The One with the Birth of Orlando

Christine Orban, Virginia et Vita (French, 2012)

I’m getting better at stopping a book I started because I dislike it, but I’m not there yet when I am ambivalent about a book: I still want to give it a fair chance, and I always have the hope that the book will redeem itself in the end.

I was attracted to this novel by the hyped-up image of the lesbian affair between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. I’d known about it, but I didn’t know the details, and yes, it was probably a voyeuristic move from me to borrow this book. Similar to Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf has become such a pop-culture figure in our literary world. She’s revered, not only because she wrote great novels, but because she was a rebel, she was misunderstood, she was depressed and repressed, and because she was in a close circle of equally fascinating people.

This book (that is never quite clear about which part if fiction, which part is fact, but we should probably get used to this in our era – sigh) introduced me to another Virginia. A jealous, possessive, egoist, often unlikeable Virginia. And Leonard! [deep sigh] In fact, most characters in the book are rather unlikeable, which is not really a problem if they were like that in real life, but if you tell a love story, it makes it a tough sell. We see the bitter throes of passion, but we do not see the joy of it. The gap between Vita’s upper-class standing, way of life and education, and Virginia’s middle-class situation is obvious, as is the gap between Vita’s good enough literary success and Virginia’s deeper quest for literary creation. But I missed the spark of an emotional connection.

The book gave us an intimate view on the literary creation of Orlando, and that was the best part of it, but the whole experience was sadly a bit disappointing because it was too slow and too detached. I would perhaps have been better inspired to re-read Orlando (which I read during highschool but completely misunderstood), or another Woolf novel and her biography by Hermione Lee, which I only read in part (900 pages, people!)

Have you read books on Woolf that you enjoyed?


4 thoughts on “The One with the Birth of Orlando

  1. Years ago I read a book called A Very Close Conspiracy about Virginia and her sister Vanessa. It was very good from what I remember. I always meant to read another Woolf biography but never did! Your review makes me want to reread Orlando!

    • Oh, it seems so interesting! I’ll check it out if our library system has it. In this book, the two sisters seem not so close and there seems to be some ambivalence / jealousy between them.

  2. I have a hard time with books that blend nonfiction and fiction. I get frustrated when I don’t know what’s real and what’s not, then I get irritated when the author strays into fiction without historical support.

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