Posing as a biography, Orlando spans 400 years in the fantastical life of a young nobleman and favourite of Queen Elizabeth I whose adventures take an unexpected twist when he wakes from a week-long sleep to find he has become a woman. He/she lives through many ages, experiencing the Great Frost of the early 18th century, befriending Alexander Pope and living as a wife and poet in 1920s London, but never ages beyond 36 years. Woolf saw the book as an opportunity to send up her own writerly postulations: Had Orlando
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. But Orlando was also a gift to Vita, with whom she had had a passionate affair. The protagonists childhood home is Knole, the sprawling Kent mansion of the Sackville-Wests which, as a woman, Vita could never inherit. Orlandos handsome physique pays compliment to her beauty. Orlandos gender change and cross-dressing echo her romantic adventures, which included wooing female lovers in the garb of a man. In real life both women resisted the boundaries imposed by their gender; in this bold novel Woolf critiques stereotypes and conventions by pushing the boundaries of her imagination, perhaps more than in any of her other novels.
The first edition of Orlando included photographs of Sackville-West, some of them taken specifically for the book. Woolf s chosen images are included here, signalling Orlandos dual identity and the authors unabashed presentation of the novel as a paean to Sackville-West. She also included photographs of four portraits, which are still housed at Knole and Sissinghurst. Happily we were able to reshoot three of them in colour for this edition.
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