This post is dedicated to: Lady Helen Mary Stewart-Wilson, author of the above edition.
Virginia Woolf’s Orlando ‘inspired by miniature book in dolls’ house library’
When Virginia Woolf published Orlando in 1928, the story of a gender-fluid character who travels across the centuries meeting historical figures was hailed as a work of experimental daring. However, experts have suggested that the idea may have been borrowed from an unlikely source: a miniature book made for a dolls’ house. The tiny volume measuring no bigger than a matchbox was written by Woolf’s aristocratic lover, Vita Sackville-West, in 1922. Entitled A Note of Explanation, its theme will be familiar to anyone who has read Orlando: an ageless sprite who is present for the major moments in fairytale history, from Cinderella’s ball to Sleeping Beauty’s kiss. It was one of 200 volumes produced for the library of Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House in 1922, a replica of an Edwardian residence made as a gift for the consort of George V. Some of the greatest authors of the day were commissioned to write works for it, including Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The house is on display at Windsor Castle but the contents of the Sackville-West book have never been published. Now A Note of Explanation is to be released by the Royal Collection Trust in a regular-sized edition. Woolf acknowledged that Orlando was inspired by Sackville-West and her forebears, and dedicated the book to her. But she did not mention that her partner had written a book with such a similar theme. Matthew Denni-son, Sackville-West’s biographer, said: “A Note of Explanation reveals that Vita came up with a similar conception at least four years before Woolf began Orlando. The [central character] has survived since time immemorial, present when Cinderella dazzled her prince and Bluebeard committed his first murder, and equally at home in the 14th century Florence of the poets. “She embraces old and new, fact, fiction, romance and modernity – much like the character of Orlando.” Nigel Nicolson, Sackville-West’s son, has described Orlando as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature”. Woolf began writing the book in 1927, noting in her diary that it would be “a biography beginning in the year 1500 and continuing to the present day… Vita, only with a change about from one sex to another.” Sackville-West’s book was more of a children’s fantasy, and her spritely heroine moves into the dolls’ house, where she samples vintages in the wine cellar and compares it favourably to Aladdin’s palace. With its running water, electric lights and working lifts, the dolls’ house would have been a child’s dream. But it was not built for play. It was designed on a 1:12 scale by Sir Edwin Lutyens for the Empire Exhibition in 1924, to showcase British workmanship. The original version of A Note of Explanation, which measures 39x10mm and allows only 20 words per page in minuscule script, remains in the dolls’ house library alongside a miniature complete works of Shakespeare, the Bible and the Koran. Jacky Colliss Harvey, publisher at the Royal Collection Trust, said: “Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House is a constant source of fascination for visitors to Windsor Castle, as irresistible to adults as it is to children. We are thrilled that we can bring the tiny treasures of the Dolls’ House to a wider audience through the publication of this enchanting and original tale by one of the major figures in 20th century literature.”