Virginia Woolf's Orlando:
The Book as Critic

by Kelly Tetterton

A paper presented to The Fifth Annual Virginia Woolf Conference at Otterbein College, June 18, 1995


The American Paperback Covers of Virginia Woolf's Orlando


As well-seasoned critics and readers, we are often accustomed to reading a text against itself, and Virginia Woolf's Orlando invites us to do so quite explicitly. The text asks us to reconsider the very notions of literature and sexuality that it itself seems so invested in. So far so good. But we are not accustomed to looking at the critical relationship between the physical book and the text we read, and in our failure to do so, we risk acquiescence to the reading of that text as it's been handed to us. I want to focus on Woolf's Orlando for several reasons: it is itself a complicated text to read, open to many interpretations, and publishers have felt quite free to exploit those various interpretations visually on the covers of the book; and because Woolf herself is a well-known author whose critical acceptance has always been inflected by her gender, and that too has spilled over onto the book's covers. Orlando the book has been packaged in distinctive ways throughout this century, and that packaging has recapitulated certain attitudes towards the text that have been cemented into potential blockades against other readings.

But before we get into all of that, a reminder of how things change. We read Orlando now most often as a feminist work that explores the boundaries of gender and sexuality and the limits of women writers within literary history, or as a sharp critique on the possibilities of biography. But Orlando was often first read by its contemporary audience as a gossipy portrait of Vita Sackville-West; the reviewer at the Daily Mail entitled his buzz on Orlando, "A Fantastic Biography: Mrs. H. Nicholson and 'Orlando': 300 Years as Man and Woman." And if it was not taken as straight Bloomsbury dish, it was taken as the delightful joke that Woolf herself claimed it to be. It was a hugely successful joke -- not just critically, but financially as well, both in England and America.It was Orlando that enabled the Woolfs to purchase their first car, and it put them on stable financial footing for the rest of their lives.

It was simultaneously read as a serious work of literature. The reviews in 1928 range (as book reviews do today) from mere plot summaries to gushing, vapid praise to thoughtful consideration of the work. It is the latter category that I'm interested in, of course. The writer for the Saturday Review feels that Woolf doesn't pursue her goose chase far enough, and that "it is the tragedy of one of the rarest and most strenuous intellects now at work that she persists in approaching fiction through a theory of fiction" (474); the reviewer for the Manchester Guardian notes her use of modernist technique to comment on the genre of biography. Critics writing through the mid-forties continued to approach the novel from different angles: Joseph Warren Beach, for instance, noted that "the point of the book seems to be that there is more than one person in each body, that each individual has, at least potentially, many selves..." (491), and Deborah Newton focused on Woolf's concern with time.

This is not to suggest that Woolf's novel came into its own early in its publishing history -- far from it. There is really a dearth of discussion about Orlando from its initial publication (and the attendant book reviews) until about the mid-1950s when the conversation begins to get going again. But that said, that initial conversation essentially lays the primitive foundations for almost all critical discussion to come later.

Almost all. Where are the feminist interpretations? Well, they hadn't happened yet. In part, it's a deliberately anachronistic question- -the women's movement of the 60s and 70s hadn't happened, and neither had academic feminist criticism come into its own. And yet now it's almost impossible to escape such interpretations of the novel. Why is that? have we become so much more astute than readers of nearly 70 years ago?

Partly yes -- we are far more sensitive to issues of gender than those readers of long agobecause it's now part of our social consciousness; even those who might disagree with such a critical approach must now acknowledge the validity of the approach itself. And partly no -- we are simply reacting to what we're given to read. Take a look at the most recent paperback covers for Orlando -- one from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and one from the Quality Paperback Book Club. Anyone casually glancing at these covers is likely to suspect that issues of gender and sexuality are involved in the text beneath the covers. The 1973 HBJ paperback gives us two almost identical figures, one male and one female, divided by a clock; the 1993 QBC book cover is more abstract, but there's a prominent pink triangle on its spine and back. If we are better readers today, it's because we have some help from the publishers.

Help -- and possible hindrance. If we are more attuned to the sexual issues in Orlando today because of the novel's packaging, we are also less immediately aware of other aspects of the novel for the very same reason. The glory in whimsy and fantasy is lost from these contemporary covers, but these very elements were the ones highlighted in previous incarnations. The 1946 Penguin paperback features a young boy in Renaissance dress writing beneath a tree while an airplane flies overhead; the 1960 Signet cover features a technicolor version of the ice skaters from the Great Frost. These covers present the text to the reader as wonderful escapist fantasy, at the very least de-emphasizing feminist interpretations of the novel.

This may seem like an amusing bit of publishing trivia, but I think it's far more than that. Paperbacks are the primary medium through which we read almost all our texts today -- especially "the classics" -- and while we seem to have become quite sophisticated about critiquing some of the flashier aspects of popular culture -- TV, movies, advertising- -we have yet to learn how to critique the texts of paperbacks with the same sort of sophistication. Paperback books grew up with television, after all; they only became commercially viable just prior to World War II, and college students didn't even begin to buy them for their courses until the late 1950s. Paperback books are every bit asmuch a part of contemporary popular culture as television and movies, and just as ideologically insidious -- if we aren't paying attention.

You can trace Woolf's and Orlando's changing reputations, for instance, by reading the print advertising on the back of the paperback covers of Orlando. The 1946 Penguin says this, in part: "No writer was ever born into a more felicitous environment. . . . Her father was Sir Leslie Stephen, editor of the Cornhill Magazine. She was related to half the scholarly families of England. . . . The great literary men of the day . . . were often in the house and made a pet of the little girl. She was too delicate to go to school . . . ." There is nothing about Orlando itself, and this biography/advertisement is more interested in defining Woolf through others rather than by her own achievements. The 1960 Signet focuses far more on the book at hand: ". . . Orlando's story is a wild farce, a humorous history, a gay romance filled with the delightful experiences of one of the most fascinating and fantastic characters to ever rule the realm of fiction"; we also get commentary from three critics who praise the book. But compare that blurb to the 1973 HBJ: ". . . Virginia Woolf has created a character liberated from the restraints of time and sex. . . . A brilliantly imagined pageant of English history, society, and literature, Orlando is also a witty, feminist reappraisal of the nature of the sexes." We've come a long way from the 1946 Penguin, both in the cover art and the cover text. Nor do the changes end there. The 1946 Penguin doesn't include any of Woolf's photographs; the 1960 includes them, but reduced in size and all clustered together in the center of the novel; not until 1973 are the photographs restored to their 1928 locations (at least for American readers). Thus readers between 1928 and 1973 were either not given any indication that accompanying photographs existed at all, or they were given the photographs in an incidental way.

Which leads me to my next point. Woolf herself tries to direct our reading of the text with visual cues -- the photographs -- in much the same way the publishers do with their various covers. And in a postmodernist aesthetic, one is not necessarily more or less valuable than the other; but bothsorts of direction have to be acknowledged critically before the reader can take control of the free play of interpretive multiplicities available.

My point here is that paperback covers both reflect and reinforce the critical attitudes of the day, both visually and textually, and yet we very rarely pay attention to what those covers are saying. As Jerome McGann has pointed out, "all imaginative work appears to us in specific material forms. Many people -- even many textual scholars -- don't realize the imaginative importance of those material forms" (Black Riders, 168). And further: "a textual history is a psychic history . . . because it is first a social history. This is not a metaphysical fact about literary works, but one which is functionally related to and determined by the purposes of literary works, on the one hand, and the programs which seek to study them on the other" (Critique, 62). Paperbacks are a powerful ideological force -- they can persuade a reader to focus on one particular reading of a novel as complex as Orlando before he or she ever turns to the first page -- and we need to reckon with that force as readers and teachers of readers if we are to free our critical faculties to as many readings as possible.


Bibliography of Sources


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Copyright © Kelly Tetterton, 1995.
Format revision, May 2000.