by Eric Byrd
Orlando's biography spans five centuries but I think Woolf endows but two, the sixteenth and the nineteenth, with a full measure of her erudite brio and critical fantasy. Nothing in the novel surpasses the Renaissance fantasia of the first chapter – sixty pages of enchanting, festive, parti-colored prose. Orlando opens his/her eyes on the “Merrie” England young Yeats found in Spenser – the “indolent, demonstrative” England where men “still wept when they were moved, still dressed themselves in joyous colours, and spoke with many gestures.” The novel's conception as a tribute to Vita Sackville-West, as a semi-private jeu d'esprit, recalls that Elizabethan coterie classic, the Arcadia with which Sir Philip Sidney entertained his sister and beguiled his exile from court. Queen Elizabeth is the age's monstre sacré :
At the height of her triumph when the guns were booming at the Tower and the air was thick enough with gunpowder to make one sneeze and the huzzas of the people rang beneath the windows, she pulled him down among the cushions where her women had laid her (she was so worn and old) and made him bury his face in that astonishing composition — she had not changed her dress for a month — which smelt for all the world, he thought, recalling his boyish memory, like some old cabinet at home where his mother's furs were stored. He rose, half suffocated from the embrace. ‘This', she breathed, ‘is my victory!'— even as a rocket roared up and dyed her cheeks scarlet.
The Great Frost freezes birds in midair, herds on the roads, ploughmen in their fields, and “bird-scaring boys” struck stark in the act, “one with his hand to his nose, another with the bottle to his lips, a third with a stone raised to throw at the ravens who sat, as if stuffed, upon a hedge.”
The Thames now solid, James I decrees it fair ground:
He directed that the river, which was frozen to a depth of twenty feet and more for six or seven miles on either side, should be swept, decorated and given all the semblance of a park or pleasure ground, with arbours, mazes, alleys, drinking booths, etc. at his expense. For himself and the courtiers, he reserved a certain space immediately opposite the Palace gates; which, railed off from the public only by a silken rope, became at once the centre of the most brilliant society in England. Great statesmen, in their beards and ruffs, despatched affairs of state under the crimson awning of the Royal Pagoda. Soldiers planned the conquest of the Moor and the downfall of the Turk in striped arbours surmounted by plumes of ostrich feathers. Admirals strode up and down the narrow pathways, glass in hand, sweeping the horizon and telling stories of the north-west passage and the Spanish Armada. Lovers dallied upon divans spread with sables. Frozen roses fell in showers when the Queen and her ladies walked abroad. Coloured balloons hovered motionless in the air. Here and there burnt vast bonfires of cedar and oak wood, lavishly salted, so that the flames were of green, orange, and purple fire. But however fiercely they burnt, the heat was not enough to melt the ice which, though of singular transparency, was yet of the hardness of steel. So clear indeed was it that there could be seen, congealed at a depth of several feet, here a porpoise, there a flounder. Shoals of eels lay motionless in a trance, but whether their state was one of death or merely of suspended animation which the warmth would revive puzzled the philosophers. Near London Bridge, where the river had frozen to a depth of some twenty fathoms, a wrecked wherry boat was plainly visible, lying on the bed of the river where it had sunk last autumn, overladen with apples. The old bumboat woman, who was carrying her fruit to market on the Surrey side, sat there in her plaids and farthingales with her lap full of apples, for all the world as if she were about to serve a customer, though a certain blueness about the lips hinted the truth. ‘Twas a sight King James specially liked to look upon, and he would bring a troupe of courtiers to gaze with him. In short, nothing could exceed the brilliancy and gaiety of the scene by day. But it was at night that the carnival was at its merriest. For the frost continued unbroken; the nights were of perfect stillness; the moon and stars blazed with the hard fixity of diamonds, and to the fine music of flute and trumpet the courtiers danced.
The hiemal revels get a Petrushka-like touch when Orlando meets a princess in the entourage of Muscovy's ambassador. Sasha is a small sprite among the furred and bearded Muscovite nobles. Orlando experiences complete ravishment. “He didn't know whether he had heard her, tasted her, seen her, or all three together.” He regrets his past – “Red-cheeked trulls too many to mention. A puling nun. A hard-bitten cruel-mouthed adventuress. A nodding mass of lace and ceremony” – and neglects his fiancé. Court is scandalized. To escape the buzzing and the stares, the two lovers, shod in steel, skate away up
the frozen reaches of the Thames where, save for sea birds and some old country woman hacking at the ice in a vain attempt to draw a pailful of water or gathering what sticks or dead leaves she could find for firing, not a living soul ever came their way. The poor kept closely to their cottages, and the better sort, who could afford it, crowded for warmth and merriment to the city.
I will resist quoting the entire chapter. It ends spectacularly, with the breaking up of the ice; the society spread upon the ice is disastrously fragmented, and the fragments flushed; Orlando witnesses individuated woe, on each floe (why am I rhyming?). The next few chapters – Orlando as ambassador to the Sublime Porte, as an adopted Gypsy, as a patroness of Dryden and Pope – are nimble and amusing; but I didn't feel Woolf rev up again until Orlando became a crinoline-cased Victorian woman. The manners and garb of the mid-nineteenth century seem to revive her sense of the fantastic. The “spirit of the age” is a “bruised and sullen canopy”; pervading chill; stealthy damp; gloom to inspire Gorey:
The ivy had grown so profusely that many windows were now sealed up. The kitchen was so dark that they could scarcely tell a kettle from a cullender. A poor black cat had been mistaken for coals and shovelled on the fire. Most of the maids were already wearing three or four red-flannel petticoats, though the month was August.
Orlando the romping androgyne, brusque woman, tender man, finds herself
dragged down by the weight of the crinoline which she had submissively adopted. It was heavier and more drab than any dress she had yet worn. None had ever so impeded her movements. No longer could she stride through the garden with her dogs, or run lightly to the high mound and fling herself beneath the oak tree. Her skirts collected damp leaves and straw. The plumed hat tossed on the breeze. The thin shoes were quickly soaked and mud-caked. Her muscles had lost their pliancy. She became nervous lest there should be robbers behind the wainscot and afraid, for the first time in her life, of ghosts in the corridors.
Orlando defers to “the spirit of the age” by “putting on a ring and finding a man on a moor, by loving nature and being no satirist.” The relinquishment of satire by a patron of Pope is telling. Macaulay and Arnold did not think satire a serious poetic mode, called Dryden and Pope classics of England's prose, not its poetry. The dowdy domestic guilelessness of the Victorians was axiomatic in Bloomsbury. Wit and waspishness had been suppressed – along with the urbane, intellectual, non-maternal salonnière as a feminine model. Lytton Strachey, hardly a feminist, laments in a tone akin to Woolf's the domestic immurement of Victorian women. Had Jane Carlyle been born in an earlier time – in the blessedly balmy eighteenth century of Strachey's daydreams and simplistic historiography – she might have become “a consummate writer or ruler and inspirer of some fortunate social group.” His essays are littered with little monuments to mordant memoirists and epistolary stylists like Madame du Deffand and Lady Mary Montagu. It's a shame Thomas Carlyle wasn't one of Strachey's Eminent Victorians, because this splendid rant against the domestication of his wife's worldly satiric spirit should be available in more places than an out-of-print paperback edition of the Biographical Essays:
Even that bold spirit succumbed to the influences that surrounded it; she, too, was a mid-Victorian at heart. The woman's tragedy may be traced in those inimitable letters, whose intoxicated merriment flashes like lightening about the central figure, as it moves in sinister desolation against the background of a most peculiar age: an age barbarism and prudery, of nobility and cheapness, of satisfaction and desperation; an age in which everything was discovered and nothing known; an age in which all the outlines were tremendous and all the details sordid; when gas-jets struggled feebly through the circumambient fog, when the hour of dinner might be at any moment between two and six, when the doses of rhubarb were periodic and gigantic, when pet dogs threw themselves out of upper storey windows, when cooks reeled drunk in areas, when one sat for hours with one's feet in dirty straw dragged along the streets by horses, when an antimacassar was on every chair, and baths were minute tin circles, and the beds were full of bugs and disasters.
I assume the disaster is the wedding night impotence of Thomas Carlyle, or of John Ruskin, anecdotally unmanned by Effie Gray's bush.
I assumed that so critical and diary-keeping a novelist as Woolf would have much to say about each of her works, so I skipped ahead in Hermione Lee's biography to the genesis and composition of Orlando. The diary pages Lee quotes or otherwise points to chimed with my hunches. In March 1928, just days after putting down a provisional The End, Woolf admits that the novel had “begun…as a joke; and now rather too long for my liking. It may fall between stools, be too long for a joke, and too frivolous for a serious novel.” In November of the same year, after the final revisions, she writes:
Orlando taught me how to write a direct sentence; taught me continuity and narrative and how to keep the realities at bay. But I purposely avoided of course any other difficulty. I never got down to my depths and made shapes square up, as I did in the Lighthouse…I want fun. I want fantasy. I want (and this was serious) to give things their caricature value.
Orlando's slim, sparkling, caricatural “biography” is delightful. For crisp drolleries, Woolf beats Strachey at his own game; and her dramatized criticism shows what a true genius could do with his manner and medium. Even on her days off, she's deeper than Strachey. In the rest of that November 1928 entry she explains Orlando as a relief from the soul-trying labors of her more introspective works:
My notion is that there are offices to be discharged by talent for the relief of genius: meaning that one has the play side; the gift when it is mere gift, unapplied gift; and the gift when it is serious, going to business. And one relieves the other.
Marguerite Yourcenar visited Woolf in 1937. She was translating The Waves into French and wished to ask Woolf “how she would prefer I translate certain sentences containing themes or allusions in English poetry: literally, or by trying achieve the same effects with similar themes familiar to French readers.” These problems were “quite alien to her,” and Yourcenar, though waved off, made this elegant salute to a writer she numbered among the “great virtuosos of the English language”:
Only a few days ago, in the sitting room dimly lit by firelight where Mrs. Woolf had been so kind as to welcome me, I watched in the half-light as the profile of that young Fate's face emerged, hardly aged but delicately etched with signs of thought and lassitude, and I reminded myself that the reproach of intellectualism is often directed at the most sensitive natures, those most ardently alive, those obliged by their frailty or their excess of strength constantly to resort to the arduous disciplines of the mind.