Orlando & the frivolous necessity of making the home

I’m not actually writing about Orlando for my Woolf paper on the plastic arts and narratology, but I do keep coming back to this moment in the novel:

Never had the house looked more noble and humane.

Why, then, had he wished to raise himself above them? For it seemed vain and arrogant in the extreme to try to better that anonymous work of creation; the labours of those vanished hands. Better was it to go unknown and leave behind you an arch, a potting shed, a wall where peaches ripen, than to burn like a meteor and leave no dust. For after all, he said, kindling as he looked at the great house on the greensward below, the unknown lords and ladies who lived there never forgot to set aside something for those who come after; for the roof that will leak; for the tree that will fall. There was always a warm corner for the old shepherd in the kitchen; always food for the hungry; always their goblets were polished, though they lay sick, and their windows were lit though they lay dying. Lords though they were, they were content to go down into obscurity with the molecatcher and the stone-mason. Obscure noblemen, forgotten builders–thus he apostrophized them with a warmth that entirely gainsaid such critics as called him cold, indifferent, slothful (the truth being that a quality often lies just on the other side of the wall from where we seek it)–thus he apostrophized his house and race in terms of the most moving eloquence; but when it came to the peroration–and what is eloquence that lacks a peroration?–he fumbled. He would have liked to have ended with a flourish to the effect that he would follow in their footsteps and add another stone to their building. Since, however, the building already covered nine acres, to add even a single stone seemed superfluous. Could one mention furniture in a peroration? Could one speak of chairs and tables and mats to lie beside people’s beds? For whatever the peroration wanted, that was what the house stood in need of.

— Virginia Woolf, Orlando

Can one mention furniture indeed.

This is also not at all what I discussed with my undergrads this week when I taught a session on the novel; we spent the majority of the time instead on tone in the opening of the novel, close reading images and trying to draw links between it and Woolf’s other works.  But furniture, furnishing, the making of a home, is on my mind quite a bit lately, just as it was on Orlando’s at a certain point in the early days of his adult life.

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