Reading Woolf: The Dark Side of Orlando (1928)

Last year, at the 24th Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf, I had the pleasure—along with dozens and dozens of other Woolfians—to attend an excellent performance of Sarah Ruhl‘s stage adaptation of Orlando (1928). The students performing the play were brilliant, and it probably didn’t hurt that they had a room full of people who got every joke and followed the quirky plot without any trouble. It was funny; it was moving; it was (in short) perfect. I’m pretty sure everyone’s ribs were sore the next morning!

But over the past week, I’ve been rereading the novel and have noticed something a little less funny. Here’s a collage of passages from the first chapter (page numbers refer to the Harcourt Annotated edition):

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. (11)

Sights disturbed him [. . .]; sights exalted him—the birds and the trees; and made him in love with death. (13)

Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces. (14)

There is perhaps a kinship among qualities [. . .]. Having stumbled over a chest, Orlando naturally loved solitary places, vast views, and to feel himself for ever and ever alone. (14)

Sometimes one could see the English Channel, wave reiterating upon wave. (14-15)

Was this a poet? Was he writing poetry? “Tell me,” he wanted to say, “everything in the whole world”—for he had the wildest, most absurd, extravagant ideas about poets and poetry—but how to speak to a man who does not see you? who sees ogres, satyrs, perhaps the depths of the sea instead? (17)

It was a memorable hand; a thin hand with long fingers always curling as if round orb or sceptre; a nervous, crabbed, sickly hand; a commanding hand too; a hand that had only to raise for a head to fall; a hand [. . .] attached to an old body that smelt like a cupboard in which furs are kept in camphor. (17)

For she was growing old and worn before her time. The sound of the cannon was always in her ears. [. . .] Innocence, simplicity, were all the more dear to her for the dark background she set them against. (18)

“This,” she breathed, “is my victory!”—even as a rocket roared up and dyed her cheeks scarlet. (20)

One day [. . .] she saw in a mirror, which she kept for fear of spies always by her, through the door, which she kept for fear of murderers always open, a boy—could it be Orlando?—kissing a girl—who in the Devil’s name was the brazen hussy? (20)

[S]he was stricken after that and groaned much, as her days wore to an end, of man’s treachery. (20)

Violence was all. (21)

The mortality among sheep and cattle was enormous [. . .] a whole herd of swine frozen immovable upon the road. The fields were full of shepherds, ploughmen, teams of horses, and little bird-scaring boys all struck stark in the act of the moment [. . .] [I]t was commonly supposed that the great increase in rocks was due to no eruption, for there was none, but to the solidification of unfortunate wayfarers who had been turned literally to stone where they stood. The Church could give little help in the matter, and though some landowners had these relics blessed, the most part preferred to use them either as landmarks, scratching-posts for sheep, or, when the form of the stone allowed, drinking troughs for cattle, which purposes they serve, admirably for the most part, to this day. (25-26)

But while the country people suffered the extremity of want, and the trade of the country was at a standstill, London enjoyed a carnival of the utmost brilliancy. (26)

The old bumboat 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. (27)

Yet over it all hung a cloud. (31)

[. . .] a creature soft as snow, but with teeth of steel, which bit him so savagely that his father had it killed. (33)

Then suddenly, Orlando would fall into one of his moods of melancholy; the sight of the old woman hobbling over the ice might be the cause of it, or nothing; and would fling himself face downwards on the ice and look into the frozen waters and think of death. (33-34)

It would not be hard to keep going.

I understand that all of these passages are out of context and that their absurdity in context (at least when they are absurd) contributes to the sharp, critical knife-edge of Woolf’s style in Orlando. I understand that Woolf’s irony is sometimes cruelly subtle, sometimes explosively funny, sometimes radically subversive, sometimes powerfully moving. And yet—to borrow some phrasing from the passages about the queen—there also seems to be a “dark background” taking shape here. What work does this background do? Should the “[t]he sound of the cannon” be in our ears too as we read the novel? And why? How? What sort of cannon?

A couple of summers ago, a student spoke up in my Modern Novel class and confessed, “Maybe I just don’t get her jokes like the rest of you. Maybe I’m way off. But . . .” She paused. After encouraging her to finish her thought, the student added, “I just don’t feel like I can trust this narrator. Or this author even. I feel like she’s keeping something from me—from us—that’ll leap out when I’m least prepared.” Though I don’t really remember the details of my response, I did not handle this moment very well as a teacher. I do remember feeling confused,  utterly baffled. ‘How could anyone not trust Woolf?’ I wondered.

While the dark intimations of the passages above do not give me cause to doubt or mistrust Orlando (I’ve read the novel too many times) and while I find them fascinating and worth investigation rather than disheartening or off-putting, perhaps I am beginning to understand what this student was sensing. I don’t think Woolf is holding anything back, but it’s clear to me that there’s something at the back of the novel that should unnerve us. A sadness? An indifference? A despair? I’m not quite sure yet.

Reading on . . .

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