It is a well known fact that Virginia Woolf wrote her gender-bending novel, Orlando, as a study of Vita Sackville-West in the waning part of their romantic relationship (they remained steadfast friends until Woolf’s death).
Woolf was probably better able to scrutinize Sackville-West as a character and bring Orlando to life as West began to disappoint the Bloomsbury novelist by having affairs. Nonetheless, the love between them ultimately never suffered.
Orlando is a testament to Woolf’s literary talents as well as her devotion and acuity of observation where Vita was concerned. Both novelists inspired each other’s writing in ways that their novels recount for us now.
Vita wrote to Virginia, “This is perhaps not what you call an intimate letter? But I disagree. The book that one is writing at the moment is really the most intimate part of one, and the part about which one preserves the strictest secrecy. What is love or sex, compared with the intensity of the life one leads in one’s book? A trifle; a thing to be shouted from the hilltops. Therefore if I write to you about my book, I am writing really intimately, though it may not be very interestingly … But you would rather I told you I missed Potto and Virginia, those silky creatures … and so I do …” [“Potto” was Virginia’s pug.]
Likewise, Woolf’s novels often deal with life directly (fiction being truer to life), and so on this gorgeous day in Baltimore, I offer up one more excerpt from Orlando to send you on your way:
“Let us go then, exploring, this summer morning, when all are adoring the plum blossom and the bee. And humming and hawing, let us ask of the starling (who is a more sociable bird than the lark) what he may think on the brink of the dust bin, whence he picks among the sticks combings of scullion’s hair. What’s life, we ask, leaning on the farmyard gate; Life, Life, Life! cries the bird, as if he had heard …”
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Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She serves on the executive board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and is co-editing with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edited the anthology Bettering American Poetry 2015 and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.