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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Isabel Colegate

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To purchase Agatha

Title: Agatha
Author: Isabel Colegate
Genre: Novel
Written: 1973
Length: 132 pages
Availability: in: Orlando King - US
in: Orlando King - UK
in: Orlando King - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a fine novel in its own right and as Antigone-variation and part of this larger trilogy

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Sunday Telegraph . 7/10/1973 Janice Elliott
Sunday Times A 7/10/1973 Maurice Wiggin
Sunday Times* . 14/7/2020 Johanna Thomas-Corr

[* review of entire trilogy]

  From the Reviews:
  • "There is more than a hint in this volume of Virginia Woolf; indeed, throughout the whole sequence the impression grows of someone obsessed by the urge to rip off the skin of life and get at the secret meanings" - Janice Elliott, Sunday Telegraph

  • "(A) short and beautifully written novel (.....) Miss Colegate is the master, or mistress, of a lapidary economy. The book is a joy to read. (...) This distinguished little novel is a haunting threnody for the death of something irreplaceable in English life. It celebrates the suicide of a class (that is, of a state of mind) with cool eloquence." - Maurice Wiggin, Sunday Times

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:

       Agatha is set in 1956, five years after the death of Orlando King in Orlando at the Brazen Threshold. In that novel, Orlando's daughter Agatha was seventeen and looking forward to beginning her medical studies; now readers find her married to her cousin Henry (whom she had long been pining for), with two small children and working part-time at a local bookshop. Henry still hasn't lived up to father Conrad's expectations, but at least he has a steady if boring little job with an insurance broker in the City -- though the £8 a week salary doesn't do more than pay off the mortgage on their house (with a trickle of money from Agatha's trust covering most of their expenses).
       Two crises dominate Agatha. The one is political -- the Suez Crisis. Conrad is still an important figure in the politics of the day and he takes his duty to nation very seriously, even as he believes that, yet again, the government is on the wrong path. He opposed the pre-war policy of Appeasement, but most of that was too little and too late, as he couldn't bring himself to truly forcefully turn against his party and government (though he did eventually resign his official position -- a gesture by then little more than token); so too in the case of this crisis: he voices his concerns, but there's nothing to be done. He goes along with the government -- "There was nothing left for him but loyalty. He was loyal, but not in sympathy" -- but knows this is the death-knell for the Conservative government (though in fact it would hold on a few more years), and for the world he believed in.
       The second crisis is more personal: Paul, one of Orlando's stepsons (and half-brothers), who had married the daughter of the very successful industrialist Daintry and helped oust his brother Stephen from the family firm pretty much burnt everything he had down to the foundations: he is now divorced and charged with the very serious crime of treason. (Stephen's fate barely rates a mention, but then he's not on the scene any longer, having killed himself after losing his position.) As Orlando observed in Orlando at the Brazen Threshold: "What a family !" .....
       When the noose started to tighten around Paul -- i.e. when he figured the authorities were onto his selling secrets to enemy-states -- he arranged to get himself broken out of jail, should it come to that (as it soon enough did). Regrettably, he did not pre-pay for the service, and so when he was locked up the criminals he had made the arrangements with turned to Agatha for the necessary funds. His faith in her was not misplaced: she was willing to help out her half-brother. The novel opens just when he's made good his escape, and the twin tensions that then drive the novel are the mounting Suez Crisis, and the question of whether or not Paul will truly be able to escape abroad.
       Agatha, rather foolishly -- or perhaps knowing just exactly what deep water she's gotten herself into --, shares what she's done with her husband. Her concern is that she will be implicated, and jailed for her part in the escape -- a very real fear. Complicating matters is the fact that Henry has fallen passionately in love with another woman, making for an odd feel to the domestic situation (with Henry not wanting to hurt Agatha but also unable to help himself).
       Conrad suspects that Agatha helped Paul, and he tries to convey to her -- through her sister Imogen, among others -- that she should coöperate with the authorities before she digs herself into a deeper hole. She doesn't budge, while he does what he can to assist the authorities. Two nooses tighten: the police's in their hunt for Paul, and the growing evidence of Agatha's involvement in the jail-break.
       For simple Imogen matters are black and white, and she is worried about Agatha having become involved in something that is clearly wrong:

     'Well, Agatha, I really don't think you should. I mean if people break the law, they have to pay the penalty.'
     'That's not what I think,' said Agatha. 'Not everybody. Not every law.'
     'You surely don't suggest that the law was wrong ?'
     'Of course not. But the law has its sphere, its role. There are other spheres, other roles.'
     'I don't understand you.'
     'It doesn't matter.'
       Much of this pits Agatha against Conrad, and what each represents. Conrad is a firm believer in everything being done properly, according to a code; he has a deep sense of duty and obligation to his nation; he's a representative -- and remnant -- of an older generation, one teetering, he comes to realize, on obsolescence, if still very powerful. (It makes for an amusing contrast to industrialist Daintry, bulldozing his way through everything including in his effort to arrange a church-wedding from himself and his new bride.) Agatha is very different already -- though hardly representative of her generation. Like Conrad, she is strongly moved by a sense of moral uprightness -- just that her sense of morality is very different from Conrad's, much more focused on the private than the public/civic. So also she tries to explain herself to him at one point:
     To us it's more important that someone's our brother than that he betrays his country. We're not even quite sure what that means, to betray one's country.
       It makes for a quite suspenseful little novel. Yet again, Colegate compresses the time-frame -- whereas Orlando King covered more than a decade, and then most of the action in Orlando at the Brazen Threshold covers only a few months, Agatha is a novel of basically only a few days. As throughout the trilogy, destiny hangs heavily over one and all: there's a sense of the inevitable (and not just because it's been laid out before, as the novels all follow Sophocles' Theban plays very closely).
       The two tragic heroes here are Conrad and Agatha, each convinced they are doing the right thing, and yet each also seeing and quite aware of what they are up against in this world they inhabit. The other characters make for a fine supporting cast here -- Paul, as always, opinionated and capricious; a hapless Henry, carried away by his passions and disappointing those around him; simple little Imogen, looking for a purpose; loud, certain Daintry -- and contribute to the sharpness of this snapshot of 1956 England (with the Suez crisis, the economic situation, popular protests -- but also a bit of the Hungarian Revolution and the shadows of the Cambridge Five all figuring in the story).

       The Orlando Trilogy hews closely to the Theban plays, in both its larger themes and much of the action, as well as the characters' characters, with Colegate's variations on Sophocles quite ingenious; the work as a whole is a remarkable adaptation, both very close and yet also very much a new work all its own. Like the Theban plays themselves, it doesn't entirely feel like a true trilogy, though it does tell a continuing story of sorts. (And, of course, Orlando himself barely figures in any respect in this final volume -- though it also isn't quite an 'Agatha-trilogy', either : while she plays a central supporting role in the two earlier volumes, her role remains supporting in these.)
       (Among the fascinating elements of this novel of English upper-class life is how little traditional and expected education figures: King abandons Cambridge, and Orlando never attends university; Henry "failed to pass any exams at Oxford", while Paul already made a hash of his education at Eton; and dull Imogen can hardly be expected to advance beyond a kind of finishing school. And the one person with actual academic ambitions -- Agatha, who is determined, at age seventeen, to become a doctor -- doesn't even make the first steps in that direction, falling instead quickly into domesticity and motherhood, her intellectual ambitions thereafter limited to part-time work in that bookshop.)
       In some ways, Agatha is the most successful of the three novels on its own, but the interplay among all three enriches the reading experience of each. Colegate could have made one big novel out of this but chose not to, and that probably works for the best -- even leaving aside the Sophocles-homage --, even as it leaves a slightly odd feel of three distinct and yet closely tied together works.
       Agatha, and the entire Orlando Trilogy, are an impressive achievement, in a number of respects, and still well worthwhile reading.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 December 2020

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Agatha: 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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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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