The Newtonian Orlando: Locality, Globality, and the Forces of Knole House

30 September 2021

Zoe Kempf-Harris, University of Virginia

While Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) first appears to be a global novel, the temptation to read it as local is also strong. Orlando initially seems to be predicated on expanse, as Woolf invites readers to consider the sprawling totality of centuries and miles, sending her protagonist from the Elizabethan age up to 1928 and from England’s Kent all the way to Turkey. In writing to her lover and inspiration for the novel, Vita Sackville-West, Woolf contemplates this expanse as it cumulates and culminates in singular forms: ‘All these ancestors & centuries, & silver & gold, have bred a perfect body.’[1] Fittingly, the novel Woolf goes on to write depends on its established centres—Orlando, a projection of Sackville-West, serves as one such ‘body,’ and Knole House, the Sackville-West estate, acts as a point of return for Orlando’s accrued four hundred years and thousands of miles. In a study of these central forms and the motions that exist in relation to them, the laws that govern Newtonian forces may likewise govern Orlando’s own outbound and homebound movements. By reconsidering Orlando’s global and local motions as ‘centrifugal’ and ‘centripetal’ forces respectively, I reframe the novel’s global reach as a reactive shadow force to the strong inward pull Woolf cultivates towards the ancestral estate. Orlando succeeds as a global novel only so far as it may be recognised as a local one.

First and Second Laws: Orlando’s National Inertia and Knole House

Adopting the framework of Newton’s first law—‘an object at rest will stay at rest, unless acted upon by another force’—I view Orlando’s initial inertia as a rest that is distinctly tied up in Orlando’s strong connections to his land and country. In the novel’s opening gesture, Orlando’s intense nationalism is on display in tandem with his global aspirations; he swings at the head of a Moor and imagines himself, like his father, a figure of conquest. Just as this head is tethered to the rafters of Knole House, Orlando is tied to his ancestral land, and his only conquests exist in the expanse of his imagination. Already Orlando demonstrates a fierce attachment to solid ground, seeking to tie his ‘floating heart’ to something ‘hard’: ‘to the oak tree he tied it.’[2] The oak tree—a temporal touchstone throughout Orlando—proves as much a vehicle for accessing abstraction as it proves an anchor, tethering Orlando to the physical world around him. Here, Orlando rests and remains at rest—that is until the arrival of Queen Elizabeth interrupts this exchange to both name Orlando a ‘favorite’ and to urge him beyond England in his performance of courtly duties. Still, even the force of a Queen barely overcomes Orlando’s national inertia. Her affection keeps her from sending Orlando anywhere further than Scotland, and she goes so far as to ‘recall’ him from setting sail for the Polish wars.[3]

Because Newton’s second law dictates that force must be equal to mass times acceleration, the success of Woolf’s forces depends on the material masses she deploys within the novel and their acceleration through the ages. As a further countermeasure to Orlando’s globalization, the Queen bestows upon him a new anchor: Knole House, the vast country estate that will serve as his material focus for generations. This gesture underscores the duality of the forces at play—centrifugal in ambassadorial duties, and centripetal in the physical promise and place of return. As Queen Elizabeth introduces Orlando to his foreign responsibilities, she ensures his ties to his nation (by way of his ties to its land) are both equal and opposite and therefore maintains Orlando’s inertial state.

Given that an additional force is required to overcome inertia, Woolf deploys Sasha, a Russian princess with whom Orlando falls in love, as the catalyst for his globality. Sasha’s introduction at the Great Frost Fair precipitates the novel’s essential displacements. As the cultural power of England draws the world to the fair, Sasha manages to question court life and pull Orlando outside it, such that he drifts beyond the scope and singularity of Elizabethan courtly forms. In the onset of Orlando’s sudden passion, Woolf re-invokes his imaginative conquest from the Retainer’s Gallery: ‘he grasped a sword in his hand; he charged a more daring foe than Pole or Moor.’[4] But Sasha pulls him out of this reverie and into their shared physical situation, extricating him from both his imagined globality and his entrenched hyper-locality. Her physicality becomes tied up in Orlando’s impressions of her foreignness, made attractive to Orlando by Sasha’s own attractiveness; furthermore, he metaphorises her out of her own immediacy. Sasha is at once ‘a melon, an emerald, a fox in the snow,’ and he finds English insufficient to describe her.[5] Orlando attempts to ‘ransack’ his own language for words to describe her before realising his need for ‘another landscape, and another tongue.’[6] While he intends to seek out this landscape by following Sasha to Russia, the heartbreak she inspires that renders Knole ‘uninhabitable’ pushes him out from this centre all the way to Turkey.[7] Sasha’s force may be therefore termed‘centrifugal’ in that it results from Knole’s own inward pull. Woolf subverts the estate’s former ‘habitability’ and allows Orlando to momentarily defy his homeward inclinations on Sasha’s account, even though the cumulative weight and acceleration of Knole House through time also ensures his centripetal return.

Third Law: Centripetal Returns

The mirrored images and bidirectional movements that reflect across the span of Orlando reveal that Newton’s third law of ‘equal and opposite forces’ holds. Helen Southworth (University of Oregon) references the ‘ambivalent feelings’ that characterise Woolf’s writings: ‘Woolf was torn between a desire to escape the restrictions of home, which she saw become increasingly repressive in the years spanning the two world wars, and a deep-seated, visceral attachment to it.’[8]Orlando likewise desires escape, despite his ingrained nationalism, and he craves it in the figure of Sasha. Still, Orlando maintains his own ‘deep-seated’ ties to home. As Southworth registers the relationship between nostalgia and nationality, she writes of Orlando, ‘More open to change than Clarissa [Dalloway], Orlando’s vacillation between love of country and recognition of the limitations of that same country captures the ambivalence voiced more explicitly ten years later in Woolf’s Three Guineas.[9] While Southworth terms this phenomenon a ‘vacillation,’ this reading of the centripetal and centrifugal forces accounts for a key simultaneity in Orlando. If every motion outward is both a product and a complication of Orlando’s inevitable return, then Woolf’s ambivalence is expressed as equal and opposite assertions of value that can coexist within the abstract realm.

Though Knole House serves as the novel’s centre, and Orlando’s deep-seated longing and aesthetic cravings for their English home centripetally push them there, Woolf does not end the novel on the simple note of local reclamation. Instead, she facilitates a new universality, achieved in the abstract realm. The ambivalence Southworth observes finds resolution in the novel’s final gesture of equilibrium: ‘All was phantom. All was still.’[10] The homeward centripetal force and its global centrifugal opposite vault problems of nostalgia and nationality onto a new scale, a new plane, and a new system. By deploying Knole House and allowing the novel’s foreign dimension to result from its innate centripetal drive, Woolf secures both the global and nostalgic impulses of her novel, allowing them to coexist not in contradiction, but in cooperation.

Image Credit/Caption: Knole House, author’s own photograph.


[1] Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. by Anne Oliver Bell and Andrew McNeillie, vol. 2 (Harcourt, 1980), p. 306.

[2] Virginia Woolf, Orlando, ed. by Maria DiBattista and Mark Hussey (Harcourt, 2006), p. 15.

[3] Ibid., p. 19.

[4] Ibid.,  p. 28.

[5]  Ibid.,  p. 28.

[6]  Ibid.,  p. 35.

[7]  Ibid., p. 87.

[8] Helen Southworth, “‘Mixed Virginia’: Reconciling the ‘Stigma of Nationality’ and the Sting of Nostalgia in Virginia Woolf’s Later Fiction,” in Woolf Studies Annual, vol. 11 (2005), 99-132, p. 99.

[9]  Ibid.,  p. 113.

[10] Woolf, Orlando, p. 240.

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