ORLANDO is the watershed in the range of Virginia Woolf's writings. Hitherto there has been the one great problem, exhaustively treated: how to reconcile divergent personalities within marriage. To that problem there is, it seems, no final solution, and in Orlando she seeks to escape from it. This fantasy-biography is a tour de force and a retreat. The escape is provided by a whimsical accentuation of the Tiresias motif that we noted in Mrs Dalloway. Man and woman are united in a single person: not only Orlando, but the Archduke Harry and Marmaduke Bonthrop are androgynous. Marriage and understanding thus become possible. The fantasy is light and airy, there is an unaccustomed humour, yet we cannot overlook an undertone of defeat, even of self-mockery. This evasion is what I am brought to, is the confession written between the lines. This solution is no solution.
It is not only the Tiresias motif that is parodied here. Many of Mrs Woolf's favourite themes reappear in a lighter guise: the attic room of Night and Day and Mrs Dalloway, the Turkish hills sighed for amid all the civilisation of Cambridge in Jacob's Room, the house which is a main character in To the Lighthouse. All are woven together against a background of history--the pageant device which is to be used again, even more precisely, in Between the Acts. Through the metamorphoses of a single individual the changing spirit of English history and the English way of life is re-created. Orlando is masculine and violent in the dashing Elizabethan age, pensive and morbid in the early seventeenth century, presides at literary tea-parties in the Augustan period, and blushes and swoons in crinolines in the sentimental age of Victoria. The temperament of each age is conveyed in a series of brilliant vignettes: the boy Orlando kneeling with an ewer of rose-water before the aged Queen Elizabeth, the Great Frost of James I's reign, Pope unforgivably witty at a fashionable tea-party. The mastery of detail is