“He sighed profoundly, and flung himself – there was a passion in his movements which deserves the word – on the earth at the foot of the oak tree. He loved, beneath all this summer transiency, to feel the earth’s spine beneath him; […] and he lay so still that by degrees the deer stopped nearer and the rooks wheeled round him and the swallows dipped and circled and the dragonflies shot past, as if all the fertility and amorous activity of a summer’s evening were woven web-like about his body.”
Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is a very special book for me. I was actually introduced to it by my English teacher when I was 16, who had encouraged me to read it for an essay competition run by Cambridge University. At this point, I’d never read any Woolf. And there was no way I thought I was good enough to do this essay.
But Orlando is a singularly beautiful and strange book. Described as ‘the longest and most charming love letter in literature’, Woolf devoted the book to her lover Vita Sackville-West. Spanning three centuries, the novel begins with Orlando as a young nobleman in Elizabethan England – the quote comes from this early part of the book. But with a charming strangeness, Orlando wakes up one day in Istanbul to find himself a woman, and the novel then follows her life through the 18th and 19th centuries, ending in 1928 when women were on the brink of suffrage. The whole immortal business is barely acknowledged, and the way Orlando accepts his transformation into a woman with a mere shrug is superb. This novel is unashamed to be itself and it showcases her writing at its most playful and optimistic.
I’ve quoted that particular paragraph in the novel for a variety of reasons. Firstly, there are hundreds of examples of the beauty of Woolf’s poetic prose style, and this is an excellent one. Secondly, as a fledgling adult (almost 21, feeling 17), I’m around Orlando’s age at this point, about to start my life outside of education and begin the adventure that is life. But most of all, I read this around the time I had one of the best summers of my life: my first love, my first time away from home, and unusually glorious summer weather. And I remember, on one of those particularly sunny days, lying at the base of a big old tree in a park that I used to play in as a child, waiting for my (then) boyfriend to come back with a couple of ice-creams, feeling the cool grass between my fingers and my toes, the sun warming my skin, and thinking that I couldn’t possibly be happier.
n.b. I compared Orlando with Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and went on to win the essay competition, which was run by the Cambridge college that accepted me a year later to read English – 2 years in and I still can’t believe I got in. I’ve also read a lot more Woolf since then and she is firmly established in my heart; I’ll always go to Woolf if I want to lose myself in a novel. Orlando might have been a ‘love-letter’ to Vita Sackville-West, but it certainly charmed a few more along the way.