Rethinking the Art of Biography: Virginia Woolf's Orlando and Writing a Life of One's Own
Writing to tell one’s story, or "to write," as it were, one’s life, Carolyn Heilbrun has posited the proposition that there will be no true narratives of women's lives until [women] cease to live their lives isolated in the houses and in the fiction of men (Writing a Woman's Life 47). Virginia Woolf addressed this issue in her brilliant, satirical tour de force of biographical "revisioning," Orlando. Commonly studied and taught as Woolf's tribute both to androgyny and to her aristocratic lover, Vita Sackville West, Orlando is a rich and creative rendering of Woolf ideas about the nature of art (literary art in particular), being an artist, and the relationship between art and life—a relationship made all the more complex if the artist happened to be a woman. Framing the dilemma with poignant clarity in A Room of One's Own, Woolf wrote: "Who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet's heart when caught and tangled in a woman's body?"
Orlando, however, is also brilliant satire, of the most delicious sort, of the art of biography, inspired by Lawrence Sterne's irreverent pseudo-biography Tristram Shandy. Like Tristram’s biographic narrative, Woolf's telling of Orlando's life turns both traditional biography and story-telling upside down. What Woolf gives the reader is not only superb satire and a lively and original tale but an extraordinary "revisioning" of the art of biography, a revisioning of the “book” calculated to pale those eminent Victorian’s life stories. This paper will explore Woolf's unique and artful revisioning of the “book.”
Keywords: Revisioning Biography
Dr. Sylvia Shurbutt
Professor of English, Department of English and Modern Languages, Shepherd University