Asterisk denotes entries on real places.
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.
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.