After reading Henry James's "The Author of Beltraffio," one of the most misogynist in the James canon: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/3145/pg3145.html, I thought it only fit to publish his wife's response.
"The Wife of the Author of Beltraffio"
I am not dead.
As my would-be murderer knows, I want little more than to be
left in peace. Yet, because people are taking this man’s writings seriously, I
must rise from my imagined grave to say that I did not kill my
My only crime was to marry the wrong person.
Before I met Mark, “Mr Ambient,” I had been pursued by a
wealthy and well-connected gentleman, tall and handsome with auburn hair,
beginning to recede, so that his shiny forehead seemed all the higher. He had a
noble look, people said, strong features, a Roman nose, good teeth. Attention
turned his way when he entered a room.
As for me, I saw a man with slightly protruding eyes that became glassy
when he was displeased, a purple vein in the side of his forehead that pulsed
when he was annoyed, and a trumpeting voice underlaced with a snarl. He pursued
me—I can’t say courted—with a brutal impatience, as if bored from the start
Although my family was almost in raptures over the idea of
the match, I sidestepped him. I often thought of myself as a white feathered
bird, flitting away from him from leafy tree to tree, he a panther with bulging
I was relieved
when Mark—the author of Beltraffio as my writer so coyly calls
him—appeared, languid, slim, large eyed, fine boned and dark-haired. He’d just
returned from Switzerland and carried with him the scent of clean snow, the
look of clear blue lakes, a complexion made lively by a tint of ruddiness in his cheeks. He was gentle,
gracious, lightly earnest, deliberate and detached in his courtship. My family
approved of him.
|Mark in the days of our courtship|
Mark was almost as acceptable to my parents and cousins as
my brute, and my preference for him was so marked that the family gave way.
He had taken his time to marry. He had been careful, people
said, waiting for the right woman. I was the kind of fair, slender beauty Mark
might have dreamed up, a porcelain figurine with a long neck and pretty eyes. Nature imitates art,
Mark said to me over and over. What you dream shall be. He liked that I was
delicate and still and wore white gowns. We made a breathtaking couple, people said,
with our clear eyes, shining hair, our delicacy and good breeding. It didn’t
hurt either that I was “connected with the aristocracy,” as my young biographer
|Me in happier times, reading|
Mark was exquisitely gentle during our courtship, tentative
even. He liked to smooth my stray hairs behind my ears, to run delicate
fingertips over the lace of my cuffs or, after we were engaged, to touch the
cameo I wore pinned at my neck.
Carefully, quietly, he would show me prints of the Italian paintings he
loved, pointing out the details, the folds of Mary’s dark blue robe, the rich velvet,
deep pink, of an angel’s tunic, the pointed tracery of its wingtips. I felt
safe in his presence. He must have thought me endlessly malleable.
He took longer than I expected to propose. That was to be
expected people said, for, after all, he was a writer, a thinker, an artist.
He was pensive during the wedding, tremulous, preoccupied. I
found it touching, for he seemed to understand the gravity of the ceremony,
uttering his vows with an almost funereal solemnity.
Yet he remained distant as we set off on our honeymoon,
first to France, then to Italy. It was as if I were made of the same shimmering
gauze as my gowns, my corporeality not quite real to him, as if I
were an angel and might disappear into the ether. He treated me both as
ethereal and as a precious artifact, exercising towards me a sort of
adoration or veneration. He touched my hair and gown as if I were a saint. It
was not until we were Rome that he consummated the marriage, and then pulled
away as if shocked by the vulgarity of the act.
I was confused. Before I met the brute and before Mark, I
had fallen in love with a neighborhood boy. Alone together in his father’s high
walled garden, amid the scents of medicinal herbs and lavender, in a shaded
corner, we had kissed and embraced with heart-pounding passion. And then in the
small pantry filled with hanging herbs and glass jars of crushed potions and
pills and a shelf with a neat row of mortars and pestles, we’d found
transporting joys that fell short of the final act.
No such heart stopping lust drove Mark towards me. He was
attentive, well mannered, even tremulous, his large eyes catching mine bright
with joy as he showed me a beautiful enameled box he wanted to buy or the
Lacocoon, that tangle of snakes and nude males bodies, fathers and sons, a
sculpture that he said transported him with bliss.
It was only when I saw the attention he paid the sturdy,
square shouldered Italian youth we somehow got caught up with in Rome that I
began to suspect, and when we took up with the delicate, long limbed young man
with brown ringlets in Venice that I understood.
Back in England, we assembled an artistic home, a work of
mellow, understated beauty. He had taste. He knew how to put together what was
opulent with what was faded. Our home was infinitely, gently lovely. I planted
flowers and herbs in the walled garden. Mark crucified the fruit trees and
trained the rose against the garden’s crumbling brick walls.
A grove of beech trees cast the house in shadow, while the
little creaking lattices and
tangles of ivy covering the walls sometimes oppressed me. Mark now began to affect a Bohemian pose, donning
velvet jackets, smoking cigarettes, and loosening his shirt collars to look disheveled.
In our new house, I became pregnant from one of our few
encounters, and Mark seemed relieved. Relations stopped. He treated me even
more as a priceless fragile piece of china. I noticed at the same time the
steady stream of men that gathered around him, acolytes, disciples, devotees of
his books and poems, all young and smooth, beautiful. At last, I confronted him
about them. Again, he seemed relieved.
|Me pregnant with Dolcino and already sadder.|
“Finally,” he said, “the last barrier is down. Now we truly
can be one. Now you will understand my art, everything in it I am not allowed
to say.” He showed me his private collection of nude male sculptures, his
gathered sheets of nude male drawings and photographs. As I reread his poems, I
understood what they meant for the first time.
The last barrier was down but that led to a recognition that
what lay between us was an unfathomable chasm, a thousand feet deep.
The author of “The Author of Beltraffio” accused me of
narrow mindedness, of not understanding my husband’s art, of willful, even
cruel, conventionality. He called me objectionable, cold and bland. But let me
put to you, dear Reader, how you would feel had you discovered, after you were
married, that your spouse had been unfaithful? How would you have responded had
you realized he or she had never loved you and never could have, but had always
loved others, a series of favorites who were not you? Would it matter if they
were male or female, this run of servants, synocphants and scholars? Would it matter if some of
them were hardly teenagers?
I felt played for a fool, betrayed, angry, used. Why, Mark,
I wondered, marry at all if your desires run in a different direction? Why use
me? Plenty of men lived together as confirmed bachelors. People knew enough not
to know. Why pull me into this?
Perhaps because I was in the placid glow of pregnancy I was
able to believe for a time his protestations that he cared for me, but the
truth he had hoped would dissolve all barriers and bring us closer—closer mentally, that is—instead erected such a barrier that he had to bring his sister
Gwendolyn to mediate between us. Our author tried to paint her as ridiculous, odd and unsavory—but even he could not. She is a person of rare intelligence and
insight, as well as kindness and compassion.
The baby was born, our son. Mark named him Mark over my
protests. I was glad to call him Dolcino, affected as I found the name. I
thought he was the most beautiful baby ever born, perfect.
He grew. The more Gwendolyn and I focused on him and each
other, the more we could drown out the ever more open situation between Mark and his friends.
The writer was just another in a series. He’d gotten in our door through what he coyly called a “very frank expression” of his “sentiments.” In
other words, he'd made it clear he would be an easy conquest.
|Mark in our lovely home, with a friend.|
Gwendolyn loathed him on sight. He was condescending to us, a
fawning syncophant to Mark, not half as good looking as he believed himself,
with a nose destined to grow bulbous , a midriff already running to fat, a
roundish face. If he fancied himself of good blood lines, he hardly
looked the part.
Gwendolyn, dear forthright person that she is, never could fake
her civility well. Our writer sensed her contempt and so called her “a fatuous
artificial creature.” Yes, she was artificial —to him. He would have hardly
liked the alternative of hearing what she really thought of him. He called her “disappointed” and she was--disappointed in Mark. Our writer accused her of
being vain, of wanting to be looked at. He wrote that “she wished to be
thought original,” but all these were all traits he paraded shamelessly before
Mark—and perhaps her “dejection” was his own, as Mark was less impressed with
him than he would have wished. It was our writer guest, not my sister-in-law,
who “parted with a hope he couldn’t have sanely entertained”-- of a conquest in
Mark. It was his “affectations,”
not Gwendolyn’s, that brought a
faint blush of shame to her brother’s cheek, though that wouldn’t stop Mark from
fulfilling his desires.
We sat in the garden while Mark worked in his study. Our
writer went on endlessly about him until Gwendolyn jumped up, pacing and quoting Dante with affected theatricality. I
tried to ignore him as much as possible whilst keeping a polite smile pinned to my
face, but when his patronizing talk became too much—how good of him to bestow
such time on me, as if he had a choice!—I told him, glancing pointedly at his groin, that
Mark was very fond of plums,
hoping he would take the hint that I was not a fool. Did he really think I didn’t know what
kind of “ramble” through fields he and Mark took while Gwendolyn and I were
I did try to keep Dolcino from his father, from that
confusing world of lies and innuendo, where everything meant something else. I wanted to keep him from the harshness Mark, with good intentions, planned to subject him to to make him strong: cold baths, too much exercise, strenuous swims, what he called a Spartan regime. But I did not let him die to keep him from his father. I did not like our
writer or the contempt he showed for my sister-in-law or his vague disdain of
women, and I did hope to protect my son from him as well. However, it never occurred to
me he would spin the fantasy that I had killed my child.
Of course, that story—that I locked Mark out of the nursery,
refused the doctor, that I kept the sick child to myself to die—was utterly
untrue. Anyone could come and go. The doctor had reassured me that all was well
and implied the child would be fine. Mark simply didn’t visit during that long
night. Perhaps the possibilities offered with his new young friend were too
tantalizing. I don’t mean to imply he was a bad father—I am sure he felt
secure, as I did, that Dolcino would recover. Our child dying was unfathomable
to both of us.
I remember that night vividly. Dolcino’s body was hot and
drafts blew through the cracks between the window and the frame. I never
questioned the doctor’s assurance that Dolcino would be well. It was not his
first fever. I had seen him worse. I stayed with him. Finally, when he seemed
settled, I fell asleep beside him on the bed, his little arms around my waist in an innocent, uncomplicated
love unlike anything his father ever expressed or felt for me. His little heart
pounded against my back, but he was not tossing or turning or calling out. His
peace and warmth became mine and I fell asleep. I dreamed he was three and I
was carrying him in the garden in late summer. The apples were ripening and we
were under a tree. He put his warm hands on my cheeks and looked into my eyes. “Be happy mother,”
he said in a childish voice. “Aren't you happy?” His eyes scanned my face, all
concern. I held him tight for a moment in the dream, then woke up, crying. I turned around and pulled him into my
arms, hugging him tight as I had in the dream, determined I would keep my troubles from him and never let anything hurt him.
The first traces of a grayish yellow sunlight were coming
through the window—not quite dawn. It was then that he shuddered, stiffened and
moaned through parched lips, and I jolted fully awake. He was burning up.
Something was wrong. I scrambled out of bed and lifted him into my arms,
calling for Gwendolyn, and then for a servant to run get the doctor. “Right
now!” I cried. “Quickly! Hurry!”
Gwendolyn, all good sense, came rushing in, pulling on her
dressing gown as she ran, her hair tumbling down her shoulders in a disarray. Dolcino was
unconscious, his head lolling back. She dashed water on him, called for
smelling salts, sent the alarm through the house that alerted our writer I was
I tried and tried to wake Dolcino but I could feel him
drawing further away. I smashed his favorite teddy bear in his arms, forced juice through his lips, called to him, shook him. He no longer moaned, just drifted
farther from me.
The doctor turned ashen in the lamplight when he saw him.
“Oh my God,” he said. “Oh my dear woman,” he said, turning to me. “Your son will go to heaven with a
unblemished soul,” he said at last.
I couldn’t stop crying. It was a lament for my child that
seemed bottomless but also a lament for my sham of a marriage, for my life.
The fear our guest witnessed that morning, what he called
“my revulsion,” “the fright” that allegedly “betrayed” me into trying to save
my child—the reality of my distress that even he could not deny—represented no change of heart. Never,
for one instant, did I want my child to die, not for any reason. As for my
sister-in-law confiding in him that I had chosen not to seek help so the child
would die—that’s an utter fabrication. He thought her strange, as he wrote, and
he thought women fools—if she had said such a thing, he would have dismissed it
as mad ravings. I imagine it was Mark who said that to him.
What kind of mind could write that the child “was more
exquisitely beautiful in death than he had been in life?”
After the funeral, after Gwendolyn had thrown our eager writer out
of the house, Mark and I separated. I now live abroad. He pays
for me to stay away and not betray his secrets. If I were to have another
child, although we have not seen each other for two years, he would accept it
as his own. Dolcino—the living boy with his runny nose and scratched legs and
dirt under his fingernails, not the corpse that so entranced Mark’s friend—still
Mark continues with his young men. And what if they were young women? Would those who
sympathize with his plight sympathize then? Mark wants to be seen a tragic figure, a noble sufferer, martyred by cruel conventions. I might have more compassion had he not married me.
What I have trouble forgiving is not so much the
contemptuous, priggish portrait the young author painted of me, but his
romanticizing of Mark. Mark was nothing more than selfish to marry me, and he
coldly used me for his own ends as he uses his string of paramours. There’s nothing sublime in that, nothing to celebrate.
The young guest wished me dead because my presence disturbed
him. He wanted my son dead too, to become an exquisite statue under the ground,
cold and still, both of us out of the way. So in his fiction, not satisfied
with witnessing the one death, he killed me too.
I didn’t read my husband’s book, the one he was working on
when Dolcino died, much as the young man author thought it the ultimate sin
that I refused. What he didn’t want to understand was that I didn’t care about
Mark’s book. It wasn’t that the
so-called daring, radical subject matter would have shocked me—what could I
read in a book that would be different from what I had seen? Indifference is
worse than hate, I have read, and neither Mark nor his young friend could
I now lead a quiet life with Gwendolyn and tend my herb garden,
and between us, we keep the world at bay. We use some of the money Mark sends us to finance schooling for young
orphan boys. Gwendolyn handles it as it is too much for me to see these
youngsters who remind me of my
son, and we say nothing to Mark, for fear our project might cause him to visit.
Dolcino is buried near us, and in the garden I keep a statue of an angel,
pretending it marks my husband’s grave. I don't think the affectation would please
him, as the angel is not attractive.