orlando lives through, and more so challenges the gender roles across time. Very different from any other Woolf novel I've read. Sally Potter made an excellent film based on the novel staring Tilda Swinton as Orlando, but definitely read the book first.
fleurdiabolique on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
You know, this could have been a good book. I am definitely interested in the sort of premise of the last two-thirds. But my potential enjoyment of the book was ruined by the fact that this book purports to be a biography, or at least a straightforward narrative, for the first third or so -- and then, without warning or explanation, our hero abruptly becomes a transsexual time traveler. Though the book has to this point been fairly realistic, no one reacts as though Orlando's gender switch is odd, and no one thinks it's strange that s/he suddenly appears again over a century after his/her birth. Again, this would have been _fine_ if it was set up. But it wasn't. Woolf begins in a realistic mode, and there is absolutely no good excuse, save sheer perversity, for turning the reader topsy-turvy in this manner. After 130 pages of apparently realistic prose, an abrupt shift (which makes use of an extremely trite use of allegorical figures, I might add) to the realm of the fantastic is confusing and illogical. And the book just goes downhill from there. People from the sixteenth century appear in later centuries -- again, without any explanation and without any expression of surprise on anyone's part. Orlando's house staff from the 1500s is waiting for her when she returns in the early 1700s -- but then they all die by the 1800s, though she is still alive. She marries, and after her husband leaves on a trip we pretty much never find out what the hell happens to him. She gives birth (when she actually got pregnant is yet another question), and her child isn't mentioned after that moment. Jumps in time during the course of the narrative are profoundly unclear. And why doesn't anyone around Orlando seem to remark on the fact that she seems to be immortal?! And of course, woven through all of this at intervals is intolerable "philsophical" prattling which rarely has any depth.As usual, Woolf is too busy trying to be unusual and shocking to bother writing something actually readable. It is so frustrating, because there are a few beautiful passages, and the idea behind the last two-thirds or so of the novel is really interesting and could have made a wonderful book on its own. But these sparks of something better are drowned in Woolf's usual overly-self-conscious, self-indulgent prose. If you really must read any of this (and I advise against it), go only as far as the point where Orlando falls into a trance in Constantinople. There is absolutely nothing worth your time and energy beyond that point.
LisaMorr on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
On the back cover it states that this is one of Virginia Woolf's most popular and entertaining works. Last year I had read Mrs. Dalloway, my first Woolf, and enjoyed it a lot more.(VERY MILD SPOILERS)The book was interesting, but it didn't grip me. It is a fantastical biography about Orlando, starting with him as a 16-yr old boy sometime in the 1500's, who eventually turns into a woman (I don't think this is a spoiler - it's written on the back of the book...), and is still a relatively young woman when the novel ends in 1928. Orlando is rich with a large estate and is in good favor with the Queen. He has a romance with a Russian princess (at least we think she is), and many others, gets to be Ambassador to Turkey, turns into a woman, has more affairs, and so on.There was lots of just the narrator stepping in and saying how this part is boring. Also, there were some confusing bits, like at one point I think she got pregnant, but it wasn't really clear. But then years later (I think) she gives birth. And then no mention of her child. I was used to that a bit from Mrs. Dalloway, but it was a lot worse in this book.It took me a lot longer to read than it should have; I figured I definitely would have finished it by the end of the year, but it just dragged on and on, and it was a chore to finish.I haven't said a lot of good things about the book, and I'm sorry about that. There were interesting parts here and there, and it did spawn a neat movie, but all in all, I didn't think it was that great.I'm going to give it 3 stars; I'm vacillating a bit, quite ambivalent about it, but I think that's what it should get on my scale.
Nickelini on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Review of the Annotated Edition of Orlando, published by Harvest Books Harcourt, Inc. Although the movie version of this book is one of my favourites, and although I've read a decent amount of Virginia Woolf, I was rather dubious about this book. It seemed very odd compared to her other writing. And it is . . . but it's wonderfully odd. This may be my favourite of all her novels.What really made this book for me was all the magic realism elements. I loved her descriptions of Orlando viewing all of England from his/her oak tree, including "the wild tides that swirl about the Hebrides". The whole Great Frost section was exceptionally well done, and I especially loved the description of the porpoise frozen in suspended animation in the icy Thames, or the Norwich countrywoman who turned visibly to powder by the cold while she crossed the road. I could go on and on . . .As for the annotations, as with the other annotated Woolf books published by Harvest Harcourt, I have mixed thoughts. Some of the annotations were very helpful. However, I thought they missed some things in the text that I would have appreciated a note on, and there were many notes that I thought unnecessary.Recommended for:I want to say "everyone," but alas, Virginia Woolf is not everyone's cup of tea.
Snakeshands on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Loads of fun, effortless prose, and one hell of a love note. Not your usual Woolf!
hbw on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an odd book by any stretch of the imagination.
isabelx on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What with the crowd, what with the Duke, what with the jewel, she drove home in the vilest temper imaginable. Was it impossible then to go for a walk without being half-suffocated, presented with a toad set in emeralds, and asked in marriage by an Archduke?Orlando is written in the form of a biography rather than a novel, with Virginia Woolf as the very present biographer, discussing her choice of words and the biographer's role, while relating the life of her protean and strangely long-lived subject.I won this book in a competition on the BBCi Arts web-site in 2002. I have been putting off reading it because, out of Virginia Woolf's novels I've only read "Mrs Dalloway" and part of "To the Lighthouse" and struggled with both. I did however enjoy the film version of "Orlando" starring Tilda Swinton, so when I gave myself a 'read it or get rid of it' ultimatum, I decided to give it a go and surprised myself by enjoying it quite a lot!
NicoleHC on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It's crazy. In a good way.
Chris_V on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Virginia Woolf's most sustained work of narrative fiction is in fact a spoof biography of the Elizabethan lord Orlando who travels the years to the Twentieth Century while turning into a woman. A hymn of praise to the character of Vita Sackville-West.
nickdreamsong on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A quote from one of my favorite Woolf novels and one of my favorite books of all time:"Different though the sexes are, the intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what is above."
riverwillow on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I studied this as part of my degree and slowly this book began to grow on me. Its
gwendolyndawson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The story begins with Orlando as a passionate young nobleman in Queen Elizabeth's court. By the end, Orlando is a 36-year-old woman three centuries later. Orlando witnesses the making of history from its edge. A close examination of the nature of sexuality and the changing climate of the passing centuries. Very novel and engaging if a bit loose-ended at times.
rebeccler on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Magical realism saved Orlando from being targeted for obscenity. A delicious tale of a writer's growth into herself, and out of himself. The biographer's commentary is often hilarious, and do pay special attention to the cross-dressing section for hints of the "obscene" according to Lord Campbell's Act of 1857. It isn't there, but it is there.
HeatherLee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Orlando is a man attracted to a Russian woman in trousers who looks like a man. A despondent Orlando goes to Turkey as an ambassador and emerges as a woman. Orlando is pursued by a man who is a woman. Orlando falls in love with a man and in a bizarre sequence they confess to each other that they are the other sex. But they remain the sex in which they presented themselves to each other, get married, and Orlando has a baby. Oh, and all this takes over three centuries. It's easy to see why Virginia Woolf is admired by modernists, litarati and feminists. Woolf transitions seamlessly between gender and centuries in a classic of modernism that can just as easily be labeled postmodern today.