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Isabel (Diana) Colegate Biography

Nationality: British. Born: Lincolnshire, 1931. Education: A boarding school in Shropshire and at Runton Hill School, Norfolk. Career: Literary agent, Anthony Blond Ltd., London, 1952-57. Awards: W.H. Smith Literary award, 1981. Hon. M.A.: University of Bath, 1988. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1981. Agent: Peters Fraser and Dunlop, 503-504 The Chambers, Chelsea Harbour, Lots Road, London SW10 0XF, England.



The Blackmailer. London, Blond, 1958.

A Man of Power. London, Blond, 1960.

The Great Occasion. London, Blond, 1962.

Statues in a Garden. London, Bodley Head, 1964; New York, Knopf, 1966.

The Orlando Trilogy. London, Penguin, 1984.

Orlando King. London, Bodley Head, 1968; New York, Knopf, 1969.

Orlando at the Brazen Threshold. London, Bodley Head, 1971.

Agatha. London, Bodley Head, 1973.

News from the City of the Sun. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1979.

The Shooting Party. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1980; New York, Viking Press, 1981.

Deceits of Time. London, Hamish Hamilton, and New York, Viking, 1988.

The Summer of the Royal Visit. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1991;New York, Knopf, 1992.

Winter Journey. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1995.

Short Stories

A Glimpse of Sion's Glory. London, Hamish Hamilton, and NewYork, Viking, 1985.

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The English will never turn Communist, they're such snobs. An English Communist could have a duke at gunpoint; if he asked him to stay for the weekend he'd drop the gun and dash off to Moss Bros to hire a dinner-jacket.


Isabel Colegate's fiction dramatizes the English obsession with aristocracy and sensitivity to the nuances of class, even in the 20th century when traditional aristocratic power was declining. Against a backdrop of post-World War II global unrest, Colegate's first three novels, The Blackmailer, A Man of Power, and The Great Occasion, depict both the aristocrats' alliances with new sources of wealth and their inability to comprehend the welfare state: "… a five-day week, holidays with pay, pensions, free this, free that … There's no sense of values" (The Blackmailer). Her later novels, Statues in a Garden, The Orlando Trilogy, and The Shooting Party, root these changes in the disintegrating world immediately before and after World War I. The Blackmailer, a "self-making" man of lower-middle-class origins, extorts money from the widow of a Korean War hero primarily to gain entry to the hero's ancestral home and family and complete his identification with the dead man. The thriller elements are not a sound basis for Colegate's social satire, though her comedy supports the anti-romantic ending triggered by the heroine's class loyalties. (Similarly the recent story "Distant Cousins" in A Glimpse of Sion's Glory uneasily mixes a science-fiction thriller plot with cold war satire in the service of a plea for world peace and tolerance.)

The protagonist of A Man of Power, a capitalist of lower-middle-class origins who has risen through wartime opportunities, plans to wed an impoverished aristocratic beauty because of her "mystery" and ability to reshape his image; his first wife and former secretary is inadequate to the role: "It's always the wives that give them away." Upper-class characters respond as much to the protagonist's mystique as to his money: the aristocrat's daughter suffers a painful initiation into his chaotic world through her love for him. (Like the charismatic tycoon and the society beauty, the vulnerable young girl is a staple of Colegate's fiction.) Unfortunately, the novel's sentimentality undercuts the serious treatment of its themes.

The Great Occasion focuses on middle-class vulnerability by interweaving the lives of a magnate, whose success stemmed partly from his marriage to an upper-class wife, and his five daughters in a world that rejects his business integrity and their talents and idealism: "… I expect she'll soon level down to the others." The tone wavers because of Colegate's mixing of Waughesque satire with family saga, but her skill at maintaining several story lines anticipates Statues in a Garden and The Shooting Party. Like these later works, The Great Occasion presents the natural world as both ironical commentary on human futility and a source of reconciliation to existence.

Developed cinematically in short scenes, Statues in a Garden portrays a group of aristocrats just before World War I and flashes forward to the futures implicit in their actions. A quasi-incestuous affair, one of many in Colegate's fiction, between a society beauty and her nephew, whom she has adopted, suggests the destructive narcissism of aristocratic lives. The nephew and aunt proceed to dubious futures, his business speculations undermining the stability of her settled world. Colegate controls detail and tone, the heroine's uncomprehending "… not a very close sort of incest, surely?" perfectly defining her shallowness and ability to survive. Though the nephew's schematic significance as disturber of both sexual and economic order seems obtrusive, the novel uses this type of symbolism more gracefully than The Orlando Trilogy.

The protagonist of Orlando King, raised on a remote island by his adoptive father to protect him from civilization, carries a heavy symbolic burden besides his name: his hammer toes and damaged eyesight link him with Oedipus, as do, more obviously, his partial responsibility for his father's death and marriage to his aristocratic stepmother. The participants learn the truth only after many years: "'I suppose you really think … that I look old enough to be Orlando's mother.' 'Could be' he said."' Though amusing, this dialogue puzzles; surely the stepmother's resultant breakdown and death and the consequences for the next generation make this stress on her superficiality misleading. Orlando's sense of guilt destroys his business and political careers in the England of the 1930s that is increasingly dominated by men like his father who capitalize on wartime connections and marriages to aristocrats. If such outsiders lust after class status, aristocrats display equal fascination with the challenge these newcomers represent. Orlando's initial success in emulating his father is presumably emblematic, but his other actions confuse the novel's political and social pattern. The incest motif seems especially intrusive: in Orlando at the Brazen Threshold he successfully pursues the mistress of his nephew, whom his daughter marries. Orlando's behavior seems motivated by a need to support the novel's symbolism and lacks the complexity that the interior monologues, letters, and searching dialogue initially promise. Similarly, the elliptical narration with flashwords and allusions to incidents as yet unknown to the reader creates an atmosphere of elusive reality puzzling to the characters through whose voices we perceive it; but then Colegate periodically destroys this rich ambiguity by over-explicit summary: "Stephen and Paul were Orlando's half-brothers. Their father Leonard had in the far-off and scarcely imaginable days of his youth also been the father of Orlando …" Colegate's epigrams about the inevitable failure of Communism in a class-obsessed society clash with her serious treatment of radicals, who seem as futile and foolishly motivated as her capitalists: Graham, who dies on the Loyalist side in Spain (Orlando King); Paul, who sells secrets to Russia during the Burgess era because of family problems (Agatha). Set during the Suez crisis, Agatha focuses on the girl's Forsteresque commitment to Paul rather than to England, partly because of Orlando's earlier ruthlessness. (Raymond, who defects to Russia in the title story of A Glimpse of Sion's Glory, has more ambiguous, even more attractive, motives than these earlier characters.)

Negative aristocratic images abound in the trilogy, sometimes mocking the physical effects of reclusiveness: "his little eyes directed their feeble gaze down the long organ through which his frail tones appeared to emerge (eugenically speaking, his breeding was a disaster)." Another aristocrat embodies more damning inadequacies, from 1930s appeasement, through Suez arrogance to personal betrayal of Agatha in the name of patriotism. Though Colegate effectively dramatizes the peculiar fusion of charm, decency, egotism, and plaintive misunderstanding that characterizes such aristocrats, her trilogy fails to provide an adequate political context that explains the contribution of this class to the general malaise of English civilization.

Like other Colegate characters, Sir Randolph Nettleby, protagonist of The Shooting Party, set in 1913, prophesies, "An age, perhaps a civilization, is coming to an end." The novel, Colegate's best, carefully places the Nettleby estate in its geographical and historical contexts and focuses on those details of dress and behavior that reveal the beauty and vulnerability of country life on the eve of destruction. Sir Randolph is at times over-generous in assessing his class: "If you take away the proper functions of an aristocracy, what can it do but play games too seriously?" But the novel's stress on the violence of these games redresses the balance: "It was hard to remember that the keen concentration of their hunting instinct was not directed at their fellow man." The callousness of a visiting Hungarian count, however, helps define, by contrast, the English commitment to their tenants and to their land. The highflown language and sentiments that impress servants have real substance. The narrowness of the aristocratic code, the complacency with which aristocrats experience their rituals is offset by their willingness to limit their freedom for the sake of standards: Hartlib's agonizing headaches are the price his inbred nerves exact for his performance as a hunter. However foolish, the codes of this class give form and meaning to their lives, including the duty to sacrifice these lives in war. Restraining the epigrammatical tendencies that unbalanced earlier works, Colegate fuses an ironical view of society with a moving appreciation of its painful pleasures.

Colegate's story "The Girl Who Had Lived Among Artists" (A Glimpse of Sion's Glory) comes closest of all her work to the skill of The Shooting Party. Set in pre-World War II Bath, the story both illustrates and refutes the idea that "The snobbery of England in the 1930s was the real thing," as it examines the complex attitudes of the classes toward each other, the even more painful situation among civil servants and merchants in India, where the English condescend to each other and unite against the Indians, the desperate anxieties of European refugees who stress the superiority of their own culture, the ambiguous social position of clerics, and the special relation between artists and the upper classes ("… there are three things that make people classless, talent, beauty, and something else I've forgotten"). What flaws this brilliantly conceived picture of the dangers of such a society is Colegate's attempt to pack so much rich material into a short story. Though the details are effective and the dialogue often chilling, the treatment is ultimately too truncated for such thematic wealth.

Colegate's 1988 novel, Deceits of Time, explores the mystery of a World War I hero's apparent pro-German activities before and during World War II and reveals the familiar milieu of social tensions and adjustments that may explain his actions. The middle-class biographer and Jewish holocaust survivor understandably learn much about themselves while investigating the hero's life, but the modest triumph of the novel is the gradual revelation of the character of the hero's aristocratic widow. Her values, however limited, are allowed their surprising victory. Despite the novel's occasionally fussy structure and tendency toward undramatic summary of other characters and their motives, this portrait is equal to the best in The Shooting Party. Colegate's fiction offers an impressive demonstration of genuine talent finding its strengths and continually refining its craft.

—Burton Kendle

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