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Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

In oktober 2019 hielden Hanke en ik op de Universiteit in Navarra, Spanje, een voordracht over de roman Orlando van Virginia Woolf. Dit in het kader van de 3e Europese Conferentie over Liberal Arts onder de titel ‘Caring for Souls – Can Core Text Educate Character?’ Het karakter Orlando verschijnt voor het eerst in de literatuur bij Shakespeare als een ‘meisjesachtige mooie jongeling’. Bij Virginia Woolf gaat Orlando in de eerste helft van de roman door het leven als een man en in de tweede helft als een vrouw. Orlando is daarmee een symbool geworden voor het androgyne karakter, de persoon die zowel mannelijke als voruwelijk eigenschappen bezit.

De gewone tekst in de voordracht is gelezen door Hanke, de cursieve tekst door Henne Arnolt.


Hereby we present to you Orlando, a coming of age novel by Virginia Woolf, published in 1928. The fanciful biographical novel pays homage to the family of Woolf’s friend and lover Vita Sackville-West from the time of her ancestor Thomas Sackville (1536–1608) to the family’s country estate at Knole. The manuscript of the book, a present from Woolf to Sackville-West, is housed at Knole. The novel is also an affectionate portrait of Sackville-West, who, because she was a woman, could not inherit Knole.
The novel opens in 1588. Young Orlando, a 16-year-old boy, writes a poem called “The Oak Tree.” He finds favour at the Elizabethan court and love in the arms of a Russian princess, Sasha. He discusses literature with Sir Nicholas Greene, a poet. During the reign of Charles II (1660–85), Orlando is named ambassador to Constantinople and is rewarded with a dukedom. One night he stays with a dancer and cannot be awakened. Seven days later Orlando rises, now a beautiful woman.

“We are, therefore, now left entirely alone in the room with the sleeping Orlando and the trumpeters. The trumpeters, ranging themselves side by side in order, blow one terrific blast: – “THE TRUTH!”
at which Orlando woke.
He stretched himself. He rose. He stood upright in complete nakedness before us, and while the trumpeters pealed Truth! Truth! Truth! We have no choice but confess – he was a woman.”

She returns to England and savours intellectual London society in the age of Addison, Dryden, and Pope but turns to bawdy street life for relief from this cerebral life. She marries the second love of her life, Shelmerdine, also to achieve respectability during the Victorian Age although she could feel that this might cut off the expression of other possible lives to live (other selves of her).

“Orlando could only suppose that some new discovery had been made about the race; that they were somehow stuck together, couple after couple, but who had made it, and when, she could not guess. It did not seem to be Nature.”
 “For it would seem – her case proved it – that we write, not with the fingers, but with the whole person. The nerve which controls the pen winds itself about every fibre of our being, threads the heart, pierces the liver. Though the seat of her trouble seemed to be the left hand, she could feel herself poisoned through and through, and was forced at length to consider the most desperate of remedies, which was to yield completely and submissively to the spirit of the age, and take a husband.”

By 1928 she has returned to London, where she is reunited with her friend Greene, who offers to find a publisher for “The Oak Tree.” Back at her country estate, she stands under the great oak and remembers her centuries of adventure expressed as multiple identities. The book ends when Shelmerdine (who resided at Cape Horn during a long time) returns. When he leaps out of his aeroplane, at the same moment a wild goose jumps up.

“It is the goose!, Orlando cried. “The wild goose…”
And the twelfth stroke of midnight sounded; the twelfth stroke of midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen hundred and Twenty Eight.

Woolf parodies the changing styles of English literature and explores issues of androgyny and the creative/artistic life of a feminist writer. Orlando marked a turning point in Woolf’s career. Not only was it a departure from her more introspective works, but its spectacular sales also ended her financial worries. Readers praised the book’s fluid style, wit, and complex plot.

Character forming

With our choice for Virginia Woolf’s Orlando we hope to contribute to the main theme of the conference, “can core–texts educate character?” Virginia Woolf lets Orlando unpack his character potentials (or, so to say: his multiple selves) in various historical and cultural contexts. In all these contexts Orlando interacts with people that represent the spirit of the age. We see this intersubjective unpacking process of multiple selves as the essence of character forming which can only fully flourish through experiences with others in very different contexts.

“For she had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand. Choosing then, only those selves we have found room for, Orlando may now have called on the boy who cut the nigger’s head down; the boy who strung it up again; the boy who sat on the hill; the boy who saw the poet; the boy who handed the Queen the bowl of rose water; or she may have called upon the young man who fell in love with Sasha; or upon the Courtier; or upon the Ambassador; or upon the Soldier; or upon the Traveller; or she may have wanted the woman to come to her; the Gipsy; the Fine Lady; the Hermit; the girl in love with life; the Patroness of Letters; the woman who called Mar (meaning hot baths or evening fires) or Shelmerdine (meaning crocuses in autumn woods) or Bonthrop (meaning the death we die daily) or all three together – which meant more things than we have space to write out – all were different and she may have called upon any one of them”

This raises the question what fundamental qualities – or selves – are exactly unpacked in the various contexts that the biographer offers to Orlando?

Sensitivity for the spirit of the age

From Orlando we learn for instance that an essential aspect of character forming is that one learns to relate to the spirit of the age, to how this is embedded in the community (norms, values, do’s and don’ts). We learn that this is a matter of unpacking the ability to (re)negotiate with the spirit of the age. 

Orlando had so ordered it that she was in an extremely happy position; she need neither fight [the spirit of] her age, nor submit to it; she was of it, yet remained herself.

At any rate she learns that it is a reciprocal relation with the spirit of the age.

“Indeed, she had in mind, now that she was at last able to collect her thoughts, the effect that her behaviour would have had upon the spirit of the age.”

Being different and love for Nature

In another time and context (Orlando comes to live with gypsies and is supposed to marry a Gypsy woman) Orlando is able to unpack her being different and her love for Nature.

“He [Rustum al-Sadi, one of the gypsies] had the deepest suspicion that her [Orlando’s] God was Nature. One day he found her in tears. Interpreting this to mean that her God had punished her, he told her that he was not surprised. He showed her the fingers of his left hand, withered by the frost; he showed her his right foot, crushed where a rock had fallen. This, he said, was what her God did to men. When she said, “But so beautiful”, using the English word, he shook his head; and when she repeated it he was angry. He saw that she did not believe what he believed, and that was enough, wise and ancient as he was, to enrage him. This difference of opinion disturbed Orlando, who had been perfectly happy until now. She began to think, was Nature beautiful or cruel; and then she asked herself what this beauty was; whether it was in things themselves, or only in herself; so she went on to the nature of reality, which led her to truth, which in its turn led to Love, Friendship, Poetry […]”

With regard to handling differences Virginia Woolf had a realization when she was a child:

I was fighting with Thoby [Woolf’s older brother] on the lawn. We were pommeling each other with our fists. Just as I raised my fist to hit him, I felt: why hurt another person? I dropped my hand instantly, and stood there, and let him beat me. I remember the feeling. It was a feeling of hopeless sadness. It was as if I became aware of something terrible; and of my own powerlessness. I slunk off alone, feeling horrible depressed.

She became aware of separateness while at the same time she realized that she could feel what her blows would cause to her brother, which we could interpret that she was able to feel his separateness. As if we are separate beings. She builds up on this deep insight in Orlando in the following sentences:

“Indeed, such differences of opinion are enough to cause bloodshed and revolution.
No passion is stronger in the breast of man than the desire to make others believe as he believes. Nothing so cuts at the roots of his happiness and fills him with rage as the sense that another rates low what he prizes high.”

Transcending opposites

In the book Woolf plays with opposites and points out how opposites can be unified and even transcended.

“For Love, to which we may now return, has two faces; one white, the other black; two bodies; one smooth, the other hairy. It has two hands, two feet, two tails, two, indeed, of every member and each one is the exact opposite of the other. Yet, so strictly are they joined together that you cannot separate them.”

Woolf especially plays with gender identity and stresses how the differences can be unified and even transcended.

“If we compare the picture of Orlando as a man with that of Orlando as a woman we shall see that though both are undoubtedly one and the same person, there are certain changes. The man has his hand free to seize his sword, the woman must use hers to keep the satins from slipping from her shoulders. The man looks the world full in the face, as if it were made for his uses and fashioned to his liking. The woman takes a sidelong glance at it, full of subtlety, even of suspicion. Had they both worn the same clothes, it is possible that their outlook might have been the same.”

Becoming a whole person means for Woolf living – and a deep understanding of the opposites, and therefore she lets Orlando undergo a lot of transitions, including a most radical transition from male to female, while at the same time Orlando keeps the knowledge of both sexes from within.

That men cry as frequently and as unreasonably as women, Orlando knew from her own experience as a man; but she was beginning to be aware that women should be shocked when men display emotion in their presence, and so, shocked she was.”

Interesting is also how she understands from within how the spirit of the age restricts men and women alike, which is a joint challenge.

“ [– “]Heavens!” she thought, “what fools they [= men] make of us – what fools we are!” And here it would seem from some ambiguity in her terms that she was censuring both sexes equally, as if she belonged to neither; and indeed, for the time being, she seemed to vacillate; she was man; she was woman; she knew the secrets, shared the weaknesses of each. It was a most bewildering and whirligig state of mind to be in.”

Expression of ambiguity in love

Virginia Woolf shows us how love can be deeply experienced when both persons are capable of exploring and developing their multiple selves in their relationship, what means that they are deeply ambiguous. There are no fixed roles, like how you are supposed to be and act like a man, and how you are supposed to be and act like a woman.

“”You’re a woman, Shel!” she cried.
“You’re a man, Orlando!” he cried”
“”Are you positive you aren’t a man?” he would ask anxiously, and she would echo “Can it be possible you’re not a woman?” and then they must put it to the proof without more ado. For each was so surprised at the quickness of the other’s sympathy, and it was to each such a revelation that a woman could be as tolerant and free-spoken as a man, and a man as strange and subtle as a woman, that they had to put the matter to the proof at once.”

The wild goose

At the end of the book Orlando is obviously able to unpack her free spirit, the wild goose.
She sums up all his and her experiences in all kinds contexts, and what is beyond is her creative spirit. This is what the wild goose symbolizes. Related to character forming we could say that ultimately the permanent access to your creativity is something you can unpack. This unpacking takes place through all life experiences and at the same time beyond these.

“”Haunted!” she cried, suddenly pressing the accelerator. “Haunted! ever since I was a child. There flies the wild goose. It flies past the window out to sea. Up I jumped (she gripped the steering-wheel tighter) and stretched after it. But the goose flies too fast. I’ve seen it, here – there – there – England, Persia, Italy. Always it flies fast out to sea and always I fling after it words like nets (here she flung her hand out) which shrivel as I’ve seen nets shrivel dawn on deck with only sea-weed in them; and sometimes there’s an inch of silver – six words – in the bottom of the net. But never the great fish who lives in the coral groves.” Here she bent her head, pondering deeply.”

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