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Posts Tagged ‘Lesbian writers’

Jane Vance Rule (March 28, 1931 – November 27, 2007)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I’m sorry I’m late, darling,” Virginia said, having to pick up and embrace three-year-old Clarissa before she could kiss Katherine hello. “My last patient needed not only a new crown but some stitches for a broken heart. Why do people persist in marriage?”
“Your coat’s cold,” Clarissa observed soberly.
“So’s my nose,” Virginia said, burying it in the child’s neck. “It’s past your bath time and your story time, and I’ve probably ruined dinner.”
“No,” Katherine said. “We’re not eating until seven-thirty. We’re having a guest.”
“Who?”
“Daddy’s new friend,” Clarissa said. “And I get to stay up until she comes.”
“Really?”
“She said she needed to talk with us,” Katherine explained. “She sounded all right on the phone. Well, a little nervous but not at all hostile. I thought, perhaps we owe her that much?”
“Or him?” Virginia wondered.
“Oh, if him, I suppose I should have said no,” Katherine decided.
“People who don’t even want to marry him think this is odd enough.”
“Odd about him?”
“Even he thinks it odd about him,” Katherine said.
“Men have an exaggerated sense of responsibility in the most peculiar directions,” Virginia said. “We can tell her he’s a perfectly nice man, can’t we?” She was now addressing the child.
“Daddy said I didn’t know who was my mommie,” Clarissa said.
“Oh?”
“I have two mommies. Will Elizabeth be my mommie, too?”
“She just might,” Virginia said. “What a lucky kid that would make you.”
“Would she come to live with us then?” Clarissa asked.
“Sounds to me as if she wants to live with Daddy.” Virginia said.
“So did you, at first,” Clarissa observed.
Both women laughed.
“Your bath?” Virginia ordered and carried the child up the stairs while Katherine returned to the kitchen to attend to dinner.
Clarissa was on the couch in her pajamas, working a pop-up book of Alice in Wonderland with Virginia, when the doorbell rang.
“I’ll get that,” Katherine called from the kitchen.
Elizabeth, in a fur-collared coat, stood in the doorway, offering freesias.
“Did he tell you to bring them?” Katherine asked, smiling.
“He said we all three liked them,” Elizabeth answered. “But don’t most women?”
“I’m Katherine,” Katherine said, “wife number one.”
“And I’m Virginia, wife number two,” Virginia said, standing in the hall.
“And I’m Elizabeth, as yet unnumbered,” Elizabeth said. “And you’re Clarissa,”
Clarissa nodded, using one of Virginia’s legs as a prop for leaning against or perhaps hiding behind.
Elizabeth was dressed, as the other two women were, in very well cut trousers and an expensive blouse, modestly provocative. And she was about their age, thirty. The three did not so much look alike as share a type, all about the same height five feet seven inches or so (he said he was six feet tall but was, in fact, five feet ten and a half), slightly but well proportioned, with silky, well cut hair and intelligent faces. They were all competent assured women who intimidated only unconsciously.
Virginia poured three drinks and a small glass of milk for Clarissa,who was allowed to pass the nuts and have one or two before Katherine took her off to bed.
“She looks like her father,” Elizabeth observed.
“Yes, she has his lovely eyes, ” Virginia agreed.
“He doesn’t know I’m here,” Elizabeth confessed. “Oh, I intend to tell him. I just didn’t want it to be a question, you see?”
“He did think it a mistake that Katherine and I ever met. We didn’t, of course, until after I’d married him. I didn’t t know he was married until quite a while after he and I met.”
“He was a patient of yours?” Elizabeth asked.
“Yes.”
“He’s been quite open with me about both of you from the beginning, but we met in therapy, of course and that does make such a difference.”
“Does it?” Virginia asked. “I’ve never been in therapy.”
“Haven’t you?” Elizabeth asked, surprised. “I would have thought both of you might have considered it.”
“He and I?”
“No, you and Katherine.”
“We felt very uncomplicated about it,” Virginia said, “once it happened. It was such an obvious solution.”
“For him?”
“Well, no, not for him, of course. Therapy was a thing for him to consider.”
Katherine came back into the room. “Well, now we can be grownups.”
“She looks like her father,” Elizabeth observed again.
“She has his lovely eyes,” it was Katherine’s turn to reply.
“I don’t suppose a meeting like this could have happened before the women’s movement,” Elizabeth said.
“Probably not,” Katherine agreed. “I’m not sure Virginia and I could have happened before the women’s movement. We might not have known what to do.”
“He tries not to be antagonistic about feminism,” Elizabeth said.
“Oh, he always been quite good about the politics. He didn’t resent my career,” Virginia offered.
“He was quite proud of marrying a dentist,”  Katherine said. “I think he used to think I wasn’t liberated enough.”
“He doesn’t think that now,” Elizabeth said.
“I suppose not,” Katherine agreed.
“The hardest thing for him has been facing. . . the sexual implications. He has felt. . .unmanned.”
“He put it more strongly than that in the past,” Virginia said.
“Men’s sexuality is so much more fragile than ours,” Elizabeth said.
“Shall we have dinner?” Katherine suggested.
“He said you you were a very good cook,” Elizabeth said to Katherine
“Most of this dinner is Virginia’s. I got it out of the freezer,” Katherine explained. “I’ve gone back to school, and I don’t have that much time.”
“I cook in binges,” Virginia said, pouring the wine.
“At first he said he thought the whole thing was some kind of crazy revenge,” Elizabeth said.
“At first there might have been that element in it,” Virginia admitted. “Katherine was six months’ pregnant when he left her, and she felt horribly deserted. I didn’t know he was going to be a father until after Clarissa was born. Then I felt I’d betrayed her too, though I hadn’t known anything about it.”
“He said he should have told you, ” Elizabeth said, “but he was very much in love and was afraid of losing you. He said there was never any question of his not supporting Katherine and Clarissa.”‘
“No, I make perfectly good money,” Virginia said. “There’s no question of his supporting them now, if that’s a problem. He doesn’t.”
“He says he’d rather he did,” Elizabeth said.
“He sees Clarissa whenever he likes,”  Katherine explained. “He’s very good with her. One of the reasons I wanted a baby was knowing he’d be a good sort of father.”
“Did you have any reservations about marrying him?”  Elizabeth asked Virginia.
“At the time?  Only that I so very much wanted to,” Virginia said. “There aren’t that many marrying men around for women dentists, unless they’re sponges, of course. It’s flattering when someone is so afraid of losing you he’s willing to do something legal about it. It oughtn’t to be but it is.”
“But you had other reservations later,” Elizabeth said.
“Certainly, his wife and his child.”
“Why did he leave you, Katherine?”
“Because he was afraid of losing her. I suppose he thought he’d have what he needed of me anyway, since I was having his child.”
“Were you still in love with him?” Elizabeth asked.
“I must have been,” Katherine said, “but I couldn’t have been quite so unhappy, so desperate. I was desperate.”
“He’s not difficult to be in love with, after all,”  Virginia said. “He’s a very attractive man.”
“He asked me if I was a lesbian,” Elizabeth said. “l told him I certainly didn’t think so. After all, I was in love with him. He said so had two other women been, in love enough to marry him, but they were both lesbians. And maybe he only attracted lesbians even if they didn’t t know it themselves. He even suggested I should maybe try making love with another woman before I made up my mind.”
There was a pause which neither Katherine nor Virginia at tempted to break.
“Did either of you know. . . before?”
Katherine and Virginia looked at each other. Then they said,
“No,”
“He’s even afraid he may turn women into lesbians,” Elizabeth said.
Both Virginia and Katherine laughed, but not unkindly.
“Is that possible?” Elizabeth asked.
“Is that one of your reservations?” Katherine asked.
“It seemed crazy,” Elizabeth said, “but…”
Again the two hostesses waited.
“l know this probably sounds very unliberated and old-fashioned and maybe even prejudiced, but I don’t think I could stand being a lesbian, finding out I’m a lesbian; and if there something in him that makes a woman . . . How can either of you stand to be together instead of with him?”
“But you don’t know you’re a lesbian until you fall in love,” Katherine said, “and then it’s quite natural to want to be together with the person you love.”
“What’s happening to me is so peculiar. The more sure I am I’m in love with him, the more obsessively I read everything I can about what it is to be a lesbian. It’s almost as if I had fallen in love with a woman, and that’s absurd.”
“l don’t really think there’s anything peculiar about him,” Katherine said.
“One is just so naturally drawn, so able to identify with another woman,” Virginia said. “When I finally met Katherine what he wanted and needed just seemed too ridiculous’
“But it was you he wanted,” Elizabeth protested.
“At Katherine’s and Clarissa’s expense, and what was I, after all, but just another woman.”
“A liberated woman,” Katherine said.
“Not then, I wasn’t,” Virginia said.
“I didn’t feel naturally drawn to either of you,” Elizabeth protested. “l wasn’t even curious at first. But he is so obsessed with you still, so afraid of being betrayed again, and I thought, I’ve got to help him somehow, reassure him, understand enough to let him know, as you say, that there’s nothing peculiar about him…or me.”
“I’m sure there isn’t,”  Katherine said reassuringly and reached out to take Elizabeth’s hand.
Virginia got up to clear the table.
“Mom!” came the imperious and sleepy voice of Clarissa.
“I’ll go,” Virginia said.
“But I don’t think you mean what I want you to mean,” Elizabeth said.
“Perhaps not,” Katherine admitted.
“He said he never should have left you. It was absolutely wrong; and if he ever did marry again, it would be because he wanted to make that commitment, but what if his next wife found out she didn’t want him, the way Virginia did?”
“I guess anyone takes that risk,” Katherine said.
“Do you think I should marry him?” Elizabeth asked.
Katherine kept Elizabeth’s hand, and her eyes met Elizabeth’s beseeching, but she didn’t answer.
“You do think there’s something wrong with him?”
“No, I honestly don’t. He’s a perfectly nice man. It’s just that I sometimes think that isn’t good enough, not now when there are other options.”
“What other options?”
“You have a job don’t you?”
“I teach at the university, as he does.”
“Then you can support yourself.”
“That’s not always as glamorous as it sounds.”
“Neither is marriage,” Katherine said.
“Is this?” Elizabeth asked, looking around her, just as Virginia came back into the room.
“It’s not nearly as hard as some people try to make it sound.”
“Clarissa wanted to know if her new mother was still here.”
“Oh my,” Elizabeth said.
“Before you came, she wanted to know, if you married her father, would you be another mother and move in here.”
Elizabeth laughed and then said, “Oh, God, that’s just what he wants to know!”
They took their coffee back into the living room.
“It must be marvelous to be a dentist. At least during the day you can keep people from telling you all their troubles,” Elizabeth said.
“That’s not as easy as it looks,” Virginia said.
“He says you’re the best dentist he ever went to. He hates his dentist now.”
“I used to be so glad he wasn’t like so many men who fell in love with their students,” Katherine said.
“Maybe he’d be better off,” Elizabeth said in mock gloom. “He says he isn’t threatened by my having published more than he has. He had two wives and a baby while I was simply getting on with it; but does he mean it? Does he really know?”
“We’re all reading new lines, aren’t we?” Virginia asked.
“But if finally none of us marries them, what will they do?” Elizabeth asked.
“I can hardly imagine that.” Katherine said.
“You can’t imagine what they’ll do?”
“No,  women saying ‘no,’ all of them. We can simply consider ourselves for instance,”  Katherine said.
“Briefly anyway,” Virginia said. “Did you come partly to see if you were at all like us?”
“I suppose so,” Elizabeth said.
“Are you?”
“Well, I’m not surprised by you. . .and very surprised not to be.”
“Are you sorry to have married him?” Virginia asked Katherine.
“I could hardly be. There’s Clarissa, after all, and you. Are you?” she asked in return.
“Not now,” Virginia said, “having been able to repair the damage.”
“And everyone knows,” Elizabeth said, “that you did have the choice.”
“Yes’ Virginia agreed, “there’s that.”
“But I felt I didn’t have any choice,” Katherine said. “That part of it humiliated me”
“Elizabeth is making a distinction.” Virginia said, “between what everyone knows and what each of us knows. I shared your private humiliation, of course. All women must.”
“Why?” Elizabeth demanded.
“Not to believe sufficiently in one’s own value,” Virginia explained.
“But he doesn’t believe sufficiently in his own value either,” Elizabeth said. “He doesn’t even quite believe he’s a man.”
“I never doubted I was a woman,” Katherine said.
“That smug,” Elizabeth said, “because you have a child.”
“So does he,” Katherine replied.
“But he was too immature to deal with it; he says so himself. Don’t you feel at all sorry for him?’
“Yes,” said Katherine.
“Of course,” Virginia agreed.
“He’s been terribly hurt. He’s been damaged,” Elizabeth said.
“Does that make him more or less attractive do you think?” Virginia asked.
“Well, damn it, less, of course,” Elizabeth shouted. “And whose fault is that?”
Neither of the other two women answered.
“He’s not just second, he’s third-hand goods,” Elizabeth said.
“Are women going to begin to care about men’s virginity?” Katherine asked. “How extraordinary!”
“Why did you go into therapy?” Virginia asked.
“l hardly remember,”  Elizabeth said. “I’ve been so caught up with his problems since the beginning. The very first night of group, he said I somehow reminded him of his wives…”
“Perhaps that is why you went,” Katherine suggested.
“You think I’d be crazy to marry him, don’t you?” Elizabeth demanded.
“Why should we?” Virginia asked. “We both did.”
“That’s not a reassuring point,” Elizabeth said.
“You find us unsatisfactory,” Katherine said, in apology.
“Exactly not,” Elizabeth said sadly. “I want someone to advise me. . .to make a mistake. Why should you?”
“Why indeed?” Virginia asked.
They embraced warmly before Elizabeth left.
“Perhaps I might come again?” she asked at the door.
“Of course, Katherine said.
After the door closed, Katherine and Virginia embraced.
“He’d be so much happier, for a while anyway, if he married again,” Katherine said.
“Of course he would,”  Virginia agreed, with some sympathy for him in her voice. “But we couldn’t encourage a perfectly nice woman like Elizabeth…”
“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” Katherine said. “That’s just it.”
“She’ll marry him anyway;” Virginia predicted, “briefly.”
“And have a child?” Katherine asked.
“And fall in love with his next wife,” Virginia went on.
“There really isn’t anything peculiar about him,” Katherine said.
“I’m sorry he doesn’t like his dentist.”
“He should never have married you.”
“No, he shouldn’t,” Virginia agreed. “Then at least I could still be taking care of his teeth.”
Barring that, they went up together to look in on his richly mothered child, sleeping soundly, before they went to their own welcoming bed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
I must admit I spent several frustrating days going over the OCR of this story, hunting down every garbled word and broken line, every comma, apostrophe and quotation mark – but it was most assuredly worth the while to be able to post Jane Rule’s finely crafted short story, sparkling as it does with nuanced insight into women’s minds, and her pitch-perfect ear for the delicacy of women’s conversation.

It was my impression that the conversation itself sounded as if it belonged to an era which predated the women’s movement (the mention of which rather dated the story) by at least a couple of decades. Katherine, Virginia and Elizabeth, with the careful economy and refinement of their speech, sound to me as if they belong in the more formal ‘fifties – or even an earlier time –  rather than the radical ‘seventies, and their dress suggested to me the same sense of propriety. But then I wondered, would a hostess of  the ‘fifties have entertained a dinner guest with food from the freezer?  And what about the absence of cocktails and canapes, which made the period – culinarily at least – indeterminate and difficult to pin down with any degree of certainty.

This was essentially the problem I ran into when attempting to reconcile the ‘movie’ of the story which floated in my head with the actual text.  Despite the ‘progressive’ touches, (Elizabeth’s therapy, Katherine’s school) this stuck in my mind as a ‘fifties story. The only way I could think of to reconcile content and context was to give in and embrace the anachronism, and be faithful to my own imagination – hence, my admittedly frivolous, choice of images for this post!

Rule’s one small slip (if it could even be said to be one) notwithstanding, one cannot but be impressed with how deftly she expresses the gentle and amused, but unmistakable sense of superiority, the faintest denigration camouflaged, but not quite concealed in the word ‘nice’. Rule’s perfect balance of irony, humour and seriousness aptly suited the setting of the story. The personalities and characters of these three women with their similarly old-fashioned names, sense of style and initial marital predisposition, cast them as kindred spirits.

We know that Elizabeth’s fatal evening with these two wholesome and classy paragons of lesbian virtue – intelligent, ethical, self-aware, transparent, reflective and  fearless as they are – is an initiation – an induction as it were into their way of life – a way of life that has already begun to wield its fascination on her readily susceptible mind. It sounds the knell of doom for her forthcoming marriage even before it begins. Distillation is fore-ordained once the elements of the alchemical process have been brought together in the alembic, and so we cannot, for all the world, imagine her settling happily ever after for an ordinary relationship with even the most perfectly nice man in the world.

It is difficult to discern exactly where the note of inevitability is struck, but once we have heard it, it resounds like a persistent chord over the background of conversation. We know that the already sprouted seeds of Elizabeth’s ambivalence have received a thorough watering as she absorbs the implications of the perfect choreography of Katherine and Virginia’s well-ordered lives, ensconced in their chosen niche of unruffled domestic happiness. Elizabeth is uncomfortably aware of their well-meant condescension, their kindly but amused sympathy for the former spouse (referred to here only by a pronoun and to whom Rule refrains from conferring the dignity of a name) who no longer has any personal significance in their lives beyond his services rendered in fathering their child and serving as a stepping stone to their alliance.

Despite her determined struggle to resist it, the inevitability of her own future must have become terribly clear to Elizabeth over the course of the evening. Elizabeth will arrive at her destination in her own way, making her own mistakes and charting her own ambivalent course, but we needn’t fear for her happiness or security, because we know she will land on her feet, and when she does, she will have a couple of discerning and sympathetic allies.

But what about ‘the perfectly nice man?’ Whatever did he do to deserve the terrible marital curse that dogs his every romantic effort? His confidence, already undermined, will end in utter ruin. What is it about him that so sadly and comically pairs him with incipiently lesbian women? We hope for Clarissa’s sake he will not take to drink, but somehow gain an insight into the chemistry of his attractions. Fate seems indifferent to his happiness, so it is entirely up to him to save himself – if indeed such a thing is at all possible.

We hope that in accordance with Katherine’s prescient announcement, his brief marriage to Elizabeth will be happy. We hope Clarissa will have a new little sister, who will be given a suitably old-fashioned name, in honour of a woman writer, as do all the women in her life. I think Rule would have it so, because she must have been thinking of Clarissa, Virginia Woolf ‘s niece, when she picked the names for these two characters. I am also reminded of Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth Bowen… so perhaps the new addition might be christened ‘Sylvia,’ after Sylvia Townsend Warner, one of my own personal favourite lesbian writers.

That would be as neat a summing up as we could wish for, to follow the rueful, yet oracular pronouncements made by Katherine and Virginia on their way to bed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.xtra.ca/public/viewstory.aspx?AFF_TYPE=1&STORY_ID=3980&PUB_TEMPLATE_ID=1

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Rule

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Renée Vivien, born Pauline Mary Tarn (11 June 1877 – 18 November 1909

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Told by Gesa Karoly

I promised you, my curious little girl, to tell you the true story of Sarolta Andrassy. You knew her,  didn’t you? You remember her black hair with blue and red highlights, and her eyes like a lover’s begging and melancholy.

Sarolta Andrassy lived in the country with her old mother. For neighbours she had the Szecheny family, who had just left Budapest forever. Really, they were a bizarre family! It was easy to mistake Bela Szecheny for a little girl, and his sister, Terka, for a little boy. Curiously enough, Bela possessed all the feminine virtues and Terka, all the masculine faults. Bela’s hair was a copper blond; Terka’s was a livelier, rather reddish blond. The brother and sister strangely resembled each other – and that’s very rare among members of the same family, no matter what they say.

Bela’s mother was not yet resigned to cutting off the beautiful blond curls of the little boy or to exchanging his graceful muslin or velvet skirts for vulgar pants. She coddled him like a little girl. As for Terka, she kept shooting up, like a wild weed . . . She lived outdoors, climbing on the trees, marauding, robbing the kitchen gardens. She was unbearable and at war with the world. She was a child who was neither tender not communicative. Bela, on the other hand, was gentleness itself. He showed his adoration for his mother by making much of her and by caressing her. Terka loved no on€, and no one loved her.

Sarolta came one day to visit the Szecheny family. Her loving eyes in her thin, pale face seemed to be begging. Bela greatly pleased her, and they played together  great deal. Looking wild, Terka prowled around them.When Sarolta spoke to her, she fled.

She could have been pretty, this incomprehensible Terka . . . But she was too tall for her age, too thin, too awkward, too ungainly, whereas Bela was so dainty and so sweet! . . . Several months later, the Szecheny family left Hungary. Bela had an excessively delicate chest, being in general rather frail. On the advice of the doctor, his mother took him to Nice, along with his recalcitrant little sister. Sarolta cried bitterly over losing her playmate.

In her dreams, Sarolta always evoked the too frail and too pretty little boy whom she remembered constantly. And she would say to herself, smiling at the blond fantasy: ‘If I must get married when I’m older, I would like to marry Bela.’

Several years passed – oh, how slowly for the impatient Sarolta! Bela must have reached the age of twenty, and Terka, seventeen. They were still on the Riviera. And Sarolta grieved through the joyless, long years, which were lit up only by the illusion of a dream.

One violet evening, she was dreaming by her window when her mother came to tell her that Bela had returned . . . Sarolta’s heart sang as if it would break. And, the next day, Bela came to see her.

He was the same, and even more charming than before. Sarolta was happy that he had kept this feminine and gentle manner which had so pleased her. He was still the fragile child . . . But now this child possessed an inexpressible grace. Sarolta searched in vain for the cause of this transformation which made him so alluring. His voice was musical and faraway like the echo of the mountains. She admired everything about him, even his stone-grey English suit. And she even admired his
mauve necktie.

Bela contemplated the young woman with different eyes, with eyes strangely beautiful, with eyes that did not resemble the eyes of other men . . . ‘How thin he is!’ observed Sarolta’s mother after he had left. ‘Poor thing, he must still be in delicate health.’ Sarolta did not answer. She closed her eyes in order to again see Bela under her closed eyelids . . . How handsome, handsome, handsome he was! . . .

He returned the next day, and every day after that. He was the Prince Charming who is seen only in the childish pages of fairy tales. She could not look him in the face without feeling ardently and languishingly faint . . . Her face changed according to the expression of the face she loved. Her heart beat according to the rhythm of that other heart. Her unconscious and childish tenderness had become love.

Bela would turn pale as soon as she appeared, diaphanous in her white summer dress. Sometimes he looked at her without speaking, like someone communing with himself in front of a faultless Statue. Sometimes he took her hand . . . His palm was so burning and dry that she thought she was touching the hand of an invalid. Indeed, at those times a little fever would show in Bela’s cheeks.

One day she asked him for some news of the undisciplined Terka.
‘She is still in Nice,’ he answered indifferently. And then they spoke of something else. Sarolta understood that Bela did not love his sister at all. This was not surprising, what is more –  a girl who was so taciturn and wild!

What should come next, came next. A few months later Bela asked to marry her. He had just turned twenty-one.  Sarolta’s mother had no objections to the union

Their betrothal was unreal, as delicate as the white roses that Bela brought each day. Their vows were more fervent than poems: their very souls trembled on their lips. The nuptial dream came to be in the deepest silence.

‘Why,’ Sarolta would ask her fiancé€, ‘are you worthier of being loved than other young men? Why do you have gentle ways that they do not? Where did you learn the divine words that they never say?’

The wedding ceremony took place in absolute privacy. The candles brightened the red highlights in Bela’s blond hair. The incense curled towards him, and the thunder of the organs exalted and glorified him. For the first time since the beginning of the world, the Groom was as beautiful as the Bride.

They left for those blue shores where the desire of lovers runs out of patience. They were seen, a Divine Couple, with the eyelashes of one stroking the eyelids of the other. They were seen, lovingly and chastely intertwined, with her black hair spread over his blond hair . . .

Oh, my curious little girl! Here the story becomes a little  difficult to relate . . . Several months later, the teal Bela Szecheny appeared . . . He was not Prince Charming, alas! He was only a handsome boy, nothing more.

He furiously sought the identity of the young usurper . . . And he learned that the usurper in question was his own sister, Terka.

….Sarolta and Prince Charming have never returned to Hungary. They are hiding in the depths of a Venetian castle or of a Florentine mansion. And sometimes they are seen, as one sees a vision of ideal tenderness, lovingly and chastely intertwined.

 

Translated by Karla Jay and
Yvonne M. Klein

 

 

Who, we wonder, was Gesa Karoly, and who was the curious little girl to whom this little gem of a story was related? The writer would have us believe that legend of Sarolta and her lover went on being retold, and the little girl, who remembered Sarolta, we may fondly imagine, may have been influenced by its hearing, to form her own views and ideas about the possibilities of love, and so not simply accept at face-value the norms embraced and upheld by society at large.

Renée Vivien’s charming tale of lesbian love and marriage is one in a long string going all the way back to Ovid – Iphys and Ianthes, in Metamorphosis,  and Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem  Orlando Furioso, which has the a brother and sister fall in love with the same woman. Though both narratives disappoint (Ariosto’s narrative, degenerates into a heterosexual romance, even though the two women marry each other, and in Ovid’s tale Iphys is transformed into a man) Vivien gives her readers every satisfaction.

Hers is a story told by a lesbian, for lesbians, and happily for us she does not succumb to trite and banal heterosexual anticlimaxes resorted to by precedent (even Shakespeare is guilty here), but sends her lovers off to live in Italy, where we are free to imagine that they in true fairy-tale fashion, revel in each others’ company for the rest of their lives.

I hear a pianissimo echo in Vivien’s language of Oscar Wilde but without his excesses, of Baudelaire, without his decadence and also of Virginia Woolf, without her usual ornately satirical social embellishments; but above all  I hear in Vivien’s writing the sweetness and magic, as well as the dark glimmer of falling in love.

No doubt an argument can be made that the romantic ethereality of her language and its high-art aesthetic confers on it the gloss of dated unreality, but I think that beneath the cultured patina lies the solid core of a complex analysis of gender and sexual orientation, albeit sans the associated component of sexuality. Prince Charming is in fact a stylish fable – a myth –  chronicling a stylised adaptation of gender to fulfil the imperatives of personal individuation.

Though the traits of the opposite sex predominate in the characters of Bela and Terka, Terka’s maleness bears the imprint of  divine virginity, whereas Bela’s femaleness is mere passivity. Terka is in fact a young Diana, withholding herself from trivial social interaction, and purely dedicated to her own wild self.

What sets the sequence of this story in motion? Sarolta loves Bela (meaning ‘white’ in Hungarian, and here perhaps implying ‘pure’) for his girlish nature, and she is aware that a liaison is one which is still within the ambit of what is considered socially sanctioned as a basis for marriage. But this is her first step on the lesbian continuum, when her heart’s intimations reveal to her that it is a certain quality –  a particular nature – a singular constellation of characteristics that draw her, and this attachment, though nascent and diffuse, forms the basis of her enduing romantic dream.

But I question if  Bela’s muslin skirts, delicate health and a general tendency to be ‘sweet’, though they may suffice to inspire Sarolta’s  childish love, go beyond being merely social traits? For in this case they do not seem to me to sink their taproot into the substratum of human nature itself. Not so in the case of Terka. Her wild coltishness, and her vital intensity –  the active reality of her nature –  does not permit the trivial and social interactions which convention approves. Why does she run away when addressed by Sarolta? Could it be that she cannot bear the intensity of her feelings for Sarolta? She is untouchable and most of all untouched. For her the potency of touch is not something to be squandered in idle caresses.  Neither is she sullied by any prior loves, not even the maternal, and certainly not the fraternal – and this is the purity Vivien so values, in her emphasis on ‘chasteness’. It is this chasteness, this virginal quality and its underlying power is what makes Terka’s love pure and exclusive. She is after all, the one who initiates the relationship with Sarolta, while valetudinarian Bela lacks the acumen to take the next logical step in Sarolta’s direction.

Vivien makes it undeniably clear that it was what was female in Bela that inspired Sarolta’s early affection. Bela was effete and epicene and these were the qualities that appealed to Sarolta. His nerveless languor and passive nature devoid of masculine traits – in fact his effeminacy  –  is what makes Bela acceptable to her. Vivien relates a myth of gender ambivalence, describing a subtle process which begins with the unreal and concludes with the real. It is a sacrament in which separate and disparate splinters of gender components coalesce in Terka and transform to comprise a whole, which then concludes in the Hierosgamos  – the sacred marriage.

Bela himself is hidden behind the veil of the personality he projectes, and which Sarolta percieves.  When she again sees  Terka in the guise of Bela, after the long separation in all his travested beauty, she falls truly in love. She knows intuitively this is a ‘different’ kind of love. She senses the difference, though she finds it inexplicable, but the shift of her affections from childish love to ardour and from Bela to ‘Terka as Bela’ and from girlish boy to boyish girl, is accomplished in one swift gliding movement. It resembles a bloodless revolution, when a usurper displaces a former monarch and seizes the throne without the least evidence of conflict. Neither do we sense in Sarolta any trace of an emotional disconnect.

The alchemical progression in Sarolta’s mind of a dawning realisation from languid to intense, from Bela to Terka seems almost imperceptible. The process is so smooth, so deftly accomplished, it is almost invisible as a progression in the object of  Sarolta’s affections. Sarolta’s attachment begins with a male, Bela, in whom feminine traits predominate –  Terka, in whom the masculine traits predominate remains, present, but in the distance, unapproachable and unapproaching.

Then comes the vital hiatus  – the quiescence in which Terka enters the cocoon of her metamorphosis. When she reappears she has achieved the perfect balance of integrated feminine and masculine traits – a fusion of the requisite romantic and social qualities which form the fabric of Sarolta’s Prince Charming.  And so, one wonders if for Terka, early gender ambivalence was transformed into a mature personality largely in relation to Sarolta, and if Terka’s motivation in creating her adult self was in order to be desired by Sarolta…. and to go even a step further, if Terka’s transformation into ‘Prince Charming was in fact a wrought by  the alchemy of Sarolta’s desire…

But it is shimmering awareness that makes the wedding secret, and silent, and the love sacrosanct. The mere touching of hands is fevered, and  between Terka and Sarolta there is none of the casualness in it of Bela’s maternal caresses. Farouche Terka is transformed in young adulthood into a Prince Charming of hidden depths. Bela remains a feeble, social creature, prodded to action only when concerns about his social identity compel him.

Vivien’s story boldly celebrates the strange and ineffable nature of lesbian love when it is first felt, as a force that surfaces mysteriously, asserts itself and makes itself felt in ways that cannot be explained or understood: as something which demands to be acknowledged and honoured, to the extent that it subverts and usurps and adapts to its own necessity the heterosexual prerogative of marriage.

The appearance of  femininity and masculinity – even maleness and femaleness –  is shown to be deceptive and misleading; a mere mask and masquerade, which makes  impersonation of the opposite sex (and not mere transvestism)  a valid and genuine act. It is not merely a use of sartorial deception, but something undertaken in order to accomplish a serious end. With her ‘Prince Charming’ Vivien creates a space where same-sex love can be conceived of as something which can – and should –  flourish undisturbed and unhindered. This idea seems particularly valuable at a time when the self-knowledge of a woman’s sexual and affectional orientation was not a simple given – not an external endowment as perhaps it is in our own time  –  but something to be arrived at intuitively, empirically and with conviction, in contravention of accepted  social norms.

In Vivien’s charmingly extravagant myth, the stock trope of ‘Prince Charming’ is stood on its head. It is appropriated and made to serve a subversive purpose. It validates same-sex relationships between women, and recognises  the importance of personal as well as social imperatives for lesbians, and the claim to a socially recognised pair bond such as marriage, is something that women might wish to claim for themselves and their female partners.

And so we are given an unambiguously happy ending to a thoroughly romantic escapade – a lesbian fairy-tale in which girl gets girl.

Vivien lived most of her adult life in the Paris of the ‘Belle Époque’, in the company many brilliant literary lesbians – she was  the lover of Natalie Clifford Barney, the neighbour of Collette and she knew Djuna Barnes and many other brilliant women who frequented Barney’s salon. She chose for herself a life far removed from the rigid and limiting confines of domesticity, heterosexual marriage, and the burden of childbearing and child-raising, and had several intense love affairs, relationships and liaisons with women. Fortunately for her, she lived in a time which pre-dated, and was therefore unpolluted by Freud’s malignant and pernicious theorising. She was free to think for herself in ways that most of her female contemporaries outside of her charmed circle could not.

Although Vivien became the heiress of a very large fortune at a very early age, wealth did not bring much happiness with it. Vivien’s mother attempted – unsuccessfully –  to claim a share of the inheritance by having her daughter declared insane. Vivien’s personal difficulties – anorexia, drug, and alcohol abuse exacerbated by a weak constitution, did not detract from her awareness and intense exploration of  the possibilities of passionate love between women, something she expressed much more explicitly and emphatically in her poetry than her prose.

Permanently bereft by the death of her first love, Violet Shillitoe, (in 1901 at the age of 24) Vivien slipped into a steep physical and emotional decline. Her grief was probably exacerbated by guilt, since she had begun an affair with Natalie Clifford Barney shortly before Violet’s death. Violet’s body, which had been buried in France, was exhumed by her father and shipped back to England for reburial in 1904, leaving behind an empty grave in the cemetery of Saint Germain en Laye in Passey. It is  interesting to speculate what impact this morbid event may have had on Vivien, who was already obsessed with death. With the windows of  her apartment nailed shut, and living a reclusive life in her dark, incense-scented rooms, she continued to compose feverishly impassioned poetry, writing obsessively to the very end of her life in November of 1909.

Not very much of Vivien’s original work (written in French,) has been translated into English, which seems to be the reason it is not well-known to English readers. Her poetry, defiantly and uncompromisingly Sapphic, did not catch on in France, though the French could hardly have found its content to be more shocking than the decadent poetry of the second half of the nineteenth century (consider Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Louys). Perhaps the fact that it was written by a woman may have been more than bourgeois sensibilities of the notoriously sexist French of that era could tolerate.

Despite her short and tragic life, (there was at least one attempt at suicide) and the fact that her poetry was never really ‘in style’ the mere fact that Vivien wrote more openly and unapologetically about lesbian love than would be attempted for another seventy years and more, makes her an important figure to us. I am certain that had she written and been published in English and had those publications survived unscathed by censorship, our history as lesbians would have unfolded along a very different trajectory.  A voice in the wilderness is still a voice, and had hers been heard it might have reached the ears of those who most needed to hear its affirmation. Instead there was only the occasional murmur until Radclyffe Hall published  her 1928  novel The Well of Loneliness  –  which was in in fact more of a reasoned plea for understanding and acceptance for ‘inverts’ rather than any confident claim.

So are left, as is usual in such cases when brilliance and bad luck collide, with a sense of  satisfaction tinged with regret, wishing that Vivien’s life could have been as happy, and had as happy an ending as that of Sarolta and Terka in this story.

A week ago, this June 11th was the 135th anniversary of her birth, so Happy Birthday, Renée Vivien – we still remember you, fondly and well.

 

 

Le Prince Charmant

Conté par Gesa Karoly.

Je vous ai promis, ô petite curieuse, de vous conter l’histoire véritable de Saroltâ Andrassy. Vous l’avez connue, n’est-ce pas?  Vous vous souvenez de ses cheveux noirs, aux reflets bleus et roux, et de ses yeux d’amoureuse, suppliants et mélancoliques.

Saroltâ Andrassy vivait à la campagne avec sa vieille mère. Elles avaient pour voisins les Szécheny, qui venaient de quitter définitivement Buda-Pesth. Une bizarre famille, en vérité ! On aurait pu prendre Bêla Szécheny pour une petite fille, et sa sœur Terka pour un jeune garçon. Chose curieuse, Bêla possédait toutes les vertus féminines et Terka tous les défauts masculins. Les cheveux de Bêla étaient d’un blond vert, ceux de Terka, plus vivants, d’un blond rose. Le frère et la sœur se ressemblaient étrangement, — cela est très rare entre gens de la même famille, quoi qu’on en dise.

La mère de Bêla ne se résignait pas encore à couper les belles boucles blondes du petit garçon et à échanger ses gracieuses jupes de mousseline ou de velours contre une vulgaire culotte. Elle le choyait comme une fillette. Quant à Terka, elle poussait à sa guise, pareille à une herbe sauvage… Elle vivait au grand air, grimpant sur les arbres, maraudant, pillant les jardins potagers, insupportable et en guerre avec tout le monde. C’était une enfant sans tendresse et sans expansion. Bêla, au contraire, était la douceur même. Son adoration pour sa mère se manifestait par des câlineries et des caresses incessantes. Terka n’aimait personne et personne ne l’aimait.

Saroltâ vint un jour chez les Szécheny. Ses yeux d’amoureuse imploraient, dans son mince visage pâle. Béla lui plut beaucoup et ils jouèrent longtemps ensemble. Terka rôdait autour d’eux, d’un air farouche. Lorsque Saroltâ lui adressa la parole, elle s’enfuit.

Elle aurait été jolie, cette incompréhensible Terka… Mais elle était trop longue pour son âge, trop maigre, trop gauche, trop dégingandée. Tandis que Béla était si mignon et si doux !…

Les Szécheny quittèrent la Hongrie quelques mois plus tard. Saroltâ pleura amèrement son compagnon de jeux. Sur l’avis du médecin, sa mère l’avait emmené à Nice, ainsi que sa récalcitrante petite sœur. Béla avait la poitrine délicate à l’excès. Il était, d’ailleurs, peu robuste.

À travers ses rêves, Saroltâ évoquait toujours l’enfant trop frêle et trop joli dont le souvenir persistait en elle. Et elle se disait, en souriant à l’image blonde :

« Si je dois me marier plus tard, je voudrais épouser Béla. »

Plusieurs années se passèrent, — oh ! combien lentement pour l’impatiente Saroltâ ! Béla devait avoir atteint vingt ans, et Terka dix-sept. Ils étaient toujours sur la Riviera. Et Saroltâ se désolait de ces années sans joie, éclairées seulement par l’illusion d’un songe.

Elle rêvait à sa fenêtre, par un soir violet, lorsque sa mère vint lui dire que Béla était revenu…

Le cœur de Saroltâ chantait à se briser. Et, le lendemain, Béla vint vers elle.

Il était le même, et pourtant bien plus charmant qu’autrefois. Saroltâ fut heureuse qu’il eût gardé cet air efféminé et doux qui lui avait tant plu. C’était toujours l’enfant fragile… Mais cet enfant possédait aujourd’hui une grâce inexprimable. Saroltâ chercha en vain la cause de cette transformation qui le rendait si attirant. Sa voix était musicale et lointaine, ainsi qu’un écho des montagnes. Elle admira tout de lui, jusqu’à son complet anglais, d’un gris de pierres, et jusqu’à sa cravate mauve.

Béla contemplait la jeune fille de ses yeux changés, de ses yeux étrangement beaux, de ses yeux qui ne ressemblaient pas aux yeux des autres hommes…

« Qu’il est donc mince ! » observa la mère de Saroltâ, après son départ. « Il doit être encore d’une santé bien délicate, ce pauvre petit. »

Saroltâ ne répondit point. Elle ferma les yeux afin de revoir Béla sous ses paupières closes… Comme il était joli, joli, joli !…

Il revint le lendemain, et tous les jours. C’était le Prince Charmant qui ne se révèle qu’à travers les pages enfantines des contes de fées. Elle ne pouvait le regarder en face sans défaillir ardemment, languissamment… Son visage variait selon l’expression du visage désiré. Son cœur battait selon le rythme de cet autre cœur. L’inconsciente et puérile tendresse était devenue de l’amour.

Béla pâlissait dès qu’elle entrait, diaphane en sa blanche robe d’été. Il la regardait parfois, sans parler, comme quelqu’un qui se recueille devant une Statue sans défaut. Parfois il lui prenait la main… Elle croyait toucher une main de malade, tant la paume en était brûlante et sèche. Un peu de fièvre montait alors jusqu’aux pommettes de Béla.

Elle lui demanda un jour des nouvelles de Terka l’indisciplinée.

« Elle est toujours à Nice, » répondit-il négligemment. Et l’on parla d’autre chose. Saroltâ comprit que Béla n’aimait point sa sœur. Ce n’était pas étonnant, au surplus. Une enfant si taciturne et si farouche !

Ce qui devait arriver arriva. Béla la demanda en mariage quelques mois plus tard. Il entrait dans sa vingt et unième année. La mère de Saroltâ ne s’opposa point à l’union.

Ce furent d’irréelles fiançailles, délicates à l’égal des roses blanches que Béla apportait chaque jour. Ce furent des aveux plus fervents que des poèmes, et des frissons d’âme sur les lèvres. Au profond des silences, passait le rêve nuptial.

« Pourquoi, » disait Saroltâ à son fiancé, « es-tu plus digne d’être aimé que les autres jeunes hommes ? Pourquoi as-tu des douceurs qu’ils ignorent ? Où donc as-tu appris les parôles divines qu’ils ne prononcent jamais ? »

La cérémonie eut lieu dans une intimité absolue. Les cierges avivaient les lueurs roses de la blonde chevelure de Béla. L’encens fumait vers lui, et le tonnerre des orgues l’exaltait et le glorifiait. Pour la première fois, depuis le commencement du monde, l’Époux fut aussi beau que l’Épouse.

Ils partirent vers les rives bleues où s’exaspère le désir des amants. On les vit, Couple Divin, les cils de l’un frôlant les paupières de l’autre. On les vit, amoureusement et chastement enlacés, les cheveux noirs de l’Amante répandus sur les blonds cheveux de l’Amant…

Mais voici, ô petite curieuse ! où l’histoire devient un peu difficile a raconter… Quelques mois plus tard, le véritable Béla Szécheny apparut… Ce n’était pas le Prince Charmant. Hélas ! Ce n’était qu’un joli garçon, sans plus.

Il rechercha furieusement la personnalité du jeune usurpateur… Et il apprit que l’usurpateur en question était sa sœur Terka.

… Saroltâ et le Prince Charmant ne sont plus revenus en Hongrie. Ils se cachent au fond d’un palais vénitien ou d’une maison florentine. Et parfois on les rencontre, tels qu’une vision de tendresse idéale, amoureusement et chastement enlacés.

 

 

 

 

http://www.valkyria.ca/renee_vivien_page.html

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H.D. (born Hilda Doolittle; September 10, 1886 – September 27, 1961)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Little, but all roses’ is the dictate of the Alexandrine poet, yet I am inclined to disagree. I would not bring roses, nor yet the great shaft of scarlet lilies. I would bring orange blossoms, implacable flowerings made to seduce the sense when every other means has failed, poignard that glints, fresh sharpened steel: after the red heart, red lilies, impassioned roses are dead.

‘Little, but all roses’  –  true there is a tint of rich colour (invariably we find it), violets, purple woof of cloth, scarlet garments, dyed fastening of a sandal, the lurid, crushed and perished hyacinth, stains on cloth and flesh and parchment.

There is gold too. Was it a gold rose the poet meant? But the gold of a girl-child’s head, the gold of an embroidered garment hem, the rare gold of sea-grass or meadow-pulse does not seem to evoke in our thought the vision of roses, heavy in a scented garden.

‘Little, but all roses.’ I think, though the stains are deep on the red and scarlet cushions, on the flaming cloak of love, it is not warmth we look for in these poems, not fire nor sunlight, not heat in the ordinary sense, diffused, and comforting (nor is it light, day or dawn or light of sun-setting), but another element containing all these, magnetic, vibrant; not the lightning as it falls from the thunder cloud, yet lightning in a sense: white, unhuman element, containing fire and light and warmth, yet in its essence differing from all these, as if the brittle crescent-moon gave heat to us, or some splendid scintillating star turned warm suddenly in our hand like a jewel, sent by the beloved.

I think of the words of Sappho as these colours, or states rather, transcending colour yet containing (as great heat the compass of the spectrum) all colour. And perhaps the most obvious is this rose colour, merging to richer shades of scarlet, purple or Phoenician purple. To the superficial lover – truly -roses!

Yet not all roses – not roses at all, not orange blossoms even, but reading deeper we are inclined to visualize these broken sentences and unfinished rhythms as rocks – perfect rock shelves and layers of rock between which flowers by some chance may grow but which endure when the staunch blossoms have perished.

Not flowers at all, but an island with innumerable, tiny, irregular bays and fiords and little straits between which the sun lies clear (fragments cut from a perfect mirror of iridescent polished silver or of the bronze reflecting richer tints) or breaks, wave upon destructive passionate wave.

Not roses, but an island, a country, a continent, a planet, a world of emotion, differing entirely from any present-day imaginable world of emotion; a world of emotion that could only be imagined by the greatest of her own countrymen in the greatest period of that country’s glamour, who themselves confessed her
beyond their reach, beyond their song, not a woman, not a goddess even, but a song or the spirit of a song. A song, a spirit, a white star that moves across the heaven to mark the end of a world epoch or to presage some coming glory.

Yet she is embodied – terribly a human being, a woman, a personality as the most impersonal become when they confront their fellow beings.

The under-lip curls out in the white face, she has twisted her two eyes unevenly, the brows break the perfect line of the white forehead, her expression is not exactly sinister (sinister and dead), the spark of mockery beneath the half-closed lids is, rather, living, destructive irony.

‘What country girl bewitches your heart who knows not how to draw her skirt about her ankles?’

Aristocratic – indifferent – full of caprice – full of imperfection – intolerant.

High in the mountains, the wind may break the trees, as love the lover, but this was before the days of Theocritus, before the destructive Athenian satyric drama – we girls hear no praise of country girls nor mountain goats. This woman has still the flawless tradition to maintain.

Her bitterness was on the whole the bitterness of the sweat of Eros. Had she burned to destroy she had spent her flawless talent to destroy custom and mob-thought with serpent-tongue before the great Athenian era.

Black and burnt are the cheeks of the girl of the late Sicilian Theocritus, for, says he, black is the hyacinth and the myrtle-berry.

But Sappho has no praise for mountain girls. She protrudes a little her under-lip, twists her eyes, screws her face out of proportion as she searches for the most telling phrase; this girl who bewitches you, my friend, does not even know how to draw her skirts about her feet.

Sophisticated, ironical, bitter jeer. Not her hands, her feet, her hair, or her features resemble in any way those of the country- bred among the thickets; not her garments even, are ill-fitting or ill-cut, but her manners, her gestures are crude, the bitterest of all destructive gibes of one sensitive woman at the favourite of another, sensitive, high-strung, autocratic as herself.

The gods, it is true, Aphrodite, Hermes, Ares, Hephaistos, Adonis, beloved of the mother of loves, the Graces, Zeus himself, Eros in all his attributes, great, potent, the Muses, mythical being and half-god, the Kyprian again and again are mentioned in these poems but at the end, it is for the strange almost petulant little phrases that we value this woman, this cry (against some simple unknown girl) of skirts and ankles we might think unnecessarily pretty, yet are pleased in the thinking of it, or else the outbreak against her own intimate companions brings her nearer our own over-sophisticated, nerve-wracked era: ‘The people I help most are the most unkind,’ ‘O you forget me’ or  ‘You love someone better,’ You are nothing to me,’  nervous, trivial tirades. Or we have in sweetened mood so simple a phrase ‘I sing’ – not to please any god, goddess, creed or votary of religious rite – I sing not even in abstract contemplation, trance-like, remote from life, to please myself, but says this most delightful and friendly woman, ‘I sing and I sing beautifully like this, in order to please my friends – my girl-friends.’

We have no definite portraits from her hands of these young women of Mitylene. They are left to our imagination, though only the most ardent heart, the most intense spirit and the most wary and subtle intellect can hope even in moments of ardent imagination to fill in these broken couplets. One reads simply this ‘My darling,’ or again ‘You burn me.’ To a bride’s lover she says, ‘Ah there never was a girl like her.’ She speaks of the light spread across a lovely face, of the garment wrapped about a lovely body; she addresses by name two of these young women comparing one to another’s disadvantage (though even here she temporizes her judgement with an endearing adjective), ‘Mnasidika is more shapely than tender Gyrinno.’ We hear of Eranna too. ‘Eranna, there never was a girl more spiteful than you.’

Another girl she praises, not for beauty. Though they stand among tall spotted lilies and the cup of jacynth and the Lesbian iris, she yet extolls beyond Kypris and the feet of Eros, wisdom. ‘Ah,’ she says of this one, beloved for another beauty than that of perfect waist and throat and close-bound cap of hair and level brows, ‘I think no girl can ever stand beneath the sun or ever will again and be as wise as you are.’

Wisdom –  this is all we know of the girl: that though she stood in the heavy Graeco-Asiatic sunlight, the wind from Asia, heavy with ardent myrrh and Persian spices, was yet tempered with a Western gale, bearing in its strength and its salt sting, the image of another, tall, with eyes shadowed by the helmet rim, the goddess, indomitable.

This is her strength – Sappho of Mitylene was a Greek. And in all her ecstasies, her burnings, her Asiatic riot of colour, her cry to that Phoenician deity, ‘Adonis, Adonis  – ‘her phrases, so simple yet in any but her hands in danger of overpowering sensuousness, her touches of Oriental realism, ‘purple napkins’ and ‘soft cushions’ are yet tempered, moderated by a craft never surpassed in literature. The beauty of Aphrodite it is true is the constant, reiterated subject of her singing. But she is called by a late scholiast who knew more of her than we can hope to learn from these brief fragments,’The Wise Sappho’.

We need the testimony of no Alexandrian or late Roman scholiast to assure us of the artistic wisdom, the scientific precision of metre and musical notation, the finely tempered intellect of this woman. Yet for all her artistic moderation, what is the personal, the emotional quality of her wisdom? This woman whom love paralysed till she seemed to herself a dead body, yet burnt, as the desert grass is burnt, white by the desert heat; she who trembled and was sick and sweated at the mere presence of another, a person, doubtless of charm, of grace, but of no extraordinary gifts perhaps of mind or feature – was she moderate, was she wise? Savonarola standing in the courtyard of the Medici (some two thousand years later) proclaimed her openly to the assembled youthful laity and priests of Florence –  a devil.

If moderation is wisdom, if constancy in love is wisdom, was she wise? We read even in these few existing fragments, name upon curious, exotic, fragrant name: Atthis – Andromeda – Mnasidika – Eranna – Gyrinno –  more, many more than these tradition tells were praised in the lost fragments. The name of muse and goddess and of human woman merge, interspersed among these verses. ‘Niobe and Leda were friends – ‘ it is a simple statement –  for the moment, Niobe and Leda are nearer, more human, than the Atthis, the Eranna who strike and burn and break like Love himself.

The wise Sappho! She was wise, emotionally wise, we suspect with wisdom of simplicity, the blindness of genius. She constructed from the simple gesture of a half-grown awkward girl, a being, a companion, an equal. She imagined, for a moment, as the white bird wrinkled a pink foot, clutching to obtain balance at the too smooth ivory of the wrist of the same Atthis, that Atthis had a mind, that Atthis was a goddess. Because the sun made a momentary circlet of strange rust-coloured hair, she saw in all her fragrance, Aphrodite, violet-crowned, or better still a sister, a muse, one of the violet wreathing. She imagined because the girl’s shoulders seemed almost too fragile, too frail, to support the vestment, dragging a little heavily because of the gold-binding, that the same shoulders were the shoulders of a being, an almost disembodied spirit. She constructed perfect and flawless (as in her verse, she carved from current Aeolic dialect, immortal phrases) the whole, the perfection, the undying spirit of goddess, muse or sacred being from the simple grace of some tall, half-developed girl. The very skies open, were opened by these light fingers, fluffing out the under-feathers of the pigeon’s throat. Then the wise Sappho clamours aloud against that bitter, bitter creature, Eros, who has once more betrayed her. ‘Ah, Atthis, you hate even to think of me – you have gone to Andromeda.’

I love to think of Atthis and Andromeda curled on a sun-baked marble bench like the familiar Tanagra group, talking it over. What did they say? What did they think? Doubtless, they thought little or nothing and said much.

There is another girl, a little girl. Her name is Cleis. It is reported that the mother of Sappho was named Cleis. It is said that Sappho had a daughter whom she called Cleis.

Cleis was golden. No doubt Cleis was perfect. Cleis was a beautiful baby, looking exactly like a yellow flower (so her mother tells us). She was so extraordinarily beautiful, Lydia had nothing so sweet, so spiced; greatness, wealth, power, nothing in all Lydia could be exchanged for Cleis.

So in the realm of the living, we know there was a Cleis. I see her heaping shells, purple and rose-edged, stained here and there with saffron colours, shells from Adriatic waters heaped in her own little painted bowl and poured out again and gathered up only to be spilt once more across the sands. We have seen Atthis of yester-year; Andromeda of ‘fair requital’, Mnasidika with provoking length of over-shapely limbs; Gyrinno, loved for some appealing gesture or strange resonance of voice or skill of finger-tips, though failing in the essential and more obvious qualities of beauty; Eranna with lips curved contemptuously over slightly irregular though white and perfect teeth; angry Eranna who refused everyone and bound white violets only for the straight hair she herself braided with precision and cruel self-torturing neatness about her own head. We know of Gorgo, over-riotous, too heavy, with special intoxicating sweetness, but exhausting, a girl to weary of, no companion, her over- soft curves presaging early development of heavy womanhood.

Among the living there are these and others. Timas, dead among the living, lying with lily wreath and funeral torch, a golden little bride, lives though sleeping more poignantly even than the famous Graeco-Egyptian beauty the poet’s brother married at Naucratis. Rhodope, a name redolent (even though we may no longer read the tribute of the bridegroom’s sister) of the heavy out-curling, over-lapping petals of the peerless flower.

Little –  not little  – but all, all roses! So at the last, we are forced to accept the often quoted tribute of Meleager, late Alexandrian, half  Jew, half Grecian poet. Little but all roses!

True, Sappho has become for us a name, an abstraction as well as a pseudonym for poignant human feeling, she is indeed rocks set in a blue sea, she is the sea itself, breaking and tortured and torturing, but never broken. She is the island of artistic perfection where the lover of ancient beauty (shipwrecked in the modern world) may yet find foothold and take breath and gain courage for new adventures and dream of yet unexplored continents and realms of future artistic achievement. She is the wise Sappho.

Plato, poet and philosopher in the most formidable period of Athenian culture, looking back some centuries toward Mitylene, having perspective and a rare standard of comparison, too, speaks of this woman as among the wise.

You were the morning star among the living (the young Plato, poet and Athenian, wrote of a friend he had lost), you were the morning star before you died; now you are ‘as Hesperus, giving new splendour to the dead’. Plato lives as a poet, as a lover, though the Republic seems but a ponderous tome and the mysteries of the Dialogues verge often on the didactic and artificial. So Sappho must live, roses, but many roses, for tradition has set flower upon flower about her name and would continue to do so though her last line were lost.

Perhaps to Meleager, having access to the numberless scrolls of Alexandria, there seemed ‘but little’ though to us, in a cheerless and more barren age, there seems much. Legend upon legend has grown up, adding curious documents to each precious fragment; the history of the preservation of each line is in itself a most fascinating and bewildering romance.

Courtesan and woman of fashion were rebuked at one time for not knowing ‘even the works of Sappho’. Sophocles cried out in despair before some inimitable couplet, ‘gods  – what impassioned heart and longing made this rhythm’. The Roman Emperor, weary to death, left his wreathed drinking cup and said, ‘It is worth living yet to hear another of this woman’s songs.’ Catullus, impassioned lyrist, left off recounting the imperfections of his Lesbia to enter a fair paradisal world, to forge silver Latin from imperishable Greek, to marvel at the praises of this perfect lover who needed no interim of hatred to repossess the loved one. Monk and scholar, grey recluse of Byzantium or Roman or medieval monastery, flamed to new birth of intellectual passion at discovery of some fatal relic until the Vatican itself was moved and deemed this woman fit rival to the seductions of another Poet and destroyed her verses.

The roses Meleager saw as ‘little’ have become in the history not only of literature but of nations (Greece and Rome and medieval town and Tuscan city) a great power, roses, but many, many roses, each fragment witness to the love of some scholar or hectic antiquary searching to find a precious inch of palimpsest among the funereal glories of the sand-strewn Pharaohs.

 

 

 

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/h-d

http://www.justaboutwrite.com/Herstory-Poet-HildaDoolittle.html

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Sylvia Nora Townsend Warner (6 December 1893 – 1 May 1978)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because of the telephone, Dr. Adam Hutton, the newly
 arrived locum tenens was occupying the conjugal bedroom.
 He got into bed, tilted the reading lamp, and pulled up the
 eiderdown. The moment he laid hold of it, he remembered
the roast fowl at supper. The roast fowl had been good and 
substantial; so was the eiderdown, and the phrase ‘spot
lessly clean’, which the eiderdown demanded as its due,
 could have applied with equal propriety to the fowl’s 
accompanying bread sauce.

Everything in the room brandished cleanliness, merit,
 and substantiality, while, at the same time, the colouring of
 wallpaper, carpet, and curtains plainly indicated that they 
had been chosen because they would not show dirt. ‘All the 
best bedrooms in Horn Street must have been like this,’ he
said to himself. ‘Still are, for that matter, I dare say.’  Behind a chink in the curtains (he had pulled them apart to 
look out) the windowpane glittered like a diamond, and in 
through the opened window came the familiar, grimy 
smell of the industrial West Riding. He had not smelled it 
for nearly thirty years.

But in his youth he had only guessed at such bedrooms,
 deducing them from furniture shops and advertisements.
 The cleanliness, merit, and substantiality of his own  surroundings had been of a shabbier, more arduous kind, and 
the smell of grime much more insistent, while he, with the 
thudding industry of a small engine, had fought to learn,
 and to be able to go on learning, until, by the end of his
 teens, he had finally learned himself out of his station and 
away from his birthplace, never to return. Get-on-and-
get-out, get-on-and-get-out, get-on-and-get-out. . .  If 
they had not been the words of his private heart, the print
ing shop across the street would have dinned them into him.

And he was still within the letter of his vow. He had 
not returned. This was Mexley, not Goatbridge. Identical 
in griminess and clatter, eclectic hideousness of public 
buildings and stoical ugliness of working-class streets,
 Mexley and Goatbridge and Hudderbeck and Wendon and 
Gullaby, sprawling one into another and laced together by 
trolley buses, were identical in mutual contempt, Goatbridge averring that folk in Hudderbeck never shut a door 
after them, Hudderbeck and Wendon cherishing a legend
 of what went into Mexley pies, Mexley, Goatbridge,
Wendon, and Hudderbeck jeering at Gullaby greenhorns,
 and Gullaby on its hillside looking down on their smoky 
rooftops as on the Cities on the Plain. ‘God knows what 
got into my head,’ said Adam Hutton; and opening the
 street map of Mexley, which was not Goatbridge, he 
began to memorize its layout. Knowing Goatbridge, he 
found it easy enough to put Mexley together by its street 
names. Foundry Street, Wharf Street, Hoggle Yard and 
Slaughter Yard and Tanhouse Yard, Bull Ring and Laystall Lane – that would be the old part of the town. And 
Douro Crescent and Portico Place would be the former
 residential quarter, left now to brass-plate users, solicitors,
and town offices –  he need not trouble to memorize that 
square of the map. Odd, though, that he could not find 
Horn Street. Realising that Horn Street had got in from 
Goatbridge and that he was half asleep, he put out the light.

In his dream it was a Christmas morning, and the Goatbridge Brass Band was standing on the roof of the fire
station, playing ‘Christians, awake! Salute the happy 
morn.’ But he was in a double bed in Mexley, and the 
telephone was ringing. A voice that might have come from 
any one of his aunts said, ‘Is that you, Doctor? I’m in the 
call box – Mrs. Bella Heaton – and it’s Joseph. He’s been 
throwing up these last three hours, and I don’t like the
 look of his nose, and his feet are like ice, and- ‘

‘I’ll come at once. But first tell me your address.’

A voice completely changed and concealing ineffable
 astuteness remarked, ‘You aren’t Dr. Walker, though.’

‘No. Dr. Walker’s in Wales, on his holiday. I’m doing 
his work. Now, tell me where you live.’

‘Oh ! Well, I dare say you might as well as not.’

As he left his room a door across the landing opened, and
 Miss Linda Walker appeared. ‘Oh dear! Your first night,
 too. I’m so sorry.’  She wore a blue dressing gown. She had 
put on her spectacles. Her hair stood out like brass filings. 
’Can you manage? Will you be able to find your way?’

‘Perfectly. Mustn’t wake your mother.’

When he returned the hall light was on and a thermos, a 
mug, and a plate of sandwiches stood on the hall table.
 Yorkshire hospitality. Mrs. Bella Heaton had already 
forced cocoa and seed-cake on him. But he ate the sandwiches, for the raw air had given him an appetite. After
 leaving his patient he had gone to view Goatbridge by the 
pale moonlight, driving back by the Gullaby Road, whence
 Gullaby Old Church, silhouetted on the hilltop looked as 
alarming as ever, gaunt and yet glutted, its churchyard 
crammed with enormous, jostling black headstones.

Breakfast was at eight. Porridge, ham and eggs, pikelets, 
potted shrimps, a blazing fire at his back, and a purple 
radiance shed on Mrs. Walker’s spotlessly white hair from 
the band of coloured glass in the window. He was so 
insistently fed that he could barely get in his thanks for the 
thermos and sandwiches.

‘Linda’s her father’s daughter,’ said Mrs. Walker in
 tones of mild pride. ‘She knows. What’s our motto in this 
house, Linda dear!’

‘Keep up the doctor, and he’ll keep up the patient.’

‘That’s right. And you may rest assured, Doctor, if you
 should be out on a night call, Linda will always have something ready for you, no matter how often. And when
 you’ve finished your breakfast, she will be ready to show 
you the files and the forms and the registers and the day 
book and the appointment lists. Linda does all the book-
work, and she’s qualified as a dispenser. She’ll make a 
wonderful wife for a doctor, one of these days.

‘
Even for a mother, Mrs. Walker was shameless. Linda 
was not shameless; she was merely willing.

Adam had no fears. It was only a fortnight, and he could 
be heartless for much longer than that. He would be heartless, civil, and inscrutable.

But as the day wore on, with surgery hours, and visiting,
 and midday dinner, and visiting, and a groaning tea table,
 and surgery hours again, it was to himself that he grew 
inscrutable. What the devil had possessed him to come here
  – What sentimental lunacy, what decrepitude of mind?

Getting on and getting out, he had finished his training,
and travelled on a research scholarship, and passed the war 
years as an Army doctor, and spent his accumulated pay on 
buying a partnership in a South Coast practice; and then, not liking the shape of National Health Service, had got 
out of that and into the research laboratories of a new firm
 that was making a good thing out of vaccines and antibiotics. There he proposed to remain, well paid, well 
thought of, interested in what he was doing, and near 
enough to London to be able to ease himself into a degree
 of culture that would make his old  age creditable and entertaining. And then, because he was glancing through the 
British Medical Journal in order to compare his firm’s
 advertisement with the advertisements of other firms,
 ‘Mexley West Riding’ caught his eye. What followed 
was dementia. Reading that Dr. James Walker required a 
locum tenens during the second fortnight in March, and 
even while scornfully commiserating the wretch  who could
 only get away for that meagre release, he became con
vinced that if he did not snatch at this chance of going to 
Mexley, the rest of his life would be meaningless. So in
tense was his madness that not even the words ‘live as 
family’ could deter him. He had been going to Rome in
 April. Changing the date of his holiday, he arranged to go
 to Mexley in March. But why! But why! To be within 
smelling distance of the Goatbridge gasworks when the
 wind blew from the sweet south! To hear the Mexley
 Choral Society rehearsing Stainer’s Crucifixion? To discover experimentally what went into a Mexley pie?
 With the whole vehemence of his Goatbridge breeding he exclaimed, ‘Mexley !’

But by his third day in Mexley, subdued by hard work and 
harsh air, grossly hungry, grossly sleepy, shamelessly trifling with Mrs. Walker’s shamelessness and automatically 
relying on Linda’s willingness, Adam began to feel it 
almost a matter of course to be there. In the preliminary 
correspondence, Walker had said that he would leave a 
detailed list of the patients under treatment, so that his
 locum might know from the start what would be required
 of him. This list turned out to be a great many slips of 
waste paper scribbled over with mysterious abbreviations – 
patients and treatments intermingled with memoranda
 about drugs that would need to be replenished lyings-in to
 be expected, and fishing tackle that Dr. Walker would 
want on his holiday. These were piously handed over by 
Linda, but every morning she supplemented them with a
 neatly written schedule, telling him in a sweet full voice
 that Mr. Bucklaw and Mrs. Protheroe were cancers, that 
Miss Eden’s boy was an epileptic, Mr. Murgatroyd a faker, ‘And old Mrs. Robertson – she’ll expect to be looked in 
on to-day – is another. But you mustn’t tell her so; other
wise she’ll send for you in the middle of the night with a 
heart attack.’

‘I don’t know why your father wanted a locum. You
 could do it all, and cook the pudding into the bargain. Who 
are these other regulars for to-day?’

Smiling, flushed with pleasure, she replied, ‘Mr.
Holmes, disseminated sclerosis. Ben Trotter, Parkinson’s 
disease. Miss Rawson, arthritic and bedridden. Mrs. Ack
royd, cardiac dropsy. They’re all in Tanhouse Yard, so 
you’d better leave your car in Bull Ring. And if nobody
 answers the door at Number Eleven – that’s Mrs. Ack
royd it will be because the niece she lives with is out
fitting. She dressmakes. So just walk in and up the stairs to 
the front bedroom. But mind the stairs. Father says they’re
 rotten, and the coffin will have to come out by the window.
 

They’re shocking places, those houses in Tanhouse Yard.
They ought to be pulled down. Nobody lives there but 
remainders.’

Still flushed, still smiling, she straightened the papers and
 went away, for it was part of her willingness that she knew 
when she was done with. As soon as she was out of the 
room he unstraightened them again, pencilling in queries
 and alternative medicaments. Walker was still in the epoch
 of Ferri Phos., Tinct. Val., and Card. Co. This was a pity; 
for as a musician reading a single orchestral part can deduce
 quite a lot about the composer’s merits, Adam, reading 
Walker’s clinical notes, often perceived acumen, and some
times even diagnostic brilliance. Someone really ought to
 overhaul the old man and bring him up to date.

Most of the younger patients were ready enough to be 
brought up to date. They had read articles on modern
 medicine in popular papers, knew that recent discoveries
 were wonderful, and asked if they couldn’t have some of 
these injections, like Aunt Gertie when she died in the
 hospital. No such readiness was shown in the quarter 
between Foundry Street and Laystall Lane, where the
 uncontaminated voice of Mexley remarked, ‘Doctor never
 give me blue physic’ or ‘Hayen’t you any of t’old stuff
 left?’ or’ Never set eyes on nowt like this.’

Miss Rawson, arthritic and bedridden, whom he found 
standing on a stepladder in a long flannel nightdress,
 engaged in putting a bit of shine on the gas bracket, consulted him about her football pools and, finding that he 
didn’t know much about them, gave him a long lecture on 
how to do permutations. When he got away he almost
 flinched under the westering light, which had broken 
through the day’s long dullness. Every detail of Tanhouse
Yard was as brilliantly affirmed as if Vermeer had painted
 it. There was no answer when he knocked on the door of 
No. 11, so he pushed it open, to be confronted by a dress-
maker’s dummy, alarmingly actual in a flimsy white satin 
wedding dress. If it had not been for Linda’s directions, he
 might have taken it for the ghost of Anne Boleyn or some
 such headless heroine. But, of course, that onslaught of 
raw light had left him dazzled.

He went upstairs and into the front bedroom, and into
 another attack of light and of pictorial quality. The high
 double bed faced the window. Exactly centred in the bed 
was an elderly woman, sitting up against a heap of pillows.
 She must have been a fine robust creature in her time, and
 she still displayed tokens of an obstinate vitality; for her 
hair was the hair of a young woman, smooth nut-brown
 hair, very thick, and plaited into two great ropes that hung 
down over her subsided breasts. But what overwhelmed 
him was the way she queened it over the bed. Never – so 
it seemed to him – had he seen a bed so mastered, so pos
sessed, by its occupant and though she had those subject 
pillows heaped behind her, her spinal column needed no 
such support. Straight and sufficient, it could have carried 
the weight of a pediment poised on that large shapely head 
with its ropes of plaited hair.

‘Mrs. Ackroyd?’

‘Aye.’

Her voice conveyed nothing beyond local breeding and
 the fact that this was no Miss Rawson to delay him in con
versation. He asked his questions and examined her. To 
judge by her disease, she might be dead in a couple of 
months; to judge by her physique, she might live another 
two years. Her answers were brief, plain, and dismissing as
 though she knew all this for formality and waste of time.
 Her instinct tells her not to talk, he thought. A big black-
and-white cat lay beside her, as unforthcoming as she. 
’Company for you,’ he said, constrained by her lack of con
versation to say something, however flat.

‘That’s right.’ Her eyes were so sunk into the stained caverns of their 
sockets that he could not tell their colour, or the direction 
of their glance. She did not turn her head, but as he opened 
his case and stood debating whether his alternative to the
 medicine Dr. Walker had been giving her would be any
more to the purpose he felt she was watching him ‘Have
 you anyone to go to the chemist – Enright, in Church
 Street”?

‘
’My niece.’

‘I’ll leave a prescription there. It might ease your cramp. She could call for it later this evening. Dr. Adam Hutton 
is the name.’
 –

‘Aye.. ‘And then, with a slow, broad grin, as if mocking 
her own taciturnity she added, ‘That’s right.’

But was it taciturnity? It might be some sort of oncom
ing coma. 
’I think I’ll take your pulse again. ‘

As he took hold of her wrist, the cat began to purr.

The pulse rate was unchanged, the pulse itself a fraction 
steadier.

‘Well, you’ve got a very creditable pulse.’

The purr grew louder. He looked down at her. It
 ceased.

‘Was that you?’

‘I wondered when you’d notice it. It’s quite tiring to do.
 Aren’t you going to tell me I’ve got a creditable purr?,

Her composed expression hardened. The purr began 
again, easy and lulling.

‘Stop it! Please stop it! You might strain your heart’

At this, the cat sat up and examined him. Under their 
joint scrutiny, he somehow got out of the room.  As he 
heard his hobbledehoy feet on the stairs, he realized that his 
departure had been exactly that – awkward, bashful, and 
incompetent, like the boy at Goatbridge; and when he 
reached his car, he only half believed that it was his, or that 
he would be able to back it out and swing into the stream
 of traffic.

No wonder that such women with their cats were 
burned for witchcraft!

A doctor has his professional magic, too, and by the end of 
the day Adam had contrived to forget about Mrs. Ackroyd. But that night, as he got into bed, he remembered how she 
had lain, majestic and central, and he felt a childish obligation to settle himself with equal dignity exactly in the
 middle of the bed. Almost instantly, he was asleep.

 All that night, he dreamed of Goatbridge, only waking
 for long enough to be aware of this before plunging back 
into a further depth of dream. It was the genuine Goatbridge. He walked through the familiar streets – Crane’s
 Lane, burrowing between the tall mills and crowed over by 
the stamping thud of machinery, and Union Street, with
 its abrupt falling perspective of mean little shops and sham-
lavish barrows along the pavement edge, Technical Street 
and Jubilee Street, and Old Snout,  and once, looking
 down from Old Snout, he caught sight of the canopy of 
smoky green and pink above the fairground and heard the
 steam-organ music, hot and strong, like a cough linctus.
 But the intensity of that bygone woe turned him aside and 
he went down Crab Street. There the trolley buses clanged 
by, the greasy brilliance of engraved and gilded glass
 ennobled the windows of The Dog Tavern, Dotty Jenny 
hurried along, whispering to herself, ‘No bread at the
 baker’s,’ and outside the Labour Exchange the men of his 
father’s generation were waiting in a queue to draw their 
unemployment money. But in some way all this was trans
parent, so that wherever he looked he saw the rise and fall
 of the landscape – not just in a crannied view at the end of
 Church Street, or desolately preserved in the bluff of rock
 and sickly turf above the goods yard, but everywhere 
manifest, shouldering itself out of houses, silent amid the 
clatter of machinery, sombre through the neon lights of the
 picture house, rough underfoot though he trod on stone
 pavements. And sometimes it seemed that Goatbridge was
 something cast by a magic lantern on the dark moorland,
and at other times it seemed that the moor was welling up 
through Goatbridge like a gathering mist.

In the morning, he woke knowing that this dream had 
in some queer way enriched him. It was as though he had 
borrowed the Eye of Time, and by viewing Goatbridge in 
its simultaneity of existence and non-existence had arrived 
at a complete clinical observation that would at last resolve 
his conflict of nausea and mysterious craving. So to Mrs.
Walker’s inquiries as to how he had slept he replied that
 he had slept remarkably well.

‘And you’re looking well, too, if I may say so.   Much 
better than when you came.  After all, there’s nothing like
 one’s native air.’

Linda’s spectacles, so clean that they were like something
 in an operating theatre, flushed as she looked up. ‘But,
 Mother, Dr. Hutton comes from the South.’

There was a twang of reproach in her voice. Mrs.
Walker said nothing. Neither did he.

But how on earth had the old schemer snuffed it out?

This was Saturday. On Sunday, Linda appeared in a 
purple tweed tailor-made, but a providentially difficult
 labour spared him from seeing much of it. At Sunday 
supper there was another roast fowl, and Mrs. Walker 
remarked that one wouldn’t think he’d been there only a
 week, he seemed quite one of the family. Linda reported 
that Mrs. Beaumont, encountered on the way home from
 evensong, had no words to express how wonderfully Dr.
Hutton had put his finger on what was wrong with Delia.
 With intimidating frankness, Mrs. Walker asked Linda if
 Dr. Hutton wasn’t just the co-partner that Father needed.
 Turning to Adam, she went on, ‘I know I’d be glad to see
 it. I’ve been saying for these last five years “James, you
 must take a co. or you’ll be dead of overwork before you 
retire.” Now, can’t I tempt you with this nice thigh, 
Doctor?’

During Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, Adam began 
to see his results, and to plume himself on his management 
of patients more intricate than Miss Beaumont. He spent
 his spare time studying their case histories in those files that
 Linda’s neatness made such easy reading. He began to be as 
the God to whom all secrets are known. The Hippocratic 
lust for intervenient power and insighted meddling sprouted 
up in him, all the stronger because he had cut it to the 
ground. By Wednesday midday he was saying to himself
 that as he had changed his course before, he might change
 it again, and go back to general practice, this time not in 
the genteel suburban Home Counties but in some town like
 Mexley, where sickness and death, with a greater variety of 
tricks up their sleeves, would be more interesting foes to
 combat – though not Mexley itself, where Mrs. Walker’s
 intentions threatened a higher price than he cared to pay.
 For that matter, there was also Walker, who might not
 match his daughter in being so very willing.

On Thursday morning, Walker’s daughter, instead of 
knowing when she was done with, hung about the surgery,
 fidgeted her way as far as the door, paused, and turned back.

‘I don’t know how to put it, but I must. I’m afraid
 Mother may have annoyed you on Sunday.’

‘On Sunday?’

‘When she said about this being your native air. She 
didn’t mean it unkindly – quite the contrary. It showed
 how much she thinks of you. But coming from the South, 
you might not take it that way. I’ve been feeling really
 worried about it.’

‘There’s nothing to worry about. As a matter of fact,
 your mother was partly right. I wasn’t born in the  South; 
I just happen to live there. ‘

And now, if she asked the obvious question, what was he 
going to say? But though her lips parted, it was not in 
inquiry. She stared at him with round eyes, her healthy,
 high-coloured, rawboned face remade by its expression of
 compassion and enlightenment as though she had diagnosed
 a secret woe in him.

‘Do you think that’s so dreadful?’ he asked.

‘Well . . . Yes! Yes, I do. I can’t imagine anything 
more wretched than to live away from one’s roots. Of 
course, it’s nice to travel – I went to Switzerland once and 
enjoyed every moment of it. But I wouldn’t have enjoyed 
it – it  wouldn’t have been like Switzerland if I hadn’t known
 I’d got the West Riding to come home to.’  He looked towards the window.  Above the half-curtains
 it showed him the top of the lorry that was screaming past,
 the slate roofs and staring upper windows of the houses 
opposite, the murky sky, the whitening flashes where the
 wind bent the driving rain. Since the feeling her words had
 aroused in  him was too foolish to be said, he would sing it:



’O Bay of Dublin, my heart you’re troubling,

Your beauty haunts me like a fever dream.’

‘Whatever you are, you’re not Irish!’ she exclaimed, and 
went away before he could stop her. Which was as well,
 since he had been so nearly betrayed into kissing the girl.
 He had been so nearly betrayed that when he got his car 
out from the garage he welcomed the grime on the wind-
screen and the spatters of mud on the body as though they
 were so many bracing admonitions to him not to make a 
fool of himself. All that morning, he was on the lookout for 
such admonitions. They did not lack. He was recognized 
by Mrs. Beaumont, who was wearing a transparent pink 
raincoat, and good-heartedly waved a small bunch of 
mimosa at him. He waited for ten minutes in a traffic jam
 while two van drivers who had collided got out of their
 vans and circumstantially established that the other was at 
fault. His roof began to leak and he suspected he was getting 
a cold. But though the mimosa afforded him the pleasure 
of telling himself that Rome would not be like Rome if he 
hadn’t the West Riding to get away from, he knew that he 
was only being toppled toward leaving, as earlier he had 
been toppled toward staying. Perhaps this was what happened when one had no roots.

That night, Mr. Joseph Heaton, who had seemed to be 
recovering, died. He was an alcoholic, a surly old bully and
 incontinent. But he was dead. At the end of the match,
 death has suddenly outplayed Adam, sneaked a pawn into 
the back row and made a castle of it. Adam’s reaction was
 to feel that he now had no alternative. He would stay, he
 would root – not for any sentimental reasons but because 
he wasn’t going to be beat. If need were, he would marry  
Linda. So he thought, eating sardine sandwiches  and feel
ing delightfully cool-headed.
 In the morning he felt cool-headed merely. But during
 breakfast it seemed to him that he must have shouted these 
intentions aloud and been overheard. Linda ate like one
 suspended in a trance, and when he handed her the marmalade she took it as if he were worshipping her with his body 
and endowing her with all his worldly goods. Mrs. Walker
 said no more about Linda’s excellences. Apparently, she 
felt there was no further need to. In a voice that might have 
been breathing o’er Eden she remarked that Dr. Walker
 would be home tomorrow evening, and that it would soon
 be spring. In fact, she was wondering what best to do about
 the bedrooms. If he stayed on over Saturday night – and he had given no indication to the contrary – the best bedroom
 would have to be turned out on Sunday, a thing she didn’t
 like.

The gale had blown itself out, the rain was a drizzle, it
 was a discouraging morning for a man who had made up his 
mind overnight. Adam knew that his mind was made up,
but he knew immediately that he had got a cold in his
 head. He would let sleeping decisions lie till the morrow, 
when he would talk seriously to Walker about that partner
ship. Meanwhile, the patients he saw on his rounds all
 informed him that they wouldn’t be seeing him again, or
 that tomorrow they would be saying goodbye to him. It
 was irrational to resent being signed off like this; nevertheless, he resented it, and stayed longer and inquired more 
elaborately than he otherwise might have done. He had a
long list, and in order to finish it he had to go out again 
after the evening surgery hours. By the time he came to
 Tanhouse Yard, it was so late that many windows were 
already lit up. The front-bedroom window of No. 11 was 
one of them. Well, Mrs. Ackroyd would not waste her 
penurious syllables on telling him she would not be seeing 
him again. If said at all, it would be said by him, and she
 would respond with an ‘Aye,’or a ‘That’s right.’

To-day the niece was there. She opened the stairway 
door, and sat down again to her sewing machine.

The bedroom seemed smaller, the bed larger, the sick
 woman more sickly and less splendid, though she lay in the
 same grand attitude and held her head as erect as before.
The burst of sunlight had romanticized her. The bleak gas-
light stripped all that away. The cat wasn’t there, either.
 Something else was. On the dressing table, dominating it,
as she had dominated the bed, was a large photograph, a 
’professional’ photograph, glossy and glaring, of the head 
and torso of a naked woman. Her hair was heaped up on 
her head in a sort of casque. Her breasts were casqued in 
nets of sequins and imitation jewels. Slantingly across the 
bottom corner was printed in italic capitals Betty d’ Orsay,
 1928.

He looked from the photograph to the woman.

‘You?’

‘Ay. That’s me.’

‘You?’ he said again.

‘Aye. She’s me, and I’m her. It was done a couple of 
years before the show came to Goatbridge. But I’m still 
her.  “All Our French Artists’ Models Are Alive.” ‘

‘Must you always laugh at me?’ He exclaimed, and fell
 on his knees beside the bed, and buried his face.

‘Poor Adam! You took love hard, didn’t you! I never
 saw a boy take it harder!’

He heard her cough as her breath gave out. After a 
pause she went on, ‘And you telling me you were Dr. 
Adam Hutton! I knew you the moment you came in. I’m 
glad you’ve got on in the world.’

He rose from his knees, sat down on the bed, and took
 hold of her two plaits as though they were ropes to save a
 drowning man.

‘Goatbridge Fair, eh?’ She said. ‘Half a dozen of us, lit 
up in hutches behind glass. And you came along with the 
rest for a sixpenny stare. Reckon you’d never seen a naked 
woman before.’

‘I have never seen a woman since.’

‘And picked on me. Poor Adam, it was the hard nut you 
picked. You might have got any of the others. And the 
letters you wrote, and the way you pestered me! You 
thought I was French!’ she exclaimed, and began to laugh.

‘You tried to talk French to me: “Je vous aime.” ‘

‘Why wouldn’t you have me?’

‘I was too young love. If I’d been five-and-forty instead of 
five-and-thirty, I’d have gobbled you up, back, belly 
and whiskers.’

‘What happened to you afterwards? How did you get 
here? No! Don’t talk! It’s bad for you.’

‘Well, whatever else, I didn’t forget you.’

‘And you got out that photograph.’

‘Aye. I don’t rightly know what for. But it wasn’t for 
a tease.’

‘My love, my love, I don’t think that! May I undo this 
plait? I want to feel your hair.’

He had already begun unplaiting it. Released, her hair
 sprang into his hand as if to be fondled.

‘Shall I purr?’ She said after a while.

‘Don’t do anything my darling. Lie back, and let me
 play with it.’

She lay back against her pillows, her hand following his 
through the mesh of her hair, her eyes dwelling on the 
photograph.

‘Poor Adam!’ she murmured, speaking not to him but 
to the woman of 1928.

‘Poor Adam!” That’s what you said then, when you 
wouldn’t have me. But now you say it better. Or I believe 
it more.’

‘Poor Adam! Poor Bet, too! But it had to be, like. Still 
and all, I’m glad I got out that picture.’

‘Will you give it to me?’

‘I was thinking I’d have it sent you after I was dead.’

‘I’d rather have it now.’

‘Why not? There’s some brown paper in that top left-
hand drawer.’

He wrapped up the photograph, and opened his case. It
 was too large to go in. He stared into his case as though into 
another world.

‘Did those pills do your cramp any good?’

‘They eased it a bit.’

‘I’ll leave you some more. I suppose I ought to go over 
you.’

She saw the agonized look on his face, and cried out,
 ‘No, no! That you won’t!

‘
’Always the same cry. What a woman!’

‘Now you must go. Oh, for goodness’ sake, dust your 
knees! Is it to-morrow you’re leaving?’

‘Yes. Unless you ask me to stay. Oh, my love, my love!’

Briefly and calmly she considered it.

‘You must go, lad. Best for both, this time.’

When he looked back from the stairhead, she was 
dreamily replaiting her hair.

He sat for a long time in his car, shuddering and twisting
 his hands, shaken not by this classical grief of the present but by the untamed remembrance of his former woe. A 
prostitute was walking up and down, and presently she 
came and tapped on the glass. He shook his head, and
 started the car. He was at a loss where to go or how to get
 through the next few hours, till a sneeze reminded him that 
he had a cold, and could make it a pretext for going straight 
to bed.

On Saturday, Dr. Walker, getting his full pound of 
flesh, arrived late in the afternoon, as Adam had done a
 fortnight earlier.

‘Hullo, hullo! Well, here I am, safe back in time for tea,
 And how are you all? Hullo, Hutton, everything gone all right?’ Without waiting for an answer, he turned to his
 wife. ‘Ada! I’ve got a piece of news for you. Splendid
 news. But I must have a cup of tea before anything else.
 I haven’t tasted a decent cup of tea since I left home.
 Cat-lap!’

He poured the tea down his wiry gullet, handed back the 
cup to be refilled, rubbed his knees, and announced, ‘Ada,
 I’ve got a partner. I met him at the hotel, he was lunching 
there. He’d come to Llangibby for his aunt’s funeral – from Scotland, the deuce of a way to come for an aunt! – and was travelling back that same night. Well, we got to 
talking I took to him, he took to me. So far, he’s a trainee-
assistant with a view – some place near Peebles, with a
 sulphur spa – but there wasn’t enough future for him. I 
soon found out that what he wanted was to come south and
 see the world. Come to Mexley, I said. We’ve got a bit of 
everything, even anthrax. Of course, he’s never had an 
anthrax, and his eyes positively sparkled. Nice-looking
 fellow, too, and quite young. His name’s Maclaren, and
 he’s coming to have a look round next week. So there you
 are, and I hope you’re pleased, Ada. ‘

Mrs. Walker said it was the very news she’d been hoping 
for, and that she rather believed Mrs. Beaumont had had a 
grandmother who went to a spa in Scotland – though she 
couldn’t say what was wrong with her. 
’

Nothing at all, if she was like the rest of that family.
 And Linda, my girl, cut me a slice of cake, and get ready 
to find a nice little house for him. Not too far out. Or a
 maisonette. Lodgings won’t do, because of the children. 
Didn’t I say he was a married man?  Well, he is. And an 
anaesthetist. Just the very thing we want. Well, now,
 Hutton let’s get down to it. Any deaths?’

‘Joseph Heaton.’

Linda was toasting herself a crumpet at the fire. Her 
hand was steady, her face composed. Only when the
 crumpet fell off the toasting fork and she was so slow to
 retrieve it could one have guessed that her thoughts were
 sad and elsewhere. Poor Linda, Adam thought, one blow
 on top of another, rat-tat ! It was as though he had glanced 
out of his own tragedy and seen the sawdust trickling from
 a doll.

An hour later, he was driving south over the same route 
he had come by.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Locum Tenens” comes from the inimitable pen of one of the best and most underrated writers of modern times, Sylvia Townsend Warner. The brilliance of her writing is the result of a finely honed craft and constellation of writerly skills not often found in a single individual. Her acute eye and ear catch the defining moment when a glance picks out the particular image that frames the whole picture, and the defining note that imparts its tone to ordinary speech in a way that imprints its sound in the mind of a reader. Even the names of  her grim and seedy Northern towns,  Mexley, Goatbridge, Hudderbeck, Wendon, Gullaby, come smeared with an atmosphere of post-industrial grime of poverty and decrepitude worthy of Dickens, and the street names – Foundry Street, Wharf Street, Hoggle Yard, Slaughter Yard and Tanhouse Yard echo down the almost medieval antecedents of these places with the finality of  shoveled-in clods thudding dully on a coffin freshly lowered into the grave.

The Spirit Rises is the somewhat sardonic title of Warner’s collection of short-stories, which includes the brief  ‘homecoming’ turned ironic misadventure of the middle-aged and tightly buttoned-up Dr. Adam Hutton. This is no sentimental journey, but the Doctor’s irresistible compulsion to return to his raw and stifling origins. Cold fish though he is, deep in his heart is concealed a youthful passion which has somehow displaced all tender emotions and excluded all human attachments, in the irrational way that some dogs or cats   attach themselves to a single human, and ignore all others. He has achieved his professional ambitions, he is well-off  and financially secure, but it is clear that he has been unable to escape his past – a past which claims him even as it repels him, and draws him back to the origins to which he swore he would not return.

The tragic absurdity of ‘love gone wrong,’ and ‘lives gone wrong’ despite outward appearances to the contrary, is a subject well suited to Warner’s gifts. There are very few writers who are able to mix tragedy and pathos with a starkly unsentimental and ironical sense of reality and still plunge a reader into the murky depths of acute vicarious pain. The pain is made more bitter because both Hutton and Linda came so close to achieving a mutual salvation. Hutton’s dreams, his bursting inappropriately into song, his almost succumbing to the lure of matrimony, no matter how pragmatically, might have offered a redemption. Both he and Linda would have been able to root themselves securely in their native soil, and forge a human connection with each other.

Warner’s vivid  portrait of the appalling plight of Linda Walker, hopelessly trapped as she is in her bourgeois role like a fly in ointment, (always a Doctor’s daughter and never to be a Doctor’s wife) is so vividly dealt with that it chills the blood.  So assiduously sensitive and attuned to the needs and requirements of others, Linda’s virtue will be forever unrewarded. We sense that  she will live with her elderly parents for the rest of her wasted life. It counts for nothing that she has sedulously and conscientiously trained herself to be the perfect doctor’s wife and  assistant, because, after the evaporation of her one and only matrimonial prospect, there is no slot in the ghastliness of industrial West Riding into which she could possibly fit. All indications are that she will wither away in the parental home, her position as a fixture and an adjunct to her father’s practice, whittled away to nothing  and permanently displaced, by the arrival of the young sprightly (and married) young doctor her insensitive father has chosen as the partner in his practice.  But still we might suppose that Linda’s stubborn attachment – if not love – for her place of birth will persist, because we know she could not even have enjoyed the pristine beauty of Switzerland, had she not had the West Riding to return to. It is this bleak place, with its noisome atmosphere and squalid neighbourhoods, that holds her fast, and gives her at least a measure of ‘purpose’ to counter the otherwise emptiness of her life.

But Hutton will drive off into the night and pick up the thread of  his uneventful life, sliding slowly and dismally into isolation and a dried-up old age, because he has by his very ambition, severed his own roots. His  drive to escape his awful beginnings will no doubt carry him to a far more dismal end than he might have envisioned for himself. When he dies (I imagine intestate, for there seems to be no one to whom he could leave his estate)  one can imagine that the bailiffs will open a drawer in his bureau , and find there, still wrapped in its original shroud of brown paper) the rather vulgar picture of a  beautiful, naked young woman decked-out in in her passing finery of paste and sequins. They might crack a coarse joke or two about the deceased, and speculate about the secret past he concealed under his show of respectability, or even a hidden propensity to vice of a fairly harmless sort, but how could they know that the relic that had occasioned their awkward laughter was all that remained of the one and only love of a man’s life?

Love also bypassed Betty d’Orsay (how she could ever have honestly come by such a name?), stoically dying of something which seems to resemble congestive heart-failure, but Warner sets her off as a foil for the other characters.  She lived the life she chose, single and independent and serenely ignoring the strictures of convention, which must have placed her beyond the social pale of even such peers as she might have had, had she taken to trouble to tolerate them.  Her rejection of the youthful Hutton’s suit remains unshaken, even as death steals her breath and leans over her shoulder. She alone remains unbroken by life, her spirit as erect as her spine, her gift of arid humour and irony and her vast and substantial dignity show her to have maintained herself heroically free from and uncorrupted by weakness in a way that seems almost superhuman.

All the characters in this story appear in some manner to mere ‘place holders’ for something that has substituted itself for life. Their dreams are blighted, and their  losses, acute. Life is passing them by even as they feebly flutter their wings as bugs do who are chloroformed before being pinned to the wax-board.

But Betty is different.  She alone has lived, and continues to live – and it is her spirit alone that even in finality,  seems capable of rising.

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Katharine Lee Bates (August 12 1859 – March 28 1929)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“There’s something in his soul
O’er which his melancholy sits on brood.”

–Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

It was a beautiful morning, whose beauty could only hurt, of the first June since Joy-of-Life went away. All green paths were desolate for lack of her glad step. And the stately kennel that had been known from the first as “Sigurd’s House” stood silent, its green door closed on bare floor and cobwebbed walls. Stray cats passed it unconcerned and hoptoads took their ease on the edges of “Sigurd’s Drinking-cup” hollowed out in the adjacent rock. In an hour when the pain of living seemed wellnigh unbearable, the Angel of Healing called me up by telephone. His voice was gruff, but kindly.

“Say, you miss that old dog of yours a sight, don’t you?”

I could feel the confidential pressure of Sigurd’s golden head against my knee as I briefly assented, recognizing the speaker as the proprietor of certain collie kennels not far distant.

“He had a right good home, that dog had, and you must have got pretty well used to collie ways.”

“If you were going to ask me to buy another collie, please don’t. Sigurd is my dog–forever.”

“Well! Since you put it that way–but I’m at my wit’s end to get rid of a collie pup–a pretty little fellow, rough Scotch, sable and white, like yours–that’s scairt at his own shadow.”

“What scared him?”

“Blest if I know! His sire, Commander, and his dam, Whisper, are as nice, normal, easy-tempered dogs as you could find anywhere, and their litters take after ’em–‘cept this youngster, who sulks all day long off in some dark hole by himself and shakes if we speak to him. Nobody has mishandled the little chap so far’s I’ve ever seen or heard, but the least thing–a shout or a rattle of tools or any fool noise–throws him into such a funk that all the rest of the puppies are getting panicky and the whole caboodle is running wild. There’s no two ways about it. I’ve got to clear that born ninny out. I sold him a month ago to a lady for fifty dollars, but she brought him back in a week and said he was about as cheerful company as a tombstone. Now see here! You can have him for twenty, or for nothing, just as you feel after you’ve given him a try.”

“But I don’t want him. I shouldn’t want him if he were the best dog in the country.”

“Then I reckon I’ll have to shoot him. I could give him away, but he’s such a wretched, shivery little rascal that most any sort of folks would be too rough for him. ‘Twould be kinder to put him out of the world and done with it. He’s had seven months of it now and pretty well made up his mind that he don’t like it. I did think maybe you might be willing to give him a chance.”

I was surprised to hear my own voice saying into the telephone: “I’ll try him for a few days, if you care to bring him over.”

Yet I dreaded his coming. The friend who gave us Sigurd had offered us the past winter a very prince of puppies, the daintiest, most spirited, most winsome little collie that a free affection could ask, but Joy-of-Life and I could not make him ours. We could regard him only as a visitor in Sigurd’s haunts, and the Lady of Cedar Hill, resenting the name of Guest which we had given him, re-named him Eric and took him to her own home. Here she soon won the utter devotion of his dog-heart, which, though now no longer beating, through that ardent and faithful love “tastes of immortality.”

I was in the veranda off the study, trying to busy myself with my old toys of books and pen and paper, when the young collie was led in by a small girl, the only person at the kennels whose call he obeyed or whose companionship he welcomed. Deposited beside my chair, he promptly retreated to the utmost distance the narrow limits of his prison-house allowed, panting and quaking.

“Be good, Blazey,” the child admonished him, stroking his head with a sunburned hand from whose light caress he at once shuddered away. “I’ll come to see you by and by.”

“By and by is easily said,” the puppy made answer with incredulous eyes that first watched her out of sight and then rolled in anguish of despair from the wire screening of the porch to roof and wall.

“Is your name Blazey?” I asked him gently, but his fit of ague only grew worse as he turned his ghastly stare on me
“with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors.”
“I made further efforts at conversation while the day wore on, but that little yellow image of throbbing terror, upright in the remotest corner, would not even turn its head toward my voice. In vain I remonstrated:
“Alas, how is’t with you,
That you do bend your eye on vacancy
And with the incorporal air do hold discourse?
Forth at your eyes your spirits wildly peep.”
The constant tremble of the poor, scared, pitiful puppy was intensified by every train whistle and motor horn to a violent shaking. I could not flutter a leaf nor drop a pencil without causing a nervous twitch of the brown ears. Suddenly the crack of an early Fourth of July torpedo electrified him into a frenzy of fright. If it had been the fatal shot in reserve for Blazey he could not have made a madder leap nor wheeled about in more distracted circles. In one of these lunatic reels he struck against me and, gathering him close, I crooned such comfort as I had into that dizzy, quivering, pathetic face; but he tore himself loose and fled gasping back to his corner beseeching a perilous and cruel universe to let him alone. I, for one, declined:
“Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!–
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee; I’ll call thee Hamlet.”
The puppy accepted his new name, as he accepted his dinner, with lugubrious resignation and the air of saying to himself:
“Heaven hath pleas’d it so,
To punish me with this, and this with me.”
His misery was more appealing than a thousand funny gambols could have been, and the household, those of us who were left, conspired in various friendly devices to make him feel at home. The child at the kennels had taught him one sole accomplishment, that of giving his paw, and Sister Jane, in a fine spirit of sacrifice, made a point of shaking hands with him long and politely at least a dozen times a day, rushing to a faucet as soon as this hospitable rite was accomplished for a fierce scouring of her own polluted palms. Housewife Honeyvoice tempted his appetite with the most savory of puppy menus and kept up such a flow of tuneful comment while he ate that, even in his days of deepest gloom, he rarely failed to polish his dish and then thump it all about in an unscientific effort to extract gravy from tinware. Esther’s arms were now as strong as her feet were lively and, after the first week or so, he would let her pick him up like a baby and carry him about and would even be surprised, at times, into a game of romps. He needed play as much as he needed food, but he was curiously awkward at it, not merely with the usual charming clumsiness of puppies but with a blundering uncertainty in all his movements, miscalculating his jumps, lighting in a sprawling heap and often hurting himself by a lop-sided tumble.

Yet apart from these brief lapses he maintained his pose of hopeless melancholy, varied by frantic perturbations, until his new name fitted him like his new collar.
“How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!”
He was not, to be sure,

“The glass of fashion and the mold of form,”

for his nose, from the bench point of view, was nearly half an inch too long. But his “dejected haviour” and deep-rooted suspicion of his surroundings were Hamlet’s own. He felt himself “be-netted round with villanies” and apprehensively watched the simple ways of our family in profound despondency and distrust. The fears that haunted him kept him so hushed that we grew to believe he was actually dumb,–a defect in physical endowment that might account for many abnormalities. Now and then the rigid little figure beside me on the veranda–for gradually, day by day, he edged an inch or two nearer–would give a stir of weariness or even drop, exhausted, for a nap, but in the main
“as patient as the female dove
When that her golden couplets are disclos’d,
His silence” would “sit drooping.”
Through all the hot summer days I had to see him,
“A dull and muddy mettled rascal, peak
Like John-a-dreams,”
but as soon as we reached the cool cover of dusk, I would lift the now crouching, anxious puppy to his four feet and snap on his new leash.

His troubled eyes would well over with expostulatory questions:

“Say, why is this? wherefore? what should we do?”

“We’re going to walk, Little Stick-in-the-Mud. Come on!”

And thus Hamlet, “with much forcing of his disposition,” would undergo the daily constitutional, which he converted into a genuine gymnastic exercise for us both by pulling back on the leash with all his considerable strength, protesting:
“It is not, nor it cannot come to good;
But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue.”
In this ignoble fashion I would drag him along for a mile or so of the least frequented road, until he would suddenly fix his slender legs and refuse to be budged:
“Where wilt thou lead me? speak;
I’ll go no further.”
“Very well! If you insist on turning back here, you know what will happen. It will be your turn to drag me.”

To this he had always the same rejoinder:
“‘Tis true ’tis pity,
And pity ’tis ’tis true.”
So Hamlet, all his soul set on getting back to the comparative security of that veranda, would fall to tugging like an infant Hercules, scrabbling me along, regardless of sidewalks, by the nearest route to safety, till I felt myself, on reaching home, more than ever a “quintessence of dust.”

When I tried him off the leash, he would, even into the autumn, run back to the kennels, though he would let no one there touch him but the gypsy-tanned child. Later, he would slip back to the Scarab, usually after dark, but be afraid to come near or ask admittance, sweeping around the house in wide, wistful circles. It took our softest coaxings to bring that palpitating puppy across the threshold and, once in, we all had to shake paws with him many times before he would believe himself welcome and sink down at my feet to sleep away his tiredness and terror. It was midsummer before I dared loose him on the campus for a free scamper, from which, hesitant, with many tremors and recoils, he came back to me in answer to my call. I thought then that the battle was won, but the next time I ventured it, and the next, he ran away. Yet before the leaves fell we had made such progress that when I fastened on his leash and invited him to go to walk,
“there did seem in him a kind of joy
To hear of it.”
For weeks the rooms of the house were to this kennel-bred puppy no better than torture-chambers, being full of strange, sinister objects, for to Hamlet, even yet, the unknown is a menace and a dread. Brought into study or dining-room, he would “wax desperate with imagination,” throwing wild looks at ceiling and walls and then spinning about and about like an agonized top. “Upon the heat and flame” of those excitements it was hard to persuade him to “sprinkle cool patience,” but in process of time he became accustomed to rugs and furniture and even, after repeated assurances, grew to understand that Sigurd’s chair was at his service.

By mid-winter he had come to realize, with a touching relief and responsive fervor of affection, that the members of the family were his friends, but he was still thrown into a panic by the door-bell and the murderous monsters whose entrance he believed it to announce. Every arrival he regarded as an agent of Hamlet’s doom and fled precipitately to chosen places of concealment on the upper floors. Yet curiosity was strong in the little fellow, too. As I sat chatting with a caller, I would presently be aware of an excessively unobtrusive collie stealing down the stairs. Quivering all over, in awe of his own daring, he would place himself erect on the threshold with his face to the hall and very slowly, inch by inch, would “like a crab” back into the room, edging along on his haunches, steering his blind course for the further side of my chair. Still keeping his back to the stranger, he would reach up a pleading paw for me to clasp and then, regarding himself as both invisible and protected, listen keenly to learn if the conversation were by any chance about Hamlet.

He was as timorous out of doors as in, having little to do with other dogs, save with a benignant collie neighbor, old Betty, and yielding up his choicest bones without remonstrance to any impudent marauder. If I reproached him for his pacifist bearing, he would touch my hand with an apologetic tongue and look up with shamefaced eyes that admitted:
“it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver’d, and lack gall
To make oppression bitter.”
It was his habit to take legs, rather than arms, “against a sea of troubles,” and when enemies loomed on the horizon he would precipitately make for home. He was by this time dog enough to be overjoyed if one of us summoned him for a walk.

“What noise? who calls on Hamlet?”

And all his belated frolic of puppyhood came out in impatient collie capers while, with our intolerable human tardiness, wraps were donned and doors thrown open. And then the leaps of ecstasy!

“Go on; I’ll follow thee.”

But he hated, and still hates, to be out in the great, dangerous world of noises, people, motors, alone by daylight. “Nay, come, let’s go together,” is his constant plea. But if no one of the household is at liberty to companion him, he prefers to wait for his exercise till “the very witching time of night,” when he plunges into the mystery of the woods or runs by moonlight along deserted roads. During his first winter, on returning from one of his nocturnal rambles, he would stand, snow-coated, without a whine or scratch, shivering at the outside door, silent even under the beating of an icy storm, until some anxious watcher caught sight of him and let him in. He had been with us over a year before he found his voice. Then, one noon, a brisk step coming up to the south porch along our private path took Hamlet by surprise. His quick, shrill protest astonished him as much as it did us and he promptly rushed to refuge under the table. But having shattered our psychopathic theories and confessed that he was no mute, he took to barking with immoderate enthusiasm that has already more than made up for lost time. Yet as with his movements, so his barking is odd,–discordant, off the pitch, “jangled out of tune.”

These tremendous bouts of barking, combined with his excitable and suspicious temperament, have given our timid collie a preposterous reputation for ferocity. Callers wise in dogs observe that even as he roars he runs away, wagging his tail, and come boldly on to the north door, while Hamlet announces and denounces them at the south:
“O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!”
“A guilty thing.”
“A puff’d and reckless libertine.”
“A pestilence on him for a mad rogue!”
“What, ho! help, help, help!”
But when he has torn his “passion to tatters, to very rags,” he slips in shyly to greet the accepted caller, usually seating himself, according to his own peculiar code of etiquette, with his back to the guest, but sometimes, especially if it is a college girl “in the morn and liquid dew of youth,” he will, instead of taking his accustomed place by me, lie down at Ophelia’s feet, explaining:

“Here’s metal more attractive.”

Hamlet is a delicate subject for discipline as any sign of displeasure on the part of the few he trusts will fling him back to his puppy state of quivering misery. But for his inhospitable clamors he is occasionally shut up in the telephone closet, a custom which he considers

“More honour’d in the breach than the observance.”

Released, he bounds toward us beseeching caresses and every assurance that we have forgiven him and love him still. But he is just as ready to bark at the next arrival, though the dread word CLOSET will sometimes arrest a roar in mid-career. His sense of duty, as the guardian of the house, is inextricably intertwisted with his desire to be good.

Hamlet has, indeed, an uncharacteristic conviction of the preciousness of property. He did not learn it from me. I resent the metal that outlasts flesh and bone and am careless about locking doors since against grief and death no bolts avail; but Hamlet, had destiny put him in his proper place, would have ridden through life on top of an express wagon, zealously guarding its packages from every thievish touch. As it is, he keeps an embarrassing watch and ward on my desk and bookcases. Often a seminar student, reaching for a volume that promises to throw light on the discussion, is amazed by the leap of what had seemed to be a slumbering collie, now all alert and vigilant, gently nipping her sleeve to hold that arm of robbery back. Or in the midst of committee toils, a guileless colleague may move toward my desk to make a note. From the hall Hamlet dashes in with gleaming eyes and, as she turns in astonishment, squeezes his yellow bulk between her and that mysterious altar of my midnight devotion and firmly shoves her back. These policeman ways of his are not universally endearing and, in return, he has no faith whatever in the honesty of my associates, “arrant knaves all.” He has never put aside his dark suspicions of one who is not only generosity itself, but a socialist to boot, because on his first Christmas Eve in the Scarab she had been so kind as to act as her own Santa Claus and take away her labeled packet from the pile of tissue-papered and gay-ribboned gifts in a corner of the study. Although I had noticed that the puppy made a point of lying down before that heap, I did not realize that he, terrified and bashful as he then was, had constituted himself its custodian, till this action of hers left his soul “full of discord and dismay.” Even yet he heralds her approach with consternation:
“O shame! where is thy blush?”
“A most pernicious woman!”
“Marry, this is miching mallecho; it means mischief.”
So our dog has few friends outside his home. It is difficult to maintain with the children on the hill the pleasant fiction that their Christmas playthings come from Hamlet when it so obviously “harrows” him “with fear and wonder” to see the little recipients allowed to bear these objects away. Laddie’s mistress, ever gracious, pets and praises him, and hers is the only home in the village at which, sure of a happy welcome and delectable bits of bread and butter, he consents to call, but Jack’s mistress, catholic as her sympathies are, remembers an unlucky encounter from which her famous comrade retired, blinking queerly, the loser of a tooth. It is, of course, her theory that Hamlet feloniously reached into Jack’s mouth to snap out that treasure, while to me it seems crystal clear that Jack uprooted the venerable fang himself in an unholy effort to bite Hamlet; but now the collie is shut up whenever the terrier comes, though they manage to exchange through the windows a vituperative language not taught in our curriculum.

Hoping to extend this too limited circle of Hamlet’s friendships, we have accepted as a summer guest a cynical old parrot, who has already, in a lifetime cruelly long for a captive, known a variety of vanishing households. The tones that Poor Pol echoes, the names that he calls, insistently and vainly, in his lonesome hours, the scraps of family talk dating perhaps from five, ten, twenty years ago that his strange voice, a mockery of the human, still repeats, make him, even to us, an awesome personage, a Wandering Jew of the caged-pet generations. What does he miss, what does he remember, as he sits sweetly crooning to himself “Peek-a-boo, Pol,” and then rasps crossly out, “Wal! what is it?” and then falls to a direful groaning “Oh!” and “Ah!” over and over, more and more feebly, as if in mimicry of a death-bed, and suddenly spreads his wings, hurrahs like a boy on the Glorious Fourth and storms our ears with a whole barn-yard of cackles and cocka-doodledoos?

For the first few minutes after the arrival of Polonius, Hamlet regarded the great cage, set on top of a tall revolving bookcase, and its motionless perching inmate, whose plumage of sheeny green was diversified by under-glints of red and the pride of a golden nape, as new ornaments committed to his guardianship. Erect on his haunches, he gazed up at them with an air of earnest responsibility, but when Polonius, cocking his head and peering down on the collie with one round orange eye, crisply remarked:

“Hello! What’s that? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!” Hamlet went wild with amazement. After making from every side vain leaps and scrambles toward the unperturbed parrot, he tore from one of us to another, with whines and imploring gaze striving to learn what this apparition might mean
“So horridly to shake” his “disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches” of his soul.
A week has passed and I begin to fear that Hamlet’s antipathy to Polonius, “a foolish prating knave,” a “wretched, rash, intruding fool,” is too deeply rooted in drama for life to eradicate. The fault does not lie with the parrot. Though with him, as a rule, “brevity is the soul of wit,” he accosts Hamlet quite as cordially as any other member of the family, with “Hello” when the dog trots into the room and “Good-by” when he trots out. He is, indeed, so far in sympathy with Hamlet that, well-nigh to our despair, he seconds the collie’s uncivil clamor when the doorbell rings by stentorian shouts of “Fire! Fire!! FIRE!!!” We do not admit that, in general, Polonius talks only “words, words, words.” If he does, the coincidences are uncanny, for he warns “Look out” as we lift his heavy cage and pronounces “All right” as we set it safely down. I was adding a column of figures yesterday and, as I named the total, Polonius said in an approving tone: “That’s right; that’s it.” He has a mild curiosity about our doings and occasionally responds to our overtures by offering to an outstretched finger the chilly grip of his clay-colored claws,–invariably, like a well-bred bird, presenting the right foot. If Housewife Honeyvoice undertakes to scratch the parrot’s green head, Hamlet rears up against her and insists that the same ceremony be performed on his yellow one. Polonius, for his part, though too blase for jealousy, has a proper self-respect, and when he overhears us comforting our troubled collie with murmurs of “Good Hamlet! Dear Hamlet!” promptly interjects “Pretty Pol.”

But Hamlet, who is so sensitive to suffering that he will go of his own impulse to any visitor in trouble and press close, lavishing all his shy caresses in the effort to console, need not fear that Polonius will usurp his place in my affection. It is all I have to give him and I shall not fail him there. I cannot give that fearful, only half-quieted heart the security it craves from
“the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to.”
There is no security on this whirring planet where pain is pain, and loss is loss, but where, for our deepest of consolation, though it involves our keenest of grief, love is always love.

“Keep me close,” pleads Hamlet, and I promise: “While I can.

 

 

 

 

 

Katharine Lee Bates was an ardent feminist and the author of the song “America the Beautiful.”

She attended Wellesley college and later returned to join the faculty. While on staff she met Katharine Coman and began a relationship that lasted for 25 years.
Bates and Coman’s relationship might be best described as a romantic friendship. It is not clear whether their relationship was sexual, but it was intensely loving; Bates referred to Coman as her “Joy of Life” and wrote many poems about their love.
Both women had successful careers at Wellesley college–Bates became chair of the English department, while Coman became chair of the Economics Department and Dean of the college. They kept contact with other educated women who lived in couples as they did, but they did not assume roles as lesbian activists.
In 1912, Coman was diagnosed with cancer, and Bates nursed her until Coman died in 1915. In 1922, Bates published a limited volume of poetry entitled, “Yellow Clover,” where she wrote of their relationship.
Bates remained at Wellesley until she retired in 1925. She died four years later, at the age of 70. Only a few years before her death, she wrote to a friend, “So much of me died with Katharine Coman that I’m sometimes not quite sure whether I’m alive or not.
Biography by Alix North

 

 

 

 

 

Two Poems by Katharine Lee Bates

 

If You Could Come

My love, my love, if you could come once more
From your high place,
I would not question you for heavenly lore,
But, silent, take the comfort of your face.

I would not ask you if those golden spheres
In love rejoice,
If only our stained star hath sin and tears,
But fill my famished hearing with your voice.

One touch of you were worth a thousand creeds.
My wound is numb
Through toil-pressed, but all night long it bleeds
In aching dreams, and still you cannot come.

Katherine Coman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yellow Clover

Must I, who walk alone,
Come on it still,
This Puck of plants
The wise would do away with,
The sunshine slants
To play with,
Our wee, gold-dusty flower, the yellow clover,
Which once in parting for a time
That then seemed long,
Ere time for you was over,
We sealed our own?
Do you remember yet,
O Soul beyond the stars,
Beyond the uttermost dim bars
Of space,
Dear Soul who found the earth sweet,
Remember by love’s grace,
In dreamy hushes of heavenly song,
How suddenly we halted in our climb,
Lingering, reluctant, up that farthest hill,
Stooped for the blossoms closest to our feet,
And gave them as a token
Each to each,
In lieu of speech,
In lieu of words too grievous to be spoken,
Those little, gypsy, wondering blossoms wet
With a strange dew of tears?
So it began,
This vagabond, unvalued yellow clover,
To be our tenderest language. All the years
It lent a new zest to the summer hours,
As each of us went scheming to surprise
The other with our homely, laureate flowers,
Sonnets and odes,
Fringing our daily roads.
Can amaranth and asphodel
Bring merrier laughter to your eyes?
Oh, if the Blest, in their serene abodes,
Keep any wistful consciousness of earth,
Not grandeurs, but the childish ways of love,
Simplicities of mirth,
Must follow them above
With touches of vague homesickness that pass
Like shadows of swift birds across the grass.
How oft, beneath some foreign arch of sky,
The rover,
You or I,
For life oft sundered look from look,
And voice from voice, the transient dearth
Schooling my soul to brook
This distance that no messages may span
Would chance
Upon our wilding by a lonely well,
Or drowsy watermill,
Or swaying to the chime of convent bell,
Or where the nightingales of old romance
With tragical contraltos fill
Dim solitudes of infinite desire;
And once I joyed to meet
Our peasant gadabout
A trespasser on trim, seigniorial seat,
Twinkling a sauce eye
As potentates paced by.
Our golden cord! our soft, pursuing flame
From friendship’s altar fire!
How proudly we would pluck and tame
The dimpling clusters, mutinously gay!
How swiftly they were sent
Far, far away
On journeys wide
By sea and continent,
Green miles and blue leagues over,
From each of us to each,
That so our hearts might reach
And touch within the yellow clover,
Love’s letter to be glad about
Like sunshine when it came!
My sorrow asks no healing; it is love;
Let love then make me brave
To bear the keen hurts of
This careless summertide,
Ay, of our own poor flower,
Changed with our fatal hour,
For all its sunshine vanished when you died.
Only white cover blossoms on your grave.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bates was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts. The daughter of a Congregational pastor, she graduated from Wellesley College in 1880 and for many years was a professor of English literature at Wellesley. She lived there with her partner Katharine Coman, who herself was a history and political economy teacher and founder of the Wellesley College Economics department. The same-sex pair lived together for twenty-five years until Coman’s death in 1915.
The first draft of America the Beautiful was hastily jotted in a notebook during the summer of 1893, which Miss Bates spent teaching English at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Later she remembered,
“One day some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pikes Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse.”
The words to her one famous poem first appeared in print in The Congregationalist, a weekly journal, for Independence Day, 1895. The poem reached a wider audience when her revised version was printed in the Boston Evening Transcript, November 19, 1904. Her final expanded version was written in 1913.
The hymn has been sung to other music, but the familiar tune that Ray Charles delivered is by Samuel A. Ward (1847-1903), written for his hymn Materna (1882).
Miss Bates was a prolific author of many volumes of poetry, travel books and children’s books. Her family home on Falmouth’s Main Street is preserved by the Falmouth Historical Society.
Katharine Lee Bates died in Wellesley, Massachusetts, on March 26, 1929.
Wikipedia.

Katharine B. and Katharine C.
While on the faculty at Wellesley College, Bates met Katharine Coman with whom she formed a “romantic friendship.” Coman served on the faculty as the chair of the Economics Department and Dean of the college.
Bates and Coman lived as a couple for 25 years in what is sometimes referred to as a “Boston marriage.” In 1912, Coman was diagnosed with cancer. Bates nursed Coman through three painful years of physical decline. Katherine Coman died in 1915.
“So much of me died with Katharine Coman that I’m sometimes not quite sure whether I’m alive or not.” – K. L. Bates Lambda.net

http://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/poets/bates.php

http://saberpoint.blogspot.com/2008/07/photos-of-katharine-coman-colleague-of.html

http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Katharine_Lee_Bates.aspx

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Marijane Meaker May 27 1927

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I came across Marijane Meaker’s book Carol in a Thousand Cities by accident  in 1972, when I was 19 and living in Ceylon.  I remember that it sucked the air out of my lungs to find out that there was a world far away in the West where exotic beings called lesbians actually existed in numbers — and as a social group. Of course it was not their exoticism that stunned me, but their familiarity to me — and their separate existence as a coherent phenomenon — a  social entity — a possibility  of being alive and living in “real” life — as  with a band of angels and  in a heaven on earth.

It took several more years — more than three decades —  before I was to run into  Meaker again, and found myself launched once more on the fascinating journey  exploring so called lesbian pulps. Marijane Meaker, a.k.a Ann Aldrich a.k.a Vin Packer a.k.a M.E. Kerr (Meaker) was a pioneer of lesbian fiction, and she is still wonderfully alive and kicking, as is the illustrious Ann Bannon.  By then, Meaker’s world no longer represented for me a heaven on earth, but something even greater — an earthy life in which earthly aspirations were possible for lesbians.

I started out by reading Meaker’s ‘Highsmith’ , the fantastic memoir of  her  ’50’s love affair with Patricia Highsmith.  That led inexorably to ‘We Too Must Love,’  ‘Spring Fire’ (published under the name Vin Packer) and a blissful re-read of  ‘Carol in a Thousand Cities’ a line taken verbatim from the last paragraphs of Highsmith’s famous lesbian love story(and the first one said to have a happy ending), ‘The Price of Salt’.

In Highsmith I found for the first time in a long time a book I could not put down. In it Meaker writes with warm sentiment and without sentimentality, about her love affair with Patricia Highsmith. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about Meaker’s prose that so immediately evokes the flavour of the ‘fifties. I see rising up before my eyes the photographs of George Marks and Chaloner Woods, — women in Massey suits and print dresses  and summer coats,  and I hear the romantic, evocative  music of Jeri Southern,  Chris Connor,  Jo Stafford….

Despite the stark repressiveness of that time in U. S History of highly neuroticised social oppression,  (it was the era of  McCarthyism, the cold war, and psychoanalysis and sexism) — and who knows, perhaps exactly because of it — there was a social cohesiveness in the gay and lesbian world now long since disappeared.  For me It only appears now in the fiction of the day. This was the world which provided the necessary back-drop for the kind of chance meetings which are now a part of our lesbian history. It was the era of lesbian bars where women went to meet each other, drink, socialise, catch up with the world, and fall in love. L’s was such a bar, and it was where Meaker and Highsmith met for the first time, and had there not been  such a place, they would probably not have met at all.  But meet they did, in that hidden world of the fascinating denizens of the ‘fifties New York,  lesbians in secret enclaves which survived and thrived despite the tensions and dramas of an era in American history filled with paranoia and social anxiety.

It surprised me to learn that Meaker’s Highsmith was affectionate and publicly demonstrative of her affection — something extremely rare in that hetero-totalitarian time. It would seem that Highsmith’s particular brand of internalised homophobia was a writerly and intellectual construct, and it never flooded the banks of their internal reservoir into the territory of  her love affairs  and relationships. Meaker says Highsmith ” would hold girls’ hands in the street, the supermarket, in restaurants.”

For me the saddest part of this relationship is of course its failure as a friendship when the two met again in the ‘eighties, a failure I think was not at all inevitable, but for Highsmith’s  incomprehensible inner compulsion which made her unable to desist from repeatedly expressing her racist and anti-semitic feelings and views. This in the end caused Meaker to shut down emotionally with her, and it forestalled any possibility of emotional re-connection or a renewal of their former love.

Though it is impossible to make conjectures or claims on behalf of the subconscious — one’s own  or another’s – it might be that Highsmith may have chosen this tactic in order to avoid the pain of an inevitable separation with Meaker. Meaker is quite explicit about her disagreements with Highsmith, but somehow, their breakup is strangely inexplicable. Meaker does not hesitate to make herself the object of her own irony. She was reactive and volatile while Highsmith was reserved and restrained and conciliatory. One has to admire Meaker for her forthrightness  — she is honest and unsparing of herself in revealing what she herself said and did in order to precipitate the end of their affair. The two of them seem to have been each other’s only loves, and the loss of that love had devastating consequences for Highsmith.

One cannot evade the feeling that Highsmith’s virulence in this regard is overdone, and that she expressed these unsavoury views in order to elicit a specific response  — perhaps something as small as a nominal agreement. It may have been a gambit to test the degree to which she was loved and accepted — not just for her goodness and virtues, but despite her faults and flaws — but it was a response that never came from Meaker. Perhaps if Meaker had realised there was no point in trying either to make Highsmith reform or to repudiate her view, there might have been a different ending to the story of their relationship. After all, these were views which were not aired in her writing, and they were for the most part private, and not followed-up by violent actions.  No one was harmed by them. Put them into the mouth of a Nazi, or a member of the K.K.K or an Islamist, and their power to devastate would be incalculable, but coming from the mouth of a mild-mannered old lesbian writer, who is furthermore much given to drinking, they seem more dismissive than dangerous. Highsmith was to become an old crank, but one gets the sense that there was a great mind and a responsive heart beneath the distant and forbidding manner

Highsmith was brought up a Southerner and a Texan, and her unexamined racism may have been felt by her to be a part of her which stood for her Southern identity.  Her racism never extended beyond words,  (she had friendships and affairs with Jewish women, and Arthur Koestler and his wife Cynthia Jefferies were close friends) and her fulminations were never virulent. In fact they were so manifestly pointless that one wishes they could have simply been ignored. Instead and regrettably they made a renewed relationships with Meaker impossible.

The Talented Miss Highsmith, Joan Schenkar’s  biography of Highsmith shows her to be a racist anti-semitic miserly monster with no real feelings for anyone but herself, but –despite acknowledging and being distressed by Highsmith’s anti-semiticism, Meaker portrays her as loving and sensitive, with the emotional restraint under duress that can never be acquired and that  can only either be inherent, or the result of good breeding. I cannot reconcile the image of Highsmith as a psychopath, presented by Joan Schenkar, with Meake’s portrayal of this fabulous dark-haired butch with her W29 L34 Levis with their sharp creases and her crisply ironed white shirts.  This is a woman who was charming, romantic, affectionate, who at the last moment cancelled her plans to leave the country because she regretted having to cancel a dinner date  she had planned with Meaker to celebrate their two month anniversary. Meaker describes  a getaway in the summer of ’59 after Highsmith had given her a gold wedding band (bought in an antique store) in acknowledgement of their relationship, when “there were blissful days ahead in Fair Harbor: making love, sunbathing, reading, walking along the shore. cooking dinner for each other, and lingering into the night having drinks and listening to music” and at other times (when a late visit to Janet Flanner, then 67,  and her lover Natalia Murray at Fair Harbour did not result in the expected invitation to stay overnight) sleeping in each other’s arms in the rain on the beach.

In an act of selflessness and love, Meaker had given up her wonderful little apartment in Manhattan, and the life she had carefully constructed there  in order to move together to a property in Bucks County Pa, on the Delaware canal. This was where their relationship took root, and grew, and finally came undone. And that is were I find the core of this book to lie. The real sub-text is a documentation of the fleetingness of love relationships even when love itself is strong.

Perhaps the more significance a personal love has in life, the more viable are the seeds of its own destruction, and the more inevitable the final disaster.

There is a poem by Robert Graves which speaks of a month in mid-summer and the course of poetic love-

The demon who throughout our late estrangement,
Followed with malice in my footsteps, often
Making as to stumble . . .
Yet,
We both know well he was the same demon,
Arch-enemy of rule and calculation,
Who lives for our love, being created from it….

There is something I refer to as ‘The Heathcliff Factor’, when the wellspring of love is choked and thwarted on one who needs love even more than she or he wants it, there is a reflexive destructiveness and a hardening of the self that is the frequent result of buried pain. A sort of malignancy shoots out of the depths like some poisonous plume, which only a stable and reliable love can hold in check. When that love is gone, it erupts and moves across the surface of life like a pyroclastic  flow, scorching and killing everything before it.

When one recalls love in one’s later years, only the best  — and the worst — can elicit the effort of recounting, and Highsmith, this beautifully written and stylishly evoked chronicle of self-revelation of the love of a lifetime, bears this out.  It is sobering and saddening precisely because of how skillfully and irresistibly the past is made to make its way to the present, and to a tacit conclusion about the nature of love. Meaker and Highsmith seem to me to have been, in the end, each others’ ‘one and only’.  And yet, though love went on surviving, the relationship could not.  Told from Meaker’s point of view, she always feared that Highsmith would yield to the temptation to have affairs with other women. Though there was nothing untrustworthy about Highsmith (Meaker mentions only one dishonest act of Highsmith’s, the appropriation of a roll of film, which after all contained her own image), she succumbed to the temptation to snoop in Highsmith’s papers, interfere with her mail, and stalk her suspected lover.  In fact, It is Meaker who stepped out on her  live- in lover when she first met Highsmith. She kept the affair secret until she left New York to move with Highsmith to Pennsylvania The course of true love runs by default: like water it is ruled by gravity, and seeks its lowest level, It is willed into turbulence and in the absence of movement it reverts to inertia. In the case of Highsmith and Meaker, it was something between the two that put an end to their association.

Highsmith possessed an unerring sense of her own integrity which led her to reject received wisdom and received values, particularly of the sort that Meaker subscribed to, in the area of  the kinds of psychological analysis of homosexuality that Meaker (at least in her fiction) appeared to uphold. Highsmith was sure-footed and confident about her own sexual orientation and practices  — a true butch —  whereas Meaker was ambivalent about sexual ‘norms’, and was a Freudian apologist of sorts.  She bowed under her publisher’s pressure to end her lesbian novels badly (for the lesbians involved) whereas Highsmith contrived herself a way out of a similar stricture. Though both women were paranoid about being ‘outed’ (and who, being mindful of their times, could blame them?) Highsmith’s personal reticence and secrecy unsettled Meaker and drover her to  succumb to her own insecurities and to violations of Highsmith’s privacy.

Even allowing for the self-preserving evasion endemic to every biography, one cannot but be impressed with Meaker’s clarity, and her slightly mocking tone of self-deprecation. There is a wryness here that stands as a guarantor that not too much sweetener has been added to cover the bitter taste of old memories of loss and of love gone awry.  One feels that this was a loss that was irrecoverable to both women, and the sound of ‘if only’ seems to echo in the wind. This is a book I will always be glad I read. In Meaker’s book, Highsmith is presented sympathetically and respectfully. This is by no means the prurient tell-all revelation filled with gratuitously graphic details of love-lives.  The intensity and fire which existed between the two women is clearly and sparsely communicated, which in itself is a remarkable achievement.  It is not as complete as Andrew Wilson’s Beautiful Shadow and not as bitter as Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss. Highsmith. It is in a sense the most personal and kind of Highsmith’s biographies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is the song which was on the jukebox at L’s when Meaker and Highsmith met for the first time –

“You Better Go Now” by Jeri Southern

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is an entry from one of Highsmith’s private journals. It shows a very different aspect of her being, completely unlike her  guarded and rebarbative public persona. This is the Highsmith, I think, with whom Meaker fell in love, and who fell in love with her in return.

“Even in his arms dancing, one feels her in one’s arms dancing. The brain dully occupied with him, dreams with a clarity and a sentiment (not being controlled by its logical mechanism) that stifles the breath, bringing tears. One dreams of dancing with her, in public, of a stolen kiss more freely given and taken than any heretofore, in public. One is utterly crushed with the thought– which had become reality now, here – that one is for eternity an imprisoned soul in one’s present body…One knows then too,. and perhaps this is no small portion of the sadness, that life with any man is no life at all. For the soul, with its infallible truth and rightness, its logic derived from perfect purity, cries for her one love, her!”

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Madeline Yale Wynne (September 25th 1847 - January 4th 1918)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘How would it do for a smoking-room?’ ‘Just the very place! only, you know, Roger, you must not
think of smoking in the house. I am almost afraid that having just a plain, common man around, let alone a smoking man, will upset Aunt Hannah. She is New England—Vermont New England—boiled down.’
‘You leave Aunt Hannah to me; I’ll find her tender side. I’m going to ask her about the old sea-captain and the yellow calico.’
‘Not yellow calico—blue chintz.’ ‘Well, yellow shell then.’ ‘No, no! don’t mix it up so; you won’t know yourself what
to expect, and that’s half the fun.’ ‘Now you tell me again exactly what to expect; to tell the truth, I didn’t half hear about it the other day; I was wool- gathering. It was something queer that happened when you were a child, wasn’t it?’
‘Something that began to happen long before that, and kept happening, and may happen again; but I hope not.’ ‘What was it?’ ‘I wonder if the other people in the car can hear us?’ ‘I fancy not; we don’t hear them—not consecutively, at least.’

‘Well, mother was born in Vermont, you know; she was the only child by a second marriage. Aunt Hannah and Aunt Maria are only half-aunts to me, you know.’ ‘I hope they are half as nice as you are.’ ‘Roger, be still; they certainly will hear us.’ ‘Well, don’t you want them to know we are married?’ ‘Yes, but not just married. There’s all the difference in the world.’ ‘You are afraid we look too happy!’ ‘No; only I want my happiness all to myself.’ ‘Well, the little room?

’‘My aunts brought mother up; they were nearly twenty years older than she. I might say Hiram and they brought her up. You see, Hiram was bound out to my grandfather when he was a boy, and when grandfather died Hiram said he “s’posed he went with the farm, long o’ the critters,” and he has been there ever since. He was my mother’s only refuge from the decorum of my aunts. They are simply workers. They make me think of the Maine woman who wanted her epitaph to be: “She was a hard working woman.”  “They must be almost beyond their working-days. How old are they? “Seventy, or thereabouts; but they will die standing; or, at least, on a Saturday night, after all the house-work is done up. They were rather strict with mother, and I think she had a lonely childhood. The house is almost a mile away from any neighbors, and off on top of what they call Stony Hill. It is bleak enough up there, even in summer.

‘When mamma was about ten years old they sent her to cousins in Brooklyn, who had children of their own, and knew more about bringing them up. She staid there till she was married; she didn’t go to Vermont in all that time, and of course hadn’t seen her sisters, for they never would leave home for a day. They couldn’t even be induced to go to Brooklyn to her wedding, so she and father took their wedding trip up there.’ ‘And that’s why we are going up there on our own?’ ‘Don’t, Roger; you have no idea how loud you speak.’ ‘You never say so except when I am going to say that one little word.’ ‘Well, don’t say it, then, or say it very, very quietly.’ ‘Well, what was the queer thing?’ ‘When they got to the house, mother wanted to take father right off into the little room; she had been telling him about it, just as I am going to tell you, and she had said that of all the rooms, that one was the only one that seemed pleasant to her. She described the furniture and the books and paper and every- thing, and said it was on the north side, between the front and back room. Well, when they went to look for it, there was no little room there; there was only a shallow china-closet. She asked her sisters when the house had been altered and a closet made of the room that used to be there. They both said the house was exactly as it had been built—that they had never made any changes, except to tear down the old wood-shed and build a smaller one.
‘Father and mother laughed a good deal over it, and when anything was lost they would always say it must be in the little room, and any exaggerated statement was called “little-roomy.” When I was a child I thought that was a regular English phrase, I heard it so often. ‘Well, they talked it over, and finally they concluded that my mother had been a very imaginative sort of a child, and had read in some book about such a little room, or perhaps even dreamed it, and then had “made believe,” as children do, till she herself had really thought the room was there.’
‘Why, of course, that might easily happen.’
‘Yes, but you haven’t heard the queer part yet; you wait and see if you can explain the rest as easily.
‘They stayed at the farm two weeks, and then went to New York to live. When I was eight years old my father was killed in the war, and mother was broken-hearted. She never was quite strong afterwards, and that summer we decided to go up to the farm for three months.
‘I was a restless sort of a child, and the journey seemed very long to me; and finally, to pass the time, mamma told me the story of the little room, and how it was all in her own imagination, and how there really was only a china-closet there.
‘She told it with all the particulars; and even to me, who knew beforehand that the room wasn’t there, it seemed just as real as could be. She said it was on the north side, between the front and back rooms; that it was very small, and they some- times called it an entry. There was a door also that opened out- of-doors, and that one was painted green, and was cut in the middle like the old Dutch doors, so that it could be used for a window by opening the top part only. Directly opposite the door was a lounge or couch; it was covered with blue chintz— India chintz—some that had been brought over by an old Salem sea-captain as a “venture.” He had given it to Hannah when she was a young girl. She was sent to Salem for two years to school. Grandfather originally came from Salem.’
‘I thought there wasn’t any room or chintz.’ ‘That is just it. They had decided that mother had imagined it all, and yet you see how exactly everything was painted in her mind, for she had even remembered that Hiram had told her that Hannah could have married the sea-captain if she had wanted to!
‘The India cotton was the regular blue stamped chintz, with the peacock figure on it. The head and body of the bird were in profile, while the tail was full front view behind it. It had seemed to take mamma’s fancy, and she drew it for me on a piece of paper as she talked. Doesn’t it seem strange to you that she could have made all that up, or even dreamed it?
‘At the foot of the lounge were some hanging shelves with some old books on them. All the books were leather-colored except one; that was bright red, and was called the Ladies’ Album. It made a bright break between the other thicker books. ‘On the lower shelf was a beautiful pink sea-shell, lying on a mat made of balls of red shaded worsted. This shell was greatly coveted by mother, but she was only allowed to play with it when she had been particularly good. Hiram had shown her how to hold it close to her ear and hear the roar of the sea in it.
‘I know you will like Hiram, Roger; he is quite a character in his way.
‘Mamma said she remembered, or thought she remembered, having been sick once, and she had to lie quietly for some days on the lounge; then was the time she had become so familiar with everything in the room, and she had been allowed to have the shell to play with all the time. She had had her toast brought to her in there, with make-believe tea. It was one of her pleasant memories of her childhood; it was the first time she had been of any importance to anybody, even herself.
‘Right at the head of the lounge was a light-stand, as they called it, and on it was a very brightly polished brass candle- stick and a brass tray, with snuffers. That is all I remember of her describing, except that there was a braided rag rug on the floor, and on the wall was a beautiful flowered paper—roses and morning-glories in a wreath on a light blue ground. The same paper was in the front room.’
‘And all this never existed except in her imagination?’
‘She said that when she and father went up there, there wasn’t any little room at all like it anywhere in the house; there was a china-closet where she had believed the room to be.’ ‘And your aunts said there had never been any such room.’ ‘That is what they said.’ ‘Wasn’t there any blue chintz in the house with a peacock
figure?’ ‘Not a scrap, and Aunt Hannah said there had never been any that she could remember; and Aunt Maria just echoed her—she always does that. You see, Aunt Hannah is an up-and-down New England woman. She looks just like herself; I mean, just like her character. Her joints move up and down or backward and forward in a plain square fashion. I don’t believe she ever leaned on anything in her life, or sat in an easy-chair. But Maria is different; she is rounder and softer; she hasn’t any ideas of her own; she never had any. I don’t believe she would think it right or becoming to have one that differed from Aunt Hannah’s, so what would be the use of having any? She is an echo, that’s all.
‘When mamma and I got there, of course I was all excitement to see the china-closet, and I had a sort of feeling that it would be the little room after all. So I ran ahead and threw open the door, crying, “Come and see the little room.”
‘And Roger,’ said Mrs. Grant, laying her hand in his, ‘there really was a little room there, exactly as mother had remembered it. There was the lounge, the peacock chintz, the green door, the shell, the morning-glory, and rose paper, everything exactly as she had described it to me.’
‘What in the world did the sisters say about it?’
‘Wait a minute and I will tell you. My mother was in the front hall still talking with Aunt Hannah. She didn’t hear me at first, but I ran out there and dragged her through the front room, saying, “The room is here—it is all right.”
‘It seemed for a minute as if my mother would faint. She clung to me in terror. I can remember now how strained her eyes looked and how pale she was.
‘I called out to Aunt Hannah and asked her when they had had the closet taken away and the little room built; for in my excitement I thought that that was what had been done.
‘“That little room has always been there,” said Aunt Hannah, “ever since the house was built.”
‘“But mamma said there wasn’t any little room here, only a china-closet, when she was here with papa,” said I.‘“No, there has never been any china-closet there; it has always been just as it is now,” said Aunt Hannah.
‘Then mother spoke; her voice sounded weak and far off. She said, slowly, and with an effort, “Maria, don’t you remember that you told me that there had never been any little room here? and Hannah said so too, and then I said I must have dreamed it?”
‘“No, I don’t remember anything of the kind,” said Maria, without the slightest emotion. “I don’t remember you ever said anything about any china-closet. The house has never been altered; you used to play in this room when you were a child, don’t you remember?”
‘“I know it,” said mother, in that queer slow voice that made me feel frightened. “Hannah, don’t you remember my finding the china-closet here, with the gilt-edged china on the shelves, and then you said that the china-closet had always been here?”
‘“No,” said Hannah, pleasantly but unemotionally—“no, I don’t think you ever asked me about any china-closet, and we haven’t any gilt-edged china that I know of.”
‘And that was the strangest thing about it. We never could make them remember that there had ever been any question about it. You would think they could remember how surprised mother had been before, unless she had imagined the whole thing. Oh, it was so queer! They were always pleasant about it, but they didn’t seem to feel any interest or curiosity. It was always this answer: “The house is just as it was built; there have never been any changes, so far as we know.”
‘And my mother was in an agony of perplexity. How cold their gray eyes looked to me! There was no reading anything in them. It just seemed to break my mother down, this queer thing. Many times that summer, in the middle of the night, I have seen her get up and take a candle and creep softly down- stairs. I could hear the steps creak under her weight. Then she would go through the front room and peer into the darkness, holding her thin hand between the candle and her eyes. She seemed to think the little room might vanish. Then she would come back to bed and toss about all night, or lie still and shiver; it used to frighten me.
‘She grew pale and thin, and she had a little cough; then she did not like to be left alone. Sometimes she would make errands in order to send me to the little room for something—a book, or her fan, or her handkerchief; but she would never sit there or let me stay in there long, and sometimes she wouldn’t let me go in there for days together. Oh, it was pitiful!’
‘Well, don’t talk any more about it, Margaret, if it makes you feel so,’ said Mr. Grant.
‘Oh yes, I want you to know all about it, and there isn’t much more—no more about the room.
‘Mother never got well, and she died that autumn. She used often to sigh, and say, with a wan little laugh, “There is one thing I am glad of, Margaret: your father knows now all about the little room.” I think she was afraid I distrusted her. Of course, in a child’s way, I thought there was something queer about it, but I did not brood over it. I was too young then, and took it as a part of her illness. But, Roger, do you know, it really did affect me. I almost hate to go there after talking about it; I somehow feel as if it might, you know, be a china-closet again.’
‘That’s an absurd idea.’
‘I know it; of course it can’t be. I saw the room, and there isn’t any china-closet there, and no gilt-edged china in the house, either.’
And then she whispered: ‘But, Roger, you may hold my hand as you do now, if you will, when we go to look for the little room.’
‘And you won’t mind Aunt Hannah’s gray eyes?’ ‘I won’t mind anything.’ It was dusk when Mr. and Mrs. Grant went into the gate under the two old Lombardy poplars and walked up the narrow path to the door, where they were met by the two aunts.
Hannah gave Mrs. Grant a frigid but not unfriendly kiss; and Maria seemed for a moment to tremble on the verge of an emotion, but she glanced at Hannah, and then gave her greeting in exactly the same repressed and non-committal way.
Supper was waiting for them. On the table was the gilt-edged china. Mrs. Grant didn’t notice it immediately, till she saw her husband smiling at her over his teacup; then she felt fidgety, and couldn’t eat. She was nervous, and kept wondering what was behind her, whether it would be a little room or a closet.
After supper she offered to help about the dishes, but, mercy! she might as well have offered to help bring the seasons round; Maria and Hannah couldn’t be helped.
So she and her husband went to find the little room, or closet, or whatever was to be there.
Aunt Maria followed them, carrying the lamp, which she set down, and then went back to the dish-washing.
Margaret looked at her husband. He kissed her, for she seemed troubled; and then, hand in hand, they opened the door. It opened into a china-closet. The shelves were neatly draped with scalloped paper; on them was the gilt-edged china, with the dishes missing that had been used at the supper, and which at that moment were being carefully washed and wiped by the two aunts.
Margaret’s husband dropped her hand and looked at her. She was trembling a little, and turned to him for help, for some explanation, but in an instant she knew that something was wrong. A cloud had come between them; he was hurt; he was antagonized.
He paused for an appreciable instant, and then said, kindly enough, but in a voice that cut her deeply:
‘I am glad this ridiculous thing is ended; don’t let us speak of it again.’
‘Ended!’ said she. ‘How ended?’ And somehow her voice sounded to her as her mother’s voice had when she stood there and questioned her sisters about the little room. She seemed to have to drag her words out. She spoke slowly: ‘It seems to me to have only just begun in my case. It was just so with mother when she—’
‘I really wish, Margaret, you would let it drop. I don’t like to hear you speak of your mother in connection with it. It—’ He hesitated, for was not this their wedding-day? ‘It doesn’t seem quite the thing, quite delicate, you know, to use her name in the matter.’
She saw it all now: he didn’t believe her. She felt a chill sense of withering under his glance.
‘Come,’ he added, ‘let us go out, or into the dining-room, somewhere, anywhere, only drop this nonsense.’He went out; he did not take her hand now—he was vexed, baffled, hurt. Had he not given her his sympathy, his attention, his belief—and his hand?—and she was fooling him. What did it mean?—she so truthful, so free from morbidness—a thing he hated. He walked up and down under the poplars, trying to get into the mood to go and join her in the house.
Margaret heard him go out; then she turned and shook the shelves; she reached her hand behind them and tried to push the boards away; she ran out of the house on to the north side and tried to find in the darkness, with her hands, a door, or some steps leading to one. She tore her dress on the old rose-trees, she fell and rose and stumbled, then she sat down on the ground and tried to think. What could she think—was she dreaming?
She went into the house and out into the kitchen, and begged Aunt Maria to tell her about the little room—what had become of it, when had they built the closet, when had they bought the gilt-edged china?
They went on washing dishes and drying them on the spot- less towels with methodical exactness; and as they worked they said that there had never been any little room, so far as they knew; the china-closet had always been there, and the gilt-edged china had belonged to their mother, it had always been in the house.
‘No, I don’t remember that your mother ever asked about any little room,’ said Hannah. ‘She didn’t seem very well that summer, but she never asked about any changes in the house; there hadn’t ever been any changes.’
There it was again: not a sign of interest, curiosity, or annoyance, not a spark of memory.
She went out to Hiram. He was telling Mr. Grant about the farm. She had meant to ask him about the room, but her lips were sealed before her husband.
Months afterwards, when time had lessened the sharpness of their feelings, they learned to speculate reasonably about the phenomenon, which Mr. Grant had accepted as something not to be scoffed away, not to be treated as a poor joke, but to be put aside as something inexplicable on any ordinary theory.
Margaret alone in her heart knew that her mother’s words carried a deeper significance than she had dreamed of at the time. ‘One thing I am glad of, your father knows now,’ and she wondered if Roger or she would ever know.
Five years later they were going to Europe. The packing was done; the children were lying asleep, with their travelling things ready to be slipped on for an early start.
Roger had a foreign appointment. They were not to be back in America for some years. She had meant to go up to say good-by to her aunts; but a mother of three children intends to do a great many things that never get done. One thing she had done that very day, and as she paused for a moment between the writing of two notes that must be posted before she went to bed, she said:
‘Roger, you remember Rita Lash? Well, she and Cousin Nan go up to the Adirondacks every autumn. They are clever girls, and I have intrusted to them something I want done very much.’
‘They are the girls to do it, then, every inch of them.’ ‘I know it, and they are going to.’ ‘Well?’ ‘Why, you see, Roger, that little room—’
‘Oh—’
‘Yes, I was a coward not to go myself, but I didn’t find time, because I hadn’t the courage.’
‘Oh! that was it, was it?’ ‘Yes, just that. They are going, and they will write us about it.’ ‘Want to bet?’ ‘No; I only want to know.’ Rita Lash and Cousin Nan planned to go to Vermont on their way to the Adirondacks. They found they would have three hours between trains, which would give them time to drive up to the Keys farm, and they could still get to the camp that night. But, at the last minute, Rita was prevented from going. Nan had to go to meet the Adirondack party, and she promised to telegraph her when she arrived at the camp. Imagine Rita’s amusement when she received this message: ‘Safely arrived; went to the Keys farm; it is a little room.’
Rita was amused, because she did not in the least think Nan had been there. She thought it was a hoax; but it put it into her mind to carry the joke further by really stopping herself when she went up, as she meant to do the next week.She did stop over. She introduced herself to the two maiden ladies, who seemed familiar, as they had been described by Mrs. Grant.
They were, if not cordial, at least not disconcerted at her visit, and willingly showed her over the house. As they did not speak of any other stranger’s having been to see them lately, she became confirmed in her belief that Nan had not been there.
In the north room she saw the roses and morning-glory paper on the wall, and also the door that should open into— what?
She asked if she might open it. ‘Certainly,’ said Hannah; and Maria echoed, ‘Certainly.’ She opened it, and found the china-closet. She experienced a certain relief; she at least was not under any spell. Mrs. Grant left it a china-closet; she found it the same. Good.
But she tried to induce the old sisters to remember that there had at various times been certain questions relating to a confusion as to whether the closet had always been a closet. It was no use; their stony eyes gave no sign.
Then she thought of the story of the sea-captain, and said, ‘Miss Keys, did you ever have a lounge covered with India chintz, with a figure of a peacock on it, given to you in Salem by a sea-captain, who brought it from India?’
‘I dun’no’ as I ever did,’ said Hannah. That was all. She thought Maria’s cheeks were a little flushed, but her eyes were like a stone wall.
She went on that night to the Adirondacks. When Nan and she were alone in their room she said, ‘By-the-way, Nan, what did you see at the farm-house? and how did you like Maria and Hannah?’
Nan didn’t mistrust that Rita had been there, and she began excitedly to tell her all about her visit. Rita could almost have believed Nan had been there if she hadn’t known it was not so. She let her go on for some time, enjoying her enthusiasm, and the impressive way in which she described her opening the door and finding the ‘little room.’ Then Rita said: ‘Now, Nan, that is enough fibbing. I went to the farm myself on my way up yesterday, and there is no little room, and there never has been any; it is a china-closet, just as Mrs. Grant saw it last.’

She was pretending to be busy unpacking her trunk, and did not look up for a moment; but as Nan did not say anything, she glanced at her over her shoulder. Nan was actually pale, and it was hard to say whether she was most angry or frightened. There was something of both in her look. And then Rita began to explain how her telegram had put her in the spirit of going up there alone. She hadn’t meant to cut Nan out. She only thought— Then Nan broke in: ‘It isn’t that; I am sure you can’t think it is that. But I went myself, and you did not go; you can’t have been there, for it is a little room.’
Oh, what a night they had! They couldn’t sleep. They talked and argued, and then kept still for a while, only to break out again, it was so absurd. They both maintained that they had been there, but both felt sure the other one was either crazy or obstinate beyond reason. They were wretched; it was perfectly ridiculous, two friends at odds over such a thing; but there it was—‘little room,’ ‘china-closet,’—‘china-closet,’ ‘little room.’
The next morning Nan was tacking up some tarlatan at a window to keep the midges out. Rita offered to help her, as she had done for the past ten years. Nan’s ‘No, thanks,’ cut her to the heart.
‘Nan,’ said she, ‘come right down from that step-ladder and pack your satchel. The stage leaves in just twenty minutes. We can catch the afternoon express train, and we will go together to the farm. I am either going there or going home. You better go with me.’
Nan didn’t say a word. She gathered up the hammer and tacks, and was ready to start when the stage came round.
It meant for them thirty miles of staging and six hours of train, besides crossing the lake; but what of that, compared with having a lie lying round loose between them! Europe would have seemed easy to accomplish, if it would settle the question.
At the little junction in Vermont they found a farmer with a wagon full of meal-bags. They asked him if he could not take them up to the old Keys farm and bring them back in time for the return train, due in two hours.
They had planned to call it a sketching trip, so they said, ‘We have been there before, we are artists, and we might find some views worth taking; and we want also to make a short call upon the Misses Keys.’
‘Did ye calculate to paint the old house in the picture?’
Possible they might do so. They wanted to see it, anyway.
‘Waal, I guess you are too late. The house burnt down last night, and everything in it.’
1895

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The contrast between the plain and innocuous -even chatty- tone of this story, and its ‘New England Gothic’ narrative is difficult to catch but then impossible to miss.  The conversational note is at obvious odds with its hallucinatory content, confusing cast of characters and shifts in voice.

The juxtaposition is so dramatically disconcerting that the whole story lies on top of the mind like a large pool of water on a lily pad, and threatens to slip off entirely with no more than the slightest hint of provocation.

The apparitional atmospherics which cast their supernatural shadow over the entire story, serve a multiple purpose: they proved a tacit, covert and tangential commentary on the inner content of the four  different pairing – the female siblings, Hannah and Maria the parents of the principle narrator Margaret Grant, Margaret  and her husband Roger, and Margaret’s cousin Nan and her partner of ten years, Rita Lash, but furthermore,  there is the classic code we now easily recognise and interpret as ‘lesbian’ – when female pairings occur in the presence of the uncanny or unreal.

The chord struck by ‘The Little Room’ seems also to have some  of the undertones of Gaslight, that acutely psychological film with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, where a husband resolves to drive his naive and innocent wife mad by making her doubt her perception of reality – and therefore her sanity.

Shared reality is the basis of what we take the world to be. Even when we freely acknowledge that no two of us experience the same phenomenon in the same way, we don’t doubt the existence of either the object or the experience. The evidence of the senses, even when treated with a wry humour, is not something that we like to question or tamper with, because the moment we do so we begin to lose our footing in the ordinary world, and enter the realm of the uncanny.

The symbolic four dyads and two – more accurately three – generations in ‘The Little Room’ seem to represent separate social, sexual and psychic ‘realities’.

The old sisters, with the set choreography of their roles in relation to each other, are very much a couple. Their inexplicable bond permits them to corroborate each other in the event of an oscillating reality – the transmutation of the room to china closet and back again – with unruffled certainty in each of the room’s  manifestations. We can never be sure whether either one or both of them are aware of the binary disparity of room vs. closet, or if they have some perverse reason for refusing to confirm it to anyone else.

Margaret’s parents seem to have come to some kind of truce about their separate understandings about the nature of ‘the little room’, but their uneasy compromise seems in some way connected to their tragic lives. Her father dies in ‘the war’ – which we must take to mean the Civil War – and her mother seems to lose substance and fade away before dying, and her decline brings to my mind William Blake’s poem about psychic wasting ‘The Sick Rose’*

The young married couple Margaret and Roger do not fare so well.   Margaret, who saw the room as a child, arrives with her husband to find a china closet in its place. This experience  with the alternate and mutually exclusive realities of the room’s separate manifestations which she knows beyond doubt by virtue of the evidence of her senses  – becomes a sort of hallucination in the presence of the unwavering certainty of her husband’s male pride.

Roger sees only the china closet,  and with this splintering of their previously shared and unquestioned perceptual world there follows the predictably souring outcome of doubt and dismissal and loss of faith.

Some years have passed when Roger’s career require that he and Margaret leave for Europe. Margaret has not forgotten the eerie inexplicable happenings that they have now mutually decided never to discuss, so prior to their departure she writes a letter Nan and Rita asking them to investigate the matter and sort it out for her. Margaret acknowledges that she lacks the courage to conduct the investigation herself, but both she and Roger are heartily convinced that Nan and Rita have exactly what it takes.

Nan and Rita are also obviously a couple -and when they happen to see ‘the little room’ individually, each has her own  predictably differing experiences of it’s eliding reality. Their irreconcilable ‘realities’ of the room’s dual nature causes the now familiar spectre of doubt to interpose itself between them.  Unlike the two married couples however, the two women  struggle with each other in an effort to settle their differences of perception. They will not allow their bond of ten years duration to be easily shattered, and are willing to go to whatever lengths  – and travel whatever distances –  (Europe would not be too far) in order to save their shared experience of reality from being meddled or interfered with.  They show every evidence of having been a happy and stable pair for a full decade, and when the little room begins to cause the first unwelcome cracks in the structure of their relationship, they are determined to undertake the long and tiresome journey to the old Aunts’ home in order to settle once and for all  the matter of the perplexing little room.

But this is Madeline Yale Wynne’s apparent prefiguration of a quantum reality, and as such, it strongly resists an unambiguous answer. Young’s double-slit experiment, the Copenhagen interpretation, and Shroedinger’s cat all tell us the same thing: reality can be a very slippery and elusive beast, and very hard to handle. It can be lying quiescent in some other universe until someone decides to observe it, whereupon it can suddenly spring into existence, or it can be doing simultaneously impossible things until one decides to place an observer  in the room, whereupon it reverts to behaving predictably and demurely, or it can be two entirely separate things – manifesting itself either as matter or energy –  or both.

In Wynne’s brilliant and enigmatic story, the little room occasions four separate versions of reality among the four dyads involved. The complex symbolism and the many permutations and combinations of sexual orientation, from the presumably chaste and celibate to the transparently lesbian, cover a range and degree of communication between pairs. The fused personality of stronger and weaker spinster sisters, the delicate younger half-sister and the husband from whom she is later separated by war and death, Margaret and Roger with their three children and outwardly comfortable and well-to do lives who have agreed at Roger’s behest never to discuss the matter of the room, and Nan and Rita who will not be deterred from confronting and clarifying whatever seems to want to come between them, each illustrates a different type and degree of human connection.

Wynne drops some very large hints about the disconnections in Margaret and Roger’s relationship: Roger confuses yellow calico and blue chintz, is averse about engaging in a discussion which would clarify a significant difference with his wife, and we are left with the distinct feeling that it would be unwise for Margaret to speak to him about any but her most material perceptions.

A quantum mystery can never have anything but a quantum ending. Heisenberg’s principle asserts that quantum paradoxes and dual realities can never be resolved by a single observation.  The little room seems to sense that something about Nan and Rita’s determined decision to put their perceptions – and realities – to the test would be inimical to its – and perhaps their –  survival, and so ‘the little room’ consumes itself along with the house of which it had long been an inexplicable part.

What became of Hannah and Maria we shall never know:

But Madeline Yale Wynne and her ‘friend’ Annie Putnam set up house together in 1883, and lived together for the next thirty-five years, surrounded by their friends ‘both gay and grave’  until Wynne’s death in 1918.

This is the link to a memorial booklet  made by her friends for Madeline Yale Wynne from which the above facsimiles are taken.

 

 

 

http://www.archive.org/stream/inmemoryofmadeli00lawr#page/n0/mode/2up

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following biographical thumbnail was extracted from the following site.

http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=52832781

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Birth: Sep. 25, 1847
Newport
Herkimer County
New York, USADeath: Jan. 4, 1918
Asheville
Buncombe County
North Carolina, USA
Madeline Yale Wynne was a talented artist of the Arts & Crafts movement who credits her father, Linus Yale, Jr., with giving her metal working experience as a child in his lock shop right beside her brothers. She studied art with artist George Fuller, a close friend of her father’s and later at the Museum School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, at the Arts Students’ League in New York City and in Europe. Madeline married Henry Winn in 1865 and they had two sons but by 1874 they were separated. She lived and worked with her brother, Julian, in Chicago making jewelry but left when he died. She had a major influence on the Arts & Crafts Movement in Chicago and a group of artists there took the title of her short story “The Little Room” as the name of their salon. She spent six months of the year in Deerfield, Massachusetts where she was president of Deerfield Industries where artisans made and sold their crafts. Madeline often spent the remainder of the year with her mother near Boston. In 1883 she began sharing her home and studio with Miss Annie Putnam and changed the spelling of her last name. In 1885 she and Annie Putnam purchased The Manse in Deerfield and in 1904 they became year-round residents of Deerfield where they were very active practicing and supporting the arts. She was also an author and her short story “The Little Room” still appears in anthologies. In her later years she spent some winter months in Tryon, North Carolina.

 

 

 

* The Sick Rose
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
William Blake.

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