Virginia Woolf: Orlando

As I said elsewhere, given the fact that Virginia Woolf was a 2021 (M)DWS author in residence, too, as part of my exploration of the life and work of Vita Sackville-West’s life and work I decided to circle back to Woolf; or rather, to the link between the two writers, which far exceeds their almost 20-year personal relationship. And you can’t take a look at “Vita and Virginia” without revisiting Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s spontaneous literary tribute to the life, poetry, and (incidentally) home of her “Dearest Creature”.

Woolf’s writing is hit and miss for me; while I love some of her books to distraction (A Room of One’s Own; Flush), others I so far haven’t even been able to finish (The Waves). Orlando firmly established itself on the first side of that equation when I first read it years ago, and if anything it’s since only grown in my affection. This is Woolf writing straight from the heart; the concept of time travel and a mid-novel sex change might have been avantgarde at the time of the writing — today either barely causes a raised eyebrow — but you can’t fail to see the genuine affection she has for her subject. And yet, once she had started the novel and confessed the enterprise on which she had embarked to the real-life incarnation of its hero(ine), and having received an enthusiastic “go ahead” from that real-life incarnation, both of them were eaten up with doubt and feared their friendship would not survive (though writers to the marrow of their bones, not even that risk would apparently have been able to keep Woolf from finishing the book, or Sackville-West from requesting as much). In fact, VSW even permitted Woolf to use several photos in the book; a number taken from the Sackville family collection and two of Vita herself, rebranded as portrayals of Orlando:

(The left one is a 1927 studio portrait by society photographer Lenare (Leonard George Green), the right one is a 1928 photo by Leonard Woolf, showing Vita Sackville-West with her dogs and taken at her home at the time, Long Barn in Kent.)

On October 9, 1927 Woolf wrote to VSW to tell her:

“Yesterday morning I was in despair […] I couldn’t screw a word from me; and at last dropped my head in my hands: 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 […] But listen; suppose Orlando turns out to be Vita; and it’s all about you […] suppose there’s the kind of shimmer of reality which sometimes attaches to my people […], suppose, I say, that Sibyl [Colefax] next October says ‘There’s Virginia gone and written a book about Vita’ […] Shall you mind? Say yes, or No.”

Sackville-West responded by a letter of October 11, 1927 (exactly a year before the book’s eventual publication, as it would turn out):

“My God, Virginia, if ever I was thrilled and terrified it is at the prospect of being projected into the shape of Orlando. What fun for you; what fun for me. You see, any vengeance that you ever want to take [for VSW’s affairs with others — at the time of the writing, with socialite and Bloomsbury hanger-on Mary Campbell, which affair VSW was then still trying to conceal from Woolf] will lie ready to your hand. Yes, go ahead, toss up your pancake, brown it nicely on both sides, pour brandy over it, and serve hot. You have my full permission. Only I think that having drawn and quartered me, unwound and retwisted me, or whatever it is that you intend to do, you ought to dedicate it to your victim.”

A scant five months later, Woolf reported that she had completed the manuscript’s first draft (and yes, the all-caps and triple exclamation marks really are her own):


Did you feel a sort of tug, as if your neck was being broekn on Saturday last at 5 minutes to one? That was when he died — or rather stopped talking, with three little dots … Now every word will have to be re-written […] It is all over the pace, incoherent, intolerable, impossible. — And I am sick of it. The question now is, will my feelings for you be changed? I’ve lived in you all these months — coming out, what are you really like? Do you exist? Have I made you up?”

Vita Sackville-West answered:

“[…] Oh, and Orlando, I forgot about him. You absolutely terrified me by your remarks. ‘Do I exist or have you made me up?’ I always foresaw that, when you had killed Orlando off. Well, I’ll tell you one thing: if you like — no, love, — me one trifle less now that Orlando is dead, you shall never set eyes on me again, except by chance at one of Sybil’s parties. I won’t be flirtatious. I won’t be loved solely in an astral body, or in Virginia’s world. So write quickly and say I’m still real I feel terribly real just now — like cockles and mussels, and all alive-oh […]

Your adoring and perfectly solid,

On the verge of receiving her copy of the book, VSW caustically concluded a letter to Woolf with the words,

“It is dreadful to think that this is the last friendly letter I shall ever write to you”

… only to go into full gushing mode, however, once she had actually cracked the novel’s spine. To her husband Harold Nicolson (then attached to the UK’s Berlin embassy) she wrote:

“I write to you in the middle of reading Orlando, in such a turmoil of excitement and confusion that I scarcely know where (or who!) I am. […] Oh Lord, how I wonder what you will think of it. It seems to me more brilliant, more enchanting, more rich and lavish, than anything she has done. It is like a cloak encrusted with jewels and sprinkled with rose-petals. I admit I can’t see straight about it. Parts of it make me cry, parts of it make me laugh; the whole of it dazzles and bewilders me. […] Well — I don’t know, it seems to me a book unique in English literature, having everything in it: romance, wit, seriousness, lightness, beauty, imagination, style; with Sir Thomas Browne and Swift for parents. I feel infinitely honoured at having been the peg on which it was hung; and very humble.”

… and to the author herself:

“I am in no fit state to write to you — and as for cold and considered opinions (as you said on the telephone), such things do not exist in such a connection. At least, not yet. Perhaps they will come later. For the moment, I can’t say anything except that I am completely dazzled, bewitched, enchanted, under a spell. It seems to me the loveliest, wisest, richest book that I have ever read, — excelling even your own Lighthouse. Virginia, I really don’t know what to say, — am I right? Am I wrong? Am I prejudiced? Am I in my senses or not? It seems to me that you have really shut up that ‘hard and rare thing’ in a book; that you have had a complete vision; and yet when you came down to the sober labour of working it out, have never lost sight of it nor faltered in the execution. Ideas come to me so fast that they trip over each other and I lose them before I can put salt on their tails; there is so much I want to say, yet I can only go back to my first cry that I am bewitched. You will get letters, very reasoned and illuminating, from many people; I cannot write you that sort of letter now, I can only tell you that I am really shaken, which may seem to you useless and silly, but which is really a greater tribute than pages of calm appreciation, — and then after all it does touch me so personally, and I don’t know what to say about that either, only that I feel like one of those wax figures in a shop window, on which you have hung a robe stitched with jewels. It is like being alone in a dark room with a treasure chest full of rubies and nuggets and brocades. Darling, I don’t know and scarcely even like to write, so overwhelmed am I, how you could have hung so splendid a garment on so poor a peg. Really this isn’t false humility; really it isn’t. I can’t write about that part of it, though, much less ever tell you verbally.

By now you must be thinking me too confused and illiterate for anything, so I’ll just slip in that the book (in texture) seems to me to have in it all the best of Sir Thomas Browne and Swift, — the richness of the one, and the directness of the other.

There are a dozen details I should like to go into […] but it is too late today; I have been reading steadily all day […] but I will try and write more sensibly tomorrow. It is your fault, for having moved me so and dazzled me completely, so that all my faculties have dropped from me and left me stark. […]

Also, you have invented a new form of Narcissism, — I confess, — I am in love with Orlando — this is a complication I had not foreseen.

Virginia, my dearest, I can only thank you for pouring out such riches.

You made me cry with your passages about Knole, you wretch.”

[VSW had already had to leave Knole by the time Orlando was published.]

Woolf responded by telegram:

“Your biographer is infinietly relieved and happy.”

From this point on, VSW took to signing some of her letters to Virginia Woolf “Orlando”; her thank you Christmas gift to Woolf — a necklace of amber pearls — however almost wrecked their relationship, as Woolf categorically refused to accept gifts, reminded Vita that she had had to put down her foot with regard to the issue (apparently to Vita’s considerable chagrin) once before already, and told her in no uncertain terms that this would be the last gift she’d be accepting from her, even as “like for like” for having had both the print edition and the manuscript of Orlando bound in leather for Vita:

“The night you were snared, that winter, at Long Barn, you slipped out Lord Steyne’s paper knife, and I had then to make the terms plain: with this knife you will gash our hearts I said and the same applies to beads.”

(She would relent only during WWII, when Vita — at least during the first year (1939) — was still in a position to send her butter from the Sissinghurst farm: at this point, a gift such as that came in an entirely different light than amber pearls and an antique paper knife had in peace time.)

As the above quotes show, my reread of Orlando this time around benefited from having on hand an edition the two writers’ correspondence — a review of which to be found HERE — and from being in on its creation, as it were; but either way, this remains one of my favorite books by Virginia Woolf, next to A Room of One’s Own and Flush.

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