Isabel Colegate, Orlando King

Isabel Colegate, Orlando King. Bloomsbury, 2020. (First published in three volumes, 1968, 1971, 1973.

June reading part 2.

Isabel Colegate’s trilogy published as Orlando King is an odd one. I liked it, with some reservations.

A boy with disfigured feet, raised in near isolation on a remote island in Britanny by a reclusive scholar, accidentally kills his biological father (not knowing his identity) and goes on to marry that man’s wife – technically his mother. Later, bereaved and half blinded in a WWII blitz bombing in London, he goes to Tuscany in lonely exile, joined by his daughter Agatha.

It’s the Oedipus story, of course, as dramatized in Sophocles’ Theban plays. Agatha is Antigone.

In vol. 2 Orlando and Agatha become very close in Italy. She persuades him to return to the UK. The business he’d built up there in vol.1 – and become rich, as well as a celebrated MP – is to be taken over by one of the arriviste post-war tycoons. This is the sociopolitical element in the trilogy: the decadence and decline of Britain and its former empire, and its transition into a second-string power.

The third volume shows the aftermath of Orlando’s death (surely not a spoiler, given the clearly stated parallels in the first pages of vol. 1 to the source material). There are numerous swanky parties, and serial adulteries continue (Orlando and his late wife were both culprits). Agatha-Antigone’s story involves her criminal act in trying to help her brother Paul out of a serious scrape with the law (let’s face it, he was a traitor). As a consequence she herself is arrested, and Paul doesn’t come out well from his attempted escape.

That very sketchy outline of some of the basic plot details, updated cleverly from the Greek source, doesn’t do justice to what’s more than just an interesting experiment in adapting a classical, seminal story. It’s very well written, and keeps the interest in what is after all a familiar story from flagging through stylistic innovation and nuanced characterisation.

There are numerous abrupt shifts in time and place, similar to cinematic jump-cuts. There are lyrical and evocative descriptions of settings, with socially insightful accounts of the upper echelons of society pre- and post-war. Some of the scenes involving the Evelyn Waugh-type ‘smart set’ get a little tiresome – most of these people are loathsome drones, or self-consciously, superficially clever.

Isabel Colegate was writing about a social class with which she was familiar. Her father was a Tory MP, she was brought up in a lavish country estate, and was a cousin of the Duchess of Kent. It’s no surprise that Julian Fellowes has acknowledged a debt to her work in his scripts for the film Gosford Park and the popular TV series Downton Abbey  – both of which portray the privileged life of the landed gentry (and the less privileged fates of those who serve them).

Many of Anthony Trollope’s novels also deal with this world half a century or so earlier. He too exposes the strengths (such as they are) and weaknesses of the upper classes in Britain, their hypocrisy, snobbishness and sense of entitlement, as well as corruption and self-interest in the related worlds of politics and high commerce.

I daresay these three novels won’t appeal to everyone, but they’re well worth a look, if you can stomach some of the awful people you’ll meet in them. Even physically beautiful Orlando is a deeply flawed protagonist: selfish, vain and unethical. He’s a sort of innocent Candide figure, as a result of his unusual upbringing in his island retreat, but he rapidly learns to become as effortlessly amoral and lacking in conscience as his fellow businessmen and politicians once he’s returned to Britain.

10 thoughts on “Isabel Colegate, Orlando King

  1. This does sound really interesting, Simon (and I don’t need to like the characters to enjoy a book if the writing is good). Colegate is an author I’ve been aware of but not read – and I don’t know that I’d come across this particular title before, so thanks for the heads up!

    • She was unknown to me, too, until I heard this trilogy discussed on a book programme. She also wrote The Shooting Party, which was filmed some years ago, one of James Mason’s last – and John Gielgud. Same theme: the decline of the old aristocracy in Britain.

  2. Hi Simon! Enjoyed the review very much, particularly as I tried Orlando a couple of years ago but soon put it aside; I just seemed unable to get into it. Although I’ve not read that many of her books, I’m actually very fond of Colegate’s writing (loved Winter Journey; skipped The Shooting Party — too many dead animals!). I keep wondering why there isn’t a mini-Renaissance of republications of her novels, as at least in my part of the U.S. they’re rather difficult to find. Colegate’s a very clever writer and good (IMO at least) in delineating character, so I’ll definitely try Orlando at least once more.

    • I can understand someone not getting into this book – it won’t be to everyone’s taste. But she is a fine writer. It’s not all big country house/shooting parties. In fact these hardly feature.

      • The country house thing is definitely part of her rep, and no doubt this is a draw for a many readers. In my limited exposure to her work, however, I’ve found that she’s good at spotting the weaknesses of her class/background (thinking her of her debut novel, The Blackmailer, in particular). Anyway, an excellent review (thank you very much) that will keep this one on my TBR!

        • She certainly doesn’t gloss over the flaws in her upper class characters – most are seriously flawed and have unpleasant traits. Qualities much in evidence in the current British ruling party and especially in its leaders over the past 4 years, sadly.

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