By Virginia Woolf
A Review by Amy Lenzo
Written in the early part of the last century, 1928 to be exact, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is an astounding departure from everything else she wrote; one of those books it is very hard to categorize. Whether considered as an imaginative biography of a famous English lesbian, which it most certainly is, or enjoyed as pure fantasy, this is a text that rewards readings of all kinds.
However, since this issue of Gatherings is devoted to the celebration of trees, I will focus this review on the oak tree that stands as a central motif in Woolf’s short novel.
Woolf uses the presence of an oak tree, fully grown when the book begins, to anchor the unchanging landscape upon which our hero/ine Orlando plays out his/her trans-gendered life over a 300 year span of English history.
Whether male, as it he is when the story begins, or female, as she is at the end, Orlando’s spirit, like the oak, remains constant. From his genesis as a budding poet in his father’s 16th Century manor, to the self-possessed Englishwoman who walks out over the same property in the 20th Century, a unitary perception sees and records the scenery, at the center of which stands the impressive oak. Here it is, introduced in the first chapter:
“He had walked very quickly through the ferns and hawthorn bushes, startling deer and wild birds, to a place crowned by a single oak tree. It was very high, so high indeed that nineteen English counties could be seen beneath; and on clear days thirty or perhaps forty, if the weather was very fine.”
This passage is followed by some of what I think is the book’s most beautiful writing, showing Orlando (and Woolf)’s exquisite love of nature and all creatures within it:
“He sighed profoundly and flung himself—there was a passion in his movement that deserves the word—on the earth at the foot of the oak tree. He loved, beneath all this summer transiency, to feel the earth’s spine beneath him; for such he took the hard root of the oak tree to be; or, for image followed image, it was the back of a great horse that he was riding; or the deck of a tumbling ship—it was anything indeed, so long as it was hard, for he felt the need of something which he could attach his floating heart to; the heart that tugged at his side; the heart that seemed filled with spiced and amorous gales every evening about this time when he walked out. To the oak tree he tied it and as he lay there, gradually the flutter in and about him stilled itself; the little leaves hung, the deer stopped; the pale summer clouds stayed; his limbs grew heavy on the ground; and he lay so still that by degrees the deer stepped nearer and the rooks wheeled round him and the swallows dipped and circled and the dragonflies shot past, as if all the fertility and amorous activity of a summer’s evening were woven web-like about his body.”
Woolf bookends her tale with passages about Orlando’s relationship with the oak tree, using it as a central anchor in the landscape of his/her beloved ancestral home. This particular landscape is, in turn, Orlando’s anchor within the world, as he goes out and throws himself into the adventure of it. After having his heart broken by a Russian Princess, he becomes a recluse, then leaves home to become an Ambassador in the middle-east, where he gets married and wakes up one day as a woman. As a woman, she runs away from her political life to live with the gipsys, until she doesn’t belong there anymore either and moves to London. Finally, she meets and marries Shelmerdine and returns at last to her home in the country.
But before we return home with Orlando, we must take note of how Woolf weaves another strand of the oak tree motif into the fabric of her story. A much-revised draft of a poem, about the oak tree, is a constant presence throughout Orlando’s long life. This piece of his/her poetry serves as another kind of anchor—a creative link to what is core. And it turns out that what’s core in the fanciful young poet’s literary expression, is ultimately the same as what’s core in her life.
Before Orlando is 20 he has written a whole cupboard full of flowery texts, including “one thin one, called simply “The Oak Tree”; the “only monosyllabic title among the lot.” But this simple poem proves enduring—ten years later, after the disastrous experience of having his creative work roasted by a literary wit, Orlando burns all his writing, “only retaining ‘The Oak Tree’, which was his boyish dream and very short.” He works on it over the years, honing and fine-tuning his craft on this piece, as he “scratched out as many lines as he wrote in” and seemed to find “the sum of them often, at the end of the year, rather less than at the beginning.”
And so it went until the scandalous end of his life as a man and the birth, fully formed, of herself as a woman. “The Oak Tree” came with her in this transition, of course, “secreted in her bosom”. Finally, after a number of years, the poem is discovered there by an incarnation of the same literary wit who’d first ridiculed her work, Nick Greene, and published to great acclaim; a state of affairs which was, apparently, the “fervent desire of the poem itself.” The poem brought her acclaim, and a certain satisfaction, but it was the subject of the poem, and the conversation within it, that turns out to have held the real place in her heart.
The end of the book finds Orlando in the present (1928), as the emancipated young noblewoman returns, back full circle to the tree of her youth:
“The ferny path led, with many turns and windings, higher and higher to the oak tree, which stood at the top. The tree had grown bigger, sturdier and more knotted since she had known it, somewhere about the year 1588, but it was still in the prime of life. The little sharply frilled leaves were still fluttering thickly on its branches. Flinging herself on the ground she felt the bones of the tree running out like ribs from a spine this way and that beneath her. She liked to think that she was riding the back of the world. She liked to attach herself to something hard. As she flung herself down a little square book bound in red cloth fell from the breast of her leather jacket—her poem The Oak Tree. ‘I should have brought a trowel’, she reflected. The earth was so shallow over the roots it seemed doubtful if she could do as she meant and bury the book here. Besides, the dogs would dig it up. No luck ever attends these symbolic celebrations, she thought. Perhaps it would be as well then to do without them. She had a little speech on the tip of her tongue which she meant to speak over the book as she buried it” … “’I bury this as a tribute’, she was going to have said. ‘a return to the land of what the land has given me,’ but Lord! Once one began mouthing words aloud, how silly they sounded! She was reminded of old Greene getting upon a platform the other day comparing her with Milton (save for his blindness) and handing her a cheque for two hundred guineas. She had thought then of the oak tree here on its hill, and what has that got to do with this, she had wondered? What has praise and fame to do with poetry? What has seven editions (the book had already gone into no less) got to do with the value of it? Was not writing poetry a secret transaction, a voice answering a voice? So that all this chatter and praise and blame and meeting people who admired one and meeting people who did not admire one was as ill suited as could be to the thing itself—a voice answering a voice. What could have been more secret, she thought, more slow, and like the intercourse of lovers, than the stammering answer she had made all these years to the old crooning song of the woods, and the farms and the brown horses standing at the gate, neck to neck, and the smithy and the fields, so laboriously bearing wheat, turnips, grass, and the garden blowing irises and fritillaries?
So she let her book lie unburied and dishevelled on the ground, and watched the vast view, varied like an ocean floor this evening with the sun lightening it and the shadows darkening it…”
This is how Woolf ends her book… and shows what she valued most of all. Despite her great yearning and penchant for intellectual expression, what meant the most to her, and inevitably to her characters, was the relationship with the natural world, and the peace to be found riding its calm, hard roots. This thread, tying her to the earth, is apparent in all her work, though perhaps Orlando is the novel that shows it most simply and clearly.