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Orlando: a Biography

By Virginia Woolf 

19 Feb, 2020

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Virginia Woolf’s 1928 Orlando: A Biography is a standalone surrealist fantasy.

Orlando is attractive, creative, and well-born, a trio of qualities that wins the young man a place in Queen Elizabeth’s court. His ability to see beauty in his crushes is rivaled only by his capacity to see flaws in those of whom he has tired. His life at court is a whirlwind of passionate but short-lived affairs.

Until Sasha.

Russian princess Sasha arrives in London as part of a diplomatic embassy. Like so many before her, she captures Orlando’s heart. Unlike her predecessors, she and not Orlando ends the affair, thoroughly trampling the young man’s heart in the process. 

Orlando’s efforts to rebuild his life produce mixed results. He turns to art; pretentious poet Nicolas Greene lampoons his daubs. He turns diplomat and convinces Charles II to dispatch him to Constantinople.

Orlando’s diplomatic career goes as well as one could hope, given that he has arrived in a Constantinople teetering on the edge of a violent uprising (something that has completely escaped English notice). As the city spirals into riot, Orlando falls into a deathlike sleep. The rioters take Orlando for a corpse and do not murder him as they do other foreigners. Orlando wakes up a woman.

Orlando takes her new gender in stride. Once back in England, she dabbles in the arts. For three centuries. Time, it seems, has little hold on the protean aristocrat. 


Readers unaware of the novel’s publication date might be able to hazard a guess as to when it appeared from Woolf’s treatment of characters who inexplicably decline to be English and her off-handed use of the N‑word.

Orlando’s occasional gender switches and fantastic longevity are never explained. They just happen. Orlando finds a few other Methuselahs (or should I say Lazarus Longs?). This isn’t explained either. 

This book was intended as a love letter to Woolf’s long-time lover and friend Vita Sackville-West, about whom I know a lot less than I should. The book is also a satirical look at several centuries of English arts and a protest against anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice. This is not the first reference to Sackville-West I have encountered in the last few weeks, which undoubtedly means that I need to track down her novel Grand Canyon, which appears to be SF. 

Orlando is also the sort of novel that’s well outside my wheelhouse. Orlando is an oddly passive character (particularly given the intensity of the passions that drive them). Perhaps this is how they adapt so well to their changing circumstances. Towards the end, the novel feels a bit like the author wasn’t entirely certain where she wanted to go … but that didn’t bother me all that much. On the whole, the novel was diverting, if not something I’d want to re-read any time soon. It wasn’t quite my thing but it might be yours. 

Orlando: a Biography is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).