Unpretending Orlando:
Virginia Woolf and the Downs
by Elise Valmorbida

Published: Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Scratch the fine carpet of green and there is white. The horizon line is untroubled, smooth where it meets a clean glazed sky. Few trees take root here. The powdery downs roll, curvaceous as flesh, soft valleys interlacing. Wind, fresh in every season, sweeps across the tops, smoothing the smooth. The paths are springy underfoot. They vibrate.

I have walked here with Greg, whom I call Leonard some-times, hoping he’ll publish my mistresspieces. And Suna, who drove across America with me to research my last novel. And Bob (who is dead, but left me Suna), and Sam (who is dead, but left me with the memory of his speaking voice, and his writing voice) and Virginia (who drowned herself in a river here, but left us her deep-bright voice, clear and resonant against the clamour of the early twentieth century).

Leonard and Virginia Woolf bought Monk’s House in 1919. It huddles into a slope in Rodmell, an unspoilt Sussex village of flint and moss, with narrow curving streets and sudden prospects of the downs. She wrote in her diary: “It is an unpretending house, long and low, a house of many doors”.1

Life was unpretending here: “no bath, one servant and an earth closet down a winding glade”.2 But with income from Virginia’s writing, the Woolfs spent years removing partitions and doors, installing modern conveniences such as heating and plumbing, painting the walls in wild colours, reviving the patchwork garden where “unexpected flowers sprouted among cabbages”3 and fruit hung heavily from orchard trees. Virginia was writing A Room of One’s Own while the builders were building it. But the new space became a bedroom instead. Leonard brought her breakfast on a tray and she wrote from bed when it was too cold for the place where a woman with means could write fiction: “The Lodge”.

Of course the name is dry and Woolfish. Virginia’s lover Vita Sackville-West inhabited castles with wings and courts and towers, if not lodges. She had lost her grand family prop-erty Knole because she was female. To get over the wrench, she created her own fairytale in the ruins of Sissinghurst. And Virginia created Orlando, the male protagonist who grows up in a literary version of Knole, gallivants through the centuries, writes, quests, becomes a she, and learns that property and power are everything to do with gender. Virginia started the novel “as a joke”.4

The Lodge is a small clapboard shed at the end of the garden of Monk’s House, by the churchyard wall. It has a roof of wood shingles, glass-paned doors to the front, and a window at the back. Two tall horse-chestnut trees lean in to each other by the entrance.

Inside is spare, bare boards, unvarnished. The ceiling is high-pitched to store apples, but I’m not sure if this lofty idea of Leonard’s ever bore fruit. In the corners of the room there are objects that hint at stories: a stack of deck-chairs for the summer, a quaint electric heater, an old travelling trunk stamped Ceylon. In the centre of the room is a plain inky desk of warped plywood. Here, Virginia sat with her notebooks, her pen, her tobacco and her spectacles. She sat and wrote, in her fine leaning hand, crossing out less than most, stopping to think and gaze at the view between her words.

I don’t usually haunt the haunts of the famous. But when I come to Monk’s House I feel inspired. It is intimate, informal, peaceful, colourful. I could happily live here. And Charleston Farmhouse is just a few miles away, up and down a down or two, where Virginia’s sister and assorted Bloomsburys made love not war, and beautiful things with their hands. They are sister houses. Painting and writing.

Virginia wrote steel-sharp political essays and daring poetic fiction. She loved men and women and words. She was a modernist, a feminist, a pacifist. She was the one who pointed out to me that the world’s news was full of men. Always pictures of men making decisions, governments, wars. Their pomp and circumstance, their robes and rituals, were lanced again and again by her mighty pen.

Many things have changed since Virginia Woolf’s time, but her Sussex home is much as it was, and the world’s news is still full of men making decisions, governments, wars. I notice this, fresh, every day.

The Lodge is small and bare, but the view is long. Expansive. Beyond the hedges and meadows there are great motionless waves of smoothest green, skinned to brilliant white in giant oblique patches. The South Downs. I can’t think of a better place to be lost for words. Not that Virginia ever was.

She wrote through the distraction of church bells and the neighbours’ dogs. She walked the downs every day, and she wrote as she walked, her long strides springing with the rhythms of her sentences. She found calm clarity here, away from fraying London. She wrote despite frequent illness, sometimes because of it.

For her character Orlando, writing was something of an affliction: “once the disease of reading has laid upon the system it weakens it so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the inkpot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing”.5 Typical Virginia: wretchedness is wrought until it becomes wry.

After penning a frenzied finale, Orlando “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.”6

It’s so unpretending. And if she were dead.

Always close to this writer’s hand, death never hides in brackets.

Virginia took to writing when she was very young. She wrote household newspapers and diaries. She wrote Victorian novels and Elizabethan compositions long before discovering her own voice. She devoured her father’s library. “Gracious child”, he said, “how you gobble”.7 He censored her reading supplies until he judged her fit to choose her own books. She was encouraged to think for herself, and not to be swayed by accepted opinion, no matter how authoritative it seemed to be. Critics and opinion-formers “made one feel … that one must always, always write like somebody else”.8 Orlando understood that “the transaction between a writer and the spirit of the age is one of infinite delicacy, and upon a nice arrangement between the two the whole fortune of his works depends”.9

When Virginia was thirteen, her mother died, worn out like a fine bird in a folk tale. “Her death was the greatest disas-ter that could happen”,10 said the daughter who soon discovered deep depression and breakdown. Her father filled the family house with years and years and years of self-pity and rage, demanding devoted surrender from his stepdaugh-ter Stella (until she died), and then from his daughter Vanessa, who was too much of a painter to become fully his martyr.

“Virginia, who witnessed it all, was consumed with silent indignation”, wrote Quentin Bell of his aunt. “How could her father  behave  with  such  brutality  and  why  was  it  that  he reserved  these  bellowings  and  screamings  for  his  women? With men his conduct was invariably gentle, considerate and rational … But he needed and expected feminine sympathy”.11 Virginia  never  went  to  school.  She  missed  out  on  the expensive   education   her   brothers   took   for   granted.   And Cambridge was no place for a lady. Years later, she wrote in Three Guineas, “The very word ‘society’ sets tolling in memory the dismal bells of a harsh music: shall not, shall not, shall not. You shall not learn; you shall not earn; you shall not own”.12 It led her to imagine a new society for the daughters of educated men. The Outsiders’ Society. Between two World Wars, she saw the unisex fight against Fascist tyranny as a mere extension of the female fight against patriarchal tyranny. She knew that it was a short hop, heavy-booted, from the crushing of gender to the crushing of race or creed. At the heart of her feminism was a love of liberty. And imagination. I love her for that.

While boys went to university and sharpened their wits, the girl Outsider stayed at home writing letters instead of essays, devouring more books than was ladylike, thirsting for the clever company of her brother’s friends: Strachey, Sydney-Turner, Bell, Woolf.

Vanessa became a Bell.

Virginia became a Woolf.

And, later, Vita became Orlando – the boy, the Courtier, the Soldier, the Ambassador, the Gipsy, the Hermit, the girl in love with life, the Patroness of Letters. 13

My dearest friends are intimately connected with Orlando. Dena gave me the book and wished me “lots of Orlando-ish adventures” some time before I left Australia for a new life in England. Sonia named her son Orlando, a darling baby who “laughs so heartily at the smallest things” it takes her breath away. Greg – whom I call Leonard sometimes, hoping he’ll take up the publishing business, not just the breakfast tray – was born at the edge of the downs. Together we’ve sought out Knole, and Sissinghurst, and Charleston, and Rodmell. And we’ve returned with my mother to all these places. She’s a fan of Vita’s gardens and stories. In her e-mails, sometimes, she calls me Ginnie.

I get Vita and Orlando mixed up. One is life and one is art, but the two come together as one in Virginia’s words. Her lover/protagonist has eyes like drenched violets, “the strength of a man and a woman’s grace”, a mixture of “Kentish or Sussex … brown earth and blue blood”.14 She is restless, ambiguous and utterly literary. The novel Orlando is pointedly called “a biography” but its subject lives for centuries and switches gender. It’s dedicated to V. Sackville-West, but she is inseparable from Knole. In the dream of fiction, she doesn’t quite hand over her estate and title. In real life, her cousin inherits the earth simply because he is male.

Knole is as grand as Monk’s House is not. Orlando brags about it to some gipsies:

“… she could not help with some pride describing the house where she was born, how it had 365 bedrooms and had been in the possession of her family for four or five hundred years. Her ancestors were earls, or even dukes, she added. At this she noticed again that the gipsies were uneasy … they were courteous, but con-cerned as people of fine breeding are when a stranger has been made to reveal his low birth or poverty.”15

The gipsies’ forebears, it turns out, helped to build the pyra-mids thousands of years before Christ. Against that backdrop, Knole is something of a parvenu. Who needs “nine acres of stone” with all those rooms, all those silver-lidded dishes and housemaids dusting?16 Perhaps this is Virginia’s attempt at consolation.

But Vita, like Orlando, could never quite detach herself from the place. Knole defined her, framed her childhood imagination, linked her to literary history. There were vital clues to Shakespeare here, and a Poets’ Parlour where Pope, Dryden and other literary greats had dined with her poetic predecessors. Virginia has them dine with Orlando and she revels in unpretending: between their flashes of inspiration, men of genius are “much like other people”, fond of tea, prone to jealousies, delighted by praise, and they collect “little bits of coloured glass”.17

Virginia’s fiction was published in 1928, the same year Vita’s father died. Vita was dispossessed at her father’s death, as arbitrarily as a Jane Austen heroine. She persuaded herself that she had “finally torn Knole out of my heart” but, when bombs hit in 1944, she wrote: “the moment anything touches it every nerve is à vif again. I cannot bear to think of Knole wounded, and me not there to look after it and be worried about it”.18 She created Sissinghurst with its legendary gardens and romantic towers, and yet it was Knole that Orlando returned to again and again.

Knole is gothic, fanciful, light. The parkland today is just as Orlando saw it, falling gently like a smooth green tide. Even the deer seem to have stepped off the page. The courtyards are pale and softly golden. The rooms are filled with painted faces, leopards, grotesques and deep silence. There’s not much evidence of Vita, because she is hidden. But there is a clumsy wooden door-stop of Shakespeare – I can picture her hauling him about by the loop in his head. And there is the manu-script of Orlando, open to show Knole translated into words:

“There it lay in the early sunshine of spring. It looked a town rather than a house, but a town built, not hither and thither, as this man wished or that, but circum-spectly, by a single architect with one idea in his head.”19

Virginia crossed out more here than was usual for her. But it took her no time at all to see through the grandeur:

“…This vast, yet ordered building, which could house a thousand men and perhaps two thousand horses, was built, Orlando thought, by workmen whose names are unknown. Here have lived, for more centuries than I can count, the obscure generations of my own obscure family. Not one of these Richards, Johns, Annes, Elizabeths has left a token of himself behind him, yet all, working together with their spades and their needles, their love-making and their child-bearing, have left this.

Never had the house looked more noble and humane.”20

Just before her Second World War, unpretending Virginia wrote about the choice of evils faced by the daughters of edu-cated men: the private house with its nullity and servility, and the public world that revolved around property. She probed the oppressions within society that led to war.

She asked: “Had we not better plunge off the bridge and into the river; give up the game; declare that the whole of human life is a mistake and so end it?”21

At this page in her life she answered no.


  1. Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Anne Olivier Bell, published by The Hogarth Press, 1977-84, published in Penguin Books 1977-85, entry from Vol. 1, July 1919.
  2. Ibid, Vol. 2, 1 October 1920.
  3. Ibid, Vol. 1, July 1919.
  4. Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf A Biography, Volume 1, Appendix A, The Hogarth Press, London, 1972, p 239.
  5. Virginia Woolf, Orlando, first published by The Hogarth Press, London, 1928, published by Granada Publishing Ltd, 1977, reprinted 1982, p 47.
  6. Ibid, p 170.
  7. Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf A Biography, Volume 1, The Hogarth Press, London, 1972, p 51.
  8. Orlando, op. cit., p 179.
  9. Ibid, p.167
  10. Virginia Woolf A Biography, Volume 1, op. cit., p.40.
  11. Ibid, p 63.
  12. Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas, first published by The Hogarth Press, London, 1938, published in Penguin Books 1977, reprinted 1982, p 121.
  13. Orlando, op. cit., p 193.
  14. Ibid, pp 10, 18, 86.
  15. Ibid, p 92.
  16. Ibid, p 46.
  17. Ibid, pp 129-30.
  18. Robert Sackville-West, Knole, The National Trust, Great Britain, 1998, reprinted 2003, p.94
  19. Orlando, op. cit, p 66.
  20. Ibid, p 66.
  21. Three Guineas, op. cit., p 86.


My thanks to Jonathon Zoob and Caroline, Steven Dedman, Dottie Owens and Alma M. for helping me so generously with my research.

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