Sunday, April 24, 2016
A Forgotten Influence
In writing Phineas at Bay, I tried to give credit to (most of) the influences and references I included in the book. (In fact, the Author's Note, titled "For Those Who Who Enjoy Peering Behind the Curtain,"runs 12 pages.) But there's one I signally failed to credit, largely because I'd forgotten how it moved me.
In "Behind the Curtain" I note that I based the feelings of my young heroine Clarissa Riley, prior to her wedding, on those of Eleanor Roosevelt before her wedding to Franklin. In particular, I was struck by her framing of the ideal of love around Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem "A Woman's Shortcomings".
I'd forgotten, though, the extent to which that poem, used as a framing device in the television films Eleanor and Franklin (1976) and Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years, fretted at me. Even more than in the biographies, the film hearkens back again and again to Browning's poem, holding out an ideal of love that is--dare I say it? Yes, I rather think I do--an ideal of love that is quite simply impossible to live up to.
I was reminded of that when I re-viewed one of the TV films for the first time in oh, well over a decade.
So here is my answer to Mrs. Browning's poem as used in those films. For the non-initiate, Phineas Finn's first wife Mary Flood Jones dies in childbirth at the beginning of Phones Redux (1874). Plantagenet Palliser, Duke of Omnium, becomes a widower at the beginning of The Duke's Children (1880).
Now that the day itself had begun, Clarissa felt keyed up, but not exactly anxious. Excited, that was the word. Early on in her engagement, she had been fearful that she had plunged too quickly, leaped before sufficient looking. Words in her mother’s old copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning had driven her to her uncle’s study late one night for comfort. Finding him at his desk reviewing a brief, despite the lateness of the hour—had it been for Ifor, whom she was starting to think of as the brother she had always longed for, but never had? Perhaps—in any event, she had not hesitated to interrupt him.
Wordlessly, she had showed her uncle the passage:
Unless you can think, when the song is done,
No other is soft in the rhythm;
Unless you can feel, when left by One,
That all men else go with him;
Unless you can know, when unpraised by his breath,
That your beauty itself wants proving;
Unless you can swear “For life, for death!” —
Oh, fear to call it loving!
Uncle Phineas had read the poem carefully through. He looked at her over his reading glasses, and said to Clarissa, “Mrs. Browning was a gifted poet, no doubt, but she puts things forcefully, simply, as poets often do. Look here, at the next stanza.” He pointed, and Clarissa read:
Unless you can muse in a crowd all day
On the absent face that fixed you;
Unless you can love, as the angels may,
With the breadth of heaven betwixt you;
Unless you can dream that his faith is fast,
Through behoving and unbehoving;
Unless you can die when the dream is past —
Oh, never call it loving!
Uncle Phineas had waited until she had looked up from the page, and said, in his gentlest voice, “My friend the Duke of Omnium did not die when the dream was past—and his love was not perfect or idyllic, but tempestuous, and with all the contrarieties and squalls of life. Yet he loved, and she loved, as truly as ever a couple did. Do not let Mrs. Browning frighten you, my dear.”
“Uncle Phineas, you were married once before, Mother told me.”
“Yes, Clarissa, I was.”
“Did you love my Aunt Mary?”
Phineas had then paused a moment. “When I first told her I did, I thought that was the case. I later came to realize that, although I cared for her, I did not love her as I could best love a woman, and I married her nonetheless. In doing so, I did us both a great injustice—she was a lovely girl, and could have found someone who would have loved her as she deserved.”
After a little while, Clarissa had asked, in a small voice, “Did she know?”
“I sincerely hope not, Clarissa. She died so soon, you see, that she may not have.” The pain in his voice startled her. “I lost not only Mary, but the son she bore me—he died only a few hours after his mother.”
“What was his name?” she asked.
“Malachi. After my father, your grandfather, my dear girl. How he would have loved you.”
She leaned up against him for a moment, and then murmured:
“So I should not let Mrs. Browning frighten me, then?”
“Do you love Savrola—in your heart, truly, as far as you know your heart?”
“Then be at ease,” he had said, “and trust to your heart.”
In the months since, her feelings had become ever more clear, and ever stronger. Her love had been confirmed by a barrage of experiences—the suspenseful ordeal of viewing Ifor’s trial together, Savrola’s willingness to assist her uncle, and then later his assiduous care, not only for her, but for her uncle and for Aunt Marie when her uncle had been injured, his regular letters sent from the House when speeches were dull, enlivened by little drawings of the long-winded speakers, and of Savrola himself, as a little be-suited pig, snoozing in his seat. All these things had endeared him to her, and the terrible fear that she had undergone when his own life was endangered had taught her that her uncle had been right. She knew, on her wedding day, that she loved and was loved, and could acknowledge it without fear.
Her bath ready, Clarissa prepared to meet the day.