Authors: A.S. Byatt
Debbie goes home thoughtful. Mrs Brown has done her day’s work and left. Robin is fretful. He does not want spaghetti for supper, he is sick of pasta, he thinks they must have had pasta every night for a fortnight. Debbie considers him, as he sits twisting his fettucine with a fork, and thinks that on the whole it is probably safe to tell him
about Mrs Brown and her Aladdin’s Cave, since he never takes an interest in
A Woman’s Place
, she can hide that from him, and she can probably keep other criticism from him too, he doesn’t read much, it depresses him.
No sooner has she worked all this out than it is all ruined by Jamie, who rushes into the kitchen crying, come and see, come and see, Mrs Brown is on the telly. When neither of his parents moves he cries louder,
‘She’s got an exhibition of things like Muppets with that gallery-lady who came here, do come and look, Daddy, they’re
So Robin goes and looks. Sheba Brown looks down her long nose at him out of the screen and says,
‘Well, it all just comes to me in a kind of coloured rush, I just like putting things together, there’s so much in the world, isn’t there, and making things is a natural enough way of showing your excitement
The screen briefly displays the Hoover-dragon and the washing-bound lady.
‘No, no, I don’t do it out of
says Sheba Brown enthusiastically in voice-over, as the camera pursues the strangling twisted tights. ‘No, I find it all
, I told you. Working as a cleaning-lady, OK, you learn a lot, it’s honest, you can see things
anywhere at all
to make things up from, that’s one thing I know. People are funny really, you can’t be a cleaning-lady for long without learning that
Debbie looks at Robin. Robin looks at Sheba Brown. Sheba Brown vanishes and is replaced by a jolly avuncular Tar surrounded by simpering infants, brandishing a plateful of steaming rectangular Fishy Morsels. Robin says,
‘That, round that woman-sort-of-thing’s neck, that was that school tie I lost.’
‘You didn’t lose it. You threw it out.’
‘No, I didn’t. How would I have done that? I might go back to some school reunion, might I not, you never know, and it isn’t likely I shall go and waste any money on
hideous purple tie, is it?’
‘It was in the waste-paper basket. I said she could have it.’
‘Mummy,’ says Jamie, ‘can we go and
Mrs Brown’s squashy sculptures?’
‘We will all go,’ says Robin. ‘Courtesy requires that we all go. And see what else she has filched.’
Mrs Brown comes in the next day accompanied by a grey-haired sylph in ballet tights and trainers.
‘Mrs Brown, Mrs Brown,’ says Jamie (it is the school holidays), ‘Mrs Brown, we saw you on the telly. And your name is beautiful, and I think the Muppet sort of things and the little faces are stupiferous.’
Mrs Brown says,
‘It looks as though I can’t come for a bit, Mrs Dennison. I hadn’t quite taken what a change in my life it was going to make, showing anyone my things. I just suddenly got it into my head that it was time they were seen
by someone, you know how it is, and things got taken on from there, out of my control rather, though I’m not complaining. I kept meaning to say something, but it didn’t seem to be the moment, and I was concerned for you, how you would take it, for you do need someone to rely on, as we both know. Now this here is Mrs Stimpson, who will do exactly what I did, I’ll show her all the ropes, and how not to interfere with Mr Dennison, and I really do think you’ll hardly notice, Mrs Dennison. It’ll be just the same.’
Debbie stares silently at Mrs Brown. Mrs Brown drops her eyes and then looks up slightly flushed.
‘You do see how it was?’ she asks, steadily enough. Debbie thinks, the worst thing is, if we had been friends, she would have shown me her things. But we weren’t. I only thought we were.
Sheba Brown says, ‘We understood each other, Mrs Dennison. But no one’s unique. Mrs Stimpson is quite reliable and resourceful. I wouldn’t let you down by bringing anyone who wasn’t. She’ll be just like me.’
Debbie says, ‘And does Mrs Stimpson make secret works of art?’
says Sheba Brown, ‘you will have to find out for yourself.’
Mrs Stimpson’s young-old face has a firm, knowing little smile on it. She says,
‘We can but try, Mrs Dennison. Without prejudice.’
‘I suppose so,’ says Debbie. Before she can open her mouth again Mrs Brown and Mrs Stimpson have gone into the kitchen. Debbie hears the coffee-grinder. They will bring her a cup of coffee. It will all be more or less the same.
Or not quite the same. For one thing, Debbie goes back to making wood-engravings.
A Book of Bad Fairies
A Book of Good Fairies
, which have a certain success in the world of book illustration. Some of the more exotic fairies have the carved, haughty face of Sheba Brown, and the sweet, timeless face of Mrs Stimpson. And Robin? He roars at Mrs Stimpson, who humours him by appearing to be very flurried and rushing energetically to and fro at his behest. He also develops an interest in oriental mythology, and buys several books of tantric mándalas and prayer-wheels. One day Debbie goes up to his room and finds a new kind of painting on
the easel, geometric, brightly coloured, highly organised, a kind of woven pattern of flames and limbs with a recurring motif of a dark, glaring face with red eyes and a protruding red tongue. ‘Kali the Destroyer,’ says Mrs Stimpson, knowledgeably at Debbie’s elbow. ‘It’s a picture of Kali the Destroyer.’ It is not right, thinks Debbie, that the black goddess should be a simplified travesty of Sheba Brown, that prolific weaver of bright webs. But at the same time she recognises a new kind of loosed, slightly savage energy in Robin’s use of colour and movement.
something,’ says Mrs Stimpson pleasantly. ‘I do really think
something.’ Debbie has to agree. It has indeed got something.
Nymphe et faune
The proprietors of the ‘Orient Lotus’ alternate frenetic embellishment with periods of lassitude and letting go. Dr Himmelblau knows this, because she has been coming here for quick lunches, usually solitary, for the last seven years or so. She chose it because it was convenient—it is near all her regular stopping-places, the National Gallery, the Royal Academy, the British Museum—and because it seemed unpretentious and quietly comfortable. She likes its padded seats, even though the mock leather is split in places. She can stack her heavy book-bags beside her and rest her bones.
The window on to the street has been framed in struggling cheese-plants as long as she can remember. They grow denser, dustier, and still livelier as the years
go by. They press their cut-out leaves against the glass, the old ones holly-dark, the new ones yellow and shining. The glass distorts and folds them, but they press on. Sometimes there is a tank of coloured fish in the window, and sometimes not. At the moment, there is not. You can see bottles of soy sauce, and glass containers which dispense toothpicks, one by one, and chrome-plated boxes full of paper napkins, also frugally dispensed one by one.
Inside the door, for the last year or so, there has been a low square shrine, made of bright jade-green pottery, inside which sits a little brass god, or sage, in the lotus position, his comfortable belly on his comfortable knees. Little lamps, and sticks of incense, burn before him in bright scarlet glass pots, and from time to time he is decorated with scarlet and gold shiny paper trappings. Dr Himmelblau likes the colour-mixture, the bright blue-green and the saturated scarlet, so nearly the same weight. But she is a little afraid
the god, because she does not know who he is, and because he is obviously
worshipped, not just a decoration.
Today there is a new object, further inside the door, but still before the tables or the coathangers. It is a
display-case, in black lacquered wood, standing about as high as Dr Himmelblau’s waist—she is a woman of medium height—shining with newness and sparkling with polish. It is on four legs, and its lid and side-walls—about nine inches deep—are made of glass. It resembles cases in museums, in which you might see miniatures, or jewels, or small ceramic objects.
Dr Himmelblau looks idly in. The display is brightly lit, and arranged on a carpet of that fierce emerald-green artificial grass used by greengrocers and undertakers.
Round the edges on opened shells, is a border of raw scallops, the pearly flesh dulling, the repeating half-moons of the orange-pink roes playing against the fierce green.
In the middle, in the very middle, is a live lobster, flanked by two live crabs. All three, in parts of their bodies, are in feeble perpetual motion. The lobster, slowly in this unbreathable element, moves her long feelers and can be seen to move her little claws on the end of her legs, which cannot go forward or back. She is black, and holds out her heavy great pincers in front of her, shifting them slightly, too heavy to lift up. The great muscles of her tail crimp and control and collapse. One of the
crabs, the smaller, is able to rock itself from side to side, which it does. The crabs’ mouths can be seen moving from side to side, like scissors; all three survey the world with mobile eyes still lively on little stalks. From their mouths comes a silent hissing and bubbling, a breath, a cry. The colours of the crabs are matt, brick, cream, a grape-dark sheen on the claw-ends, a dingy, earthy encrustation on the hairy legs. The lobster was, is, and will not be, blue-black and glossy. For a moment, in her bones, Dr Himmelblau feels their painful life in the thin air. They stare, but do not, she supposes, see her. She turns on her heel and walks quickly into the body of the Orient Lotus’. It occurs to her that the scallops, too, are still in some sense, probably, alive.
The middle-aged Chinese man—she knows them all well, but knows none of their names—meets her with a smile, and takes her coat. Dr Himmelblau tells him she wants a table for two. He shows her to her usual table, and brings another bowl, china spoon, and chopsticks. The muzak starts up. Dr Himmelblau listens with comfort and pleasure. The first time she heard the muzak, she was dismayed, she put her hand to her breast in alarm at the burst of sound, she told herself that this was
not after all the peaceful retreat she had supposed. Her noodles tasted less succulent against the tin noise, and then, the second or the third time, she began to notice the tunes, which were happy, banal, Western tunes, but jazzed up and sung in what she took to be Cantonese. Oh what a beautiful
Oh what a beautiful
I’ve got a kind of
Only in the incomprehensible nasal syllables, against a zithery plink and plunk, a kind of gong, a sort of bell. It was not a song she had ever liked. But she has come to find it the epitome of restfulness and cheerfulness. Twang, tinkle, plink,
A cross-cultural object, an occidental Orient, an oriental Western. She associates it now with the promise of delicate savours, of warmth, of satisfaction. The middle-aged Chinese man brings her a pot of green tea, in the pot she likes, with the little transparent rice-grain flowers in the blue and white porcelain, delicate and elegant.
She is early. She is nervous about the forthcoming conversation. She has never met her guest personally, though she has of course seen him, in the flesh and on the television screen; she has heard him lecture, on Bellini, on Titian, on Mantegna, on Picasso, on Matisse.
His style is orotund and idiosyncratic. Dr Himmelblau’s younger colleagues find him rambling and embarrassing. Dr Himmelblau, personally, is not of this opinion. In her view, Perry Diss is always talking about something, not about nothing, and in her view, which she knows to be the possibly crabbed view of a solitary intellectual, nearing retirement, this is increasingly rare. Many of her colleagues, Gerda Himmelblau believes, do not
paintings. Perry Diss does. He loves them, like sound apples to bite into, like fair flesh, like sunlight. She is thinking in his style. It is a professional hazard, of her own generation. She has never had much style of her own, Gerda Himmelblau—only an acerbic accuracy, which is an
style for a very clever woman who looks as though she ought to be dry. Not arid, she would not go so far, but dry. Used as a word of moderate approbation. She has long fine brown hair, caught into a serviceable knot in the nape of her neck. She wears suits in soft dark, not-quite-usual colours—damsons, soots, black tulips, dark mosses—with clean-cut cotton shirts, not masculine, but with no floppy bows or pretty ribbons—also in clear colours, palest lemon, deepest cream, periwinkle, faded flame. The suits are cut soft but the body
inside them is, she knows, sharp and angular, as is her Roman nose and her judiciously tightened mouth.
She takes the document out of her handbag. It is not the original, but a photocopy, which does not reproduce all the idiosyncrasies of the original—a grease-stain, maybe butter, here, what looks like a bloodstain, watered-down at the edges, there, a kind of Rorschach stag-beetle made by folding an ink-blot, somewhere else. There are also minute drawings, in the margins and in the text itself. The whole is contained in a border of what appear to be high-arched wishbones, executed with a fine brush, in India ink. It is addressed in large majuscules
and continues in minute minuscules
from peggi nollett, woman and student.
I wish to lay a formal complaint against the DISTINGUISHED VISITING PROFESSOR the Department has seen fit to appoint as the supervisor of my disertation on
The Female Body and Matisse.
In my view, which I have already made plain to anyone who cared to listen, and specificly to Doug Marks, Tracey Avison, Annie Manson, and also to you, Dr Gerda Himmelblau, this person should never have been assigned to direct this work, as he is
completley out of sympathy
with its feminist project. He is a so-called EXPERT on the so-called MASTER of MODERNISM but what does he know about Woman or the internal conduct of the Female Body, which has always until now been MUTE and had no mouth to speak.
Here followed a series
tiny pencil drawings which, in the original, Dr Himmelblau could make out to be lips, lips ambiguously oral or vaginal, she put it to herself precisely, sometimes parted, sometimes screwed shut, sometimes spattered with what might be hairs.
His criticisms of what I have written so far have always been null and extremely agressive and destructive. He does not understand that my project is ahistorical and
need not involve
any description of the so-called development of Matisse’s so-called style or approach, since what I wish to state is esentially
, and presented from a
viewpoint with insights provided from contemporary critical methods to which the cronology of Matisse ‘s life or the order in which he comitted his ‘paintings’ is
However although I thought I should begin by stating my theoretical position yet again I wish at the present time to lay a spercific complaint of
against the DVP. I can and will go into much more detail believe me Dr Himmelblau but I will set out the gist of it so you can see there is something here
you must take up.
I am writing while still under the effect of the shock I have had so please excuse any incoherence.
It began with my usual dispirting CRIT with the DVP. He asked me why I had not writen more of the disertation than I had and I said I had not been very well and also preocupied with getting on with my art-work, as you know, in the Joint Honours Course, the creative work and the Art History get equal marks and I had reached a
very difficult stage
with the Work. But I had writen some notes on Matisse ‘s
of the Female Body with respect especially to the spercificaly Female Organs, the Breasts the Cunt the Labia etc etc and also to his ways of acumulating Flesh on certain Parts of the Body which appeal to Men and tend to imobilise Women such as grotesquely swollen Thighs or protruding Stomachs. I mean to conect this in time to the whole tradition of the depiction of Female Slaves and Odalisques but I have not yet done the research I would need to write on this.
Also his Women tend to have no features on their faces, they are Blanks, like Dolls, I find this sinister.
Anyway I told the DVP what my line on this was going to
be even if I had not writen very much and he argued with me and went so far as to say I was hostile and full of hatred to Matisse. I said this was not a relevant criticism of my work and that Matisse was hostile and full of hatred towards women. He said Matisse was full of love and desire towards women (!!!!!) and I said
but he did not take the point and was realy quite cutting and undermining and dismisive and unhelpful even if no worse had hapened. He even said in his view I ought to fail my degree which is no way for a supervisor to behave as you will agree. I was so tense and upset by his atitude that I began to cry and he pated me on my shoulders and tried to be a bit nicer. So I explained how busy I was with my art-work and how my art-work, which is a series of mixed-media pieces called Erasures and Undistortions was a part of my criticism of Matisse. So he
said he would like to see my art-work as it might help him to give me a better grade if it contributed to my ideas on Matisse. He said art students often had dificulty expresing themselves verbally although he himself found language ‘as sensuous as paint’. [It is not my place to say anything about his prose style but I could.] [This sentence is heavily but legibly crossed out.]
Anyway he came—
—to my studio to see my Work. I could see immediately he did not like it, indeed was repeled by it which I súpose was not a surprise. It does not try to be agreable or seductive. He tried to put a good face on it and
admired one or two
pieces and went so far as to say there was a great power of feeling in the room. I tried to explain my project of
Matisse. I have a three-dimensional piece in wire and plaster-of-paris and plasticine called
The Resistance of Madame Matisse
which shows her and her daughter being
by the Gestapo in the War whilst
sits like a Buddha cutting up pretty paper with scissors. They wouldn’t tell him they were being tortured in case it disturbed his
I felt sick when I found out that. The torturers have got identical scissors.
Then the DVP got personal. He put his arm about me and hugged me and said
I had got too many clothes on. He said they were a depressing colour
and he thought I ought to take them all off and
let the air get to me.
He said he would like to see me in bright colours and that I was really a
very pretty girl
if I would let myself go. I said my clothes were a statement about myself, and he said they were a
and then he grabed me and began kissing me and fondling me and stroking intimate parts of me—it was disgusting—I will not write it down, but I can describe it clearly, believe me Dr Himmelblau, if it becomes necesary, I can give chapter and verse of every detail, I am still shaking with shock. The more I strugled the more he insisted and pushed at me with his body until I said I would get the police the moment he let go of me, and then he came to his senses and said that in the
painters and models felt a bit of
human warmth and sensuality
towards each other in the studio, and I said, not in my studio, and he said, clearly not, and went off, saying it seemed to him
that I should fail both parts of my Degree.