Monday, October 13, 2014

The Wife of the Author of Beltraffio

After reading Henry James's "The Author of Beltraffio," one of the most misogynist in the James canon:, I thought it only fit to publish his wife's response. 

"The Wife of the Author of Beltraffio"
by Beatrice Ambient

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 young son.  

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 with forms.

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 cold eyes.

 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 remarked.

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 at church?

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 frightened.

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 haunts me.

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 bear that.

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.

1 comment:

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