Quotations from Orlando: still worth reading?

Robert Pimm
Robert Pimm

Quotations from “Orlando” show Virginia Woolf’s classic has not lost its power to shock and entertain, even as its language and content dates.

What to make of Orlando, written by Virginia Woolf as a love letter to Vita Sackville-West and published, as Woolf makes clear on page 171, at ten o-clock in the morning on the eleventh of October, 1928?  

Quotes from Orlando - Virginie Woolf
My 1945 edition has a handwritten date inside recording that my father acquired it on 27 June 1946

Wikipedia calls the book: a history of English literature in satiric form.

Like many people, I first read Orlando as a student. Its radical structure, playfulness and fluid sexuality blew me away.  Re-reading it in 2021, the Wikipedia definition chimed true: Orlando is indeed a profoundly English book, focusing in large parts on ill-remembered English writers and history, that can feel verbose, fusty and irrelevant to a twenty-first century audience.  Critics have accused the book of racism; some of the language has aged badly.

Yet the origin myth of Orlando, including the love story, bohemian lifestyle and extraordinary creativity of Woolf and Sackville-West, remains inspiring, 93 years after the book was first published.  

Better still, the book itself contains many gems that have stood the test of time.  They include a dazzling display of literary fireworks; jokes about writing; jokes about diplomacy; musings on the meaning of life and relationships and a sole mention of Vienna.  Plunge in and enjoy it.  I record below a few quotations from Orlando I spotted on my recent re-reading.

Quotations from Orlando: writing

Orlando starts off as a hobby writer full of confidence.  But he finds it harder than expected:  

He soon perceived, however, that the battles which Sir Miles and the rest had waged against armed knights to win a kingdom, were not half so arduous as this which he now undertook to win immortality against the English language.  Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail: how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted his people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.

In his struggles to write, Orlando meets a famous poet, Nick Greene, but cannot at first steer him onto literature until he mentions poetry.  At this point Greene becomes pompous, condemning all other writers from Shakespeare downwards as upstarts and money-grubbers. Woolf also parodies the horror of professional authors when amateurs want to discuss their own efforts:

At the first mention of the word the poet’s eyes flashed fire; he dropped the fine gentleman airs he had worn; thumped his glass on the table; and launched into one of the longest, most intricate, most passionate, and bitterest stories that Orlando had ever heard, save from the lips of a jilted woman, about a play of his; another poet; and a critic…. So the talk went on with ramifications interminable, until Orlando ventured to hint that he had himself been so rash as to write – but here the poet leapt from his chair.  A mouse had squeaked in the wainscot, he said.

Greene grows bored of the countryside and returns to his overcrowded London house, where he writes a satire on staying with Orlando, Visit to a Nobleman in the country.

The night after reading Greene’s Visit to a Nobleman in the Country, [Orlando] burnt in a great conflagration fifty-seven poetical works, only retaining “The Oak Tree,” which was his boyish dream and very short.

Woolf notes that Orlando’s immense confidence does not extend to writing:

And here we may profit by a pause in his soliloquy to reflect how odd it was to see Orlando stretched there on his elbow on a June day and to reflect that this fine fellow with all his faculties about him and a healthy body, witness cheeks and limbs – a man who never thought twice about heading a charge or fighting a duel – should be so subject to the lethargy of thought, and rendered so susceptible by it, that when it came to a question of poetry, or his own competence in it, he was as shy as a little girl behind her mother’s cottage door.

Woolf explores attitudes to women and writing: 

Surely, since she is a woman, and a beautiful woman, and a woman in the prime of life, she will soon give over this pretence of writing and thinking and begin at least to think of a gamekeeper (as long as the thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking).  And she will write him a little note (and as long as she writes little notes nobody objects to a woman writing either)…

Which author has not taken a break to discover with astonishment that the world outside is going on as normal?  So too Orlando, as she finishes her book: 

Orlando pushed away her chair, and stretched her arms, dropped her pen, came to the window, and exclaimed, “Done!”  She was almost felled to the ground by the extraordinary sight which now met her eyes.  There was the garden and some birds.  The world was going on as usual.  All the time she was writing the world had continued.

Woolf loves poking fun at the literary establishment.  Even the “preface” includes a tongue-in-cheek reference to comments from readers, at the end of a long list of acknowledgements: 

Finally I would thank, had I not lost his name and address, a gentleman in America, who has generously and gratuitously corrected the punctuations, the botany, the entomology, the geography, and the chronology of previous works of mine and will, I hope, not spare his services on the present occasion.

Quotes from Orlando - Virginia Woolf
The cover of this 1986 edition features a painting from Knole House, home of Vita Sackville-West, but is otherwise identical with the 1945 edition.

Quotations from Orlando: diplomacy

In 1921, four years before she began her relationship with Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West married the young diplomat Harold Nicholson, then third secretary at the British embassy in Constantinople.  Woolf has Orlando become ambassador to Constantinople, and enjoys poking fun at diplomatic life.    

Thus realising that his home was uninhabitable, and that steps must be taken to end the matter instantly, he [Orlando] did what any other young man would have done in his place, and asked King Charles to send him as Ambassador Extraordinary to Constantinople.

Woolf’s depiction of a day in the life of an ambassador begins with Orlando gazing out over the city.

Orlando’s day was passed, as it would seem, somewhat in this fashion.  About seven, he would rise, wrap himself in a long Turkish cloak, light a cheroot, and lean his elbows on the parapet.  Thus he would stand, gazing at the city beneath him, apparently entranced.  At this hour the mist would lie so thick that the domes of Santa Sofia and the rest would seem to be afloat; gradually the mist would uncover them; the bubbles would be seen to be firmly fixed; there would be the river; there the Galata Bridge; there the green-turbaned pilgrims without eyes or noses, begging alms; there the pariah dogs picking up offal; there the shawled women; there the innumerable donkeys; there men on horses carrying long poles.  

Woolf goes on to describe the ambassador’s day in terms that may bring a wry smile to the lips of diplomats – especially ambassadors – in the twenty-first century. This is one of my favourite quotations from Orlando.

After luncheon, lackeys announced that his coach and six was at the door, and he went, preceded by purple Janissaries running on foot and waving great ostrich feather fans above their heads, to call upon the other ambassadors and dignitaries of state.  The ceremony was always the same.  On reaching the courtyard, the Janissaries struck with their fans upon the main portal, which immediately flew open revealing a large chamber, splendidly furnished.  Here were seated two figures, generally of the opposite sexes.  Profound bows and curtseys were exchanged.  In the first room, it was permissible only to mention the weather.  Having said that it was fine or wet, hot or cold, the Ambassador then passed on to the next chamber, where again, two figures rose to greet him.  Here it was only permissible to compare Constantinople as a place of residence with London; and the Ambassador naturally said that he preferred Constantinople, and his hosts naturally said, although they had not seen it, that they preferred London.  In the next chamber, King Charles’s and the Sultan’s healths had to be discussed at some length.  In the next were discussed the Ambassador’s health and that of his host’s wife, but more briefly.  In the next the Ambassador complimented his host upon his furniture, and the host complimented the Ambassador upon his dress.  In the next, sweet meats were offered, the host deploring their badness, the Ambassador extolling their goodness.  The ceremony ended at length with the smoking of a hookah and the drinking of a glass of coffee; but though the motions of smoking and drinking were gone through punctiliously there was neither tobacco in the pipe nor coffee in the glass, as, had either smoke or drink been real, the human frame would have sunk beneath the surfeit.  For, no sooner had the Ambassador despatched one such visit, than another had to be undertaken.

Woolf pictures Orlando, as ambassador, wandering incognito around the city.  This, too, may sound familiar to some modern practitioners.

Sometimes it is said, he would pass out of his own gates late at night so disguised that the sentries did not know him.  Then he would mingle with the crowd on the Galata Bridge; or stroll through the bazaars; or throw aside his shoes and join the worshippers in the Mosques.

Harold Nicholson also described the life of a diplomat in Istanbul in Sweet Waters: An Istanbul Thriller, published in 1921.  It’s a low-key, rather dated book, more worth reading for its depiction of the gentle pace of diplomacy in the 1920s than for any thrilling qualities.   

Orlando’s time as British ambassador in Constantinople also sees one of the most famous gender shifts in literature take place.

Orlando… was a woman.

Eventually, however, Orlando quits diplomacy, which is bringing her no joy: The pleasure of having no documents to seal or sign, no flourishes to make, no calls to pay, was enough… as for “visiting”, the word was unknown.

Quotations from Orlando: aphorisms

Orlando does not teem with aphorisms, but I noted a few I liked, including: No passion is stronger in the breast of man than the desire to make others believe as he believes.

Or this:

Nothing… can be more arrogant, though nothing is common than to assume that of Gods there is only one, and of religions none but the speaker’s.

Woolf concludes – who hasn’t? – that life is not about practical stuff, but pleasure – or, indeed, ecstasy:

“A toy boat, a toy boat, a toy boat,” she repeated, thus enforcing upon herself the fact that it is not articles by Nick Greene or John Donne nor either-hour bills nor covenant not factory acts that matter; it’s something useless, sudden, violent… that’s what it is – a toy boat on the Serpentine, ecstasy – it’s ecstasy that matters.

Similarly, a few pages later:

Hail! natural desire! Hail! happiness! Divine happiness! and pleasure of all sorts, flowers and wine, though one fades and the other intoxicates…

Woolf muses on the conflict between art and practical stuff:

The true length of a person’s life, whatever the Dictionary of National Biography may say, is always a matter of dispute.  For it is a difficult business – this timekeeping; nothing more quickly disorders it than contacts with any of the arts.

Orlando on relationships

Late in the book, Orlando marries a sea captain, Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, another character of shifting sexuality.  Their relationship seems pretty solid, but Orlando muses on its meaning.

She was married, true; but if one’s husband was always sailing round Cape Horn, was it marriage?  If one liked him, was it marriage?  If one liked other people, was it marriage?  And finally, if one still wished, more than anything in the whole world, to write poetry, was it marriage?  She had her doubts.

Quotations from Orlando: Vienna

I found only one reference to Vienna, on page 184 of my 1945 edition.  Of course, it is to do with music. 

She heard the loud-speaker condensing on the terrace a dance tune that people were listening to in the red velvet opera house at Vienna.

Conclusions

Orlando is not an easy read. Some of the jokes have gone a bit stale. But its quality has stood the test of time. Above all, Orlando is a reminder – if one were needed – that alternative life-styles, counter-normative sexuality and literary provocateurs existed long before the third decade of the twenty-first century.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this collection of quotations from Orlando. If you would like more thoughts on books, and curated quotations, take a look at my “reading tips” category – over 120 eclectic posts to browse, from PG Wodehouse to Barbara Kingsolver, John Connolly, Ian Fleming, Anthony Trollope and Lee Child. Have fun!

If you’d like to check out my own attempts at comic writing, take a look at my book Seven Hotel Stories.

Seven Hotel Stories cover

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4 Responses

  1. Thank you for this insight into Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando”.

    What struck a cord with me, by the way, which has little to do with the subject of your Blog, was the mentioning of your father’s handwritten dating of the 1945 edition.

    I have many such of my father, equally numerous dedications to my mother, which make these books even more valuable to me.

    My father always lectured me that books had souls and so they have.

    Thank you for this tremendous blog.
    Wolfgang

  2. Nice post. I started it two or three times, got less far than with Mrs Dalloway, which I believe I will read one day.

    “He wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile” – my own experience is that it is at the moment of writing that my writing seems vilest. I think then of the advice of an old bureaucratic office-mate: “Don’t get it right, get it written”.

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