My friend, who lives far away, is very sick. It’s good to walk.
I’ve been reading Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, specifically Lippi: ‘Fra Filippo di Tommaso Lippi, a Carmelite, was born in Florence in a street called Ardiglione, below the Canto alla Cucilia and behind the Carmelite Convent. The death of his father left him a sad and solitary orphan since his mother had died not long after he was born…’ He was brought up by his aunt who found him hard to handle so when he was eight she sent him to the Carmelite Convent where he was very good at drawing and hopeless at learning – he ‘scrawled pictures on his own books and those of others.’ He learnt from Masaccio – so well, it was often said that ‘Masaccio’s soul entered into his own body.’
He was also very amorous – he gave up being a Carmelite when he was seventeen and if he couldn’t buy a woman’s favours, he cooled his passion by painting her portrait. Vasari says Cosimo de Medici tried locking him up so he wouldn’t ‘wander away and waste time.’ When desire proved irresistible, he ripped up sheets, turned them into ropes and jumped out into the night. He painted four Annunciations, and his model for at least one was Lucrezia Buti who was so beautiful he stole her away from the nuns on the day she was supposed to make a pilgrimage to see a very important relic: the ‘Girdle of Our Lady. I first saw this Annunciation when I was twelve. It hung on the on the wall, along with a miscellany of Madonnas, of the second flight of stairs, which I passed each morning on my way down to breakfast at school.
Mary is tall and thin, probably golden haired – a flat gold halo sits on the back of her veiled head. Her body is draped in a blue cloak edged in gold. Lippi found hands hard to paint. The hand pointing to her heart is small, plump, pink – at odds with her long body, and the hand which holds her cloak a blurred claw. The Holy Spirit in the form of the white dove slides down a shaft sent from God’s heart, or his mouth – conception by breath or spirit – to Mary’s cloaked body. She stands behind her prédieu, ready to greet the angel, a beautiful hermaphrodite with tawny owl-like feathers, a crown of red and white roses, a scapular round his neck. So much complicated theology compressed into this painting. How reluctant the Church was to allow this child to be conceived like the rest of us. The golden stream on which the dove glides represents the Holy Ghost ‘coming upon her’ and by the power of ‘the Highest, ‘overshadowing her.’
She doesn’t seem too overawed by Gabriel’s arrival – she doesn’t recoil like Martini’s Mary, as Jenny Bornholdt observes:
She draws back in her
chair, doesn’t want to know
about the child. She wants
to know love, wants the
long back of desire which
endures like earth, or
rock – rock being
the hardest thing.
I suppose I like Vasari because reading him is like talking to him, or listening to someone who’s partial and prejudiced, who has favourites and is dogmatic, who’s mad about art and knows a lot, but if he doesn’t he invents; I know people like him – you can imagine him standing in on Saturdays for Mary Kisler – telling Kim Hill ‘he was there’ the day in the Sistine Chapel when Pope Julius arrived unexpectedly and told Michelangelo to get on with his work.
Angels are messengers; they look human yet they have no bodies — are pure spirit rising and falling in an endless song of praise, but they have wings. And the wings mean they come from some liminal other place; to tell us something we need to know, which, but for them, we can never know. They come, as the poet says, ‘across distance’ — spatial, temporal — with beating wings, light, trailing clouds of glory. Their wings are the opposite of our tethering feet.
And what about Mary? She is often reading when the angel arrives: he seems to interrupt. Is she scared, or excited? In Botticelli’s Annunciation, the angel’s clothes billow and swirl with the rush of recent arrival. He may not have told her yet. His hands and Mary’s nearly touch; their fingers are open, they hint at a caress. Her hand seems to contradict the twist of her body: he’s on his knees, lily in one hand, staring at her with a kind of direct reverence.
In many paintings of the Annunciation, Mary is in a house, or at least a room, separated from the angel by a column: a division between human and divine; a barricade emphasising her spotlessness. Botticelli’s virgin’s eyes are closed — it’s the way their hands reach towards each other that makes the moment so intimate. Outside the quiet room a door leads to a garden, and beyond the garden, a gate, a tree — the world. The tree is ambiguous: no doves or golden showers to remind us of the Incarnation — this tree is an omen of his death: the lignum Crucis or wood of the Cross.
Fra Angelico’s Annunciation is painted at a different moment. When you look, you know the words have been said. This angel genuflects; their eyes meet. Mary stays seated, but her body leans towards him, their hands mirror each other’s suggesting serene acceptance: she has just uttered the ultimate Christian response: ‘Be it done unto me according to thy word.’
McCahon angels are different from the angels of Martini, Botticelli and Fra Angelico. He’d seen reproductions in books of Italian Quattrocento and early Cinquecento paintings, and the Angel in The Angel of the Annunciation enters from the left of the painting like most Northern hemisphere angels. McCahon angels are outlined in black, however, they’re as heavy and physical as the mortals they’re visiting. Gabriel has round breasts and solid legs; traditionally angels were sexless, but those breasts and that blue dress seems to turn Gabriel into a woman. S/he hangs over hills like a brooding sculpture, like the hills themselves, rather than a gathering of light. A wing tip and an upward hand point to a cloud whose ochre underside is earth-coloured.
The quiet room filled with lilies, the virgin reading at her prédieu have gone. Mary in this place is standing, exposed, outside what could be her house, but is actually the Tahunanui Golf Clubhouse – McCahon’s attempt to locate these stories amongst us. There is a door but it’s dark and black, there is a window— perhaps. The angel is looking down at the top of her head; her eyes are at the same height as the angel’s knees, and she seems to look out of the frame, over the triangle of words squashed themselves into the left-hand corner of the painting. She has no hands. But there is a connection between angel and woman: Gabriel’s hand against a grey sky points up: he’s definitely referring to something, but the message seems melancholic, and the tilt of the woman’s head suggests resignation more than acceptance.
In the smaller Annunciation, you can hardly tell who is angel, who is woman.
The angel’s almost brush the top of Mary’s head — only her halo prevents touch; these two close-together heads are sharing something: the message is whispered into the Virgin’s ear. This is a private moment: the fact we see only part of the angel’s head makes me think we are looking at through a keyhole and might also be a reference to the idea of conception occurring by hearing.
Gretchen Albrecht’s Pacific Annunciation painted more than thirty years after McCahon’s Angel of the Annunication refers to their artistic legacy differently. Maybe because she actually stood in front of the paintings McCahon saw only in books, walked through churches, saw how they fitted into its architecture. She was also interested in the idea of the Annunciation differently from McCahon. Of all the paintings concerned with the divine birth, Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto had the most profound effect on her. She wrote:
It was discovering the Madonna del Parto (in San Sepulcro) standing within a fur-lined circular tent its sides held open by a pair of angels to reveal the blue gowned Madonna pointing to her unbuttoned dress and her pregnant belly. The tent has a curved top curving itself again into the (original) curved romanesque architecture that prompted my sense of the shape intensifying the experience of looking and understanding and ‘presenting’ the image to me — or making it become visible to me through the fabric of the structure. A perfect containment for revelations.
Her Pacific Annunciation is a distillation of all she saw when she went to Europe. She asked her father, a builder, to bolt two quadrants together to form a semicircle which she has always called ‘hemispheres’. Within this space she was able to refer both to the architecture of the northern hemisphere, and the semi-circular tent of the virgin held open by the angels in Piero’s painting. Gretchen Albrecht reinterprets Piero’s Madonna’s confidence within the structure of the hemisphere: its curve echo her fecundity, and although she uses the traditional colours of the angel and the virgin, their separate quadrants acknowledge the separate, equal, and co-existent conditions of divine and human. The lightness and shimmering quality of the pink paint is not unlike the swirl of the angel’s clothes in the Botticelli Annunication: as if the angel has just arrived, while the dark pulsing blue of the Virgin’s quadrant suggests Mary’s grave consideration of the words.
1 Lippi Madonna http://www.google.co.nz/search?q=lippi+annunciation
2 Martini Annunciation, Uffizi
Pride and Prejudice is celebrating two hundred years of publication. Everyone’s been talking talking about it: The Listener Book Club where they were self-declared ‘Jane Austen virgins’; The Slate Book Club where someone was reading it to his daughter, and in The Telegraph, a video clip of Chawton where Jane Austen wrote it. ‘I think if there were to be a fire, we’d all rush to save the table,’ says the curator, and the camera moves slowly towards a demure round table and a quill pen.
The quill makes me think of a blotter – according to Jane Austen’s nephew  she hid her writing beneath her blotting paper – only her family knew she was writing novels; she had to be prepared for all kinds of interruptions – no room of her own, but consequentially perhaps, a porous ear for every conversational nuance.
Another woman on the video reads from a letter to her sister Cassandra: ‘“Today, I want to tell you that I’ve got my own darling child from London.” Her own darling child,’ the curator intones, ‘is of course her book.’ Someone else says how simple her plots are and how relevant. ‘Look at how they’ve taken to Jane in Bollywood.’
Jane Austen is always ‘Jane’; her devotees are ‘Janeites’; you wonder how she’d feel to be ‘Jane’ to these long-range adorers, considering how important names are to her. Even the disingenuously named Frank Churchill, in Emma, one of the few men always to be called by his whole name, is offended by the way Mrs Elton addresses Jane Fairfax: ‘“Jane,” indeed!’ he says to Emma. ‘You will observe that I have not yet indulged myself in calling her by that name, even to you.’
I didn’t know this was the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, but in January I was driving to Auckland from Hawkes Bay and listened to it in the car. I’ve won two things in my life – a block of dairy milk chocolate in standard six (for getting the Catechism questions right) and a tin of assorted classics on CD a few years ago. The CDs are good when you’re crawling behind cattle trucks on winding roads.
‘I dearly love a laugh,’ Lizzy Bennet says to Miss Bingley and Darcy in the drawing room at Netherfield. I do too. Pride and Prejudice is very funny. I thought it was funny when I first read it at school, when I discovered the obvious comics, and over the years, others have amused me as much as walking, witty Lizzy. But the more you read the other novels, the more you realise that even though fun and being ‘diverted’ is a constant seam throughout them all, there is a corollary to that sentence: ‘I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.’
I suppose the pleasure I get from reading the novels now is cumulative. It’s hard now to think of one without remembering the others, and sensing a pattern at work, sometimes apparent, sometimes veiled, but always present. Her sentences are perfectly formed and perfectly in tune – they’re like the music of Mozart where you might be seduced by the ripple of the piano and miss (at first) the oboes wailing beneath. There is humour and delight but there is also sadness, grief and criticism, and within the exploration of emotional states, artistry: the ‘fine brush’ on ‘two inches of ivory.’
Miss Bates in Emma is one of my favourite characters. Each time I read her, I want to be her – want to read her words aloud because they are so funny, and at her dottiest, I know we are rather alike – I have an inordinate capacity for trivia.
Here she is preparing to read a letter from Jane Fairfax to Emma in Chapter XIX:
And since you are so kind as to wish to hear what she says – but, first of all, I really must, in justice to Jane, apologize for her writing so short a letter, only two pages, you see, hardly two, and in general she fills the whole paper and crosses half. My mother often wonders that I can make it out so well. She often says when the letter is first opened, ‘Well, Hetty, I think you will be well put to it to make out all that checker-work’ – don’t you madam? And then I tell her I am sure she would contrive to make it out herself, if she had nobody to do it for her, every word of it; I am sure she would pore over it till she had made out every word. And, indeed, though my mother’s eyes are still not so good as they were, she can still see amazingly well with the aid of spectacles. It is such a blessing! My mother’s are really very good indeed. Jane often says when she is here, ‘I am sure, grandmamma, you must have had very strong eyes to see as you do – so much fine work as you have done too! I only hope my eyes may last me as well.’
We never get to hear the letter, although throughout the chapter Miss Bates tells us we are about to: ‘I am going to have the pleasure of reading it to you’, ‘but we shall presently see in Jane’s letter’, ‘as you will hear presently’, “as I am going to read”, and finally, and brilliantly: ‘Well, now I have just given you a hint of what Jane has written about, we shall turn to her letter.’ But Emma has had enough and off she skips.
I think it’s possible to argue that of all Emma’s failings in the novel, her ridicule of Miss Bates at the picnic is the one we can’t laugh at. Snobbish Emma for discouraging Harriet from considering Robert Martin, blind Emma for not realising Mr Elton really fancies her or that Frank Churchill is using her as a front for his secret wooing – all these situations have elements of humour which Jane Austen exploits remorselessly, but cruel Emma for exposing Miss Bates at the picnic:
‘Oh!’ exclaimed Miss Bates… ‘I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I?’ looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on everyone’s assent.
Emma could not resist.
‘Ah!’ ma’am, but there will be a difficulty. Pardon me, but you will be limited as to the number – only three at once.’
It is such a loaded occasion – has been much looked forward to but from the start everything goes wrong – there was ‘a languor, a want of spirits, a want of union which could not be got over.’ It’s this sense of separateness and boredom which makes Emma behave so badly.
Miss Bates is Emma’s opposite: ‘poor, sunk from the comforts she was born to; and if she live till old age, must probably sink more.’ No wonder Mr Darcy rebuked Emma. No wonder Emma ‘felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates?’
I’ve recently read an essay by Virginia Woolf about films, or The Cinema as she entitled it. It was written in 1928 when you could say film had far to go, but much of what she wrote then seems still to hold true. She writes of the disjuncture between eye and brain when we watch a film: ‘The eye licks it all up instantaneously, and the brain agreeably titillated, settles down to watch things without bestirring itself to think.’ She uses Anna Karenina as an example of what happens. The eye says, ‘Here is Anna Karenina.’ A voluptuous lady in black velvet wearing pearls comes between us. But the brain says, ‘That is no more Anna Karenina than it is Queen Victoria.’ For the brain knows Anna Karenina almost entirely by the inside of her mind – her charm, her passion, her despair. All the emphasis is laid by the cinema upon her teeth, her pearls and her velvet…Eye and brain are torn ruthlessly asunder as they vainly try to work in couples.’
So when I read the title of Tim Upperton’s article (Listener Mar 2:) entitled Fortune Hunter: The soundtrack throughout Pride and Prejudice is the jingle of pounds, shillings and pence I thought of Virginia Woolf’s essay. Apart from fortune hunter, soundtrack jangled – was this going to be about the novel or the movie? The piece was accompanied by three photographs from the BBC series.
He begins with that famous opening sentence, so we know he means the novel, and swiftly declares that ‘all of Pride and Prejudice – all of Jane Austen, in fact – is contained in it.’ He builds a case for Elizabeth’s underlying motives: even though she’s funnier, cleverer, more aware than her mother, her sisters or her friend, it’s actually seeing Pemberly that makes her change her mind about Darcy, and she admits as much to Jane after she and Darcy have married. He concludes by arguing that Elizabeth, and by extension, Jane Austen, believes that ‘in matrimonial affairs, there is no difference between the mercenary and the prudent motive’, and that this attitude has formed the basis of every Mills and Boons novel ever after.
His summary is perfectly compatible with what happens to our judgment when a novel becomes a film. Indeed, he blames Colin Firth for not allowing us to see what a ‘complete arse’ Darcy really is. Perhaps when he was writing, he glanced at the film again and his ‘eye and brain were torn ruthlessly asunder as they vainly tried to work in couples.’ There was Colin, brooding, wet and irresistible in the water. Was this really the same man who said there was no one in the room tolerable enough for him to dance with?
These days we can’t read Pride and Prejudice without having the film in our heads. But, films and television series are finished within a few hours, and off we go to have a latte. We can’t do with them what Elizabeth does with a letter (and by extension a book): ‘When she had gone through the whole letter, though scarcely knowing anything of the last page or two, she put it hastily away, protesting that she would not regard it, that she would never look at it again…But it would not do. In half a minute the letter was unfolded again.’ Elizabeth walks in the grove for two hours ‘reading and rereading’ (my italics), and how her responses change. At first she reads ‘with a strong prejudice’, ‘an eagerness which hardly left her power of comprehension’, but then ‘she began the mortifying perusal of all that related to Wickham and commanded herself to examine the meaning of every sentence.’ She ‘reads and rereads with the closest attention’ and becomes ‘absolutely ashamed of herself’ until finally acknowledging that she had been ‘blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.’ ‘Til this moment I never knew myself,’ she declares. The tenor of Darcy’s letter might not reflect well on him, but its sentiments act upon Elizabeth’s heart and mind – they cannot be denied.
I suggest that both her and Emma’s moments of self-awareness are as profound as Hamlet’s, ‘There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow…the readiness is all’, or Macbeth’s, ‘I am in blood / stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.’
In fact, Virginia Woolf links Jane Austen and Shakespeare in A Room of One’s Own: she writes that ‘the minds of both had consumed all impedients; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare. If Jane Austen suffered in any way from her circumstances it was in the narrowness of life that was imposed upon her…it was the nature of Jane Austen not to want what she had not. Her gift and her circumstances matched each other completely…’
I wonder if Jane Austen was as serene as Virginia Woolf would have us believe, or that Tim Upperton’s suggestion that her attitude to marriage beats to the jingle of pounds, shillings and pence. Yes, Elizabeth marries Darcy and yes, she is charmed by Pemberley. But Darcy’s letter changes her; reading and reflection deepen her – she becomes less judgmental, more insightful. She is rewarded, but not just because she is lively, but because she has arrived at a moral and emotional maturity, crossed a moral river unaided – she was certainly not helped by her feckless parents, but that’s another story.
Darcy too has altered. For someone as disdainful of the Bennets as he undoubtedly was at first, he spares no effort in tracking down Lydia and Wickham, pays off the latter’s debts, buys him a commission and forces them to marry. And this achieved so discreetly that Elizabeth’s uncle must pretend to have effected the couple’s social restoration. If this is accomplished as a prelude to another proposal to Elizabeth, it is hardly from a mercenary motive: ‘Her heart did whisper that he did it for her.’ Tim Upperton wishes we see more of Wickham, but no matter how beguiling he appears, Wickham is, to borrow Tim’s own phrase, ‘a complete arse.’ He lies about his past, almost seduces Darcy’s sister, actually seduces Lydia – ‘Tell Sally [the maid] to mend a great slit in my muslin gown’ – and must be frog-marched into marriage which was never his intention.
The jingle of coinage is undoubtedly heard, but consider life if you were a poor eighteenth century woman. Miss Bates is in Emma not just to make us laugh. Jane Fairfax’s future is decidedly uncertain. Mrs Smith in Persuasion is an impoverished sick widow who can’t walk, never goes out and is reduced to making pin cushions for those poorer than herself. In Sense and Sensibility Mrs Dashwood is thrown out of her house because of a legal entailment – no wonder Mrs Bennet is worried about her daughters’ futures, Mr Bennet being too inert to leave his library to find a way of augmenting his income. Similarly, the wages of sin are high. Once Mr Collins hears about Lydia, he writes to Mr Austen advising him to cast her off forever – the man’s too comical to be a complete arse, but his views were commonplace. In Mansfield Park, Maria Bertram is banished by her family to ‘another country’ for living with Henry Crawford, and let’s not forget Mrs Clay, another impoverished solitary woman in Persuasion who will probably be cast off once William Elliot tires of her.
Happy marriage is rare in Austenland. The Bennets, the Bertrams, the younger Dashowoods, the older Knightleys all have shrivelled relationships. It is possible, however, as we see with the Crofts in Persuasion and the Gardiners in Pride and Prejudice whose marriages are based on esteem or respect – two of Jane Austen’s favourite words. Elizabeth’s father, speaking from experience says to her, ‘I know you could never be happy or respectable unless you truly esteemed your husband…let me not have the grief of seeing you not able to respect your partner in life.’
If you consider Jane Austen’s own aim for her writing: ‘two or three families in a country village – the very thing to work from,’ it is social cohesion that interests her as much as financially bolstered love. Her genius lies in the way she continues to show us who we are as we negotiate our fragile and comical lives. Virginia Woolf says, ‘Jane Austen is a mistress of a much deeper emotion than appears on the surface…a trifle which expands in the reader’s mind. She stimulates us to supply what is not there…Think away the trifle, the surface animation, the likeness to life, and there remains an exquisite discrimination of human values.’
This is the joy and satisfaction of reading Jane Austen. The novels have the quality of ‘two inches of ivory’; they repay ‘earnest perusal’, their trifles expand in our minds in a way no Mills and Boon story or a film of a novel can ever achieve. Pride and Prejudice was originally entitled First Impressions. Tim Upperton’s response to Pride and Prejudice may in fact be compared with Darcy’s first impression of Elizabeth: ‘tolerable.’ But Darcy observes and considers: he perceives her uncommon intelligence and revises his ‘insufficient pretensions.’
‘What you want to be,’ said Alan Bennett’s Mam when he was about five years old, ‘is a gentleman farmer…They earn up to £10 a week.’
Why gentlemen farmers Bennett asks years later, and his older self replies, ‘The answer of course was books.’ His mother had never met a gentleman farmer, but she read novels and there they could be found, comfortable, secure and powerful.
That small exchange in his essay, The Treachery of Books, triggered one of those frissons that comes over you when the words on a page leap up and speak just to you.
Suddenly I was about eight in the kitchen watching my mother iron my father’s shirts. He was working late, my brothers were in bed, my sister wasn’t yet born; we were drinking warm bournvita.
‘If you want to be a teacher, my mother was saying, ‘you must read… I always wanted to be a teacher… But the war…’
A teacher for my mother was like a gentleman farmer for Alan Bennett’s. Being a teacher meant pens, paper and books. Did I want to be a teacher? I became one…of course – I was the oldest child, flagship of my parents’ dreams – bespectacled, diligent, dutiful. Mostly I’ve liked teaching. Always I’ve loved reading. As soon she could, my mother joined us up at the tiny Havelock North library, and for every birthday, gave my brothers and me small Nelson editions of the classics – Dickens, Thackeray Jane Austen and the Brontës were waiting for us whether we were ready or not.
My mother grew up in a convent in the north, and five years after the war, she left England forever with a suitcase and a book – The Valley of Decision. She sailed into Wellington one day in 1950 and lived in Oriental Bay, until she met my father who’d also come to New Zealand on a reconfigured troop ship. He dragged with him a wooden green trunk with his name stencilled across its surface. These two objects symbolised what was most important for my parents – and probably for every immigrant: education and a yearning to belong.
They built a house of blocks as secure as the third little pig’s, on a steep hill in Havelock North. It was at the end of a road; there were paddocks and sheep. Behind the house there was a forest.
And so we come, by the power of place, to fairy tales. There must have been a book; my mother must have read. But it’s her voice I hear saying Once upon a time…, Close by the King’s castle lay a great dark forest…, And they all lived happily ever after. The forest outside our house was full of sounds and airs – there were magpies in the macrocarpas – but it didn’t give delight. It was dark, there were sheep tracks, there were stinging nettles and people you couldn’t see but felt – Hansel and Gretel, Snow-White, Rapunzel. You could become Little Red Riding Hood and I did. My mother had one of those half-aprons which I transformed into a red velvet cloak. Through the forest I flew to a grandmother in a castle, an old wooden house with verandahs and a green-lidded well. The old woman who lived there lay in bed with a hairnet on her head and a tin of Quality Street chocolates on a bedside table. ‘Fancy, the little Dutch child,’ she’d say when I stood near her wondering whether she was crying or laughing because of her rheumy eyes.
I was charmed by that house and the people who looked after her: a house-keeper, a woman my mother called a ‘companion’ – different from a ‘friend’, and Ted the dungareed gardener who made a stile – the world was full of words – across the barbed wire between our house and the forest.
I was not an outdoors child. I felt early the perils of the dark wood – even the Hundred Aker Wood, where Pooh and Piglet wandered. I loved the opening sentence of Jane Eyre – ‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day’, because that meant everything would unfold inside.
That old house was dark and mysterious. Outside the bedroom was a corridor with a strip of green carpet held in place by brass rods. All the doors along the corridor were closed, and the more I read, the more they became the door to Bluebeard’s chamber, to the Red Room where Mr Reed died, to Clarissa Dalloway’s glacial green bedroom.
My reading has been formed by two things – my mother’s voice and that house. My mother has a very musical voice and instinctively understood the lure of rhyme, rhythm and repetition, and as long as she got the essentials right in a fairy tale, we didn’t mind deviation while she poked the washing with her washing stick or sat by the window knitting.
She also had a high opinion of Churchill, and we had a copy of The Island Race in our house. My brothers and I pored over this for hours, especially the execution of poor Catholic Mary Queen of Scots whose lapdog emerged from her skirts after her head had been cut off. I formed a conviction that English history was the most important history; my Dutch heritage suppressed mainly because of my unpronounceable name, and my father’s fondness for kissing us in public and calling out to us in his loud Dutch voice – so everyone looked.
There was also a problematic book, which although we loved very much because it showed us where he came, from confirmed my secret feelings that Dutch people were unreliable – they might seem quiet and low-lying, but give them a chance and they’d make a loud attention-drawing racket. The book was about Hendrika, a cow who ate too much grass, grew very fat, and fell, first into a canal, and then onto a raft. She loved being on her raft – she mooed with happiness – an embarrassing Dutch moo – and she was on a quest for a straw hat with streamers. On every page you see happy, plump, plain Dutch people in clogs, caps, and lacy aprons, staring at the cow in the canal. When she finally clatters into the cheese market spilling red waxy balls in all directions, Mr Hofstra her owner, shouts out her name in his loud Dutch voice.
It is such a good story and Spier’s illustrations are peerless, but as a child, I shuddered because of its subliminal message of exposure. I wanted to see but I didn’t want to be seen.
Which brings me back to the house in the forest. I crept around the edges of that old lady’s life but she became a blue print for other old women in literature – the grandmother whose spectacles Peter mended in Heidi, Mrs Bates in Emma whose spectacles Frank Crawford also fixed while secretly wooing Jane Fairfax. These two were silent – but one day I met one of my favourite and funny old ladies: Marcel’s stationary aunt Octave in Swann’s Way who ‘no longer wished to leave, first Combray, then within Combray her house, then her bedroom, then her bed’. She also had a bedside table – ‘a high altar of statues, missals and medicines.’ On the table in my old lady’s house, apart from the Quality Street chocolates, I remember only a glass and water jug beneath beaded crotcheted covers.
Aunt Octave talked to herself, and Marcel, the attentive watcher listened: ‘I must be sure to remember I did not sleep…(for never sleeping was her great claim…and sometimes she forgot herself and said, ‘What woke me up’ or, ‘I dreamed that’… and would blush and correct herself instantly’.
For most of my reading life, I’ve read novels, and loved especially novels which make me laugh, but I’ve now I’m interested in remembering. So often the first memory is of the mother’s voice, as Alan Bennett has showed us in that early essay, and Francis Spufford begins his marvellous memoir with, ‘“I can always tell when you’re reading somewhere in the house,” my mother used to say.’
For Virginia Woolf, the first memory is the primal memory:
‘If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills, – then my bowl stands upon this first memory. It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed, in the nursery at St Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one two, one two, and sending a splash of water over the beach, and then breaking, one two, one two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling… the purest ecstasy I can conceive.’
Every time you read a book, you bring to those words on the page all the experiences that have ever formed you – it wasn’t until I sat down to write this essay that I understood that at some level, I am still the little Dutch child listening to my mother, or standing by the bed of an old woman in a dark old house hoping for a chocolate from the Quality Street tin.
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