Authors: Jane Urquhart
BOOKS BY JANE URQUHART
I Am Walking in the Garden of His Imaginary Palace
The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan
This book is for Tony
This collection of stories, written between 1979 and 1984 and originally published in 1986 by The Porcupine’s Quill, comprises some of my first pilgrimages into the world of fiction. I thought myself a poet at the time—I had always been in love with the musical rhythms of language—but I was fascinated by narrative as well, and my poetry was edging toward description of real or imaginary events combined with subtle explorations of character. As time went by and ideas, landscapes, and characters began to enter my mind, I found that there was not enough physical space in a single lyric poem for what I wanted to say, and not enough breadth for me to get to know what I needed to learn. I began to write poetic sequences. But although I was able to concentrate to a certain extent on action, I was unable—in that form—to develop a vehicle to examine the consequences of action. And so I turned toward short fiction.
During my late twenties and early thirties, at the time that most of these stories were written, I was doing a great deal of travelling, and was living in places far from home for periods of up to a year. The wonderful thing about this was that I was able to see the changing world around me with the freshness of a first encounter, as well as look back at my homeland from a great enough distance to be able to experience it whole. With images, both natural and cultural, from the European and North American worlds flooding my psyche, I wrote a sequence called “Seven Confessions” in a kind of white heat, taking on the first person points of view of men, women, and children, and putting together a conglomeration of disparate periods and settings. Anything seemed possible, and I remember approaching the page each day with a combination of joy and hunger.
The stories “John’s Cottage” and “Forbidden Dances” were written a year or two later when I was becoming interested in intermingling the past and the present in order to watch recurring patterns emerge. The same is true of “Italian Postcards,” except it is a single image—that of a preserved body in a glass case—that returns over and over again in the narrative, the same image that inspired me to write the story.
It is a privilege for me to watch these stories being reborn in a brand new edition, and a pleasure to be able to spot and identify the seeds sown in this early work for one or two of my novels. And it is tremendously satisfying to be able to reacquaint myself with the young woman who wrote these tales, and to know that what was going on in her mind intrigues me still.
n December of 1889, as he was returning by gondola from the general vicinity of the Palazzo Manzoni, it occurred to Robert Browning that he was more than likely going to die soon. This revelation had nothing to do with either his advanced years or the state of his health. He was seventy-seven, a reasonably advanced age, but his physical condition was described by most of his acquaintances as vigorous and robust. He took a cold bath each morning and every afternoon insisted on a three-mile walk during which he performed small errands from a list his sister had made earlier in the day. He drank moderately and ate well. His mind was as quick and alert as ever.
Nevertheless, he knew he was going to die. He also had to admit that the idea had been with him for some time—two or three months at least. He was not a man to ignore symbols, especially when they carried personal messages. Now he had to acknowledge that the symbols were in the air as surely as winter. Perhaps, he speculated, a man carried the seeds of his
death with him always, somewhere buried in his brain, like the face of a woman he is going to love. He leaned to one side, looked into the deep waters of the canal, and saw his own face reflected there. As broad and distinguished and cheerful as ever, health shining vigorously, robustly from his eyes—even in such a dark mirror.
Empty Gothic and Renaissance palaces floated on either side of him like soiled pink dreams. Like sunsets with dirty faces, he mused, and then, pleased with the phrase, he reached into his jacket for his notebook, ink pot and pen. He had trouble recording the words, however, as the chill in the air had numbed his hands. Even the ink seemed affected by the cold, not flowing as smoothly as usual. He wrote slowly and deliberately, making sure to add the exact time and the location. Then he closed the book and returned it with the pen and pot to his pocket, where he curled and uncurled his right hand for some minutes until he felt the circulation return to normal. The celebrated Venetian dampness was much worse in winter, and Browning began to look forward to the fire at his son’s palazzo where they would be beginning to serve afternoon tea, perhaps, for his benefit, laced with rum.
A sudden wind scalloped the surface of the canal. Browning instinctively looked upwards. Some blue patches edged by ragged white clouds, behind them wisps of grey and then the solid dark strip of a storm front moving slowly up on the horizon. Such a disordered sky in this season. No solid, predictable blocks of weather with definite beginnings, definite endings. Every change in the atmosphere seemed an emotional response to something that had gone before. The light, too, harsh and metallic, not at all like the golden Venice of summer. There was
something broken about all of it, torn. The sky, for instance, was like a damaged canvas. Pleased again by his own metaphorical thoughts, Browning considered reaching for the notebook. But the cold forced him to reject the idea before it had fully formed in his mind.
Instead, his thoughts moved lazily back to the place they had been when the notion of death so rudely interrupted them; back to the building he had just visited. Palazzo Manzoni.
Palazzo Manzoni! The colourful marble medallions rolled across Browning’s inner eye, detached from their home on the Renaissance façade, and he began, at once, to reconstruct for the thousandth time the imaginary windows and balconies he had planned for the building’s restoration. In his daydreams the old poet had walked over the palace’s swollen marble floors and slept beneath its frescoed ceilings, lit fires underneath its sculptured mantels and entertained guests by the light of its chandeliers. Surrounded by a small crowd of admirers he had read poetry aloud in the evenings, his voice echoing through the halls.
No R.B. tonight
, he had said to them, winking, Le
t’s have some real poetry
. Then, moving modestly into the palace’s impressive library, he had selected a volume of Dante or Donne.
But they had all discouraged him and it had never come to pass. Some of them said that the façade was seriously cracked and the foundations were far from sound. Others told him that the absentee owner would never part with it for anything resembling a fair price. Eventually, friends and family wore him down with their disapproval and, on their advice, he abandoned his daydream though he still made an effort to visit it, despite the fact that it was now damaged and empty and the glass in its windows was broken.
It was the same kind of frustration and melancholy that he associated with his night dreams of Asolo, the little hill town he had first seen (and then only at a distance), when he was twenty-six years old. Since that time, and for no rational reason, it had appeared over and over in the poet’s dreams as a destination on the horizon, one that, due to a variety of circumstances, he was never able to reach. Either his companions in the dream would persuade him to take an alternate route, or the road would be impassable, or he would awaken just as the town gate came into view, frustrated and out of sorts. “I’ve had my old Asolo dream again,” he would tell his sister at breakfast, “and it has no doubt ruined my work for the whole day.”
Then, just last summer, he had spent several months there at the home of a friend. The house was charming and the view of the valley delighted him. But, although he never once broke the well-established order that ruled the days of his life, a sense of unreality clouded his perceptions. He was visiting the memory of a dream with a major and important difference. He had reached the previously elusive hill town with practically no effort. Everything had proceeded according to plan. Thinking about this, under the December sky in Venice, Browning realized that he had known since then that it was only going to be a matter of time.
The gondola bumped against the steps of his son’s palazzo.
Robert Browning climbed onto the terrace, paid the gondolier, and walked briskly inside.
Lying on the magnificent carved bed in his room, trying unsuccessfully to surrender himself to his regular pre-dinner nap, Robert Browning examined his knowledge like a stolen jewel he
had coveted for years; turning it first this way, then that, imagining the reactions of his friends, what his future biographers would have to say about it all. He was pleased that he had prudently written his death poem at Asolo in direct response to having received a copy of Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” in the mail. How he detested that poem! What
Alfred have been thinking of when he wrote it? He had to admit, none the less, that to suggest that mourners restrain their sorrow, as Tennyson had, guarantees the floodgates of female tears will eventually burst open. His poem had, therefore, included similar sentiments, but without, he hoped, such obvious sentimentality. It was the final poem of his last manuscript which was now, mercifully, at the printers.
Something for the biographers and for the weeping maidens; those who had wept so copiously for his dear departed, though soon to be reinstated wife. Surely it was not too much to ask that they might shed a few tears for him as well, even if it was a more ordinary death, following, he winced to have to add, a fairly conventional life.