Archive | May, 2015

‘Life is so light.’ Is it really?

14 May

Life is so light. It’s like an outline we can’t ever fill in, correct, or make any better. It’s frightening.’ (film quote)

the unbearable lightness of being 2Scene from the film (1988)

I have started reading Milan Kundera’s novel ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being‘ again, and the question of lightness and heaviness of life has not stopped puzzling me since. First of all, if you haven’t read the book, what are you waiting for? It is one of the strangest love stories ever written, and, although philosophical, it is very easy to read, it’s not depressive or dark like Nietzsche for example. And if you have read it, then you know what am I talking/writing about here.

In short, novel is set mainly in Prague in the late 1960s an 1970s, and the main characters are Tomáš; a Czech surgeon, intellectual and a womaniser who considers love and sex to be distinct entities. Tereza; a young wife of Tomáš, a gentle soul who loves reading and photographing, and comes from a small town where nobody ‘reads or discusses anything‘. And Sabina; a passionate and free-spirited artist, and one of Tomáš’ favourite mistresses. She declares war on kitsch and conventionality. While Tomáš and Sabina live a life of lightness and freedom, for Tereza that lightness is unbearable, she feels week, too dependent on Tomáš for love and everything else. Sabina and Tomáš live their lives in freedom, without worries, without a care in the world, they don’t give meaning to ordinary things; they enjoy the pleasures of life, excluding all sentimentality, but Sabina is surrounded by emptiness.

Her drama was a drama not of heaviness but of lightness. What fell to her lot was not the burden, but the unbearable lightness of being.

At the same time, Tereza finds the insignificance of her life, and life in general, unbearable, but the heaviness of life is crushing her down. She came like a burden into Tomáš’ life. It is her own incapability of confronting the heaviness of life that is making her miserable.

We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.(…)

There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, “sketch” is not quite a word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.

Each of us is given only one life. One life. Compared to eternity, we are given less than a hundred years to live our first and only life, unprepared, without a ‘sketch’ or a previous outline, without rules or instructions, therefor life’s so light. But if we were forced to relive our lives again and again for eternity, like in Nietzsche’s concept of ‘eternal recurrence’, we’d be condemned to eternal agony! Imagine that you have to relive every second of your life, whether it’s a joyous or a sad one. Endless repetition is a horrifying weight, an unimaginable burden. Isn’t it a blessing then, that we are living only one life?

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.

Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?

The contrast of weight and lightness is the most mystical out of all. For me, life is a burden, I’m always worried and the world frightens me, but I long for the power to embrace the lightness of life, to live a life of lightness. I know lightness wouldn’t be unbearable to me in a way it is to Tereza. On the contrary, I admire people like Sabina; she always tries not to be attached to a place, a thing or, a person. It seems like nothing means anything to her, I wish I could feel the same way. The fact that I’m writing this post, and putting effort, not only into this blog, but in other things as well, only proves the weight of life. If I lived the life of lightness, I wouldn’t bother doing anything, I’d be caught in the moment, time would pass slowly, and I’d be fully immersed into the emptiness of life. Still, the very phrase ‘Life is so light.‘ brings tears to my eyes, and the way Tomáš says it in the film, so calmly, and with resignation.

I ask myself why, why I am bothering with life, why can’t I just fade away?! Life is too hard for me. And everything means to me, further pulling me down into the heaviness of life. If only I could rise above it, into the lightness of living, I might be happy. If our lives are insignificant, and they are, why bother, why do anything, why have pointless hobbies and collect things? Why wake up in the morning? Why bother to cooperate in this theatre of life, in a role we are forced to play? It’s funny to me, but at the same time my curiosity compels me to think about it further, how all of us are just dolls, programmed to do certain pointless moves and words for a certain time until we die. It makes me happy to think that this life is not real, but revising for exams reassures me every time.

Light life may be unbearable, but the heavy one crushes us. If nothing matters, life is unbearable. If everything matters, life is also unbearable. A balance would be something in between, most things don’t matter but some do, in which case life is bearable and occasionally meaningful.

Are you living a life of lightness, or a life or heaviness? You don’t have to tell me, but please, take the time to just think about it.

Margaret Sarah Carpenter – Theobald Sisters

12 May

There are two reasons why I decided to write about this female Victorian painter. Firstly, she was active in the 1840s, and her paintings match the aesthetics of my story. Secondly, she painted in the manner of Sir Thomas Lawrence, and I really admire his portraits.

1840. Miss Theobald - Margaret Sarah Carpenter1840. Miss Theobald (1825-1841) by Margaret Sarah Carpenter

Margaret Sarah Carpenter (née Geddes) was born in 1793, in the city whose cathedral has been immortalised by the Romantic painter John Constable – Salisbury. Although fairly unknown today, Margaret was a renowned painter in her time. She was taught art at an early age by a local drawing-master, and her first art studies were those of a Longford Castle. In 1814, Margaret moved to London where her reputation as a fashionable portrait painter was soon established.

Miss Carpenter painted in the manner of Thomas Lawrence, but her portraits have a more feminine and fanciful aura around them. Delicacy and wistful nature of her sitters is probably what allures me the most. I’ll take the portrait of ‘Miss Theobald‘ for example. The dusky background and the lady’s gaze reveal to us the style of Thomas Lawrence.

Margaret painted three portraits for the Theobald family from 1839 to 1850, and one of them, this, is thought to be Frances Jane Theobald. Now, even before I tell you more about Frances Jane, looking at her portrait might reveal even more. At first sight, she seems delicate, fragile, melancholic and dreamy. She’s obviously very young and innocent, with rosy cheeks, pale skin, and soft blonde hair centrally parted and arranged in a fashionable low bun. Her dress is white and simple, and she’s holding her pet spaniel. This portrait is also called ‘The Morning Walk‘; we can assume that this sweet Jane went for a morning walk with her darling spaniel. But look at her eyes, how reconciled and contemplative they seem? Her gaze isn’t direct or proud. She gazes into the distance, into something unknown to us. Frances Jane died of consumption only one year after this portrait was painted, in 1841, aged only sixteen. The contemplative nature of the portrait is one of its greatest qualities.

I wonder what was she really like? Sweet and delicate, seeing only good in people like Jane Bennet? Or, a thoughtful creature, shy, but an excellent piano player? Perhaps she had the voice of the lark? Perhaps every morning she went out for a walk with her spaniel, she laughed, picked flowers and smelled roses, her dress and petticoat swaying and rustling….. we’ll never know.

1850. Mrs Charles Sabine Thellusson - Margaret Sarah Carpenter1850. Mrs Charles Sabine Thellusson (née Georgiana Theobald, 1828-1883) by Margaret Sarah Carpenter

The portrait above shows Jane’s younger sister Georgiana who was just thirteen when she lost her sister. Tragic, but not uncommon at the time. The face we see is more mature and more serious, but the golden curls are the same. Ten years had passed since the last time Margaret Sarah Carpenter painted a member of the Theobald family. I wonder was Margaret saddened by the news of Jane’s death? Was it strange to paint one sister, knowing that the other one is now lying in a cold grave?

The portrait of Georgiana was painted in 1850, the year she got married to Charles Thelluson, but the absence of the ring indicates that she was still Miss Theobald when the portrait was painted.

Jane is in my thoughts the entire day, had she lived, what would become of her? If she had lived, she’d probably be married and surrounded by children. Nothing exciting awaited her anyways. Still, the heroine of my story (set in 1842!) is sixteen years old. A thought crossed my mind; what if she died of consumption, right now, I can write it, it’s my story. Well, she’d miss out on the fantastic life I have created for her, and her love interest would have to find another lady. Just the thought makes me sad, and I’m talking about a character, and Jane was a real person, living real life, how sad.

Mary and Percy Shelley – ‘A Gothic Romance’

9 May

Yesterday’s tranquil afternoon filled my soul with excitement and overwhelming joy for it rained heavily and dark clouds pervaded the sky. I was listening to Chopin and reading Shelley’s poems by candlelight, relishing in the sounds of wind whispering through the trees, and a peaceful birdsong. I couldn’t have hoped for a more atmospheric afternoon! Then suddenly, the sky turned golden, mottled with purple, like in one of Turner’s paintings. After a picturesque storm, all was calm again. The love story of Mary and Percy Shelley, one of the wildest and most interesting romances in history, was on my mind the entire afternoon.

1830s mary shelley

Mary Shelley was born on 30 August 1797. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a philosopher and the founder of feminism, and died ten days after the birth of her daughter Mary. Mary’s father was William Godwin, a fellow philosopher and a prominent thinker, and the first modern proponent of anarchism. As she grew up, Mary accepted her mother’s liberal attitudes and outspokenness, and soaked up her father’s ideas like a good pupil. She was eager for knowledge from a young age, and growing up in an intellectually fruitful environment had served only to increase her intellectual curiosity. She met Wordsworth and Coleridge as a child, for they had been her father’s guests, and, along with excessive reading, she was taught by her father a great variety of subjects.

1797. Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie                                     1797. Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie

All in all, she had received a sophisticated, the least to say,  an unusual education for a girl at the time. Her father described her at fifteen as ‘singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible.‘ Still, Mary’s childhood had a dark side too. Firstly, she was aware that no matter how innocent she may be now, she had caused her mother death, and this thought seemed never to have left her. Secondly, her father remarried in 1802 to Mary Jane Clairmont who brought her own two children into the marriage. Mary never got along with her stepmother.

1775-1800. A Welsh Sunset River Landscape by Paul Sandby, showing rather better weather than most 'sublime' landscapes1775-1800. A Welsh Sunset River Landscape by Paul Sandby, showing rather better weather than most ‘sublime’ landscapes

Lonely and isolated, young Mary could often be found reading by her mother’s grave, relishing in the tranquility, in the behold of her mother’s spirit. She also liked to daydream, escaping the difficulties of reality into a world of imagination. It was during her two stays in Scotland in the summer of 1812 and 1813 that her imaginings turned into profound stories. Namely, Mary stayed with the family or a radical thinker William Baxter in Scotland, where she revelled in the magnificent landscapes and in the companionship of his four daughters. Mary later recalled: ‘I wrote then—but in a most common-place style. It was beneath the trees of the grounds belonging to our house, or on the bleak sides of the woodless mountains near, that my true compositions, the airy flights of my imagination, were born and fostered.

1819. Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint1840. mary shelley

Portraits of Percy Shelley (1819) and Mary Shelley (1840)

Indeed, Mary was familiar with many philosophers of the time through her father, but one lad, one passionate, eloquent and rebellious young poet had caught her eye – Percy Bysshe Shelley. On 5 May 1814 Percy visited Godwin’s bookshop in London’s East End in hopes of meeting Mary; a lady he had previously heard of, but had never laid his eyes on. He had just been expelled from Oxford for an independent mind is a dangerous thing, and, bored with his wife Harriet, he sought for a more intellectual female companionship. Percy first befriended Godwin with promises of financial help, but later snatched his darling Mary from his arms. Seems like this was a lose-lose situation for Gowdin for he could have known better; never trust a young man’s promises.

Godwin–Shelley family treeGodwin-Shelley Family Tree

Percy Bysshe Shelley was an exciting adventure and a passionate love that Mary had so anxiously expected. A vegetarian, an advocate of free love, and a man married to Harriet Westbrook with whom he had eloped only three years earlier. ‘The son of a man of fortune in Sussex‘ and ‘heir by entail to an estate of 6,000 £ per an‘ was how he informed Godwin, and offered himself as a devoted disciple. Still, Percy had difficulties gaining access to money until he inherited his estate because his family disapproved of his engagements in projects of ‘political justice’. His inability or unwillingness to pay off Godwin’s debts infuriated Godwin. The subsequent elopement with Mary served only to deepen Godwin’s sense of betrayal.

Harriet Westbrook, who was the passionate love of his life merely a year ago, had by now bored him to death. He accused her of marrying him for money, and abandoned both her and their daughter Elizabeth Ianthe (born in June 1813) before their second child was born. Harriet was devastated.

1827. On 26 June 1814, Mary Godwin declared her love for Percy Shelley at Mary Wollstonecraft's graveside in the cemetery of St Pancras Old ChurchCemetary of St Pancras Old Church in central London

The church was restored in c.1850, and after. I visited late in a winter afternoon and it felt lonely, separated from city life; the atmosphere was curiously quiet, almost countryside.‘ (source)

St Pancras Old Church 2St Pancras Old Church today

Percy’s affection towards Mary blossomed and he lavished her with attention, joyful that he had finally found a lady intellectually equal to him. They soon began meeting each other secretly at Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave in St Pancras Churchyard. London has greatly changed since Romantic era and St Pancras Church was, in those times, an isolated place; an oasis of tranquility by the River Fleet. On 26 June 1814 Mary declared her love for Percy Shelley at her mother’s graveside, under a starlit sky. Tombs glistening in the moonlight witnessed the endearments the two lovers whispered through the night.

Mary was nearly seventeen, and Percy nearly twenty two. William Godwin disapproved their relationship and Mary was confused. She could not apprehend her father’s worries for she saw both Percy and their love affair as the embodiment of her parents’ liberal ideas of the 1790s. Despite being a good daughter, Mary rebelled against her father’s advice and continues the love affair of her life.

Shelley's travels in 1816Map showing Shelley and Byron’s travels in 1814 and 1816

On 28 July 1814, the couple eloped to France, taking Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister, with them. Mary’s older half-sister, eighteen year old Fanny Imlay was left behind, to her great dismay, for she too had fallen in love with Percy. While traveling, the trio amused themselves by reading, mostly works of Shakespeare, Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft. They also kept a joint journal, and continued writing works of their own. Traveling by donkey, mule, carriage, and foot through a a France recently ravaged by war, brought them to Switzerland.

At Lucerne, however, the lack of money forced them to turn back. Mary Shelley later recalled ‘It was acting in a novel, being an incarnate romance.‘ The trio allegedly visited ‘Frankenstein Castle’ in the Odenwald, on their way to Lake Geneva. It was during that trip that Mary became acquainted with the story of Conrad Dipper, an anatomist and a former resident of the mentioned castle, and a possible prototype for Doctor Frankenstein.

‘Lord Byron and his physician settled themselves in Villa Diodati; mysterious place hidden in the trees, in the darkness of the large pines, while the Shelleys rented a smaller, less sumptuous villa nearby.’

In 1815 Mary faced the loss of her first child, a girl named Clara who died thirteen days after birth. In May 1816, Mary, Percy and their son William, born the same year, traveled to Geneva where they spent the infamous ‘summer without sun‘ in the company of Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont and John William Polidori, Byron’s physician. I have already written a post about this event, ‘Year without a Summer – Its effect on Art and literature‘ in detail, here.

In short, the tranquil, bleak and desolate atmosphere was inspiration for a group of young poets and writers. What started as a challenge to write a ghost story, turned into a hauntingly magnificent novel Frankenstein. Mary was just nineteen years old when she wrote the novel, but in the companion of such geniuses as were Byron and Shelley, she had not dared to present them with a less haunting story. This group of ‘Romantic era hippies’ returned to England in Autumn of 1816, where Percy and Mary would be greeted with sad news. Fanny Imlay, Mary’s older half-sister, born illegitimately to Mary Wollstonecraft before she met Godwin, had committed suicide 9 October 1816 by taking an overdose of laudanum at an inn in Swansea, Wales. She was twenty-two years old, and already so unbearably depressed, lonely and neglected. Motivation for the suicide remains unclear; some suggest it was her unrequited love for Shelley.

Shelley’s verses for Fanny:

Her voice did quiver as we parted,
Yet knew I not that heart was broken
From which it came, and I departed
Heeding not the words then spoken.
Misery—O Misery,
This world is all too wide for thee.

1816. Evening Dress, Ackermann's Repository, June 1815. Walking Dress, Ackermann's Repository, May

Fashion 1814-16

In December, another sad event happened, Shelley’s wife Harriet had committed suicide too. Still, Percy and Mary got married shortly afterwards. The marriage denoted Mary’s reconciliation with her father, for she had not spoken with him since her elopement. Although W. Godwin detested marriage in theory, his opinion was different when it came to his daughter. Although devoted to her husband, their marriage had not been the easiest. Wherever Shelley went, the children seemed to follow. Free love had its price.

In 1818, the couple went to Italy with no intentions of returning. Once there, they never settled in one place for too long. Time was spent in socialising, writing, reading, learning and sightseeing. However, their ‘Italian adventure‘ was overshadowed by personal tragedies and infidelities. Mary, who had inherited her mother’s melancholic streak, became depressed and isolated after the loss of her children, William and Clara. Percy sought happiness outside the family home, and in December 1818 Shelley’s daughter was born by an unmarried woman. Still, Shelley expressed Mary’s isolation from him:

My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone,

And left me in this dreary world alone?

Thy form is here indeed—a lovely one—

But thou art fled, gone down a dreary road

That leads to Sorrow’s most obscure abode.

For thine own sake I cannot follow thee

Do thou return for mine.

1889. The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Edouard Fournier

Years spent in Italy were the most creative and intellectually active period in their lives. In the Summer of 1822, the couple moved to isolated Villa Magni, in San Terenzo in the Bay of Lerici. On 8 July the same year, Mary’s life was struck by a sad event, again – Percy drowned while sailing back from Livorno to Lerici after meeting with Leigh Hunt and discussing their newly printed journal, The Liberal. Mary dedicated the rest of her life to preserving Shelley’s poems from falling into oblivion.

Percy Bysshe Shelley – Love’s Philosophy

7 May

young victoria nature 2

‘The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of Heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single,
All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle –
Why not I with thine?

See the mountains kiss high Heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea –
What are all these kissings worth
If thou kiss not me?’

The Wedding Dress – Frederick W. Elwell

5 May

First glance at this painting reminded me of a scene in Jane Eyre, both the movie and the novel, where Jane returns to Thornfield Hall after the wedding, devastated after finding out about Mr Rochester’s real wife.

I was in my own room as usual–just myself, without obvious change: nothing had smitten me, or scathed me, or maimed me. And yet where was the Jane Eyre of yesterday? Where was her life? Where were her prospects?

Copyright Ferens Art Gallery / Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation1911. Frederick William Elwell – The Wedding Dress, Ferens Art Gallery, Queen Victoria Square, Kingston upon Hull, East Riding of Yorkshire, England

‘Jane Eyre, who had been an ardent, expectant woman–almost a bride, was a cold, solitary girl again: her life was pale; her prospects were desolate. A Christmas frost had come at midsummer; a white December storm had whirled over June; ice glazed the ripe apples, drifts crushed the blowing roses; on hayfield and cornfield lay a frozen shroud:lanes which last night blushed full of flowers, today were pathless with untrodden snow; and the woods, which twelve hours since waved leafy and flagrant as groves between the tropics, now spread, waste, wild, and white as pine-forests in wintry Norway. I looked on my cherished wishes, yesterday so blooming and glowing…‘ (Chapter 26)

Even thought The Wedding Dress was painted in 1911, it reflects Victorian tastes, especially the popular themes of death and weddings. Frederick William Elwell was born in a small town of Beverley in East Riding of Yorkshire, and, apart from his brief stay in London, he spent his life in Beverley where he enjoyed painting and gardening. He was known for using local people as models, and thus he used a local woman, Mrs Violet Prest, as a model for the sorrowful bride in this painting. Ironically, Mrs Violet faced the same unfortunate destiny in her own life; not long after this painting was painted, she lost her husband in the First World War, which adds the painting a certain mystical dimension for the modern viewers.

There are many elements that make this painting thematically a typical Victorian painting. First of all, the already mentioned Victorian fascination with death partly due to Queen Victoria’s rigid practice of mourning after the death of Prince Albert. This painting also shows the contrast between the innocence, symbolised by the white wedding dress, and experience, symbolised by the dark attire of this weeping lady. A certain level of intimacy was achieved by hiding the lady’s face – she appears to be crying in solitude, in a gloomy chamber, tormented by the sudden loss of her husband. Nobody is watching her, but us.

Vision of the bright future was tainted by death. A home which could have been a place of warmth and joy, filled with children, laughter and domestic happiness, is reduced to a drab domestic room. Painful present brings no relief. The old wedding dress, filled with memories of the more innocent times, remains the only comfort for the inconsolable young widow. Now the death has destroyed the fragile world of innocence.