Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that


by Virginia Woolf

This is an odd book. Having read some Woolf before and knowing roughly what the storyline was I thought I knew what to expect, but it wasn’t really what I got. I ended up greatly enjoying it but though I found it clever and witty from the start, it took me a while – more than half the book – to actually like it.

How to explain the story? Orlando is born the son and heir to an aristocratic English family and becomes beloved courtier to Queen Elizabeth I and then King James I until his heart is broken by a Russian beauty, after which he sulks his way through the civil war and Restoration and then travels to Turkey to be the British Ambassador there to King Charles II, is made a duke, then falls asleep for a week and wakes up a woman, upon which she continues to have adventures up until the present day (or rather the present when the novel was written, back in 1928).

Notice the hinky timeline there? Orlando’s ability to live through centuries with minimal ageing (the narrative clearly states Orlando is 30 when he turns into a she about a third of the way through the novel, despite about a century having passed since the book’s opening scene, in which a 16-year-old Orlando alternates swordplay with writing poetry) isn’t directly addressed until quite late on, and it took me a little while to notice the historical clues to this fantastical thread. The switch in Orlando’s gender, on the other hand, is very directly dealt with, with comments on Orlando’s gender from page one.

“Orlando stared; trembled; turned hot; turned cold; longed to hurl himself through the summer air; to crush acorns beneath his feet…Whom had he loved, what had he loved, he asked himself in a tumult of emotion, until now?…Love had meant to him nothing but sawdust and cinders…as he looked the thickness of his blood melted; the ice turned to wine in his veins…he dived in deep water; he saw the flower of danger growing in a crevice…”

I can see how many an essay could be based on this book, there are so many interesting themes and details, from gender identity and sexuality, to Orlando’s attempts to be a patron of poets and a poet him/herself, to Woolf’s view of the changes in society over the centuries covered, and so much more besides. (It’s also apparently a fictionalised biography of Vita Sackville-West, with whom Woolf had an affair and to whom the novel is dedicated, but I don’t know enough about the real-life history to have spotted this within the text myself.)

What struck me most was the tone of the book. It’s very satirical, almost brashly so, and this I felt kept me at a distance from the story, which was in stark contrast to my experience of Woolf’s other works. This meant I never got a handle on Orlando as a person but I did (eventually) grow to love the style and rhythm of the story.

“Once the disease of reading has laid hold upon the system it weakens it so that it falls 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…the plight of a rich man, who has houses and cattle, maid-servants, asses and linen, and yet writes books, is pitiable in the extreme.”

There’s certainly no shortage of great lines. I had to stop using sticky notes to mark great quotes and start using a pencil, because there were so many but also because I found myself wanting to add little comments. I just wish I’d found a harder pencil as I’m having to squint a bit to read my faint scribbles!

While the genres the book satirises – picaresque adventure, historical biography, overblown romance – are as old as the novel, and while this is not written in Woolf’s familiar Modernist style, there are nevertheless modern touches. Woolf breaks the fourth wall by not only speaking direct to the reader and discussing the art of writing biography but even referencing specific page numbers (which are presumably carefully changed in every new edition) in a non-fiction fashion. And though for the most part the style is straight-faced biography, occasionally it turns abstract, nonlinear, in sections that are not exactly stream of consciousness but certainly owe their origin to Woolf’s mastery of that mode. Through Orlando’s own attempts to become a writer, Woolf pulls apart the literary style of every age since the Elizabethan but also mocks the literary critics of every age for preferring anything old over anything new.

“Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind.”

I think I liked the last part of the book best because it became more self-aware, discussing Orlando’s reactions to the changing times rather than time just passing unnoticed as it seemed to in the first part of the book. The satire gets particularly savage in the 19th century, perhaps exposing Woolf’s own prejudices, but this results in some of the book’s most delicious lines.

“Thus the British Empire came into existence; and thus – for there is no stopping damp; it gets into the inkpot as it gets into the woodwork – sentences swelled, adjectives multiplied, lyrics became epics, and little trifles that had been essays a column long were now encyclopaedias in ten or twenty volumes.”

All of which did appeal to me, but I was still left wishing this had been more like Woolf’s other works. Perhaps (and I seem to find myself saying/writing this far too often) this is another book I need to re-read to fully appreciate. I definitely think I would get more from studying it – from having someone draw out the little details and historical background that I know I missed. Maybe I’ll search out a study guide before I pick it up again!

First published 1928 by the Hogarth Press.

Source: I bought this as part of a set of Penguin Red Classics several years ago, I think from a catalogue so probably the Book People?