Study Guide

Orlando Memory and the Past

By Virginia Woolf

Memory and the Past

Orlando's fathers had ridden in fields of asphodel, and stony fields, and fields watered by strange rivers, and they had struck many heads of many colours off many shoulders, and brought them back to hang from the rafters. So too would Orlando, he vowed. But since he was sixteen only, and too young to ride with them in Africa or France, he would steal away from his mother and the peacocks in the garden and go to his attic room and there lunge and plunge and slice the air with his blade. […]His fathers had been noble since they had been at all. They came out of the northern mists wearing coronets on their heads. (1.2)

When we first meet Orlando, his past charts out the course for his future.

She kept him with her. At the height of her triumph when the guns were booming at the Tower and the air was thick enough with gunpowder to make one sneeze and the huzzas of the people rang beneath the windows, she pulled him down among the cushions where her women had laid her (she was so worn and old) and made him bury his face in that astonishing composition--she had not changed her dress for a month--which smelt for all the world, he thought, recalling his boyish memory, like some old cabinet at home where his mother's furs were stored. He rose, half suffocated from the embrace. 'This', she breathed, 'is my victory!'--even as a rocket roared up and dyed her cheeks scarlet. (1.14)

Notice that the biographer is still very involved in chronicling action. Orlando’s memory is jogged by his present situation, but it’s discussed in a very different style here than later in the novel. Later in the novel, we might be three pages into a discussion of the old cabinet at home before we get back to the action on the bed.

Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind. (2.12)

The fake biographer is explaining what’s going on in Orlando’s head – as Orlando commits to an ordinary gesture, it jogs his mind and floods it with various memories. The passage is also remarkable for its personification of Memory.

'So, my dear Lord,' he continued, settling himself comfortably in his chair and rubbing the wine-glass between his fingers, 'we must make the best of it, cherish the past and honour those writers--there are still a few of 'em--who take antiquity for their model and write, not for pay but for Glawr.' (2.19)

As we’ll later see, three centuries later Nick Greene retains his love for past literature. His obsession with the past adds comic effect to the story.

It is, indeed, highly unfortunate, and much to be regretted that at this stage of Orlando's career, when he played a most important part in the public life of his country, we have least information to go upon. […] But the revolution which broke out during his period of office, and the fire which followed, have so damaged or destroyed all those papers from which any trustworthy record could be drawn, that what we can give is lamentably incomplete. […] We have done our best to piece out a meagre summary from the charred fragments that remain; but often it has been necessary to speculate, to surmise, and even to use the imagination. (3.1)

When have you seen a biographer ready to resort to the imagination when there are no historical documents to use? The biographer is mocking the conventional biographers who piece together their narratives from past documents.

The form of it, by the hazard of fancy, recalled that earliest, most persistent memory--the man with the big forehead in Twitchett's sitting-room, the man who sat writing, or rather looking, but certainly not at her, for he never seemed to see her poised there in all her finery, lovely boy though she must have been, she could not deny it--and whenever she thought of him, the thought spread round it, like the risen moon on turbulent waters, a sheet of silver calm. Now her hand went to her bosom (the other was still in the Captain's keeping), where the pages of her poem were hidden safe. (4.16)

The mere memory of the shabby poet in Twitchett’s sitting room is inspiring to Orlando.

No one need wonder that Orlando started, pressed her hand to her heart, and turned pale. For what more terrifying revelation can there be than that it is the present moment? That we survive the shock at all is only possible because the past shelters us on one side and the future on another. (6.56)

The present moment is incredibly terrifying and isolating – can you imagine how it would feel to exist purely in the moment without the past and future to help define you? That’s what we think this passage is getting at.

Now the lift gave a little jerk as it stopped at the first floor; and she had a vision of innumerable coloured stuffs flaunting in a breeze from which came distinct, strange smells; and each time the lift stopped and flung its doors open, there was another slice of the world displayed with all the smells of that world clinging to it. She was reminded of the river off Wapping in the time of Elizabeth, where the treasure ships and the merchant ships used to anchor. How richly and curiously they had smelt! How well she remembered the feel of rough rubies running through her fingers when she dabbled them in a treasure sack! (6.57)

This passage is a great illustration of how Woolf uses moments in the ‘present time’ as a springboard for the mind to take a trip down Memory Lane.

‘I take up a handbag and I think of an old bumboat woman frozen in the ice. Someone lights a pink candle and I see a girl in Russian trousers. When I step out of doors--as I do now,' here she stepped on to the pavement of Oxford Street, 'what is it that I taste? Little herbs. I hear goat bells. I see mountains. Turkey? India? Persia?' Her eyes filled with tears. (6.66)

This passage functions similarly to the one above; it shows how Orlando’s past memories infuse her present existence.

But everywhere were little lavender bags to keep the moth out and printed notices, 'Please do not touch', which, though she had put them there herself, seemed to rebuke her. The house was no longer hers entirely, she sighed. It belonged to time now; to history; was past the touch and control of the living. (6.81)

That fact that the house is now a museum marks an important step in Orlando’s development, as she must now leave her house in the past, which implies that she is now looking towards the future. Despite having set up the museum herself, the building is now inaccessible to her when it used to be familiar.

So she sat at the end of the gallery with her dogs couched round her, in Queen Elizabeth's hard armchair. The gallery stretched far away to a point where the light almost failed. It was as a tunnel bored deep into the past. As her eyes peered down it, she could see people laughing and talking […] The long gallery filled itself thus, and still peering further, she thought she could make out at the very end, beyond the Elizabethans and the Tudors, some one older, further, darker, a cowled figure, monastic, severe, a monk, who went with his hands clasped, and a book in them, murmuring--

Like thunder, the stable clock struck four. Never did any earthquake so demolish a whole town. The gallery and all its occupants fell to powder. (6.82 – 6.83)

Although Orlando’s memories are particularly vivid, she must inevitably be recalled to the present moment.