c/o Virginia Woolf
c/o Virginia Woolf
I’ve been wanting to write you for a while to tell you how much I enjoyed getting to know you. It’s been a bit, true, but only because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to express it in words. I was a little intimidated by you at first—I thought you’d be so dignified (and you are! but also an incredible wit!). Not to mention you’ve been proclaimed, “…the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” which makes this short and simple one a bit lacking. But I overcame my hesitation. After all, the point isn’t to write you the most charming love letter in literature, but to tell you what it means to me that you exist. I remember you, and will remember you, for a long, long time.
Not to gush too much, too soon, but you may now be my favorite book. Not a favorite. The favorite. My favorite. For me and my promiscuous-but-also-picky reading habits, that’s something. I know the meaning of such a declaration is not lost on you; your reading habits are probably even more promiscuous and picky than mine. In fact, I was thrilled to learn about Orlando’s experience as an early reader turned lover of literature turned writer-dabbler turned serious writer. I am on stage three (working toward four!) of this trajectory myself, so I’m curious what it’s like for others.
“The taste for books was an early one. As a child he was sometimes found at midnight by a page still reading. They took his taper away, and he bred glow-worms to serve his purpose. They took the glow-worms away, and he almost burnt the house down with a tinder. To put it in a nutshell, leaving the novelist to smooth out the crumpled silk and all its implications, he was a nobleman, afflicted with a love of literature.”
“A fine gentleman like that, they said, had no need of books. Let him leave books, they said, to the palsied or the dying. But worse was to come. For once the disease of reading has laid hold upon the system it weakens it so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the ink pot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing.”
“Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted his people's parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”
“At this moment, but only just in time to save the book from extinction, Orlando pushed away her chair, stretched her arms, dropped her pen, came to the window, and exclaimed, ‘Done!’
She was almost felled to the ground by the extraordinary sight which now met her eyes. There was the garden and some birds. The world was going on as usual. All the time she was writing the world had continued.
‘And if I were dead, it would be just the same!’ she exclaimed.”
Forgive me all the reminiscing, but I’ve rarely felt so seen. It’s as if you knew my earnest readerly/writerly heart from the beginning. And of course you did; in fact, I should have had a clue from another book I met recently.
Oh! And for anyone who happens to intercept this correspondence (who knows?)—you are correct; there was a pronoun change above, from he to she. For Orlando was a man who woke up one day as a woman. Which, really, could happen to any of us.
“Different though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what is above.”
If only we all could have such an experience! Men, for example, might perhaps learn a little about how onerous being the sole keeper and defender of human modesty can be.
“Here she tossed her foot impatiently and showed an inch or two of calf. A sailor on the mast, who happened to look down at the moment, started so violently that he missed his footing and only saved himself by the skin of his teeth. “If the sight of my ankles means death to an honest fellow who, no doubt, has a wife and family to support, I must, in all humanity, keep them covered," Orlando thought. Yet her legs were among her chiefest beauties. And she fell to thinking what an odd pass we have come to when all a woman's beauty has to be kept covered, lest a sailor may fall from a mast-head.”
Or perhaps, if we are not to try on the shoes of the other gender, we might travel through the world and throughout the ages, as Orlando did, seeing things from perspectives other than our present consumptive one (and that is a deliberate use of the word “consumptive”).
“And then, though he was too courteous to speak openly, it was clear that the gipsy thought that there was no more vulgar ambition than to possess bedrooms by the hundred (they were on top of a hill as they spoke; it was night; the mountains rose around them) when the whole earth is ours. Looked at from the gipsy point of view, a Duke, Orlando understood, was nothing but a profiteer or robber who snatched land and money from people who rated these things of little worth, and could think of nothing better to do than to build three hundred and sixty-five bedrooms when one was enough, and none was even better than one.”
Alas, many of us will probably get to do neither. And for that, let’s be grateful we get to live vicariously through our great hero/heroine Orlando. I would throw you a party, give you a medal, nominate you for President, but you have declined me, rightly.
“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.”
You are a hard one to describe. I’ve never read anyone like you. Anyone who happens upon this letter this would probably say, “well fine…but what is the book about?” And to that, I don’t have a clear answer. It’s a (fictional) biography. It’s a portrait of human nature throughout the ages, and a homage to the writing life. And yes, it is an actual love letter (did you know they made a movie for context? It’s called Vita and Virginia, and it’s delightful). So as to what you’re about, I can’t exactly say.
But I will say this: your words comfort me and make me believe there is something greater to aspire to than the endless productivity and ambition and status games people play. That art, that music, that nature, that poetry, that friendship, that literature is our great escape hatch to a world more deserving of us.
“Hail! natural desire! Hail! happiness! divine happiness! and pleasure of all sorts, flowers and wine, though one fades and the other intoxicates; and half-crown tickets out of London on Sundays, and singing in a dark chapel hymns about death, and anything, anything that interrupts and confounds the tapping of typewriters and filing of letters and forging of links and chains, binding the Empire together.”
Hail! Orlando. Please keep in touch. You are not easily forgotten.
Note to reader: If you’re intrigued by this love letter, consider this a personal introduction to Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Especially if you are a reader, a writer, or the unfortunate both. (Or the extremely unfortunate neither!)
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