Orlando. . . or Sybil?


A favourite novel in first edition on my kitch...

Orlando, First Edition

Towards the end of Virginia Woolf‘s book, Orlando, who else (other than myself) kept thinking of Sybil? Images of Sally Field portraying one of Sybil’s thirteen personalities kept popping into my brain’s eye while I read the passage in which Orlando is driving down the road, changing into different versions of herself/himself. Once again, I believe I’ve missed some, or all, of the symbolism.

Orlando is arguably one of Woolf’s best books according to some well-read literature types. I am not one of those people and don’t plan on making my own assessment of her other writings. So to make things easy for myself, I will agree with them. This novel is a biographical story of a poet, whose character is based upon a person the author had an intimate relationship. A poet that begins as a sixteen year old boy but ends as a married woman. . . a few centuries later.

I can’t say I didn’t like the book but I certainly won’t go as far as saying I enjoyed it either. I mean I had to renew the book twice at the local library. I found that once I actually started to read the book, the story was good enough to keep my attention. It was opening the book again the next time to pick up where I had left off that was the hard part. I don’t know if it’s because I had to reread a few pages to remind the old noggin’ of the gist of what was happening. Or maybe it was because if I really stopped to think about the storyline I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.

There are a couple of beautiful or well phrased sentences in which I stopped to think to myself, “that’s a pretty good sentence. I like that.” Don’t ask me which ones, I apparently did not like it well enough to jot them down. But there were a few. On the other hand there were also long passages that were mighty boring.

Virginia Woolf Smiling? Surely not…

Virginia Woolf

More than once, Woolf explains to the reader how difficult Orlando’s personal papers are to read so she (or the reader) would have to make assumptions or best guesses. I don’t need, nor want, several paragraphs stating this more than once. Then there were pages dedicated to one thought. These were so long-winded that after two or three pages I backtracked to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. Or once the thought was complete, the author threw something at me that I swear she had not been talking about or logically leading up to. I finished reading about Orlando meeting an old acquaintance when she was a man, then there was something about the city landscape, desiring happiness and then boom; Orlando gave birth to a baby.

What the hell? I quickly reviewed the last few pages. Obviously I missed something this time. I’ll admit, I’m not the most observant person. I tend not to notice things that are above my head, I don’t look up too often apparently. And I’m not good at subtle clues; it needs to be blatant. Sk points out when someone flirts with me for I have no idea what’s going on. Nope, I hadn’t missed anything. The man, the city and landscape, finding happiness then the baby boy. There is either symbolism at play here or my theory of multiple personalities isn’t sounding so far-fetched right about now.

So what about this whole changing of gender thing? And the length of time that passed? You think I know? A human being can not live for over 350 years so that didn’t happen. Humans can, and have, changed their gender, their sexual identity or boy parts for girls parts and vice versa. Maybe Woolf wanted us readers to begin discussing gender stereotypes or bring awareness to mental health for all I know. Or maybe she was just toying with us, having some fun, and wanted to raise some eyebrows among the literary world? Once again, symbolism or multiple personalities could explain these.

To be absolutely honest, I do not promote reading the annotated edition of Orlando, at least if you are unfamiliar with the author. This edition provides a plethora of information, too much for the novice reader of her books. Before you get to the beginning of the story, one must read over one hundred pages of Preface, Chronology and Introduction. You get a short biography of Woolf herself; an informative timeline displaying her publications and family life, important political and cultural events along with other significant pieces of art. Finally, the Introduction gives great background information of the novel itself; revealing who the character Orlando is based upon and Woolf’s relationship with that person. Once I finished the preliminaries I looked forward to the story.

And then I read the story. Unfortunately, I found all that information about Woolf and the background of Orlando much more interesting than the book itself. This historian found the factual background data much more entertaining than the fantasy world of the author. I came to this book not having read any novel by Woolf nor knowing anything about her personal life. I was shocked to read of her suicide in the Preface and I found the lesbian relationship with the woman whom the character Orlando is based on intriguing. The novel was neither shocking nor intriguing. The reader’s knowledge of Virginia Woolf would determine which edition of Orlando I would recommend, not highly recommend but I would not consider it a waste of time to read either. Out of five stars, I would give it a three.

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5 thoughts on “Orlando. . . or Sybil?

  1. I applaud your dogged persistence in getting through this book. The preface, including history, sounds more up my alley as well. This sounds like the kind of book I’d need to read in the context of a class or a book discussion group. Teacher expectations and/or peer pressure sounds like the only things that would get me through it.

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  2. I’ve never read this book and I am impressed and found your review of it very interesting. and I think that will do me for this book. Thanks, I really appreciate a “talking book” , My partner reads voraciously and often gives me a synopsis of a book so we can talk about it, It really works for me.i do read somethings on my own,like Leslie Fienberg (my hero) but mostly murder mysteries. I admire your bravery.

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  3. The last book was much worse than this one so at least they are getting better! 🙂 Plus, I’m stubborn. . .it’s an asset once in a while.

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  4. You have your very own audio book in your partner! Murder mysteries are very popular but still not my cup of tea, unless it’s a nonfiction account of some wacko or I do enjoy a good psychological thriller such as Silence of the Lambs. With all the tech gadgets nowadays, I’m just impressed when anyone reads an actual book, no matter what genre. Thank you again for commenting. Cheers.

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