Grass, the power seemed to say, going back with a ruler such as governesses use to the beginning, is all right; the hanging cups of fritillaries – admirable; the snaky flower – a thought, strong from a lady's pen, perhaps, but Wordsworth, no doubt, sanctions it; but – girls?
This sentence comes at a point of indecision and uncertainty for Orlando as a poet. Newly married to Shelmerdine and therefore suddenly finding respectability within nineteenth-century society, she seems to be freed to write. But then maybe she is not. She vacillates between daring to write and not daring; being forced to write, but refusing. When she writes, she does so hastily, prevaricating again as she re-reads her work, feels compelled to stop and then, in this sentence, is urged by the ‘spirit of the age’ to go back and reconsider what she has written. The oscillating rhythm of writing, re-reading and reviewing that shapes this sentence reflects the pattern of the wider episode. However, as this chapter will also contend, this rhythm characterises the structure of the book as a whole and shapes its treatment of literary history.
The sentence functions as a review of the foregoing lines, purportedly from Orlando's poem ‘The Oak Tree’, but actually a quotation from Vita Sackville-West's work The Land (1926):
And then I came to a field where the springing grass
Was dulled by the hanging cups of fritillaries,
Sullen and foreign-looking, the snaky flower,
Scarfed in dull purple, like Egyptian girls –
My chosen sentence works to reinterpret, erase and rewrite the quotation from The Land, through comments in the voice of the spirit of the Victorian age, or, more precisely, a ventriloquised voice projecting Orlando's beliefs about what her culture demands of her as a writer. As Orlando revisits the lines she has written, the sentence forces the reader to move backwards in the text and re-read the quotation too. It is a selective re-reading, for only the end-word of each line is chosen for comment. The spirit finds ‘grass’ acceptable and admires ‘fritillaries’. It hesitates at ‘snaky flower’, inadvertently drawing attention to its sexual overtones. The voice forgives Orlando for this image by accepting that the word ‘snaky’ is also used by Wordsworth, but questions the reference to ‘girls’.