The Orchard, by Drusilla Modjeska.
The Orchard, by Drusilla Modjeska. Sydney: Macmillan,1994.
AUSTRALIAN WOMEN WRITERS
An amazing book that blends fiction, facts, story and musings in its contemplation of how women live their lives and find ways to center themselves in their own stories.
I find Drusilla Modjeska’s writing wise and mesmerizing. She considers issues in all their complexity, and is impossible to summarize. Her writing is multi-layered and evocative. Along with stories of herself and others, she discusses the work of women artists and Virginia Woolf. Modjeska herself refuses to categorize her writings in this book.
If I had to name them I would call them essays, for although they contain as much story as fact, and nudge toward fiction, they proceed with the spreading movement, horizontal and meandering, that the essay—a porous, conversational, sometimes moody creature—makes its own.
Her primary setting is the veranda of a retreat in the mountains near Sydney where she watches Ette, in her eighties, and Clara, in her twenties. Modjeska, who writes in first person, and her Chinese friend, Louise, are poised halfway between the two, observing in them the past and the future.
From my vantage point between them, in the borderland of youth and age, it was the shape of a woman’s life that I considered; the long struggle that some name love and others a more individualized becoming, although it may be that to achieve the one is to achieve the other in the center of her own life.
The Orchard contains three discrete pieces which subtly related to the questions she poses about the shape of a woman’s life. The first “The Adultery Factor” follows a conversation about an affair and a marriage and considers the pain and confusion of all involved. They talk of truthfulness and the need to treat others as fully human, not as objects, and Etta affirms that a woman must move beyond being either a mistress or a wife and, however deep her love, find herself.
The second of Modjeska’s “essays” about a time when her eyesight was failing and, with fears of blindness, she retreated into solitude. She writes of her terror and concepts of light and darkness, seeing and blindness. She considers female agency and how women writers and artists must move from being seen to seeing. Her own life, she muses, has focused on performing and pleasing, and now she moves into an appreciation of being instead of doing.
In the last section, Modjeska revisits the English girls’ school which she attended as a girl. Retaining her anger at the school and those who made and enforced its rules, she condemns its conservatism and asks if this is what Virginia Woolf envisioned as women’s education. Then she discovers another view of what the school could mean. The book ends with its main characters moving on into unknown futures, always an unsettling process. For Modjeska,the future includes an orchard of her own, bringing fruition to the book’s various garden images.
I strongly recommend The Orchard to all readers who appreciate good writing and who are not disoriented by a book without plot. This is a book to muse over when reading, as the author did in writing it. I especially recommend it to all who care about how being women shape our lives.