Orlando, by Virginia Woolf, is a testament and a fantasy. It represents the idea that by using the motifs of reincarnation, timelessness, genetic continuity, dream time, and of memory, a story can be constructed. Each of these are specific ways of understanding the world, and of coming to terms with mortality and the losses incurred by disinheritance. Within this framework, Woolf asks the question, “What is it to be a woman?”
Published in 1928, by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press, the work is part of a genre of colonial travel writing. It uses the idea of the female protagonist as an active principle, answerable really only to herself, where she becomes in fact the adventuress. Such a female escapes masculine regulation, though it may appear as a fantasy, which she herself voluntarily gives up at the end of the narrative. The civil servant is the epitome of the colonial imagination, and ofcourse, marriage is a romantic idea, but then absence too is a valid plateau on which many marriages may function, and singledom reappropriated.
Virginia Woolf is working with several familiar tropes of the 1920s and 1930s. Biography for not just men and woman, but also the history of the house as if the house itself had a persona.
Curzon, Viceroy of India, and Marquis of Keddleston writes in his “British Government in India: The Story of Viceroys and Government House” (1925)
There are few subjects more interesting than the history of a great house. The circumstances of its building, the alterations made in it by successive owners, the scenes which it has witnessed, the atmosphere which its exhales, combine to invest it in time with the almost human personality, that reacts forcibly upon its occupants, and may even affect the march of larger events. Sometimes a single individual will seem to have left an enduring imprint on the house. At others it sets a similar stamp upon those who have dwelt within its walls. In the case of a great family mansion, which has passed for generations from one scion to another of an ancient stock, the house becomes an epitome of the family history, and is the outward and material symbol of its continuity. We may trace about its architecture and furnishing habits and tastes of successive generations. We may even, without being unduly fanciful, observe the influence that these features have exercised upon the characters of its inmates, imparting to them a sobriety or a liveliness of nature which in some cases atleast appears to be the direct emanation of the dwelling itself. Great writers have not been slow to elaborate so promising a theme. Who can forget the House of Usher by Edar Allen Po, the Gabled House of Nathaniel Hawthorne, or the grim and fated mansions which Sheriden Le Fanu loved to depict?
But a great Government House or official residence possesses an interest different from and in some respects superior to these. What it may lack in continuity of occupation, or in genealogical interest, on in mystery, it makes up for by the quick kaleidoscope of its story and diversity of incident of which it can boast. And when the tenants follow each other at the interval of a few years only, coming en masse and going en masse, the scipt for drama is immensely increased. The house has, so to speak, a new lease of life, and a fresh opportunity for adventure, with each recurrent wave every four or five years, and as one fugitive occupant after another disappears, it alone survives as a witness to their career or fortunes. They vanish in the generations of man almost as swiftly as a meteor in the sky. But their trial still lingers behind them in the places which they inhabited, and the walls are left to tell with silent eloquence the tale.”(Curzon 1925:1, 2)
It is exactly this story that Virginia Woolf (VW) wishes to tell about Knole, the home of her closest of friends, Vita Sackville West. VW attempts to cross the borders of time in the telling of the story. The tone is so tender and persuasive, it reads like a dream or as others have described it, the longest love letter in history. Androgyny becomes one of the keys to this biological and historical identity. The markers by themselves are potent, because the frame of memory is indeed captive in the person. But who is this person?
Orlando is a mystery. The core theme of androgyny swerves into a seamless bi-sexuality, as the Shakespearian tale of Ganymede and Orlando. Individual history becomes transformed, sometimes even chronologically misplaced to produce archetypical history, the history of persona rather than person. Madame Blavatsky writes in "Isis Unveiled" that,
Speaking of ancient geographers, Plutarch remarks in Theseus that they “crowd into the edges of their maps parts of the world which they do not know about, adding notes in the margin to the effect that beyond this lies nothing but sandy deserts full of wild beasts and unapproachable bogs” . Do not our theologians and scientists do the same? While the former people the invisible world with either angels or devils, our philosophers try to persuade their disciples that where there is no matter there is nothing. (pdf Blavatsky 26)
Further, the mystery of time is unlocked through the undeciphering of narratives. In Chapter 1 of Isis unveiled, Madam Blavatsky is hopeful of the world being renewed,
Unless we mistake the signs, the day is approaching when the world will receive the proofs that only ancient religions were in harmony with nature, and ancient science embraced all that can be known. Secrets long kept may be revealed; books long forgotten and arts long time lost may be brought out to light again; papyri and parchments of inestimable importance will turn up in the hands of men who pretend to have unrolled them from mummies, or stumbled upon them in buried crypts; tablets and pillars, whose sculptured revelations will stagger theologians and confound scientists, may yet be excavated and interpreted. Who knows the possibilities of the future? An era of disenchantment and rebuilding will soon begin – nay, has already begun. The cycle has almost run its course, a new one is about to begin, and the future pages of history may contain full evidence and convey full proof that
“If ancestry can be in aught believed,
Descending spirits have conversed with man,
And told him secrets of the world unknown.” (pdf Isis Unveiled,Blavatasky: 33)
VW is completely in command as she translates the catherine wheel of collective memory in the fluid vitality of the elixir which we call fantasy fiction. Is the author concerned with reality or morality? The fleetness of prose lies in this juxtaposition where neither chronology nor truth are valid frameworks for interrogation. The reality principle lies in its buoyancy and its persuasiveness. The erudite and the erotic merge without pause, history is told as an act of emotion, sequentially placed, and then jumbled, collage becomes the motive.
Romila Thapar writes that travellogues were often represented as histories, where the oddest of attributes were ascribed to the people of foreign lands. She cites Megasthanes,
The Indian tribe number in all 118. The Indians were in old times nomadic. They did not till the soil but roamed about as the seasons varies; they had neither towns nor temples of the Gods, but were so barbarous that they wore the skins of such animals as they could kill, and subsisted on the bark of trees and wild animals. Then the God Dionysius came and when he had conquered the people, founded cities and gave laws to these cities and introduced the use of wine among the Indians..and taught them to anoint themselves with unguents…the Indians were marshalled for battle to the sound of cymbals and drums. ( Thapar in Raj Thapar1980:16)
Orlando is written in the guise of such a fantastic history. Woolf writes,
It was clear that Rustum thought that a descent of four or five hundred years only the meanest possible. Their own families went back atleast two or three thousand years. To the gipsy whose ancestors had built the Pyramids centuries before Christ was born, the genealogy of Howards and Plantagents was no better and no worse than that of the Smiths and the Joneses: both were negligible. Moreover, where the shepherd boy had a lineage of such antiquity, there was nothing specially memorable or desirable in ancient birth; vagabonds and beggars all shared it. And then, though he was too courteous to speak openly, it was clear that the gipsy thought that there was no more vulgar ambition than to possess bedrooms by the hundred (they were on top of a hill as they spoke; it was night; the mountains rose around them) when the whole earth is ours. Looked at from the gipsy point of view, a Duke, Orlando understood, was nothing, but a profiteer or robber who snatched land and money from people who rated these things of little worth, and could think of nothing better to do than to build three hundred and sixty five bedrooms when one was enough, and none was even better than one. She could not deny that her ancestors had accumulated field after field; house after house, honour after honour; yet had none of them been saints or heroes, or great benefactors of the human race. Nor could she counter the argument (Rustum was too much of a gentleman to press it, but she understood) that any man who did now what her ancestors had done three or four hundred years ago would be denounced and by her own family most loudly – for a vulgar upstart, an adventurer, a nouveau riche.
The specific orientation of the novel Orlando is to provide a cultural history of England using Queen Elisabeth 1 and Queen Victoria as its two book ends. It is to this purpose that VW seems to write a counter history of morality. Implicit within this are very focussed questions such as “What is the famly in history?” and “How do we understand the social relations of production within the manor? Is there a concept of servitude when we understand the life of servants, or are they integrated in familiar and intimate spaces where varieties of relations of power develop?”. The central theme of the book is, then, “What is love?” Captured in cameo is the relationship not just of man and woman (whatever this may mean biologically and in terms of time, as the fantasmorgic allows physical changes to occur within the trembling of an eyelid, but it also captures the history of objects, and the relationships of individuals to animals, field and forest, agriculture and commerce and war. Orlando reads maps in a multiplicity of ways, through the facility of the imagination and of the self, where the body becomes an interlocutor in a variety of ways. Surely Madame Blavatsky’s experiments in consciousness were easily available to her? The traveller like the novelist, is probably the greatest invention of the 19th century, and by the early 20th, the excitement of fiction captured the other common forms such as the Notebook, the Photograph and the Diary as familiar forms of recording cultural and social transformation. This is typical of Lucien Levy Bruhl’s “How Natives Think” (1905) where the idea of the notebook is offered as a substantial space for recording ideas of comparison about the West and the other, whether tribal or peasant.
The traveller is someone who brings back stories, precious objects and secrets. Pupul Jayakar writes of 1949, when she travelled to Leh to bring back news of the craft traditions.
"After travelling some distance we came upon a lone horse and rider carrying a bundle on the back of the animal. We asked him his destination, and he said Lhasa, and that it would take him three months to reach. He was the only traveller we met on the thirty odd miles to Hemis and he became a symbol of the lonely traveller, the cross fertilisation of the cultural streams of the world who through the centuries had journeyed along the ancient trade routes, undergoing formidable hardships to seek adventure, or wisdom at the feet of a Guru, carrying with him the culture and artifacts of his country and bringing back with him a fragrance of alien symbols, myths, religions, arts, sciences and technology" (Jayakar in Raj Thapar 1980:134)
Why does VW use the photograph of Lady Curzon to represent the aggressive and emotionally aggrandising noble from Roumania, who pursues Orlando first as a woman smitten by Orlando when she/he is male, and as an oppressive male, when Orlando returns from her journeys as a woman. So Orlando is caught between the concept of lover and husband much as “a fly on a sugar cube”. The symbiotic aspect of Lord and Lady Curzon are well known to colonial historians. (See Nicola Thomas, website on Lady Curzon) The portrait of one Lady Curzon VW would have us believe, hangs in the gallery in Knole.
In the 1925 description of Government House in Calcutta, Lord Curzon has descriptions of portraits of Vice-Roys which hang there.
"The picture represents Hastings as a middle aged, almost a prematurely aged man (he was 52 when he left India) bald and shrunken, very unlike the well to do cavalier who was painted in England by Stubbs, a few years later. In the background is the niche in the wall is depicted a marble bust of Clive. It should be added that the portraits of Hastings in middle life vary considerably according to whether they present him covered or uncovered. He became very bald at an early age; and accordingly when painted without hat, he looked prematurely old.” (Curzon 1925: 114)
Colonial photography thus was an index of how mansions were ordered as a representative testament to power, and the intimacy and humour that the powerful displayed in relation to their peers is orchestrated in a completely new note by VW when she displays family photographs of people she was close to in the book, reading this in a metalanguage of narratives of which she was the chatelaine. Why were the Curzons obfuscated in the dream time of the fantastic? Because they were close, intimately so, and therefore funny, sharing one persona, substitutable across time? The symbol of ornate clothes, for instance, so important to the Curzons as substitute Maharajahs in India is represented here in terms of a heavy handed coquetry placed on the dual personality as plain bad taste. However, we have to remember that androgyny and clothes were a central theme in Vita Sackville West’s own writing, published as a biography of Joan of Arc. Clothes was essential to this task of delineating who the person was. Joan dressed in boys’ clothes, and when she was arrested and put in the tower, she was forced to wear a red skirt, and Simone Weil used this motif in her own life, when she was described as the Virgin in the Red Skirt by her comrades. Reading the 1920s in this frame of a variety of metanarratives, also means that androgyny was being posed as a framework within which Jung was establishing his reputation against Freud, with the idea of anima and animus, where the male and female principle would be integrated in both men and women in differential equations which were culturally emphasised.
“What were people reading at that time?”, has been the basic motif in reading Orlando in this way.
Living between the two world wars, Virginia Woolf cast her fate on the side of writing. Roger Poole believes that when she drowned, it was because she had no faith in life after the war. Fascism was the final enemy, and death by drowning an answer to her fate as a writer. Yet, in writing, she inscribed herself, and words became not just the point of prophecy, but also of recollection. Blavatsky called it (prophecy and recollection) the ‘yearning after immortaliy.’ She quotes Sir Thomas Browne, “ it is the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man, to tell him that he is at the end of nature, or that there is no future state to come unto which this seems progressive, and otherwise made in vain”. ( Blavatsky, pdf 32). The Bloomsbury School represented the transformation from Victorian mores to the new sexual revolution which was typical of the early 20th century, where the occupational entry of women into the work world, for World War 1 necessitated that they leave their homes and become workers, meant that Literature too became transformed. Orlando is that abandoned moment, when time becomes relative, as Einstein would wish to be practically explained, it is also when the mystical becomes immediately possible, when nothing needs to be explained, and everything is. Existentialism was preordained in this lovely text, because VW could negotiate past all the agonies of Jacob’s Room (where women were as welcome as dogs in the Church or in Cambridge) or the harrowing fate of women who have an intellectual life, besieged by illness and death as in Voyage Out, or living secretly and in camflouge with a passion for Mathematics in Night and Day. In Orlando, the promise that the flame in the crocus will be lit, as dreamed of in Mrs Dalloway comes to fruition. And ofcourse Leonard Woolf publishes the work immediately.