Samuel reads The Orchard by Drusilla Modjeska

Words by Samuel Finegan

Published on May 13, 2012

‘A man writes ‘I’ as he sees, and in writing it is therefore seen. The relationship is clear. When a woman writes ‘I’ she must reconcile seeing with being seen.’
‘Well may men scorn the first person. It is theirs by birthright, that particular subject of the sentence. All they spurn is the obvious, and every writer must do that.’
Well… Sam then…
‘For a woman writer there is nothing obvious about writing that much despised pronoun at the beginning of a sentence, a paragraph, a book, and pronouncing it feminine.’

If there is a difficulty in reviewing Drusilla Modjeska, it is that as a writer and academic she is intimidating. How could there be a greater authority than the author, when the author is also a critic? She is imposing. Even veiled in the ficto-critical style of The Orchard, a blending begun in her first novel, the fictionalised memoir Poppy, Modjeska is a woman who defines her own terms.

For me, the first challenge is to choose my terms.

When I came to write this review I filled a page with words like:

grace, elegance, compassion

Then I crossed out the words. Then I wrote them again. Sentences grew to unwieldy lengths and awkward conjugations coupled and multiplied in the valiant struggle to express these concepts devoid of femininity. At the heart of this syntactical labyrinth the meaning remained the same. The attempt to obscure it and to plaster it over with faux-neutrality was an attempt to disguise my fear: How could I be a feminist if I could only use lady-words to talk about a lady book?

Even as a person who apparently quotes The Frailty Myth to criticise post-apocalyptic fiction and who once knocked over a television as a measured critique of gender pedagogy I can make terrible mistakes.

I thought it was a disservice to write of a book like The Orchard or of a writer like Drusilla Modjeska with these weighted womanly terms. In truth The Orchard is a book of great elegance, grace and compassion and to attempt to deny these qualities to make a haphazard point about egalitarianism is to miss the point. There is no shame in being a woman. In fact, the act of being a woman – an unadorned woman, not a wife or mistress, defines the first section of the book. To an extent, it underpins the book as a whole:

‘The convoluted struggle for a woman to see herself as the primary term’

The femininity of the book is weaved into its core. The book is classically ‘feminine’ : in counterpoint to the masculine, mono-directional book The Orchard opens up into three loosely connected stories bracketed by the gardens of the swan-necked Ettie, and the tribulations of Stella Bowen. Further, Modjeska’s writing interweaves personal experience with art history and social criticism. The adultery of acquaintances is set alongside the rape of Artemisia Gentileschi, Modjeska’s own flirtation with blindness alongside the story of St Odila (who carried her god-gifted eyes in her arms).

For me, The Orchard is a book about solitude. It is instructive in the ‘happiness of those who have learned to live full lives without partners though not without connections and intimacies.’ When a husband leaves, or sight fails, or history has slid out of reach, Modjeska’s characters and Modjeska are confronted with the abyss and have themselves mutilated like the princess with bound up stumps who flees into the forest and returns, first with silver hands and then with her own regrown throughout the novel. For the person who can confront the abyss, and survive the severing of the ego lies serenity:

‘Happiness is perhaps the wrong word. It is the quality of being fully oneself, not at rest so much as defining one’s own terms … Individuation is closer to the quality I mean, a more hardly wrought and painful process than the rose-covered cottage the word happiness conjures up.’

What Modjeska paints in The Orchard is a world that I desperately want to be a part of. A world amongst those who have learned to be alone. Within The Orchard, Modjeska’s peers debate. For them, relationships decay not out of lack of love, but out of a lack of respect for intellectual property rights. For them, personal growth is benchmarked by the ability to dislike Madame Bovary.

The Orchard is a novel with endnotes.

It is expansive and wise and intimate.

Read it.