It occurs to me that it’s a little strange for a man to write about Virginia Woolf in general, and Orlando specifically. Not for any good reason, but it’s an oddity. Why should a book that is a reflection on gender roles and identity be the sole province of women? Well, I picked it up because I have a lifelong goal of trying to read every book in my house and I needed a fiction book in my queue. Overall, I have a fondness for writing in this era, the early twentieth century. (Is it called modernism, or Edwardian? Someone please enlighten me.) I enjoyed Somerset Maugham, T.S. Eliot, and the British war writers like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. I’m also partial to historical fiction, so this seemed like a good fit.
Orlando turns out not to be a terrific work of historical fiction. It drifts through eras and setting without the benefit of the kind of research one expects from authors like Gore Vidal or Kenneth Roberts. But that isn’t the point of the book. Woolf paints an impressionistic picture of these time periods with just enough detail to set a scene as Orlando lives through the Elizabethan, Georgian, Industrial Revolution, and Modern eras. Specific historical events are painted over and skipped, most notably the First World War. That said, the images of the frozen river and London in the time of Shakespeare are powerful. The imagery of the English countryside and seasons are evocative, and the vocabulary is a treasure trove throughout the book, but it just isn’t a proper historical fiction.
The film does a better job with historical setting, both because it is a visual medium where changes of clothing can serve to set a historical scene, and because there are so many conventions to draw on in film making for different eras. It occurs to me that this may be true for the writing in the book as well. Orlando is considered a satire on periods of English literature and that may be apparent in the language throughout the book. If that is the case it would be a cool technique, but I missed it dolt that I am.
Why did I watch the film? Well, for one, the edition of the book that I have is a huge advertisement for the movie. The cover is Tilda Swinton in Elizabethan male costume. Stills from the film abound on the back cover. For another reason, I often gain a great deal from watching a film adaptation of a book. As long as it hews fairly closely to the book that is. I have a bad habit of drifting off mentally during a book, distracted by worldly concerns or prompted to tangential thought by something I read. Sometimes that leaves me missing vital points in the plot. I read and enjoyed The Hunt for Red October for instance, but completely lost the thread in certain places. Watching the movie cleared up quite a bit for me, especially the sub-plot about the radiation badges and the fake nuclear reactor incident. In Orlando, I somehow trailed off and missed what is probably the most important scene in the book. After surviving a revolt or coup in Turkey, the protagonist goes into a death-like trance and wakes up as a woman. Several pages had gone by before I realized what had happened, and I didn’t understand why it had.
As far as I know, the book never answers or seeks to answer the question of why Orlando lives for centuries, or why he/she undergoes a spontaneous sex change. The film hints that the Highlander-like immortality is a kind of glamer laid by Quentin Crisp’s androgynous Queen Elizabeth. If this happened in the book, I must have been wool-gathering again. As to the sex change, as far as I can tell it is a deux ex machina in book and film alike. Overall, the movie makes a lot of changes to the story, especially to the ending. In the book, Orlando doesn’t lose her home, which I thought was strange when reading. The whole legal controversy that ensures when a landowner magically transitions to a woman was rather glossed over. In the film, this point marks a complete change to the storyline where Orlando ends up a single, dispossessed mother on a motorcycle. The movie ends in what appear to be 1993 which I thought was an appropriate change. The book ends on its own date of publication.
The film had a few fun quirks. I enjoyed the absence of subtitles. There is even a good joke told entirely in French that must have been lost on nearly everyone who watched it, at least in America. Orlando tells his paramour Sasha (not a woman’s name by the way) that the English only speak English. Sasha asks how they talk to foreigners and Orlando answers that they speak English louder. It’s a solid burn on English speakers and it gives the art house crowd a quick thrill of feeling superior. Tilda Swinton is great in this movie and as far as I know she was relatively unknown at the time. When the movie breaks the fourth wall, I had flashbacks of something else. It took me a minute to realize that it was to Fleabag. Phoebe Waller-Bridge must have been channeling this movie on some level. Even the tones of Waller’s perfectly posh accent are a dead-on match for Swinton.
I don’t want to delve far into the feminism of this book. I saw nothing particularly controversial to a modern reader. I agree that women should be allowed to own property and pursue careers and it seems obvious. But I’m sure that’s only on the surface. I hinted before that I felt like a stranger in a strange land with such subjects and it’s true. I’m aware how well-trodden this book is in such circles. I might as well try to pontificate to Richard Feynman on quantum theory. But I would like to make an open request that there be more guys like me thinking and talking about gender. The only time I’ve ever seen anything like that was in Fight Club. That was the only discussion of male gender I’ve ever seen that wasn’t directly related to war. Not that it said anything terribly smart or correct about masculinity, but it was talking about it, which was a change. Men tend not to think about being men the way that fish don’t spend a lot of time thinking about water. I guess I’m saying that there should be an Orlando for boys.