Reading Orlando after On Being Ill as I did, it was illness that I noticed—in a novel where I didn’t much expect it, in fact. After all, when this is the biography of a character who lives for three centuries, one doesn’t expect him to spend much time ill—and what time is there for that, when he must also sleep with Elizabeth I, romance a mysterious Russian princess, become a patron of the arts, ambassador to Turkey… But after Orlando’s first disappointment in love, in his affair with the Muscovite Sasha, he returns to his lands and falls into a trance or coma for a week.
Here, Virginia Woolf seems to have the same attitude toward illness as in her essay: that it is an integral part of life. The “daily drama of life” is “death in small doses daily.” Here, in a novel much lighter than, say, Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse, she throws a little joke in at the end of her musings:
Has the finger of death to be laid on the tumult of life from time to time lest it rend us asunder? Are we so made that we have to take death in small doses daily or we could not go on with the business of living? And then what strange powers are these that penetrate our most secret ways and change our most treasured possessions without our willing it? Had Orlando, worn out by the extremity of his suffering, died for a week, and then come to life again? And if so, of what nature is death and of what nature life? Having waited well over half an hour for an answer to these questions, and none coming, let us get on with the story.
That intrusive narrator will appear throughout. You see, Orlando is a biography, and among other things Woolf is exploring notions of biography and history. She’s also exploring, as she did from a different angle in To the Lighthouse, creation—this time rather than using a proxy, she is writing about writing. Writing, and reading, can also make you ill, and in Orlando’s case it can make you ill for centuries.
The disease gained rapidly upon him now in his solitude. He would read often six hours into the night; and when they came to him for orders about the slaughtering of cattle or the harvesting of wheat, he would push away his folio and look as if he did not understand what was said to him. …But worse was to come. For once the disease of reading has laid hold upon the system it weakens it so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the ink pot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing. …The flavour of it all goes out of him; he is riddled by hot irons; gnawed by vermin. He would give every penny he has (such is the malignity of the germ) to write one little book and become famous; yet all the gold in Peru will not buy him the treasure of a well-turned line. So he falls into consumption and sickness, blows his brains out, turns his face to the wall. It matters not in what attitude they find him. He has passed through the gates of Death and known the flames of Hell.
Orlando writes, and burns his writing, and spends centuries—literally—revising a single poem. Crossing out s’s. Eliminating the dread “ing” of the present participle. No wonder writing is a disease, when it’s carried out like this in pursuit of perfection.
Other poets are diseased as well, with “the palsy, the gout, the ague, the dropsy…an enlarged heart, a great spleen, and a diseased liver.” And even when Orlando can escape the disease of writing for a while, there are other ones to watch out for: “The English disease, a love of Nature,” and also the damp. Here Woolf calls to mind Mrs. Ramsey, with her worry about opening windows and closing doors, keeping the damp out of her cottage on the Isle of Skye. “[D]amp, which is the most insidious of all enemies, for while the sun can be shut out by blinds, and the frost roasted by a hot fire, damp steals in while we sleep; damp is silent, imperceptible, ubiquitous”—and turns the world into stifling, disorienting Victorian England, the first place Orlando doesn’t feel at home. Orlando was once transformed by a sort of illness—a recurrence of his mysterious coma—and now all of England is transformed by the disease of damp into a place that’s broken with the past in a way the eighteenth century didn’t break with the seventeenth. And that leads to more illness in the now-female Orlando, who is nauseated at the idea of not having a husband.
The focus on the writing illness gives tantalizing insights that we feel must be Woolf’s on the nature of her work, though they come through the intermediary of Orlando. And what else can this be than illness, with its “no devotion…too great” and its neverending reach for something “less distorting”—which Woolf thinks is a quality of illness as well:
…[P]oetry can adulterate and destroy more surely than lust or gunpowder. The poet’s then in the highest office of all, she continued. His words reach where others fall short. A silly song of Shakespeare’s has done more for the poor and the wicked than all the preachers and philanthropists in the world. No time, no devotion, can be too great, therefore, which makes the vehicle of our message less distorting. We must shape our words till they are the thinnest integument for our thoughts. Thoughts are divine. Thus it is obvious that she was back in the confines of her own religion which time had only strengthened in her absence, and was rapidly acquiring the intolerance of belief.
Who’s to know what Woolf’s thoughts are, then, with that harsh evaluation of closed thinking? Sometimes she, or Orlando, seems a bit more bitter:
Life, it has been agreed by everyone whose opinion is worth consulting, is the only fit subject for novelist or biographer; life, the same authorities have decided, has nothing whatever to do with sitting still in a chair and thinking. Thought and life are as the poles asunder.
Woolf has proved this dramatically wrong in every work of hers I’ve read, and Orlando does so a bit differently than the previous two novels in Woolf in Winter, I believe. The lightness and comedy here, the fact that Orlando is in some ways a genre novel—historical fiction or magical realism, take your pick—and even the focus on gender-bending, which is serious but treated naturally rather than cerebrally—all this makes Orlando a much more accessible work still based entirely in Woolf’s vision and aesthetic. It left me impressed in a whole new way. Woolf can be herself without having to always be heavy; she can be more inclusive and outwardly joyful and show that her project works here as well.
This week, Frances at Nonsuch Book is hosting Woolf in Winter. Check out her wonderful post on Orlando as well as other participants’.