Looking around to see what others were reading, I was definitely out on a limb with Orlando, my choice of pool-side reading in Cascais; most of the women were reading Fifty Shades of Grey in various languages (the Portuguese translation was piled high in the supermarket). Yet there was more overlap than some might imagine, as this is the most corporeal of Virginia Woolf's novels, and it contains plenty of sex and sexual desire, plus a brilliant treatment of gender. Of course, it is done very differently to your average bonkbuster, but the erotic element is there for all to read.
I was predisposed to dislike Orlando. Sometimes a novel is picked up by the media and boiled down to a Daily Mail-style headline; Orlando's would be '400 year old publishes book, but questions about his/her gender remain'. I was put off by the fact that I knew too much about the relationship between VW and Vita Sackville-West which underpins the novel, the fantasy element, and the chattering about the Sally Potter film starring Tilda Swinton.
But I wrong. From the tongue-in-cheek preface on, it is funny, piercing, witty, and sparkling. I marked dozens of sections with 'gt' and '!' to indicate humour and my laughter. It's brilliant, rich, playful, extravagant, with gorgeous descriptions and fantastic flourishes. It sweeps and swoops through centuries of history and literature, with larger-than-life set pieces, charting the icy depths of despair and the burning fires of passion. It's all brilliance, emotion, energy and physical vigour mixed with cruelty and drama. The book is worth reading for the early scenes on the frozen Thames alone, and it seems that VW, too, is having a marvellous time skating and skimming through time, gliding and pirouetting and doing literary leaps and twirls. Her enjoyment is palpable in her inventiveness, wildly imaginative storyline, and wonderful parodies. When looking for paintings to go with this post, I thought of Brueghel winter scenes and paintings of the London frost fairs, but nothing came close to the images VW creates in the book (and I'll never forget the image of the plaid-wrapped apple-seller frozen whole in the ice).
Orlando still feels ultra-modern, with its challenge to traditional gender division and the whole question of sexuality, its freedom and fluidity, and its remarkable playing with time (Orlando spans centuries while in Mrs Dalloway one day spans a lifetime). VW also questions the conventions of biography, wondering how any biographer can truly tell the story of someone's life - it should be required reading for anyone writing about VW's own life.
It's clever and crammed with all VW's favourite themes and motifs: London and St Paul's, tea tables, textiles, flowers, lighthouses, boats, seas and rivers, feminism. There is a fabulous taking-apart of Victorian life and everything VW stood against, with a potted history of clutter and darkness that contrasts dramatically with her early C20 modernism and clarity. And if you look carefully, you'll find that the novel contains many of her artist's/writer's statements, and an articulation of her tenets and her guiding literary principles.
[Vita Sackville-West photographed by John Gay at Sissinghurst, 1948]
I was quite surprised at just how daring and baring the novel is. At the time of publication, it was something of a private joke, the details of which are now so well known that it's hard to read without thinking about the real-life characters involved. But it seems to me that it could have been quite scandalous (again, if it was published today, the red-tops would have a field day), and I was quite surprised that VW was prepared not only to reveal V S-W's private life, but also her own. Angela Carter described the book as a 'slobbering valentine to an aristocrat', and although I also have reservations about the hero/heroine worship, I still enjoyed it enormously. Plus, there is a brilliant ending. And I'm just beginning to realise how good VW was at endings.