Places: Orlando

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1928

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Phantasmagoric

Time of work: 1588-1928

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedOrlando’s castle

Orlando’s Orlandocastle. This site inspires Orlando’s creative struggle to become a poet. With its 365 rooms and 52 staircases, the castle extends over several acres. Hundreds of servants care for the castle and its grounds, which contain an oak tree that symbolizes the enduring presence of literature and inspires Orlando to write an ongoing poem titled “The Oak Tree.” Contrasting with the continual change in London, Orlando’s castle remains unchanged from the glorious days when it received Queen Elizabeth in the sixteenth century to its grandeur in the twentieth century.

Although the castle is fictional, it is based on Vita Sackville-West’s ancestral home Knole and her later home, Sissinghurst Castle. During the 1920’s, Great Britain’s laws of entail meant that Vita could not inherit the ancestral house she loved because she was a woman. In transforming Knole into Orlando’s house Woolf draws on Vita Sackville-West’s own book Knole and the Sackvilles (1922) and restores the house to her friend.


*London. As Great Britain’s capital and leading city evolves through Orlando’s long lifetime, it demonstrates an Einsteinian blend of time and space. Each century in London is represented by specific historical and literary events. Although the city is presented through actual sites, they are fictionalized in order to represent various historical periods. Virginia Woolf prefaces her introduction of Orlando into London society with this disclaimer:

To give a truthful account of London society at that or indeed at any other time, is beyond the powers of the biographer or the historian. Only those who have little need of the truth, and no respect for it–the poets and the novelists–can be trusted to do it, for this is one of the cases where truth does not exist. Nothing exists. The whole thing is a miasma–a mirage.

Sixteenth century London is seen through Queen Elizabeth’s courtier tradition. Grand halls, elaborate furnishings, and elegant costumes suggest the majesty and dignity of Elizabeth’s reign. During this century Orlando betrays the queen’s love and is ousted from the royal court.

The historically accurate Great Frost, the most severe winter in England’s history, characterizes the seventeenth century. This setting is fantasized with the frozen River Thames as site for a winter carnival celebrating King James I’s coronation. Huge bonfires, colorful balloons, drinking booths, decorated arbors, elaborate feasting, and musical galas contrast with the meager living conditions of the masses. As an emblem for all of the seventeenth century, the Great Frost suggests the “coldness” of members of the royal family’s attitudes toward their constituents, as well as the political tensions of the country–Protestants versus Catholics, Regents versus Parliament, upper versus lower classes, and England versus Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. During this century Orlando grows out of adolescence and discovers his manhood in his social responsibilities and sexual encounters.

In the following century, after a sojourn in Turkey during which Orlando becomes a woman, she returns to England, where the castle staff welcome her home as if there has been no change. Becoming bored with the new expectations for feminine behavior, Orlando escapes into the nightlife of London reverting to masculine dress and befriending prostitutes. In seedy areas of London, Orlando learns the more devious of her feminine characteristics, woos literary figures–such as Alexander Pope and John Dryden–and gains entrance into London salons. Together the salons and red light district create a paradoxical view of London society: “A turbulent welter of cloud covered the city. All was dark; all was doubt; all was confusion. The Eighteenth century was over; the Nineteenth century had begun.”

This stormy view of the nineteenth century persists, forcing Orlando inside her castle where she redefines herself. She both writes and takes on womanly domestic duties of redecorating the castle to recreate its past splendor. She hunts and farms. She meets and marries Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine. Orlando’s isolation in her castle is indicative of the Romantics’ reflection on individual spirituality as a source for artistic inspiration.

Finally twentieth century London introduces Orlando to a world of modern technology. Various city sites prompt Orlando’s reflections on her life, on literary history, on the evolution of English culture, and she discovers from its diversity that life is never concluded but ongoing, continually in flux, never complete.


*Constantinople. Capital of the Ottoman Empire, to which Orlando is sent as ambassador extraordinaire during the eighteenth century. Woolf’s use of Constantinople and the Turkish countryside reflects the contemporary interest in exotic locales as places of mystery, romance, and intrigue. Bringing together several story threads, this mysterious city shapes Orlando’s character with its emphasis on death, war, and sex. While there, Orlando unaccountably changes from a man to a woman.

After her sex change Orlando flees to Broussa, a rural mountainous area outside Constantinople, where she allies herself with gypsies. The beauty of Nature betrays Orlando’s oversensitivity, making the gypsies suspicious. Her escape on the ship Enamoured Lady symbolizes her new role as a woman and its codes of behavior.

BibliographyApter, T. E. Virginia Woolf: A Study of Her Novles. New York: New York University Press, 1979. A broad overview of Woolf’s novels, focusing on the epistemological and psychological ramifications of her vision, sensibility, and symbolism. Orlando is examined in a short, separate chapter.Booth, Alison. Greatness Engendered. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992. Presented from a feminist perspective, this study compares Woolf and George Eliot, specifically their depiction of women characters. The author originally had a more favorable opinion of Eliot as an activist and feminist, but reversed herself on closer examination of Woolf’s work. Her chapter “Trespassing in Cultural History: The Heroines of Romola and Orlando” offers insight into Orlando’s changing sexuality.Brewster, Dorothy. Virginia Woolf. New York: New York University Press, 1962. Brewster provides lengthy summaries of Woolf’s biography, critical essays, and attitudes while commenting on her novels. She examines Orlando briefly and praises the work for encouraging Woolf to write direct sentences and teaching her continuity and narrative.Gorsky, Susan Rubinow. Virginia Woolf. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A solid and competent study of Woolf’s literary career. Gorsky examines Orlando in a separate section and finds much to admire. Important parallels between Orlando and Woolf’s close friend and lover Vita Sackville-West are clearly drawn. Recommended as a good overall guide to Woolf. A valuable chronology and bibliography are included.Harper, Howard. Between Language and Silence: The Novels of Virginia Woolf. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982. Provides details of the biographical correspondences between the character of Orlando and Vita Sackville-West. Includes citations from Sackville-West’s son Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage and Sackville-West’s own Knole and the Sackvilles.Hussey, Mark, and Vara Neverow, eds. Virginia Woolf: Emerging Perspectives. New York: Pace University Press, 1994. Contains essays that address Orlando, as well as Woolf’s sexual identity and her attitude toward gender. Also examines her writing techniques, providing feminist interpretations.Johnson, Manly. Virginia Woolf. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1973. Offers a good, short introduction to Woolf’s work. Johnson includes a useful chronology and a preface outlining her life, essays, and biographies before examining her novels and short stories. The chapter on Orlando is brief but enjoyable and to the point.Lee, Hermione. The Novels of Virginia Woolf. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1977. A sensible examination of Woolf the writer. Lee dismisses the feminists’, Bloomsburyans’, and dichotomists’ approach to her work. Woolf is examined and depicted as an admirable writer, but not foremost in the modernist movement. Contains a good chapter on Orlando, which Lee asserts is different from Woolf’s other novels.Raitt, Suzanne. Vita and Virginia: The Work and Friendship of V. Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1993. An analysis of the relationship, both personal and professional, of Woolf and Sackville-West based on sources such as Woolf’s Diaries.Sackville-West, Vita. The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf. Edited by Louise DeSalvo and Mitchell A. Leaska. New York: Morrow, 1985. Highlights the sometimes intimate correspondence between two fascinating women whose romance was the basis for Orlando.Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. 5 vols. Edited by Anne Olivier Bell. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977-1984. The diaries provide a wealth of detail and insight into the relationship of Woolf and Sackville-West, especially volumes 2 and 3. Also includes Woolf’s discussion of writing Orlando.Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1929. Written as an essay for students at a women’s college, Woolf in this work explores the same social and political aspects of gender roles as she did in Orlando. Includes the passage known as “Shakespeare’s Sister.”
Categories: Places