A couple of months ago I won a copy of The Waves by Virginia Woolf (1882 to 1941-England) in a book blog giveaway contest. I had never prior to receiving that book read anything by Virginia Woolf. I had no aversion or apprehension about her, she was just one of those many authors I had not yet got around to. While reading The Waves I also read a couple of her short stories and essays. I next read her Jacob's Room which I really enjoyed. I next read Mrs Dalloway. At that point I looked over a listing of her oeuvre. Over all her out put is overwhelming but if one focuses in on her fiction it seems reasonable to attempt to read it all. I knew some of her books are considered "difficult" modern works in the manner of Joyce and Ford but none of them are big monsters and most can be read online. I loved all the references to books and authors that her work contains so I decided I would begin The Reading Life Virginia Woolf Project and try to read all of her fiction. I decided to more or less read her four consensus master works first. They are (in no order) Mrs Dalloway, The Waves, Orlando, and The Lighthouse. My thinking was that if I began the project and some how got diverted or did not complete it at least I will have read her best works.
I just completed Orlando. Prior to reading Orlando I read Vita-A Biography of Vita Sackville-West by Victoria Glendinning. Vita Sackville-West, a larger than life super wealthy aristocrat, author and a lover of Woolf, is the role model for the central character of Orlando. In fact, Orlando is dedicated to her.
Orlando is a wonderful super interesting and very funny alleged biography of an English aristocrat who over the course of an unnaturally long life is transformed from a man to a woman. I do not feel a lot of need to recast the action of this very well known book. Orlando has many wonderful adventures, romances of various sorts and along the way gets infected with what the persona of the pseudo-biographer calls "the disease of loving to read".
A fine gentleman like that, they said, had no need of books. Let him leave books, they said, to the palsied or the dying. But worse was to come. For once the disease of reading has laid upon the system it weakens it so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the inkpot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing. And while this is bad enough in a poor man, whose only property is a chair and a table set beneath a leaky roof — for he has not much to lose, after all — the plight of a rich man, who has houses and cattle, maidservants, asses and linen, and yet writes books, is pitiable in the extreme.
There are a number of very good blog posts on Orlando that do a great job covering the themes of the book. Dolce Bellezza has an excellent post.
I did find it somehow interesting to see the treatment of Gypsies in Chapter Three when Orlando became involved with a tribe (Woolf's word). Woolf's treatment of Gypsies is much more subtle than the simple prejudice shown in say, Jane Eyre, but it did make me wonder what was behind it.
Looked at from the Gypsy point of view, a Duke, Orlando understood, was nothing but a profiteer or robber who snatched land and money from people who rated these things of little worth, and could think of nothing better to do than to build three hundred and sixty-five bedrooms when one was enough, and none was even better than one. She could not deny that her ancestors had accumulated field after field; house after house; honour after honour; yet had none of them been saints or heroes, or great benefactors of the human race.
(Before any one dismisses my concerns on this keep in mind that about 500,000 people considered Gypsies were killed in concentration camps in WWII.)
So far Orlando is my favorite Woolf novel. I think I might read her famous critical literary essay A Room of Her Own next then maybe I work of short fiction then I will read The Lighthouse. I saw a recent posting on a survey of lists of best 100 books of all times and The Lighthouse is the most frequently listed of her books.
If anyone has any suggestions as to how to go about my project, please leave a comment.
Orlando (and many more great books) can be read online at the web page of the University of Adelaide Library.