Virginia Woolf might seem an odd name to crop up in a series examining the history of science fiction in literature. But I’d heard rumours of time travel so it deserved my attention. Orlando: A biography was first published in 1928 and was Woolf’s 6th novel. It is said to have been inspired by the writer Vita Sackville-West.
Without knowing anything about it, other than it begins as a fictional biography of a man called Orlando and the 1992 film starred Tilda Swinton in the title role, I read the 2012 Canongate edition, without reading the introduction.
The complete plot itself is difficult to describe, due to the nature of the style. Orlando begins telling the story of a nobleman in the court of Elizabeth I – so we’re in the mid to late 1500s. The teenage and male Orlanda had been a favourite of the queen. He soon falls for a Russian princess; but he has obligations. They plan to run off to Russia, but she betrays him, just as the ice of winter melts in London. He returns to a poem he is trying to perfect, but a writer he meets (Nicholas Greene) pours scorn on it. Greene then mocks Orlando in a work of published fiction. Depressed, he seeks a new challenge and is sent to Constantinople as an ambassador. It is now it now sometime in the mid 1600s. Orlando hasn’t aged much and no explanation is given. One night, while performing his ambassadorial role in a time of riots, he goes to sleep a man and wakes up a woman. No explanation. She is the same person, but in the body of a woman. Orlando now escapes Constantinople with some gypsies and heads back to England, where she embarks on various relationships with writers and marries a sea captain. He is potentially non-gender specific too, albeit portraying himself as a man. Greene is still alive and hasn’t aged either. He now helps Orlando publish the poem he once ridiculed. The novel concludes in 1928 when Orlando’s poem wins a prize and her sailor husband finally returns form a voyage.
There’s not a lot to say about this book. Sentences are brilliantly written, while paragraphs go on for pages; which proves challenging at times. Meanwhile not a lot seems to happen for huge chunks of the book with the ‘biographer’ procrastinates on this and that – including the nature of writing a biography. There are lists that seem to go on forever.
There is nothing in Orlando that gives a clue as to why the gender of the protagonist changes, other than it gives Woolf license to discuss gender roles. There is nothing in Orlando to explain how or why the eponymous character and Greene can move through time, other than for Woolf to make comment on the various societies she wants to comment on. I would have thought a more successful way of exploring these issues would have been with a more realistic plot devise, as shown by Wells in The Time Traveller. I spent most of the book wishing the lists would end and some explanation of the events would eventually appear, rather than enjoying the narrative or being interested in much of what Woolf had to say.
Which is a shame because sometimes I was really taken with Woolf’s imagination and wit. Sometimes, the post-modernism or metafiction or whatever really works, as Woolf’s biographer asks to consider this, or ignore that because it is boring or irrelevant, or asks to pause just before a moment of significance. Individual sentences and passages are to be admired, but that classes with confusion over the narrative.
There is plenty of worthy discussion of gender roles and the place of women in society in which is totally commendable; except the fact than in almost 100 years since it was written, not much has altered in the attitudes of many men, which is dreadful.
Sadly, Orlando is not an enjoyable read, taken in totality. It is not science fiction, despite the time travel. It barely registers a traditional fantasy. No magic is deployed. At best it is a metafictional magic realism (a genre I really like) and maybe an early example of post-modernism. It might be said to have a vague science-fiction-ness, in the sense that it is about what it means to be a man and a woman at various points in history, but the narrative contrivances take away whatever pluses that conceit brings. Orlando should have no influence on science fiction other than the feminism aspect and the inspiration provided by Woolf herself.