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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

Orlando King

by
Isabel Colegate


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Orlando King



Title: Orlando King
Author: Isabel Colegate
Genre: Novel
Written: 1968
Length: 175 pages
Availability: in: Orlando King - US
in: Orlando King - UK
in: Orlando King - Canada
  • With an Introduction by Melissa Harrison
  • Also published together with Orlando at the Brazen Threshold and Agatha, as Orlando King, a collection previously also published as The Orlando Trilogy

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Our Assessment:

A- : arresting and resonant story-telling, impressively capturing 1930s England

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 25/5/1969 Aileen Pippett
Sunday Telegraph . 22/9/1968 Renee Winegarten
Sunday Times* . 14/7/2020 Johanna Thomas-Corr

[* review of entire trilogy]

  From the Reviews:
  • "For Miss Colegate, Orlando's involvement in capitalist society implies a rejection of love. This adds an element of pretentiousness to her very striking image of a man who does not know what he is at, and who thereby symbolises an entire generation." - Renee Winegarten, Sunday Telegraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Orlando King does not start off neatly chronologically: the brief first paragraphs report of the death of King, the man who raised the eponymous protagonist, and of Orlando returning for his funeral, while the immediately following section goes so far as to claim about this and what will follow:

     We know the story of course, so nothing need be withheld. We can see it on television or in the cinema or read about it in popular histories of the time or, again, in less popular histories of other the time.
       Still on the same first page, a letter to an Agatha is introduced; as readers soon come to realize, Agatha is Orlando's daughter -- one born only a few years after King's death. Even as most of the story is then presented chronologically, bits from ahead continue to be sprinkled in like this -- notably about Agatha (and readers may have noticed that the final volume in this trilogy is titles is titled Agatha, suggesting the central role she grows into).
       Colegate lays the groundwork here succinctly but broadly, while also making clear that, at least in some respects, this will be a different kind of fiction:
We choose a situation in the drama to expose a theme: passing curiosity must look elsewhere, we are here profoundly to contemplate eternal truths. With ritual, like the Greeks. With dream, like Freud. Let us pray.
       If the fiction then is otherwise in many ways quite conventional in its presentation, Colegate emphasizes from the outset a deeper vision for it. The mention of the Greeks is not coïncidental -- just as it isn't later, when Orlando imagines baby Agatha's future and: "how he would like her to be very well-educated, studying Greek perhaps , with learned tutors". As is fairly obvious from early on -- down to Orlando's: "hammer toes, which made him walk with a slight limp" --, the Orlando-trilogy is based on the Oedipus story, with Orlando as the tragic hero (and Agatha in the Antigone-role); Colegate's story is closely based on one familiar like few others, a fate-account deeply ingrained in Western culture and literature. It places quite a burden on a fiction to not only pattern itself on such a famous story but also to seek to present it as meaning-fully (as Colegate clearly means to). Yet even as heavy-handed as the opening sections might seem at first sight, Colegate meets the challenges in her distinctive adaptation and appropriation.
       King was a lecturer at Cambridge when, in 1909, one of his students, Pauline, became pregnant by one Leonard Gardner. Planning on a change in his own life, King sees an opportunity to give it new purpose: Pauline will secretly have the child, but King will take it as his own. No one need ever know whose the child really is -- not even the father, whom Pauline had not told about her pregnancy. After the child's birth, King took it and a nurse to an island in the Gulf of Morbihan on the coast of Brittany that he had previously purchased; he then settled and raised the boy, named Orlando, there over the next twenty-odd years.
       The boy does eventually start going to school on the mainland -- traveling by boat back and forth every day -- but most of his education comes from living with King. King does worry that the boy doesn't really seem to show much ambition, but Orlando's easy-going manner is deceptive; King notes: "You're not very introspective, are you ?" but that serves him well. Orlando adjusts to circumstances and easily slips in among people; he's popular at school and, despite his isolated upbringing, comes to move easily into all levels of society and work; as a co-worker later observes, he's: "some kind of phenomenon" (not least -- but also far from only -- in attracting the attentions of women).
       After he finishes school:
     Orlando was not sent to a university, not only because of the predatory priests lying in wait there but of the inanities of an empty intellectualism, or else because King knew he could not live without him.
       But King does agree that it might be a good idea to send him to London for a few months at the beginning of the 1930s. King has mostly lost touch with all his connections there -- he's been on the island for over two decades by this time -- but does give Orlando half a dozen letters of introduction. Including one to Leonard Gardner (without revealing that this is, in fact, Orlando's father).
       Of course, Colegate intertwines Leonard and Orlando's lives -- and allows for exchanges such as, shortly after they meet, one about one of his two sons that Leonard is somewhat displeased with:
     Leonard shifted irritably in his chair. 'He puts it on. It's a way of trying to attract his mother's attention. He's always done it. Children are a problem, you know.'
     Orlando nodded understandingly, glad to think he was not Leonard's child.
       Leonard is a fairly successful businessman and does try to help Orlando out, finding him a position at Timberwork -- "my pride and joy [...] my little kingdom", as Leonard proudly notes. Orlando is industrious, and easily finds favor, and so he is very successful, rising quickly in the small business.
       If his introduction to dazzling London and society came mainly through a Penelope Waring -- who latches easily onto the youth, and enjoys intimacy with him which she claims her often absent husband Guy can't provide -- once he is at work in the countryside it is Leonard's wife Judith that he sees more of, often dining at their house.
       Judith's brother, Conrad, is a typical well-heeled upper-class Englishman, active in commerce and politics -- complete with a seat in the House of Lords. If Leonard doesn't have anywhere near the same kind of lineage, his success in the army, and then in the City, has allowed him to rise in society and accumulate quite a bit of wealth, and marrying Judith was something offering both of them something:
     'It's fair exchange, you see,' she said. 'I can help him by giving him social position and sons and he can give me money and job I can get my teeth into -- pushing his career I mean
       Unfortunately for Leonard, Orlando is very good at his job and gradually shows that he's a more obvious leader-type. A takeover by Logan Furniture sees Leonard eased out, which he does not take well; he blames Orlando for his misfortunes, and it comes to a confrontation -- "You wanted my wife too, didn't you ? My job, my money, my wife. Well, now you have them, and much good may they do you". And Leonard, driving off in a huff, promptly gets himself killed -- never having learnt that Orlando was his son.
       Briefly, Orlando considers giving all this up: King had only meant him to spend a few months in England, and now he's already been there two years. He is set to head back to the island -- but he doesn't. And instead truly does take over Leonard's life, with even greater success. And, yes, that includes Judith, the older woman whom he soon later marries, and then a burgeoning political career, as Conrad gets him a seat in the House of Commons.
       Judith is disappointed when, in 1933, the child that she bears Orlando is a girl -- Agatha --, as she strongly feels her duty is to provide her husband with sons (as she managed, twice over, with Leonard). It's not to be, however; another child follows -- Imogen, in 1936 -- and that one evidently isn't even Orlando's. Beyond this, on the whole, the marriage works quite well for a while, but Judith does note that: "He may be devoted to me, but he is extremely susceptible to flattery", and there are a few inevitable dalliances along the way. Judith quickly crushes most of these ("I am Judith. I am not to be trifled with", she warns Orlando, and, boy does she mean it), but ultimately it is too much for her; she eventually cracks under the jealousy and pressure of a life not living fully up to her expectations -- the final blow then coming when she (and Orlando) learn who his father was.
       The darkening politics of the 1930s hover over much of the story, especially once Orlando becomes involved in politics. Conrad is a typical Conservative (and that's the team Orlando joins and is groomed in), but other political fancies of the time are also covered: Penelope and her husband go all-in on the fascist side, under the thrall of Oswald Mosley and his ilk (to the extent that, as readers then learn in Orlando at the Brazen Threshold, they were jailed for their sympathies), while a co-worker of Orlando's, Graham Harper, heads off to fight in the Spanish Civil War (a very brief episode in the novel, but one that offers a glimpse of some of the locals who: "were the women of Thebes fleeing before the plague, bit parts in the most ancient drama in the world").
       Bits from the diary entries of Graham -- who works alongside and then under Orlando for a time -- are interspersed in the narrative, one more perspective and variation in the neatly presented novel. At one point he observes:
     A man of action, Mr Orlando, in other words a creature of instinct, in other words indistinguishable from a madman. Men of action don't reason, they haven't time, they act it all out, like a dream, they're someone else's dream.
       This approach serves Orlando fairly well, but in the times of appeasement he proves too willingly appeasing. Conrad has second thoughts, coming to the conclusion that: "if we don't take a firmer stand over the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia I ought not to go on", and he goes against Prime Minister and party. (Even so, as we learn in Agatha, his stand only did him so much good: "He had resigned from the Chamberlain Government, but not until after Munich, and he was therefore tainted with 'appeasement'".) Orlando, meanwhile, has allowed himself to be convinced by the government line, convinced that: "After Czechoslovakia Hitler will be satisfied, we shall get on to terms with him".
       As is well-known, things did not work out that way, and war, the final of Orlando's failures, leaves him completely despondent. He resigns from Parliament, and dwells on his failures:
     I have killed my father, he thought, and driven my wife mad. I have helped lead my country to its destruction. Yet I never meant any harm
       When the Blitz starts he tempts fate -- "When it became clear that big raids were particularly likely on Saturdays and Sundays, Orlando took to spending most of his weekends in London" -- and, of course, fate catches up to him, leaving him finally also badly physically battered -- and contemplating again a final retreat to the place he grew up: the final words of the novel are his resolution that: "After the War I shall go back to the island".
       For a fairly short novel, covering -- in the main -- just over a decade of action, Orlando King is an impressively broad canvas of this period in English life -- political, social, and commercial. Colegate comfortably elides over a great deal, and while quite a few of the scenes are the decisive ones, true confrontations or moments where relationships fundamentally shift, much is only casually mentioned, often after the fact. So also, for example, Orlando is a great success, first at business and then also at politics, but there are only a few glimpses of him actually at work.
       The balance of significant points and what seem like scenes of the almost everyday (but are often no less revealing, or, in what they reveal, ultimately consequential) is quite remarkable here. Similarly, while much of the focus is on Orlando, Colegate covers a great deal more, zeroing in elsewhere, too, such as on the working-class Graham, looking for his cause (and analyzing Orlando, and the circumstances they find themselves in), or the nurserymaid Jen, hired to help the Nanny (herself by now more of a housekeeper in the house) when Agatha is born, a girl from a large, fairly poor family. Leonard and Judith's sons -- Orlando's stepchildren (and, as he comes to realize, half-brothers) -- Stephen and the enterprising Paul, very different in character, are often away at school -- Eton, both, eventually, -- are also significant presences, as is to some extent widower Conrad's son Henry -- with, in these cases of the next generation, much here of course mainly part of the stage-setting for the continuation of the story in the next volumes.
       Not long after he first arrived in England, the young Orlando is asked what has surprised him about it most, so far, and he responds;
     'The importance of class, I think,' said Orlando. 'And the amount people talk about it.'
       Colegate is particularly good at milieu -- both upper- and working-class --, and how English life of the times is steeped in and determined by class and attitudes towards it. Orlando is an intriguing figure in this world because he is an outsider who is, in a sense, beyond class. Helped by the proper connections, he readily finds footholds -- and then, of course, marries into social position -- but he is also a man of the capitalist-industrialist age, whose basic (and ultimately arguably sole) success comes in business. While he becomes a part of the ruling class, finding a place both in politics and with the right social set, he basically fails at both of these; by the end, he has isolated and removed himself from practically everyone and everything, not least his family. Whatever order there is in English life, and for all of how comfortably he seems to be able to move among people, Orlando ultimately can not be part of it; the island-raised man is not actually an island, as King might have been (though as the next volume reveals, that's debatable too), but his tragedy also lies in his inability to truly become part of the English way. Orlando seems to fit in, yet he doesn't really assimilate or adapt; he remains, in the worst possible way, his own man -- the man he has been fated, from his birth, to be, his destiny determined and unchangeable.
       The scene where he -- and, even more regrettably, Judith -- learn that Leonard was Orlando's father is beautifully done -- it is shocking news, and it is presented with a sharp shock -- and Colegate sums it up perfectly then in noting:
     And after that nothing was ever the same again. Even the past was a different story.
       Colegate's is quite a remarkable performance in Orlando King, the writing sharp and economic, but the characters and story nevertheless deeply layered. The Oedipus-story resounding through it helps, but really just adds a richness to a depth that is already there; this is an Oedipus for and of modern England, but it's quite a bit more than just a near-contemporary variation on the familiar story.

       Note that Colegate patterned her trio of books on Sophocles' Theban plays; like those, Colegate's novels form a loose trilogy and have, since their initial publication (as separate volumes, in 1968, 1971, and 1973), been published in omnibus editions, first as The Orlando Trilogy (1984) and most recently (and somewhat confusingly) as Orlando King (2020); the original Orlando King was also published in an American edition, but neither Orlando at the Brazen Threshold nor Agatha were released as separate volumes. Certainly, there is an argument for reading the trio 'as one', and particularly the subsequent novels benefit from familiarity with this one -- but Orlando King can stand quite solidly on its own.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 December 2020

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Links:

Orlando King: Reviews [* review of entire trilogy]: Other books by Isabel Colegate under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Isabel Colegate was born in 1931.

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© 2020 the complete review

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