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In her most playful and exuberant novel, Virginia Woolf writes the "historical biography" of Orlando, a young boy of nobility during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. A wild ride through four centuries, the novel shows Orlando aging, magically, only thirty-six years between 1588 and 1928. Even more magically, he also changes from a man to a woman. As she explores Orlando's life, Woolf also explores the differing roles of men and women in society during various periods, ultimately concluding that one's role as a man or woman is determined by society, rather than by birth.

From the Elizabethan period, during which Orlando works as a steward for the queen and also serves as her lover, he progresses to the reign of James I, experiencing a profound love for a Russian princess, Sasha, who is herself exploring the role of a man. When the relationship ends, he retreats, devastated, to his estate, with its 365 rooms and 52 staircases, which he redecorates over the next few years. An interlude in which he is wooed by the Archduchess Harriet/Archduke Harry leads to his ambassadorship to Constantinople, a period spent with the gypsies, and his eventual return to England--as a woman. New experiences and observations await her there.

Throughout the novel, Woolf matches her prose style to the literary style of the period in which Orlando lives, creating always-changing moods and sheer delight for the reader. Some constants continue throughout the four centuries of Orlando's life. Orlando is always a writer, always recording his thoughts, and always adding to a poem he has begun as a child entitled "The Oak Tree." He is always returning to his 365-room house whenever he needs to recuperate from his experiences, and some characters repeat through time. (Orlando is betrayed by Nick Greene during the reign of James I, but he is encouraged by Nicholas Greene in the Victorian period.)

Literary historians make much of the fact that Woolf modeled Orlando on Vita Sackville-West, Woolf's lover, and that this study of gender roles was an early exploration of lesbianism, bisexuality, cross-dressing, and transgender identities. The novel is pure fun to read, however, and though it raises serious and thoughtful questions about sexuality and the ways that it controls our lives, there is no sense that Woolf wrote the novel specifically to make a public statement or prove a point. Her themes of gender and its relation to social expectations, of imagination and its relation to reality, of the importance of history in our lives, and of the unlimited potential of all humans, regardless of their sex, transcend the specific circumstances under which Woolf may have written the book. A playful and delightful novel, which broke new ground with its publication. Mary Whipple

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33 comments14 of 15 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
No lover in the world ever wrote a valentine more exquisite than Virginia Woolf's tribute to her lover Vita Sackville-West. That tribute was "Orlando: A Biography," a magical-realism tale about a perpetually youthful, charming hero/ine who traverses three centuries and both genders -- and Woolf's writing reaches a new peak as she explores the hauntingly sensuous world of Orlando.

Orlando was born a young aristocratic man in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, and when the dying monarch visited his home she became his new court favorite (and briefly lover). His passionate, curious personality attracted many other women over the years -- until he fell in love with Sasha, a mercurial but faithless Russian princess (supposedly based on Sackville-West's ex-girlfriend). Bereft of true love, he devoted himself to poetry and entertainment.

But then he's assigned to be an ambassador to Constantinople, and something strange happens -- while a bloody revolution rages, he sleeps for a full week... and wakes newly metamorphosed into a woman. With the same mind and soul but a female body, Orlando sets out on a new life -- and discovers that women aren't quite as different from men as she once thought.

"Orlando: A Biography" is a very weird book, and was even more so when it was written since "magical realism" didn't exist as a literary style in 1928. Virginia Woolf makes no explanations about Orlando's immortality or unexpected gender switch. It's simply accepted that once he was a man, and then she became a woman, and that s/he has lived from the Elizabethan era until at least the 1920s (and who knows, maybe Orlando still wanders among us?).

And Woolf's writing is at its peak here. Her prose is soaked in luxurious descriptions that constantly tease the senses -- silver and gold, frozen flowers, crystalline ice, starlight and the exquisite expanses of nature's beauty. At times the sensual writing seems almost feverish, and Woolf adds an almost mythic quality by inserting spirits of feminine virtues (Modesty, Purity and Chastity appear to try to hide Orlando's feminine body), and by having her hero/ine encounter great poets, queens and men of the sea.

And Orlando him/herself is a truly fascinating character -- s/he can be sweet, passionate, romantic, wild and melancholy, and s/he has an almost magnetic charisma. He starts off the story as an elusive romantic teenager, suffers a heartbreak that matures him as an artist, and post-metamorphosis she becomes a woman of the modern world. Both in mind and body, Orlando is a very different woman at the end than the boy s/he began as.

"Orlando: A Biography" is a truly spellbinding book -- Virginia Woolf's prose enthralls the senses while her main character explores the boundaries of gender. A must-read, for everyone.
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on February 17, 2011
A fine work of scholarship with a very thorough-going introduction that has much to say about the context and content of the work. The endnotes tend to be very helpful for providing context in even greater detail. I wish they would have been footnotes, but... oh, well...
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on June 7, 2010
This novel is Woolf's literary joke, where she pokes fun at herself and all her literary predecessors. The story follows Orlando, who begins life as a young man in 16th century desperately striving for love and affection. About midway through, however, he becomes a stunning literary embodiment of Woolf's lover, Rita Sackville-West. Woolf's constant references to herself and her constant fun with other others make reading the book a bit like a treasure hunt, but it's certainly a joy to read even if you aren't searching for literary clues and connections. Reading Orlando is like sinking into a warm bathtub up to your neck and just enjoying the sensation and the blissful silence when you put your ears underwater.
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on December 26, 2012
For those of you who are interested in modernist writing, go ahead and pick up this book. Woolf wrote this directly at the women of the day to poke fun at what was considered then 'normal' literature. With gender bending and immortality this book is a most for feminism in modernism.
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on March 2, 2014
The annotations in the kindle edition are not linked to the text, making it nigh on impossible use this as a reference. Since I already have a paper copy of the book and purchased this solely for the notes, it has proved to be practically useless.
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on September 23, 2013
A classic that takes an assignment to force me to read. At times I was intrigued by this story, then others where I'm completely lost to what the author's intentions were. In moments the language becomes so flowery that the reader has to push back to not be consumed by the immense amount of words on each page. Be careful of time because it can get away from you in this book. Gender is also a very unclear theme for alot of the characters Orlando falls in love with, and for Orlando him/herself. All and all Woolf is a spectacular writer with amazing skill and technique. Woolf's ability to transmute the reader through time and story then back to this unreliable narrator/biographior, then back in story, lends to an amazing read.
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on February 17, 2011
An absolutely magnificent book about a young nobleman in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, who, by mid-book somehow transforms into a woman. This florid and eloquently-written novel closely examines the nature of sexuality, gender and changing social values over several centuries. Not a transgender book, per se, but a glorious evisceration of the social norms that comprise our gender. Those who have an interest in the transgender arena will particularly appreciate and revel in the author's cutting insights. The irony and humor in this book is absolutely brilliant. Stick with it through the first half as it all comes together to make incredible sense.
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on May 31, 2013
The product description does not state the notes in this edition are END NOTES, not foot notes. The text does not indicate at all which terms/etc. are annotated. The notes are listed by page number at the end of the novel. Basically, you need to flip to the back of the book to see if there are any notes for each page. I found the notes themselves helpful but inconvenient to use.

The playwright Sarah Ruhl (two-time Pulitzer finalist, 2006 recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship) recently released a stage adaptation of this novel. In her introductory notes, she recommends the Penguin Classics version annotated by Sandra M. Gilbert.
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on December 6, 2012
Not only is the novel itself a work of great art, the Kindle edition is easy to navigate and includes page numbers for ease of citation.
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