April and May in the Très Riches Heures

The Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry is one of the most important and beautiful illuminated manuscripts of the 15th century. It is done in the International Gothic style. It is a Book of Hours – prayers, psalms and other texts, usually commissioned by wealthy patrons, as here. Horae, as they were called in Latin, represented abbreviated forms of the Breviary, which contained the texts for Divine Office as celebrated in monastic communities. They were developed to enable lay people to introduce a monastic discipline and element into their private devotions.

It contains 206 folios, of which about half are richly illuminated, with expensive pigments and lavish gold leaf. It was painted between 1412 and 1416 by the three Limbourg brothers, originally from Nijmegen in Holland, for their patron Jean, Duc de Berry. They left it unfinished at their (and the Duc’s) death in 1416. Charles I, Duc de Savoie, commissioned another artist to finish the paintings between 1485-1489. It is now MS 65 in the Musée Condé, Chantilly, France.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

The most famous illuminations are probably those which represent the months in the Calendar, often containing images of the agricultural-rural labours associated with each month, as well as the nobility enjoying leisure pursuits in expensively commissioned examples like Berry’s. A calendar was usually incorporated at the start of the book of hours as a guide to the church feasts and saints’ days, so it was not specific to any year; its purpose was to remind the owner which saint or festival to celebrate on that date. Mary of Egypt, for example, about whom I’ve posted recently, is usually commemorated on April 2.

Above each month’s illumination is a hemisphere depicting the heavens, traversed by Phoebus’s solar chariot, with the signs of the zodiac.

As today is the last day of April I’ve begun (above) with the illumination for this month. As in many of these images, noble lords and ladies are seen with one of his castles in the background – in this one it’s the château Dourdan, or possibly Pierrefonds – and a walled garden, boats on a pond, and serried rows of trees. Other months depict peasants engaged in seasonal labours.

The subjects’ headgear is particularly elaborate, and the fabrics of the cloaks and gowns is sumptuous. To the right what appears to be two attendant women (at any rate they are more simply dressed) stoop to pick wild flowers – a traditional April pastime, and symbolic of the season of hope (not the cruellest month, as Eliot would have it).

The central figures are intriguing: the man in the elegant blue robe (the Duke himself? He’s depicted in other illuminations) seems to be exchanging rings with the young lady on the right (perhaps his second wife, Jeanne de Boulogne, who was much younger than him), while another couple witness the scene. Behind them a fifth figure lurks, apparently a young boy. Or is this just a typical scene of betrothal, again representing hope, rebirth and continuity?
Berry May 2 The illumination for May depicts courtiers on horseback, many of them wearing the green garments associated with this pageant, entering (or possibly leaving) the forest in a traditional Mayday cavalcade, wearing foliage to decorate their headgear or as garlands. They are preceded by trumpeters. In the background is probably the Hôtel de Nesle, the Duke’s Paris residence. Small dogs gambol in the foreground.

As I write this my friend Mary’s little dog snoozes on the couch beside my desk, grunting and sighing occasionally with sleepy satisfaction. The sun shines amiably outside, and these two beautiful medieval paintings seemed an appropriate way for me to round off April’s posts and usher in those for May.

More literary material will follow soon. I hope you all have a peaceful, healthy month of May, and experience the hope and vitality so wonderfully depicted in these images.

All images are in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Glory and littleness: Robert Walser’s ‘Jakob von Gunten’

On all these paths Walser has been my constant companion…the unmistakeable figure of the solitary walker just pausing to take in the surroundings. W. G. Sebald, A Place in the Country (2013), reviewed by me here.

Here is a section from my post on Sebald’s posthumously published collection of essays that dealt with Walser:

The essay on the isolated ‘outsider’ Walser is a poignant mini-masterpiece.  This ‘most unattached of all solitary poets’ is portrayed with delicate, loving sensitivity; we see the ‘precariousness’ of Walser’s existence, his loneliness and ‘virginal innocence’.  At the core of this ‘ragged soul’ was an ‘absence’ that was the source of his ‘unique strangeness’.   Although he was always ‘beset by shadows’, his writings are ‘illumined…with the most genial light’, striving towards ‘weightless[ness]’ in an attempt to ‘obliterate himself’.  He ‘almost always wrote the same thing and yet never repeated himself’, he was ‘a clairvoyant of the small’, his thoughts were ‘honed on the tiniest details’ but they became increasingly incomprehensible as his sanity faded, and he tended to ‘get lost in the clouds’ and dissolve into the ‘ephemeral’, into ‘thin air’, heading for the darkness of insanity and a solitary death in the snow one Christmas Day.

 

Robert Walser (1878-1956) grew up in the Swiss border town of Biel. His work was admired by Kafka, Musil, Hesse and Walter Benjamin – a group of artists who no doubt found similar themes to their own in his existentially anguished ‘outsider’ narratives, concealed under a deceptively slight, charming and eccentrically naïve exterior.

Jakob v G Walser cover Jakob von Gunten (first published in German in 1909, translated in 1969 and with an introduction by Christopher Middleton, reissued by NYRB Classics in 1999) seems inspired by Walser’s own experience. It tells the story of a seventeen-year-old boy who runs away from what he feels is a stifling bourgeois home to join a training academy in Berlin for aspiring servants, the Benjamenta Institute, named after its principal, Herr Benjamenta. Walser had attended a similar school in Berlin in 1905, followed by a period of employment as a butler in a castle in Silesia.

The teaching is mostly conducted by the principal’s sister, Lisa. There’s only one class, and the teaching consists largely of rote-learning from a tract called ‘How Should a Boy Behave’; ‘we are not taught anything’, Jakob explains with bland transparency. There appear to be other teaching staff, but they are either absent or asleep – a typically enigmatic situation: it’s difficult to tell throughout this hazy narrative how much is fantasy, dream or some kind of intuited reality as perceived by the eponymous first-person narrator; he writes in an early journal entry:

Sometimes my whole stay here seems like an incomprehensible dream

There’s little in the way of plot. The novel is constructed as a journal, with short, disconnected entries in which Jakob puts down his thoughts, dreams, reflections on the mundane events of the day with his classmates, several of whom recur in different situations. He forms intensely close and bizarrely fluctuating relationships with them (and with everyone else), at times speaking of them as if they were adored intimates, at others with arrogant disdain. Paradoxically, Jakob claims to admire the compliance of the other boys with this unconventional school regime, while at the same time exhibiting tendencies of rebellion and feelings of scornful superiority. By the end, however, he expresses gratitude to the school for transforming him into ‘an ordinary person’, happy to become ‘lost and forgotten somewhere else in life’, a cipher: ‘I don’t want to think of anything.’ Later he says: ‘You’ve no idea what bliss, what grandeur there is in yearning, in waiting.’

He develops a schoolboy crush on Fräulein Lisa, which doesn’t end well, while her brother the principal appears to fall heavily for Jakob. The school’s pupils gradually leave, and there is a sense of inevitable closure by the end of the novel, and we’re left unsure whether the protagonist is set to embark on a life-enhancing adventure with his partner. Or else it’s like Don Quixote riding off into the Mancha with Sancho Panza, a deluded escape from a crushingly banal life of servitude – or a flight into madness.

This is a strange and challenging novel. It can become so superficially inconsequential that I was tempted to put it aside, and then something arresting and strange happens (often inside Jakob’s head, as far as I can tell), and I carried on reading. It gets under the skin despite the apparently inconsequential surface. As Christopher Middleton says poetically in his introduction:

The stylistic invention ranges between maximum abruptness and beautifully timed arabesque dottiness.

With his obsessive narrative accumulations of fantastic mingled with quotidian minuscule details, Walser as a writer resembles the ‘primitive’ style of that other psychically troubled artist, Richard Dadd, rather more than Douanier Rousseau, with whom he is more usually compared. ‘Is this a morgue, or is it a celestial house of joy?’, Jakob muses at one point, in a typically polar opposition.

I’ll finish with an extract to try to illustrate the novel’s unique quality. It will have to be quite long in order to demonstrate these curious qualities in the prose:

What singular oddities we are. Our hair is always neatly and smoothly combed and brushed, and everyone has to cut his own parting up there in the world on his head…That’s how it should be. Partings are also in the rule-book. And because we all look so charmingly barbered and parted, we all look alike, which would be a huge joke for any writer, for example, if he came on a visit to study us in our glory and littleness. This writer had better stay at home. Writers are just windbags who only want to study, make pictures and observations. To live is what matters, then the observation happens of its own accord. Our Fräulein Benjamenta would in any case let fly at such a wandering writer, blown in upon us by rain or snow, with such force that he would fall to the floor at the unfriendliness of the welcome. Then the instructress, who loves to be an autocrat, would say to us, perhaps, “Boys, help the gentleman to pick himself up.” And then we pupils of the Benjamenta Institute would show the uninvited guest the whereabouts of the door. And the morsel of inquisitive authordom would disappear again. No, these are just imaginings. Our visitors are gentlemen who want to engage us boys in their service, not people with quills behind their ears.

Robert Walser

Walser in 1890 (via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1929 Walser had some kind of mental breakdown (he attempted suicide maybe more than once) and entered the first of the psychiatric clinics in which he was to spend the rest of his life. When he was placed in the Herisau sanatorium in 1933, he stopped writing and spent most of his time on solitary walks.

 

Burned by a man: Rose Tremain, ‘The American Lover’

 

The dominant tone in this collection of stories is a mix of sadness, loss and regret, but leavened by a wry humour and warmth of human feeling. Deception or exploitation underpins much of the sadness, as in the title story, in which an impressionable young art student in Paris is seduced by her much older, philandering tutor, who introduces her to unusual sexual practices, gets her pregnant then dumps her, leaving her heartbroken. Although she turns the experience into a successful novel (this literary theme is also recurrent), she’s permanently scarred emotionally and spiritually.Tremain American Lover cover

‘Juliette Gréco’s Black Dress’ tells a similar story of innocent, youthful love in Paris, but told with rueful irony within the frame narrative of gossiping stylists (is that what you call them?) in an unlovely beauty salon. Love, like ‘beauty’, is a commodity needing time and experience to get right, these stories suggest, and it doesn’t come easily or endure without pain.

Literature appears as an influence in ‘The Jester of Astapovo’, which filters the well-known tale of Tolstoy’s attempt in 1910, when dying, to flee from his wife, and spending his last hours in a stationmaster’s house – the eponymous jester, whose neglected and betrayed wife uses the distraction of the great man’s demise to leave her husband ‘because she’s tired of my jokes’, he quips. Jesting is preferable to despair, he tells his older lover.

‘The Housekeeper’ is the Polish woman who has a passionate affair with Daphne du Maurier, is abandoned by her, then devastated when the writer turns her into an ugly monster in Rebecca. She waited with ‘a fainter and fainter heart’ for love to return, but it doesn’t.

This story too is told in a different way in ‘Extra Geography’: two boarding school girls develop a crush on their teacher, but get out of their emotional depth when she responds more passionately than they’d anticipated.

Possibly the saddest is ‘Captive’, in which the proprietor of a boarding kennel for abandoned dogs (that theme again) faces a grim decision when a spell of Arctic weather sets in and his unfriendly neighbours steal his fuel oil. ‘A View of Lake Superior in the Fall’ comes close, with another portrait of a dysfunctional parent-child relationship that results in flight and guilt.

There’s heartache all round in ‘Lucy and Gaston’, a story which skilfully blends a woman’s frailties in 1976 with the accident that killed her pilot husband in WWII, and the tragic revelations that ensued when his body is found decades after his crash in a boggy field in rural Normandy. ‘Smithy’ is a strange story about an old man’s obsession with clearing litter from a country lane, and his critical encounter with an abandoned mattress.

As in her novels, Rose Tremain writes lucid prose and creates well-rounded, living characters for the most part, though the other stories in this collection look to me a little like exercises.

Being abandoned and forsaken is an inescapable part of the human condition in most of these stories, but they’re not grim: there is often hope, and if there’s no hope, there’s experience.

 

Rose Tremain, The American Lover and other stories (Vintage paperback, 2015; first hardback edition, 2014). I don’t know what kind of gum the people at Waterstones (where I bought my copy of this book last year) use to stick on those awful ‘Buy one get one half price’ stickers, but they make the cover look most unsightly.

 

 

Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, colportage and flâneurs

A divagation away from book reviews today, inspired by my leafing through an old notebook and seeing an item from 6 years ago: notes on a review of Beatrice Hanssen’s study (published by Bloomsbury now) of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project (my copy of the text in English, trans. Howard Eiland, Kevin McLaughlin; The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass and London, 1999). This is the fascinating proto-postmodern montage of notes and essays started in 1927 and left unfinished at Benjamin’s mysterious death (suicide to escape Nazi arrest as he tried to cross the Pyrenees into Spain) in 1940, representing his musings on the 19C ‘passages’ or arcades of Haussmannised Paris, ranging from ‘physiognomy of a flâneur’ to peregrinations through the city’s streets, with Marxist aphorisms and quotations from a huge range of obscure texts interspersed.Benjamin Arcades cover

Some time ago I wrote a post about Leopardi’s similar project of collected texts, Zibaldone (link HERE), likening it to other florilegia such as that by Chamfort.

There are some striking phrases in the review, arising from the text of The Arcades: ‘The Historian as Chiffonier’; ‘Politics of Loitering’; ‘Peregrinations through Paris’; ‘anamnestic intoxication’. This adjective sent me to the online OED (thank you, Cornwall Library Service, for making it available to cardholders for free; it’s a magnificent resource): ‘the recalling of things past; recollection; reminiscence < Greek ἀνάμνησις remembrance, n. of action < ἀναμνα stem of ἀναμιμνήσκειν to remember, < ἀνά back + μνα call to mind, < μένος mind.

Then there’s ‘The Colportage Phenomenon of Space’; a ‘colporteur’, says OED, is

A hawker of books, newspapers, etc. esp. (in English use) one employed by a society to travel about and sell or distribute Bibles and religious writings.

 The etymology is curious: ‘French agent-noun < colporter, apparently < col neck + porter to carry’, referring to the practice of carrying a tray or box (of books) held by a strap round the neck.

When I first looked this up in a print dictionary, probably Chambers, I noted this entry nearby: colpopoiesis: surgical construction of an artificial vagina. There’s no entry for this word in OED, but a quick Google search took me to an online medical definition, derived from the Greek for vagina plus ‘poeisis’ – making (as in poet as ‘makar’ (Scots) or maker.

 Strange how one word leads to another.

A quietly heroic woman: Barbara Pym, ‘No Fond Return of Love’

Back in February I wrote about Barbara Pym’s second novel, published in 1952: Excellent Women. No Fond Return of Love came four novels later in 1961. This was to be her final publication before the long hiatus caused largely by her work coming to seem old fashioned, with its casts of characters drawn from the class of repressed and obscure ‘distressed gentlewomen’, fastidious academics, librarians, anthropologists and clergymen, and settings in the non-U suburbs of London and the provinces. The Angry Young Men and new realists had taken over.

Her popularity revived after an issue of the TLS invited prominent literary figures to nominate those writers they considered the most underrated of the century; David Cecil and Philip Larkin chose Barbara Pym. From that point publishers vied with each other to secure her work. Her back catalogue was reissued, and new works started appearing, culminating in the shortlisting of Quartet in Autumn for the 1977 Booker Prize.

My Virago Modern Classics copy

My Virago Modern Classics copy

No Fond Return of Love deals with similar characters and issues – the trials and heartaches of a lonely spinster entering her middle years. Dulcie Mainwaring, another of Pym’s characters who likes to feel she’s ‘needed, and doing good’, has recently been dumped by her pompous fiancé– a pretentious intellectual art gallery assistant – leaving her confidence in tatters and her heart broken; she feels ‘relegated to the shelf’. She maintains the curiosity in other people, however, which her self-confessedly dull career as an indexer and researcher for more able, notable literary figures’ books has fine-tuned.

At an indexers’ conference (a typical set-piece portrayed with Pym’s wonderful ear for dialogue and absurd characters behaving ridiculously) she meets Viola Dace (her characters’ names are just right; this one’s is occasionally likened by unkind observers as the name of a fish), who had recently indexed a book by the academic Dr Aylwin Forbes, a handsome but selfish man. Both ladies find him alluring. The scene is set for a romantic plot similar to that in Excellent Women: the central female character is self-effacing and dowdy, but attracted to a dashingly inaccessible and not entirely sympathetic man (he indulges in a caddish flirtation with Dulcie’s new lodger, her 18-year-old niece).

The plots are not particularly where the pleasure resides for me in reading Pym’s work: it’s in the scrupulous examination of relationships, not just of burgeoning romances but also of the setbacks and personal mortifications we all experience in the real world, but which tend to be overlooked in fiction. It’s easy therefore to dismiss Pym’s novels as lightweight or prissy; this is a mistake. She has the psychological insight and ironic technique that’s reminiscent not just of Jane Austen, with whom she’s often compared, but also of that great anatomist of the female psyche, Flaubert.

Her style and tone are quite different, of course, and her novels can be categorised as light comedies of manners. But this is to overlook the subtlety of her characterisation and the richness of her portrayal of the unsung heroines of suburbia.

Let me try to give a brief indication of her qualities.

Dulcie has become intrigued by Aylwin Forbes, and turns sleuth in finding out about him and his family, including his equally attractive clergyman brother, Neville, over whom, as Dulcie blithely points out, women are always likely to ‘make scenes’ over (ie fall in love with them). Viola, who has come to live as a lodger with Dulcie – a comically mismatched pair like Mildred and Helena in Excellent Women – is discussing Dulcie’s quest with her:

‘”I can’t think why you’re so inquisitive. It isn’t as if you’d even met Neville Forbes.”

“No, but it’s like a kind of game,” said Dulcie. It seemed – though she did not say this to Viola – so much safer and more comfortable to live in the lives of other people – to observe their joys and sorrows with detachment as if one were watching a film or a play.’

 

Dulcie is one of Pym’s onlookers in life, too emotionally bruised to participate actively, conscious that her chances of finding romantic fulfilment are rapidly waning, and that most of the men she meets are selfish and shallow. As the novel develops, however, so does her self-esteem and courage. In her own way Dulcie is quietly heroic.

 

 

He had missed the flower of life: Edith Wharton, ‘The Age of Innocence’

The names of the characters aren’t exactly subtle in this vitriolic portrait of upper-class New York City society in the 1870s (though the novel, Edith Wharton’s twelfth, was first published in 1920): the protagonist’s is the doubly Jamesian Newland Archer, while his pretty but vacuous fiancée is May Welland (may well land) – tellingly described as a ‘young girl who knew nothing and expected everything’.

Virago Modern Classics edition

The cover of my Virago Modern Classics paperback edition

The plot is equally straightforward: the upright (almost smugly so) Archer, from one of that small, intermarrying set of wealthy socialite families to which May also belongs, has his complacently mapped-out life upset when the beautiful, troubled Countess Olenska comes back into his circle. He had known her before her marriage to a dashing but morally corrupt Polish count collapsed, amid stories of her husband’s brutality and serial infidelity. She escaped back to the city of her birth, where she believed her family and former friends would support her. Instead they treat her as a pariah, as if she is the guilty one; in their world it is not done for wives to desert their philandering husbands – they’re supposed to endure everything with a sweet smile and pretend all is well.

It’s a more plot-driven novel than The House of Mirth, about which I wrote recently. The style is less aphoristic and adorned, too; this makes its tone of moral outrage more powerful. Ultimately, however, I found the heroic stoicism and indomitable sense of honour of Newland Archer a little hard to take. He professes to be disgusted by the hypocrisy of his male peers, and therefore finds it impossible to compromise the honour of the woman he truly loves, or his own sense of duty. Here’s an early narrative comment about him that hints at this thinly concealed arrogance:

In matters intellectual and artistic Newland Archer felt himself distinctly the superior of these chosen specimens of old New York gentility…Singly they betrayed their inferiority; but grouped together they represented “New York”, and the habit of masculine solidarity made him accept their doctrine in all the issues called moral.

That he continues to live in this corrupt world of venal indulgence makes his honourable stance seem less noble. It’s not so much that he can’t act as immorally as everyone else – he seems almost to lack any kind of truly moral agency.

It’s an interesting and largely rewarding read, however. There are still some wonderfully witty and penetrating comments on American mores and society, like this on the very first page; the privileged rich are leaving the opera house, which they frequent largely to see what the rest of their set are up to, and to be seen and gossip about the latest peccadillos. The narrator points out that it’s better to catch a ‘Brown coupé’ after the performance than to wait for one’s own coachman –

It was one of the great livery-stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.

Newland is swayed by generous thoughts about the lack of freedom enjoyed by women in his social circle, but

Such verbal generosities were in fact only a humbugging disguise of the inexorable conventions that tied things together and bound people down to the old pattern.

 He can readily foresee that his marriage would become

What most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.

 And so it turns out: his and May’s marital existence is one of ‘deadly monotony’, in which appearance was everything, and Newland is unable to break free from what’s expected of him –

It was less trouble to conform with the tradition and treat May exactly as all his friends treated their wives than to try to put into practice the theories with which his untrammelled bachelorhood had dallied. There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free…

It’s a mad world they live in, and there seems no impulse to do anything to change it:

In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs…

 More echoes of the Master there (also, weirdly, of Saussure). Maybe Edith Wharton was too angry with that dull group of the tediously wealthy in which she’d moved (until she could stand it no more and decamped to France for the latter part of her life, ditching her good-for-nothing husband on the way) to come closer to emulating the penetrating gaze and measured psychological insight of her friend Henry James.

The ending is shocking, and aptly rounds off this withering indictment of the New York social set that would soon be even more tellingly portrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby.

 

Mary of Egypt again

I don’t want to write about the novel I finished reading recently; Phil Hogan wrote a piece back in the Guardian in September last year, when Sebastian Faulks’s Where My Heart Used to Beat was published, that says it all – ‘enjoyable but uneven’.

Instead I shall resume the subject started in my previous post: the legend of St Mary of Egypt. There I wrote about the medieval stained glass window in Bredon depicting her. Now I’d like to provide a little more detail about her story and its status in England from the early middle ages onwards.

For a full, academic account of the background I’d recommend Jane Stevenson’s contribution as ch. 2.1 of a collection of essays entitled The Legend of Mary of Egypt in Medieval Insular Hagiography, edited by Erich Poppe and Bianca Ross (Dublin, 1996). My own essay on her legend in medieval England appears as ch. 3.2. I have adapted these detailed accounts to provide a summary view here.

The Latin Vita which served as main source for all Western vernacular versions of Mary’s story was translated by Paul the Deacon of Naples  in the ninth century (as I noted in my previous post) from an earlier Greek Life, probably as a consequence of preoccupations at the time with the problems of sin and redemption, and of an intensifying reverence for the Virgin not only as an effective and maternal intercessor for sinners, but also as their protector and provider of salvation. Like the story of Theophilus, also translated by Paul, the story demonstrated an encouraging hope for lapsed sinners, and the possibility of their redemption through the purifying sacraments of penance and communion: their sins do not automatically consign them to hell. The eternal problem of absolution was pleasingly solved for the Christian readers of Naples (and of later readers of vernacular versions) in these reassuring stories in which sinners in extremis turn to the Virgin and and are saved.

Transmission of the Greek version to the West probably happened when Palestinian Christians fled Persian invaders in 614. Many went to Italy, taking with them religious texts of this kind. A new influx of refugees from the Iconoclast Persecutions arrived between the eighth and tenth centuries. Evidence of a cult of Mary of Egypt by the ninth century in Italy is found in the existence of frescoes in a church later dedicated in her name in Rome, and another in Naples, where there was also a street named after her.

The Greek Life derives from a variety of orally transmitted ancient anecdotes, and later writings about implausibly ascetic ‘hairy anchorites’ (or others less hirsute) dating from the very early days of Christianity in the Middle East, from the prototype life of desert hermits, St Anthony, written in Greek by Athanasius between 356-62, to St Jerome’s Life of St Paul the Hermit, written c. 374, itself inspired by Anthony’s story, collections of anecdotes and biographies of the early desert saints and various edifying stories about desert ascetics.

Mary of Egypt in the S. English Legendary

Mary as depicted in Oxford, Bodleian MS Tanner 17 (early-mid. 15C), a copy of the late 13C S. English Legendary, a popular hagiographical collection in the vernacular. Image taken from the Bodleian website of Tanner MSS

Most of these texts contain a stock selection of motifs that recur in Mary’s legend – friendly lions, the Visitor edified by the example of a Hairy Anchorite (in later Western versions, unlike the Greek account, in which she is described by Zosimus, the wandering monk who encounters Mary in the desert beyond Jordan, as having short white hair and a hideous, wrinkled body, she is depicted as youthful and beautiful, with luxuriant hair to her ankles covering her alluring nakedness, but which passing breezes enticingly reveal; Western medieval iconography represents Mary in this way, although she isn’t always shown naked – the Bredon window about which I wrote last time shows her fully clothed; so does the MS illumination shown here.)

There remains an obvious element of sexual prurience in the story, as these medieval European images of Egyptian Mary and the Magdalene came to show; Orthodox Eastern icons and other images adhered to the Greek tradition of a haggard, short-haired Mary, as shown next:

Greek psalter image of Mary of Egypt

London, BL, Add. MSS, 19352, fol. 68r, for Psalm 54, 8 (1066, the Theodore Psalter, in Greek). Here Zosimus is shown as he often is, handing Mary his cloak to cover her gaunt nakedness, while averting his eyes, as she flees from him. Note the short hair.Image from the Greek Orthodox ‘Pemptousia’ website.

 

Mary’s thaumaturgical powers also reflect a tradition going back to the Bible, and reiterated in countless edifying biographies of holy Christian figures: diorasis, or divination of a visitor’s name and status (as a sign of the hermit’s spiritual perfection, compared with the visitor-monk’s flawed state); miraculous clairvoyance; ability to travel huge distances in minutes and to walk across the waters of the Jordan; ability to write messages in the sand when the writer had earlier confessed to being illiterate – and so on.

The Greek Life greatly expands the role of Mary’s discoverer. This version blends the stories of the two characters to illustrate their symbiotic relationship: the monk undergoes an epiphany – his unmerited pride is revealed to him when he is amazed and edified by this penitent female sinner’s example; he returns to his monastery with a new mission for himself and his community – to strive humbly to emulate Mary, without the sense of competition or spiritual superiority of which he’d previously been guilty. Mary meanwhile needs the priest-monk to administer to her the elements of communion. The story therefore establishes the spiritual significance of the priest in the ceremony of the mass; the power of the Virgin as intermediary for sinners; the miraculous powers of ascetics and the attendant significance of true penitence; and the need for disciplined religious communities to avoid spiritual pride and to heed the lessons provided by solitary hermits.

What makes Mary’s story more significant is that the solitary ascetic who inspires such awe and reverence in this male pillar of the supposedly devout monastic community was a penitent woman. We needn’t become too swayed by the view that hers is therefore a proto-feminist account; it arose from an early Christian male mistrust of women. In her youth, in the original Greek Life and its first Latin translations, she wasn’t really a prostitute; she was simply promiscuous, often having sex with men without payment. She was typical of the contemporary misogynistic male view of women as fallen descendants of Eve, and the tradition going back to Greco-Roman times that women were inherently more lustful than men, more impulsive and unrestrained, and hence a grave danger to all males, and socially worthless unless chaste or married.

On the other hand the story illustrates a change in such attitudes in the Byzantine sixth century, some of them originating in the monastic movement. Female outsiders like prostitutes or beggars began to be seen more sympathetically; the Greek Life, and later vernacular redactions of it via the Latin, portray Mary as fully human and individual, less of a type of vice. The balancing portrayal of the Virgin, and the revival of her cult in Europe from the early medieval period, would also explain the popularity of the story of this penitent sinner.

There is plenty of evidence attesting to Mary of Egypt’s cult in England from the early middle ages. Her feast-day was commemorated there as early perhaps as the late seventh century, in Northumbria. She figures in just under half the surviving liturgical calendars of the Anglo-Saxon period, with indications of a centre of devotion in the southwest. Her name is frequently found (but not by any means universally) in calendars, litanies and other texts from the later medieval period in England, including a St Paul’s, London calendar with which Chaucer was familiar.

Additional evidence of the growing interest in Mary in medieval England is provided by references to her relics in several documents (a 15C record of relics held at Westminster Abbey, for example, cites the existence of a part of her skull from the relic collection of Queen Emma, who died c. 1052, the wife of Ethelred the Unready). She was one of the saints prayed to by women wanting to conceive (or to terminate an unwanted pregnancy – at least among the ‘folles filles’ of Paris, according to a late medieval Parisian calendar). Such relics played a key role in reintegrating outsiders into the Christian community, and Mary’s story clearly dramatises how her initial exclusion from the holiest of churches (the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem) because of her sinfulness is followed by her admission to worship with the congregation after her prayer of repentance to the image of the Virgin. The tomb of Christ was the relic site par excellence for Christians, and Mary’s admission there typifies the cleansing power of shrines (and the intercessory power of the Virgin and her icons).

This account is becoming rather long, so I’ll stop there. Another time I’ll continue with a review of the Old English version of Mary’s story, and the four Middle English redactions, and one in Middle Scots. They are all found in large hagiographical collections compiled between the late 13C and 1495. I’ll finish for now with another delightful pictorial representation, depicting Mary in the usual Western style, with her hair (and hand) modestly covering her, while Zosimus hands her his cloak – without averting his eyes. Here’s the whole page, with the introductory heading from the BL website; it’s The French Dunois Hours, c 1440, BL Yates Thompson MS 3, fol. 287. Zosimus is depicted as a Benedictine in a white cuculla or cowl (though the order is best known as the Black Monks, since they moved away from white or grey habits to black.)

Yates Thompson 3  f. 287  Mary of Egypt
Mary of Egypt

Penitent sinners, prostitutes and desert saints

I’ve just returned from a refreshing week’s break in rural Herefordshire. I was able while there to revisit the beautiful parish church of St Giles in Bredon, Worcestershire, an early medieval building with an impressive 161-foot spire (featuring in poems by Masefield and Housman). This was a pilgrimage to see the 14C stained glass panel in a window on the north wall.

The two Mary panels

The grisaille background (monochrome grey) contains the coats of arms in the trefoil of the families of Tattershall and Bellingham, and of Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick (d. 1439), all of Worcestershire

There are two such panels, one depicting St Mary Magdalene, holding her iconographical emblem of a jar of ointment, but the one of greater interest for me is a rare example of a representation of St Mary of Egypt, who was the subject of my postgraduate research – a study of the medieval English versions of her legend.

 

Both saints were penitent sinners, said to have been prostitutes (though the Magdalene’s story is largely unsubstantiated in the scriptures, and may have been calqued on Egyptian Mary’s legend in the early middle ages). The earliest version of her legend was written in Greek prose by St Sophronius (c.560-638), a teacher, ascetic, monk and ultimately Patriarch of Jerusalem (634-38). It relates how Mary lived a debauched life in Alexandria, despite having been raised as a Christian.

Tired of life in Alexandria, she set sail on a ship full of pilgrims bound for Jerusalem, paying her fare by sleeping with the passengers. Once in the holy city she decided to visit the church of the Holy Sepulchre, but some mysterious force prevented her from entering through the door. Realising that the cause was her moral impurity, she fell to her knees before an icon of the Virgin Mary and repented, vowing to renounce her sinful ways. She was then able to enter and venerate the relic of the cross.

She returned to the icon to give thanks, and a voice told her to enter the desert beyond Jordan, where she would find peace. She visited the monastery of St John the Baptist on the banks of the river, where she took communion. Then she left to enter the desert, taking with her only three loaves of bread – these round loaves are her emblem in iconography – though I can’t see them in my photo of the window; the panel on the right shows a figure holding what might be three loaves, but looks to me more like the Magdalene’s ointment jar. The Latin inscription underneath the panel is illegible in my image. She is indistinguishable from the Magdalene apart from those emblems – the loaves and the jar: both are depicted as young, pretty women with long flowing hair. I once wrote excitedly to the vicar of a church in Farnham, believing I’d found another Egyptian Mary in a medieval wall painting in his church; sadly, he pointed out that this was another Mary Magdalene…

Mary of Egypt

The left panel, which shows I think Maria Egyptiaca, though no loaves are visible, and her name isn’t clear in the inscription beneath her

She wandered in the desert living the ascetic life of a hermit for 47 years, subsisting on the three loaves, until one day she was spotted by a monk named Zozimus. He was engaged in the customary Lent practice of his monastery of wandering in the desert with minimal sustenance as an ascetic devotion. When he saw the fleeing figure of Mary he was unsure if she was human or a demon. He pursued her and called out to her. When he neared her he saw that she was naked, haggard, with short white hair – and a woman. She asked him to cast her his cloak, which he did, and she covered her nakedness.

She told him her remarkable story, showing miraculous knowledge of events beyond the desert. She asked Zozimus to return the following Holy Thursday and to bring with him the elements of communion. This he duly did. When he saw her on the opposite bank of the Jordan he despaired, for no boat was visible. He was astounded to see her walk towards him over the waters of the river.

Mary Magdalene

The right panel, showing Mary Magdalene with her ointment jar (I think)

He administered her communion, and she asked him to return the same time the following year; this he promised to do. When he returned he found her dead body in the desert. Beside the corpse he found a message written in the sand (she had told him she was illiterate) informing him that she had died the very night he had left her the previous year. Her body was miraculously preserved incorrupt. The message went on to ask him to bury her body to protect it from the wild animals of the desert.

 

This plunged him into deeper despair, for the ground was hard, and he was old an frail. At this point a lion appeared. Terrified, Zozimus made to flee, but the lion fawned at the feet of dead woman, and showed every sign of meekness. It then dug a grave with its claws, and helped Zozimus lift her body into the grave (a scene depicted in several stained glass window sequences in churches and cathedrals in France, and in iconography elsewhere).

Zozimus returned to his monastery and related his story, where it was preserved as an oral record, and written down by Sophronius. Maybe another time I’ll say some more about the transmission of this legend via Latin versions into the vernacular languages of medieval Europe. The Bollandist monks based in Brussels, who have been recording the Lives of the Saints from earliest sources since the 17C, place the date of her death as 421, but others say it was a century later. It is unlikely that she ever existed, for her story can be traced in variant forms in several other ascetic apophthegms, saints’ lives and anecdotes.

There are very few surviving images of this little-known saint in Britain (she was more popular and venerated in France and Spain). There is a delightful painted roodscreen (also 14C, if memory serves) in the church at the village of Kenn, just outside Exeter in Devon, and a stained glass window in the chapel at New College, Oxford. There was another in York Minster in the middle ages, but it no longer exists.

Quite why this window in rural Worcestershire (and those other isolated examples) was made is a mystery to me. Although her name is found in martyrologies, psalters, books of hours and other devotional texts from the Anglo-Saxon period onward, from the west of England to the north, there seems never to have been a developed cult in this country.

I’m just delighted that this charming panel survived the depredations of the iconoclasts who destroyed many of the images in Britain’s places of worship after the Reformation. Although I’m not a Catholic, or even a practising Christian, I find legends such as Mary of Egypt’s an intriguing reflection of the minds and beliefs of the people of the medieval world. By tracing the various English redactions and re-tellings of her legend from Old English to the prose version by Caxton in the 15C, my thesis was able to show how her example appealed to those ordinary people who sought comfort in her forgiveness. She became a feature of the early medieval cycles of Miracles of the BVM that circulated throughout Europe (in Latin and in vernacular languages) in the early middle ages. She became the unofficial patron saint of pregnant women, of ‘fallen’ women, and of penitent sinners in general. Her feast day is usually celebrated in the Western church on April 2, but it’s also recorded as the 1st or 9th April.

Perhaps I’ll say some more about her story and cult another time, then. She’s often depicted in medieval MSS, icons and paintings and in later works of art – often, anachronistically, as young, attractive and covered to her feet, to hide her nakedness, by luxuriant blonde hair. She’s featured in numerous modern works of literature (for example, she’s in Goethe’s Faust and namechecked in William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recognitions), music (including operas by Respighi and Sir John Tavener) and art (from Ribera to Emil Nolde).

‘The evil in the air was corrupting everybody’: Gamel Woolsey, ‘Death’s Other Kingdom’

When I was studying Spanish at school back in the late 60s, my teacher, who then seemed to me an old man, but who was probably younger than I am now, used to beguile us all with his misty-eyed reminiscences of his youthful days in 30s Spain, which seemed to be spent bathing in icy mountain pools and eating delicious peasant food in country inns. Gamel Woolsey’s autobiographical account of her experiences of the outbreak of Civil War in Andalucía in 1936, and in particular the beginning of the attacks on Malaga, belongs to that same era, when the pastoral tranquillity of the country was shattered irrevocably.

My copy is in the Virago Travellers series

My copy is in the Virago Travellers series

Published in 1939, Death’s Other Kingdom is a lyrical and deeply personal record of her feelings and perceptions as the rugged but idyllic village life she shared in Churriana, just outside Malaga (now absorbed into its post-tourist-resort urban sprawl) with her husband, the Hispanist author Gerald Brenan, turned into a nightmare the morning she woke to the news of Malaga burning ‘under a pall of smoke’.

The opening chapter beautifully evokes that pre-war idyll:

It was the most beautiful day of the summer…The sky at dawn was cloudless and the ‘pink band’ of the tropics, the band of rosy light which ascends the sky from the horizon at twilight, rose to the zenith and faded into the growing light. Then the sun rose suddenly with a leap into the air: the long hot southern day had begun.

 It’s a world of placid serenity, when the Brenans did little more, in the summer heat, than ‘bask in the day like lizards, in the shade of the high white garden wall’ which surrounded their big old house with its walls ‘four feet thick’, and its huge garden, ‘gay with bright flowers, immaculate and cool in any weather.’

She describes the place with sensual, poetic fervor:

I always loved waking in Spain. The sun fell in stripes from the slatted shutters on the red and white diamonded tiles of the floor. Noises from the street below floated up; the pattering feet of the milk goats sounded like rain drops…

 More sounds rise up: the ‘melancholy call’ of the fish sellers ‘their hampers full of fresh fish just coming up from the sea on their lean donkeys’ — Sardinas and boqueronis – ‘the food of the poor, the cheapest of fishes.’ Then come the cries of the vendors of ‘grapes fresh and plump’, tomatoes and ‘pimientos gordos’, ‘melons, lettuces and plums, squashes, peaches and pumpkins were passing, a perfect harvest festival going by on donkeys.’

This is the dominant tone of the book: Woolsey’s profound sympathy for village life and the desperately poor rural inhabitants of these remote mountain and coastal pueblos. There are affectionately vivid portraits throughout the book of the Brenans’ domestic staff: Enrique, ‘a gentle, charming young man’, their passionate gardener, and his mother María the ‘severe’ and crotchety but ‘devoted’ cook-housekeeper and her daughter, a ‘melancholy widow’ called Pilar, whose brief experience of romance is cruelly and violently ended, leaving her in sad solitude again.

Woolsey evokes a now largely vanished rural Andalucia:

For a village in Spain is a unity; its inhabitants are like members of a clan, they have a close and indissoluble bond. ‘My village’ is constantly in the mouth of a Spanish countryman. It is more than ‘my country’.

 The villagers view with deep suspicion anyone from a different village, no matter how close; as for the nearby town of Malaga – it’s seen as the abode of evil people.

But when Malaga is set on fire and the air-raids begin, the peace is shattered. Lorries thunder by constantly:

The young men wave their pistols and throw up their clenched fists in a gesture of triumph.

 All is confusion. The ‘Revolution from the Right’ is countered by a ‘Revolution of the Left’. Rumours fly rapidly. Everyone is fearful, most especially of ‘El Tercio’ – the seasoned Foreign Legion ‘worthy of Lucifer’, and its most feared contingent, the Moors, the expectation of whose arrival ‘ran like a cold wave of horror through the countryside’. Patrols enter the house and the countryside looking for enemies. Arrests and imprisonments are commonplace, and summary executions and brutal reprisals from both sides terrify the people. Former friends become mistrustful enemies. Irreparable fissions form in the village’s life. The Brenans are protected from the worst atrocities by their foreignness – Gerald flies a Union Jack over the house and this acts like a lucky charm. But many of their neighbours and friends are less fortunate.

There are vivid descriptions of their visits to Malaga to see for themselves the terrible destruction wrought by the newly erupted Civil War. There are rueful touches of humour: they meet an Englishman in Malaga who regales them with tales of the night the houses around him were torched:

But I suppose it seems worse for British subjects to lose their luggage than lesser races their lives.

 

Most of the narrative relates with grim impartiality the catastrophic impact of the war on the people. A kind of madness grips the civilians, who indulge their ‘uglier instincts’ and take malicious pleasure in spreading stories of atrocities. It’s the ‘pornography of violence’ as she memorably puts it. ‘Hate is the other side of fear’, she suggests, ‘and it was horrible to see and feel this hate-fear rising around us like a menacing sea.’ The people are gripped by the ‘suspicion and bitterness’ that ‘thrive on fear’; ‘the distrust of Spaniards for other Spaniards is bottomless’.

The strangest section of the book is devoted to the Brenans’ providing refuge in their house to the aristocratic family from whom they’d bought it. Well-known supporters of the Falangists, they were in mortal danger if they stayed on in their own estate near the airport, so they accept the offer of a hiding place for their entire family and retinue. It’s an extraordinarily dangerous gesture of generosity, and would have cost the Brenans their lives, foreigners or not, if their guests had been found by the vengeful workers who searched for them and any other Franco supporters. Our sympathies are hardly engaged when Don Carlos, the head of the family, dances with glee on the Brenans’ rooftop as he watches Malaga burn in a fascist air-raid.

Gamel Woolsey (1895-1968) was an interesting character. Born Elizabeth Gammell (her mother’s maiden name; she later shortened it to Gamel and dropped her first name) Woolsey to a wealthy South Carolina plantation owning family, she was brought up with a sense of morality and virtue that are so apparent in this memoir. Her aunt was the author of the Katy books, Susan Coolidge, whose real name was Sarah Chauncey Woolsey.

She had an affair with a member of the literary Powys family, Llewelyn, whom she followed  to England in 1929, settling in Dorset to be near him. There she met Brenan (1894-1987), and left for Spain with him where they settled as man and wife. He had been a member of the Bloomsbury group, and had been romantically involved with Dora Carrington; Gamel was pursued by the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Leftist in politics, Brenan had served as one of the youngest British officers in WWI. His terrible experiences there explain some of his responses to the brutal behaviour of some of their Spanish neighbours when the Civil War broke out, and his determination to help the oppressed, whatever their politics or religion.

In Spain they were visited by a stream of eminent artists, including Virginia Woolf, the Partridges (Frances wrote the Introduction to my Virago edition of DOK), Hemingway and V.S. Pritchett.

The book’s title is taken from T.S. Eliot’s Dante-influenced poem ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925):

Those who have crossed

With direct eyes, to death’s other kingdom

Remember us – if at all – not as lost

Violent souls, but only

As the hollow men

The stuffed men…

 ‘Death’s other kingdom’ is one of three of death’s kingdoms in the poem, and it relates to that heavenly zone entered by those who have left behind a state of spiritual nothingness (in hell or purgatory) and entered into an enlightened state of knowledge where they are capable of seeing the inner truth. The hollow men are those who fail to reach such heights. Eliot was one of Gamel’s favourite poets (she was primarily a poet herself, though she published very little verse or prose in her lifetime), and the line’s significance for her memoir is apt: it could signify the higher truth to which she felt those who experienced war should aspire, rather than the hypocrisy, lies and deception that so many around her (the hollow men) wallowed in when hostilities broke out, who lost sight of their morals and values.

 

‘Among gentlewomen’: Barbara Pym, ‘Excellent Women’

Excellent Women was Barbara Pym’s second novel, published in 1952, but set, as a note on the MS indicates, in the year immediately after the end of WWII: London is a city still gripped by economic austerity, rationing is still in force, meat and other commodities are in short supply, there are still bomb-ruined churches (though the services still go on), and the men are still coming home from military service to find their homes much changed. The women they left behind have learned to become more independent, and unsure whether they want to return to the old, pre-war culture of subservience to the men.

My Virago Modern Classics copy

My Virago Modern Classics copy

The novel has been much written about by other bloggers (links at end), who all give admirable summaries of plot and themes, so as with some of my recent posts I’ll give just a sketchy outline of plot here, then focus on those aspects of the novel that I found most interesting.

The protagonist is a 31-year-old spinster, Mildred Lathbury (a dowdy name, resonant perhaps of ‘mildewed’ or ‘mouldered’? buried?), who lives alone in a flat in an unfashionable part of London, on ‘the “wrong” side of Victoria station’. She’s a pillar of the local Anglo-Catholic church, and much of her life is devoted to its fund-raising and parochial matters. She’s a close friend of its priest, Julian Malory (he’s ‘about 40’), and his slightly older career-spinster sister, Winifred. The two women have vague notions that he and Mildred might one day marry; he insists he’ll remain celibate, until he meets his glamorous new lodger, Allegra (more on her shortly). Despite her relative youth, Mildred comes across as lonely, middle-aged and frustrated, for she is imaginative and spirited, not entirely convinced that she’s cut out for the life of submissive service to others – of taking on their ‘burden’ (a key word in the narrative) — that she’s assumed, and which others assume, is her lot.

Mildred’s life, and those of the Malorys, are changed irrevocably by the arrival of two sets of new neighbours. This plot device causes all three of them to reassess their relationships, their feelings and their destinies.

The central theme is the desirability of or necessity for a woman to marry. Is there a possibility of fulfilment in any other kind of relation in this world, as there is for men? Pym is too subtle an artist to give a clear answer; her delightful skill lies in her subtle and deceptively witty way of posing such questions.

As others have written so fully about all of this, I’ll simply look at a few passages and comment on what I enjoyed so much about this novel.

First, it isn’t as cosy or twee as it might seem on the surface. As with Jane Austen’s heroines and fictional worlds, with which Pym’s have often been compared, there is a steely, deeply serious quality beneath the humorous, parochial triviality of Mildred’s daily routine.

Another revealing literary parallel drawn explicitly in the narrative; Mildred says early on that she is not Jane Eyre,

Who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her.

This merits close attention. There is no further explanation or justification of this remark, and one’s initial reaction is to think: Really? What makes you think that? Isn’t Mildred deceiving herself, or failing to face up to her own shortcomings and weaknesses? By the time I’d finished the novel, however, I revisited this statement, and have come to agree that indeed she isn’t a Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë’s heroine is always going to find her Byronic, broodingly handsome and wealthy hero, despite her self-deprecating, humble doubts that such is the fate for the likes of her.

Mildred, the novel shows, is far from certain that her ‘Mr Right’ exists in her circle of acquaintance; more important, she has serious doubts whether she wants or needs a man to complete her. Yes, she presents herself as ‘mousy and rather plain’, with the drab dress sense of a much older woman. But after meeting her glamorous new neighbour, Helena Napier, and the splendidly and deliciously inappropriately named Allegra, a predatory merry widow who turns the head of Julian when she ingratiates herself into his life as his lodger, Mildred smartens herself up and even buys some uncharacteristically sexy ‘Hawaiian Fire’ lipstick and swaps her usual dowdy brown skirts for a chic Dior-esque black dress. She is not prepared to become the kind of ‘excellent woman’ Jane Eyre was, and did not want to conform to that romantic formula – even though like Jane she craves love and companionship. In that sense this can be seen as a proto-feminist novel in its questioning of that kind of fairytale plot outcome.

How does Pym negotiate all this without descending into banality? Here’s a random passage I’d marked early in ch.1:

I don’t know whether spinsters are really more inquisitive than married women, though I believe they are thought to be because of the emptiness of their lives…

 Her language here, as in the previous passage about Jane Eyre, is suggestively ambiguous. Mildred habitually expresses such bleak thoughts in an unassertive way, often as negatives (she is not Jane Eyre, she does not know about married women compared with her own spinster state), with frequent hedges – all that use of adverbial markers of doubt or uncertainty, like ‘really’, ‘rather plain’ and so on. And the more she protests her unworthiness with such unassuming, self-deprecating timidity, the less I believe her. This is the persona she has been ‘trained’ for – as she often suggests about her upbringing as a ‘clergyman’s daughter’. For although it’s her natural inclination to assume her role in life is to be a mouse, as it was Jane Eyre’s, like Jane she has suppressed fire in her. In that sense she IS Jane Eyre – but Jane’s Rochester is definitely not matched by Mildred’s handsome new neighbour Rocky Napier (the similarity of name is surely deliberate).

Photo from the Barbara Pym Society website

Photo from the Barbara Pym Society website

Mildred is sexually attracted to Rocky, with his ‘charming smile’, but realises he’s a shallow, philandering flirt. Part of her would love to throw herself at his feet – but this is not 1847, and Rocky isn’t going to be symbolically castrated, as Rochester is when he’s blinded in the fire at the end of Jane Eyre. On the contrary, Rocky never really looks at Mildred, preferring to gaze at his own reflection in her adoring eyes. And deep down she knows it.

Mildred had worked ‘in the Censorship’ during the war, and later at a ‘Learned Society’ of anthropologists – as Pym herself did. As a consequence she isn’t as unworldly or naïve as she chooses to suggest – though she certainly deceives those who know her into assuming that she is, and it’s easy for a modern reader to fall into the same misconception. Despite her frequent references then to her gradual drift into becoming ‘fussy and spinsterish if I wanted to’, ‘set in my ways’, ‘spinsterish and useless’, one of the shabby-genteel ‘impoverished gentlewomen’ whom she helps out in her voluntary work, the language clearly hints that she doesn’t ‘really’ want this fate:

I forebore to remark that women like me really expected very little – nothing, almost.

 She says this to the other potential romantic partner in her life, the attractive but desiccated Everard Bone (Pym’s good on names). As ever the apparent nullity of her expectations is counterpointed by those qualifications: ‘really’ (yet again), ‘almost’. And of course, she ‘forebore to remark’ the words anyway. She might have thought them, but she sure as hell wasn’t going to say them to the pompous, treacherous Everard.

It’s this plucky refusal ultimately to accept the Trollopian fate that all around her – and those who shaped her – take for granted will be hers that makes Mildred such an engaging heroine, given her apparently self-effacing character. In another of her little remarks in which as usual she appears to present herself as nugatory, there’s the equally usual ambiguity; she’s being teased by Father Julian about her crush on the desirable sailor home from the war, Rocky; Mildred would never ‘do anything foolish’, says his sister Winifred, springing to her defence. Mildred reflects on this ‘a little sadly’ (note the usual hedge) as being ‘only too true’, but

…hoped I did not appear too much that kind of person to others. Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.

 

Exactly. She may be a female Prufrock, but like Eliot’s wistfully cautious and obtuse ‘Fool’, who is ‘not Prince Hamlet nor was meant to be’, Mildred has heard the male equivalent of ‘mermaids singing’. And she’s less inclined than Prufrock to believe finally that they won’t sing to her – or that if they do, she’ll be taken in by their siren calls.

Other reviews

 Most recent is the excellent post at Jacqui Wine’s Journal. Jacqui closes with links to several other bloggers’ reviews. I’d also recommend to anyone interested in further researching the work of this once neglected author’s work the site of the Barbara Pym Society, which has links to a huge range of web resources, including scholarly conference papers of that Society.