“Indeed it is a difficult business—this timekeeping; nothing more quickly disorders it than contact with any of the arts”
—Virginia Woolf, Orlando (174)
One of the most wonderful qualities of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is the manner in which she handles, moves, and manipulates time. Perhaps because I took an unusually long time to read this book I was particularly sensitive to that facet. These past few months in the novel of my life I have felt a similar effect of time twisting back on itself, restlessly running ahead, and then suspended in a fog of deep introspection. I suppose I was strangely in synch with Orlando’s odd tale which Woolf relates in a marvelously natural and nonchalant way.
“We must shape our words till they are the thinnest integument for our thoughts. Thoughts are divine etc.” (101)
It is the “etc” that charms. While there is something slightly chilly in Woolf’s writing that keeps her at a bit of a distance from me, I love her playful sense of humor and understatedness.
“And as the first question had not been settled—What is Love?—back it would come at the least provocation or none, and hustle Books or Metaphors or What one lives for into the margin, there to wait till they saw their chance to rush into the field again” (59).
After all, we share similar concerns and unrelenting questions. And while of course I mean Love, of course I mean other concerns as well, but really I mean Love.
Here she took up lodging and began instantly to look about her for what she had come in search of—that is to say, life and a lover (110).
I’m sure I am not giving anything away to say that her search was formally his search in the infamous plot twist of the novel. And yet, true to Woolf’s gift for writing, Orlando’s barely registered bemusement at his sudden change of sex makes perfect sense in the context of being a human being confined to one’s own life. What is there to be confused about? We are what we are, we have no way of knowing any other way of being, and so these details hardly merit notice. Save your passion and angst for the rest of it:
Hail! natural desire! Hail! happiness! divine happiness! and pleasure of all sorts, flowers and wine, though one fades and the other intoxicates; and half-crown tickets out of London on Saturdays, and singing in dark chapel hymns about death, and anything, anything that interrupts and confounds the tapping of typewriters and filing of letters and forging links and chains, binding the Empire together” (167).
Save your passion for Life and Love.