“He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.” 13
I’m re-reading Orlando. The first time I read it, probably five years ago, I instantly counted it among my favorite books, and the second go-around is not disappointing. Some books will reverberate softly for the first reading but then go dead for the second. But others are rich and varied enough that they continue to have something to offer.
“Heaven knows why, just as we have lost faith in human intercourse some random collocation of barns and trees or a haystack and a waggon presents us with so perfect a symbol of what is unattainable that we begin the search again.” 215-6
Though I’ll use a lot of quotes here, Orlando is not a book which yields up bushels of quotes which bear repeating in everyday life—though there are a few. I’m inclined to seeing it as Leaves of Grass was intended: every line is equal to the others, and part of a whole. The book acts like it has no structure, words and images brimming off of the page and gushing stickily through concepts and events.
“Then, looking down, the red hyacinth, the purple iris wrought her to cry out in ecstasy at the goodness, the beauty of nature; raising her eyes again, she beheld the eagle soaring, and imagined its raptures and made them her own. Returning home, she saluted each star, each peak, and each watch-fire as if they signalled to her alone; and at last, when she flung herself upon her mat in the gipsies’ tent, she could not help bursting out again, How good to eat! How good to eat!” 144
Orlando, the character, behaves the same way—fluid, capricious, exploding with personality. He (or she, as he wakes up female in the third chapter and stays that way) is an ecstatic, capable of achieving incredible joy.
“ ‘All ends in death,’ Orlando would say, sitting upright, his face clouded with gloom. (For that was the way his mind worked now, in violent see-saws from life to death stopping at nothing in between . . .” 46
But he flows from concept to concept, from passion to opposing passion, from war to love and from poetry to death, just as he flows from 15th to 16th to 18th to 20th century, and from one gender to the other—and never fully leaves any of these behind.
“Yet she might drop all the handkerchiefs in her wardrobe (of which she had many scores) upon the ice and Orlando never stooped to pick them up. She might wait twenty minutes for him to hand her to the sledge, and in the end have to be content with the services of her Blackamoor. When she skated, which she did rather clumsily, no one was at her elbow to encourage her, and, if she fell, which she did rather heavily, no one raised her to her feet and dusted the snow from her petticoats.” 42-43
As a young man Orlando becomes engaged to the lady Euphrosyne, but weeks before the marriage he meets and falls in love with the Sasha the Muscovite, and does not think twice about leaving the first behind (and neither does the narrator, who, from the start, didn’t seem to like her much either).
Orlando lives in his own mind and does not fuss over the pains he causes others as he steps into or out of their lives. This self-absorption can appear heartless, but so can the ignorance of the gentlemen and ladies he lives among; when the great freeze petrifies the animals and the poor in their tracks, the king orders a carnival on the icy river, and there are little scenes like this:
“The old bum-boat 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.”
“A woman knows very well that, though a wit sends her his poems, praises her judment, solicits her criticism, and drinks her tea, this by no means signifies that he respects her opinions, admires her understanding, or will refuse, though the rapier is denied him, to run her through the body with his pen. All this, we say, whisper it as low as we can, may have leaked out by now; so that even with the cream jug suspended and the sugar tongs distended the ladies may fidget a little, look out of the window a little, yawn a little, and so let the sugar fall with a great plop—as Orlando did now—into Mr. Pope’s tea. Never was any mortal so ready to suspect an insult or so quick to avenge one as Mr. Pope . . .” 214
Seeking Truth, seeking the best Way of life, seeking Happiness above all, Orlando makes changes in his environment, his friends, and his habits. When he discovers that these new habits and friends are not giving him the Happiness she’s looking for, he stops respecting them, and drops them. She can be vindictive about it.
This same behavior in others has punished Orlando more than once. I mean the insult against his love by faithless Sasha, and I mean the insult against his poetry by Greene, the first poet he associates with.
“She found the tarn on the mountain-top and almost threw herself in to seek the wisdom she thought lay hid there; and when, from the mountain-top, she beheld, far off, across the Sea of Marmara the plains of Greece, and made out (her eyes were admirable) the Acropolis with a white streak or two which must, she thought, be the Parthenon, her soul expanded with her eyeballs, and she prayed that she might share the majesty of the hills, know the serenity of the plains, etc., etc., as all such believers do.” 143
But what can Orlando do but continue her search for what will make her happiest?
“. . . Orlando felt drawing further from her and further from her an Archduke (she did not mind that) a fortune (she did not mind that) the safety and circumstance of married life (she did not mind that) but life she heard going from her, and a lover. “Life and a lover,” she murmured . . .” 185
But at the same time Orlando is a deeply intelligent, introspective, independent character unconstrained by time and money and acting opposite to society and its opinions when they are opposite to her own reason and desires.
“What a phantasmagoria the mind is and meeting-place of dissemblables. At one moment we deplore our birth and state and aspire to an ascetic exaltation; the next we are overcome by the smell of some old garden path and weep to hear the thrushes sing.” 176
Can a mind, particularly an active mind like Orlando’s, be consistently happy in any environment?
“Orlando’s fathers had ridden in fields of asphodel, and stony fields, and fields watered by strange rivers, and they had struck many heads of many colours off many shoulders, and brought them back to hang from the rafters. So too would Orlando, he vowed.” 13
The endearing, admirable, and loving personage of Orlando is riddled with the weaknesses, the hard and soft spots, the cruelties and caprices and bitternesses and desires of human nature. War, bloodshed, hatred, crime—we can read all the causes of them in Orlando’s patterns at one point or another.
She cracks open the poetries and histories of her culture and our own and reveals the cruelties they’re built upon—just as she cracks open the nature of the poets themselves, opposing Orlando’s repeated idealization with them against the crude reality. But at the same time, via the beauty and the passion with which she writes, she celebrates the beauty of the lines they wrote; through Orlando’s constant yearning towards Truth she celebrates the intentions behind the beautiful verses. And the same patterns which lead to bloodshed can lead to love, to pleasure, and to charity.
Just as Orlando is, beneath a waterfall of words and ideas, a diligently structured novel, consistent behind Orlando’s lack of constancy are the characteristics I’ve already listed here. Intelligent, ecstatic, introspective, moody; creative and passionate; independent and adventurous.
“In short, he was preparing in the chivalry of his heart to forgive [Orlando] and had bent to ask her pardon for the violence of his language, when she cut the matter short, as he stooped his proud head, by dropping a small toad between his skin and his shirt. In justice to her, it must be said that she would infinitely have preferred a rapier. Toads are clammy things to conceal about one’s person. But if rapiers are forbidden, one must have recourse to toads.” 183-4
Though I purposely have drawn out many of the less favorable aspects of her personality, the truth is that in a casual read (until words like “Moor” and “Negress” come up, the kinds which frighten us out of complacent enjoyment) Orlando is so charming and intriguing that you would rarely consider disliking her .
Dragged here and there by violent passions, Orlando is always true to herself (or himself), and I believe that any reader will want to be a bit like her.
“A more candid, sullen face it would be impossible to find.” 14
By being honest about the faults of her hero, the author builds an epic out of a human being who is, even to the point of cruelty, honest to herself.
Page numbers are from the 1956 Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich edition.