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We have a suspicion that, if Orlando were living today, she'd shop at REI. Or maybe she'd have a subscription to Backpacker Magazine and a lifetime membership with the Sierra Club. Our point here? The lady loves nature.
But wait, you may ask, aren't we supposed to be talking about Shel? We're rambling on about nature and Orlando is because she meets Shel while lying in a field, having pledged herself to nature. What's that about?
So, a bit of background: Orlando's worried because she is trapped in the straight laces of the 19th century (see Orlando's "Character Analysis" for more on Orlando and the Victorian age), an age that tells her that she must be married. But she doesn't like anyone enough. How can a person of both genders resign herself to a strictly man-woman relationship?
Luckily, Orlando doesn't have to compromise: just as she's lying there, pledging her troth to the moor ("I have found my mate [...] It is the moor. I am nature's bride" [5.26]), she hears the heartbeat-like rhythm of a horse's hooves. The horse happens to be carrying a certain sea captain, Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, Esquire. And all of a sudden, they're engaged. Because where Sasha and Orlando were all about immediate misunderstanding, Orlando and Shel are all about the instant understanding:
In fact, though their acquaintance had been so short, they had guessed, as always happens between lovers, everything of any importance about each other in two seconds at the utmost, and it now remained only to fill in such unimportant details as what they were called; where they lived; and whether they were beggars or people of substance. (5.30)
Woolf is obviously being wry in this passage, because things like names and livelihoods are popularly supposed to be important. But if you throw your mind back to Sasha (and we get more into this comparison in the "Character Roles" section), all that mattered in the conversations between Orlando and Sasha was whether they were people of substance. If Sasha and Orlando talked a lot without saying anything important to one another, Shel and Orlando say everything important to one another without a word.
Still, Woolf''s not just going to kick back and say, "Too many words, bad! Not enough, good!" She's a writer, after all, if she really believed that everything important could be said without a word, she wouldn't bother putting 300+ pages of sentences to paper. So, if Sasha's an example of the impossibility of capturing the essence of a person in metaphor and simile, Shel's a chance for Woolf to poke fun at what happens when you lose all your faith in language:
For it has come about, by the wise economy of nature, that our modern spirit can almost dispense with language; the commonest expressions do, since no expressions do; hence the most ordinary conversation is often the most poetic, and the most poetic is precisely that which cannot be written down. For which reasons we leave a great blank here, which must be taken to indicate that the space is filled to repletion. (5.37)
Orlando, in the Elizabethan age, can't stop throwing words at Sasha to attempt to catch her on paper. Now, in this modern age, we feel that "the most poetic is precisely that which cannot be written down." A cool sentiment, maybe, but a bit problematic if you want to publish novels, which is maybe what Woolf is getting at with her "great blank."
We don't literally think Shel is a wood elf, but his connection to nature is worth a section of its own. Consider the moment just before Shel appears in Chapter 5, as Orlando lies sprawled in a field with a broken ankle, contemplating life:
"Here [in this field] will I lie. [...] I shall dream wild dreams. My hands shall wear no wedding ring,' she continued, slipping it from her finger. [...] I have known many men and many women,' she continued; 'none have I understood. It is better that I should lie at peace here with only the sky above me [...]." (5.26)
What's key in this passage is the association of nature with understanding. This is something that comes up over and over in this novel – Orlando's wolfhounds immediately recognize her when she returns from Turkey, even though she has changed gender. Society may be about disguise, but nature is about essence
And remember the insight into Sasha that Orlando discovers when he turns into a woman? He doesn't get her at all when he's a guy, but as soon as he's assumed lady parts, she finally understands something of where Sasha is coming from. (For more on this, see Sasha's "Character Analysis.")
Given Orlando's Sasha-related epiphanies when he switches sexes, it makes sense that in the world of this novel, perfect understanding could only exist only between two people of the exact same nature. Orlando is in a tricky position because she is both a he and a she, and shifts regularly between the two throughout the novel. So the only person who could really understand her would have to be similarly changeable.
In this moment when Orlando embraces nature and rejects society, nature provides her with a groom(/bride) to supply her needs. This character is Shel.
What we have here is an extended pun on the words nature (as in Nature, as in Mother Nature) and nature (as in a person's essential character). Shel represents both. As for the tree kind of nature, Shel arrives as the wind blows in the correct direction, his time with Orlando is measured in the leaves that accumulate at her feet while they sit outside, and his house is overrun with birds, and his fate is at the whim of the sea.
As for the essential character kind of nature, let's take a look at this passage
"Are you positive you aren't a man?" [Shel] would ask anxiously, and [Orlando] would echo, "Can it be possible you're not a woman?" and then they must put it to the proof without more ado. For each was so surprised at the quickness of the other's sympathy, and it was to each such a revelation that a woman could be as tolerant and free–spoken as a man, and a man as strange and subtle as a woman, that they had to put the matter to the proof at once. (5.47-8)
Neither one can believe that the other is the opposite gender because they understand one another so well. So they may have opposite parts (and Woolf's getting pretty racy there, with "the proof" of their genders), but they nonetheless share languages and mannerisms.
Shel is like an inverted, funhouse mirror version of the modern Orlando. He is a man whom Orlando often mistakes for a woman (where Orlando is a woman who can pass as a man). In fact, the two seem like two halves of the same coin.
All the classy people Orlando falls for have about a million names, and Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, Esquire is no exception. But where Orlando's previous loves got single nicknames (Princess Marousha Stanilovska Dagmar Natasha Iliana Romanovitch = "Sasha"; The Lady Margaret O'Brien O'Dare O'Reilly Tyrconnel = "Euphrosyne"), Shel has a bunch, and they're all related to Orlando's moods.
There's "Mar," when Orlando is feeling in a "dreamy, amorous, acquiescent mood" (5.28) and "Bonthrop" when she's solitary. There's "Shelmerdine" when the two are marrying, and "Shel," when the man plays with snail shells in the grass.
In other words, Shel's name changes not in relation to his shifting character, but to hers. It's like a private language. Remember how we were shut out of Sasha and Orlando's French talk? Well, here, it's the opposite. We get a new code from Orlando, in which Shel's names express what Orlando feels.
Not to get too starry-eyed and romantic here, but Orlando and Shel's relationship seems like a perfect union of thought (Orlando) and word (Shel). Orlando has married her own nature, which is also her own art.
Which is why it makes sense that, when the wind carries Shel back to Orlando at the end of the sixth chapter, it should be in a moment of transcendence. Orlando calls Shel to her as she bares her breast to the moon, as she opens herself wildly to her history, to nature, and to her art.