Somewhere on West 24th Street in the early 2000s, Susan Sontag asked Terry Castle whether Virginia Woolf was a ‘great genius’. Castle agreed emphatically before offering a tongue-in-cheek follow-up: ‘Do you really think Orlando is a work of genius?’ Sontag’s response was quick and admonishing. ‘“Of course not!.” she shouts, “You don’t judge a writer by her worst work! You judge her by her best work!”’
Orlando: A biography (1927) is Woolf’s ‘worst work’ for Sontag insofar as it was her least experimental. Intended as a riff on the biographical form – a form that had made Woolf’s father famous – it is playful and dense, but formally unambitious; a palatable and entertaining ‘love letter’ to Vita Sackville-West that offered Woolf a reprieve after the more overt aestheticism of To the Lighthouse (1927). Her first commercial success – it outsold To the Lighthouse within the first month of its publication – Orlando remains her most popular work nearly one hundred years later.