I’ve just read the best book of the year so far: The Orchard, by Drusilla Modjeska. It’s a hybrid flower of a book, combining autobiography, fiction and stories about art and artists in ways that leave exquisite gaps for the reader to fill in. At its heart is an undefined question about women’s experience and the way it is transmuted into creativity, and it’s written in beautiful, limpid prose that is crystal clear in intent but fades dreamily away at the edges. There are very, very few books that I finish with the desire to instantly start all over again, but this was one of them.
The book comprises three long essays, topped and tailed by sections that introduce and conclude the fictionalized autobiographical story that weaves in and out across its entire length. The story focuses on the abiding friendship that joins four women; the unnamed narrator, who we take to be Modjeska but this is by no means a sure thing; Ettie, a wise and feisty octogenarian who could have been a fine painter but who gave it up for gardening, Clara, Ettie’s granddaughter although she is unaware of it, her mother having been the product of Ettie’s adulterous liaison, and Louise, a good friend to them all. These women love and support one another through the ups and downs they face, whether they are in their relationships, in their working lives, in illness or in confronting the past, recognizing that to some extent, there are similarities between their trajectories through a certain kind of feminine destiny. Stories echo one another and repeat themselves, particularly in love, and the first long essay intertwines a classic story of a man and his mistress, told by Louise, with parallel narratives from the lives of her friends and from women artists. The basic story is thus interpolated with variations on the theme: Ettie and Clara’s strange relationship to one another, Louise’s own discovery of her husband’s infidelity and the stories of Stella Bowen, an Australian painter best known (the narrator says ruefully) for her liaison with Ford Maddox Ford, and Artemisia Gentileschi, a 17th century Italian painter who was raped by her art tutor. All the stories are gently placed under the banner of Virginia Woolf’s thoughts on the difficulty women have in telling their stories of love. ‘How can she write about a love affair when the world of criticism and opinion favours a man’s facts, or his myths, over a woman’s romance, her fantasies, her gossip? When a man writes, or speaks of love, it is to affirm his right to a narrative in which his sexual destiny and his right to tell the tale are in happy partnership. When a woman writes of love it is a risky business, for her agency with the pen contradicts her prescribed destiny as a woman.’ All the different stories and opinions gathered together here glance off of one another like a hall of mirrors, but the figure reflected into infinity is that of the woman who continues to define herself more through her relationships than through her work. To be truly creative, the narrator suggests, this phase has to be transcended, or lived through, until a self freed from compliance and neediness emerges in her own right.
I loved the first section but the second was even better. It concerned a period in the narrator’s life when she suffered an illness that caused a temporary loss of sight. This event is the catalyst for a series of reflections on the nature of suffering, the experience of isolation that illness can bring, the symbolism of blindness and the wisdom that can emerge through convalescence. Modjeska has the perfect tone for writing about upsetting, even traumatic, experience, as it is at once lucid and astute, but coolly serene, distanced and insightful. It’s like having an intellectual nurse lie a cool hand across a fevered forehead. And the jumble of memories, stories and artworks that she brings together to describe this period in her life correspond precisely to the many levels on which one has to work to restore hope and vitality to the self after a lengthy and troubling illness. When the narrator first falls ill she calls for Ettie to come and help her, and Ettie’s robust sense of survival, of the importance of calling on the resources of the intellect to do more than survive, comes shining through:
‘The fear is enough,’ she said, encouraging me to dwell there, to learn its shape, to feel its edges. ‘Don’t build on it with memories and slights.’ She had spoken to the doctor, she knew the risk, and she knew that total darkness was the fear I conjured, and not the prospect I was offered. ‘What is the fear?’ she asked. ‘What is its real nature?’ It was not a question I could accept with grace, and I wept afresh when she said that if I shifted my way of seeing (she used that word), what this episode offered was an opportunity.
‘For what?’ I wept.
‘For solitude,’ she said. She was right: for years I had avoided that empty space we call solitude, filling up my life with work and lovers, distractions of every sort. ‘Go into it,’ she said, ‘and you’ll find it richer than you expect.’
The third essay concerns the narrator’s visit to her old boarding school on a trip to England with Clara. In this section it is the education of women that is at stake, and a particular form of education at that. The narrator cites Virginia Woolf again, and her envy of the learning her brothers were allowed to undertake that she was not. It was exactly this education, the narrator recalls, that she was given, but she uses her memories to argue that Woolf did not know what she was asking for. On the one hand, Woolf had exactly the kind of flexibility of mind she herself admired, regardless of her home tutoring, and on the other, the narrator suggests that rigorous intellectual discipline is not necessarily going to produce the curious creativity Woolf values. But this is also about the awfulness of old-style boarding schools, the casual cruelty of girls and mistresses alike, the rigid hierarchy, the absence of privacy, freedom and affection. It conjures up a lost era, one we can be pleased to see the back of, but one that shaped a generation of women, like it or not.
And so this book stitches together, loosely, dreamily, issues of women’s education, their creative and romantic sensibilities, their strength in suffering and solitude, drawn from the sisterhood. I loved the way that the narrator’s experience of life was interwoven with the experience of other lives, be they of friends or of other female artists, who loved and suffered and left behind their wisdom and their visions in the work they produced. Each woman may speak from a different place, but they all contemplate what it is to be a woman, to have a specific place in the world that is part history, part biology and part unique individuality. When their voices blend together, as they do in this book, the result is a loving, respectful, attentive sorority with hands outstretched to catch the tears of each and every woman when they fall. I think you could call it girl power.