Tag Archives: dead woman

Book Review: The Shrouded Woman by María Luisa Bombal

7 Aug

In July I read a wonderful short novel “The Shrouded Woman” (La amortajada) by a Chilean author María Luisa Bombal (1910-1980) which was originally published in 1938. It was suggested to me by someone, and I am infinitely glad that I finally sat down and read it because it was a stunning book and I can now recommend it to you all! It’s short and easy to read, direct and full of feelings, but it’s truly something else, both in the matter of topic and the writing style.

Claude Monet, Camille Monet on her deathbed, 1879

“And after it had gotten dark, her eyes opened. But just a little, very little. It was as if she wanted to look, while she was hidden behind her long eyelashes. At the flame of the tall candles that leaned over to keep watch on her, and to observe the cleanness and transparency of the border of the eye that death had not been able to cast a pall over. Respectfully dazzled, they leaned over, not knowing that She was able to see them. Because, in fact, She could both see and feel.

And that is how she looked, motionless, lying face up on the spacious bed now covered with embroidered sheets that were scented with lavender—that were always kept under lock and key—and she is wrapped in that white satin robe that always made her look so graceful.”

The story is told in the first person and the narrator is a beautiful dead woman Ana María. Despite being dead, she can still feel, think and see, and she begins by describing where she is lying and who are the people who are coming to see her for the last time. Little by little, she starts reminiscing about her life; her first love with a local boy Ricardo who both intimidated her and aroused passion in her, then her best friend Fernando who secretly adored her, and lastly she is contemplating about her disastrous marriage with Antonio. The mood of the novel feels very intimate, personal and it is very emotional as well. I think Bombal was very good at capturing the state of mind and thoughts that a deceased person might have, it just feels so accurate and convincing. Now that her life is over and nothing can be done or undone, the chances are over and desires that remain cannot be fulfilled, it’s fascinating to see where Ana María’s thoughts turn to; to love, both the possibility of joy and the agonies of love, things that could have been done differently but is now too late. She regrets being cold to her husband because her coldness distinguished his initial love for her. She regrets being left by Ricardo whom she loved with all her youthful ardour and madness.

Death can teach us so much about life. It’s interesting to note how most of us spend our day to day life thinking about trivial things, little nuisances and unimportant problems, what’s the weather like, how’s the traffic, and yet none of that truly matters. Time is wasted on trivialities. Ana María on her death bed is not thinking about the windows that she wished to clean, but, alas, death has stopped her in that! Looking at her life in retrospective she only pays attention to the most important things so why not focus on what really matters while we are still alive. Why not try and live and love since we are already alive and have no choice but to walk the earth for a little while, till eternity swallows us again. In this way, I think the novel is very inspiring. But it is also chilling in other ways and sad because the life she is telling us about is – over. But while I, as a living person, am saddened by this, Ana María is ecstatic to finally be at peace. She is not filled with sadness or anger, she is resigned to her fate and she simply contemplates things, without clinging to them. All the longings that tormented her while she was alive have now disappeared, no tears and no hatred left. She seems purified by the experience of death and is almost happy as her coffin descends into earth. And in the end, she is waiting for a real death: “She had already suffered the death of the living. Now she wanted total immersion, the second death: the death of those who are dead.”

Picture by Laura Makabresku.

I particularly enjoyed Ana María vivid memories of her childhood, her first love and her teenage days because obviously I can relate to that. And now the quotes:

Since then, I lived waiting for the arrival of my tears. I waited for them like one waits for a storm on the hottest days of summer. And harsh word, a look that was too sweet, was enough for me to open the floodgate of tears.”

Now that it was spring, I hung my hammock between two hazel nut trees. I laid there for hours and hours. I did not know why the landscape, the things around me, all gave me so much pleasure, the enjoyment of feeling peaceful with the rising and falling dark mass of the forest quietly rising above the horizon like a monstrous wave about to rush forward, the flight of the doves whose coming and going made moving shadows on the book over my knees; the intermittent song of the sawmill—that sharp note, sharp and sweet like the buzzing of a beehive—that filled the air all the way to the houses while the afternoon was very translucent.

I was overwhelmed by the wild carnation odor of your kiss.

One impulse swallowed another. Soon I was longing to knit yellow wool and yearning for a field of sunflowers that I could enjoy looking at hour after hour.
Oh, to be able to sink my eyes into something yellow!
That is the way I was living, greedy for fragrances, for colors, for flavors.

That wind! The plaits of my hair were torn apart and began to curl around your neck. We had suddenly been swallowed up by the darkness and the silence, the eternal darkness and silence of the forest.

And she suddenly feels that she is now without even a single wrinkle, more pale, and beautiful than ever.

The sound of rain on the trees and the house soon causes her very to surrender herself, body and soul, to that feeling of well-being and melancholy into which the sound of rain always filled her on those long autumn nights.

Everyone was upset by the indifference with which I took my first communion. … To me God seemed so distant, and so severe.

Ana María’s vision of heaven when she was a child which horrified the priest:

“I would like it to be the same as earth is. I would like it to be like the farm in the spring, when all the rose bushes are flowering, and all the fields are green, and you can hear the cooing of doves during the afternoon… And I would especially like something there wasn’t on the farm: …I would like it if there were little deer that were not afraid and would come to eat out of my hand… And I would also like it if my cousin Ricardo was always with me, and they would give us permission to spend the night in the woods, there where the grass is as soft as velvet, right on the edge of the stream…”

William James Grant – The Bridge of Sighs

28 Apr

Mad from life’s history,
Glad to death’s mystery,
Swift to be hurl’d—
Anywhere, anywhere
Out of the world!

William James Grant, The Bridge of Sighs, mid 1850s, oil on panel, 5 inches in Diameter

If a woman succumbs to society’s condemnation and feels that she cannot live with herself and her shame any longer… then drowning in the Thames is the only option. This is exactly what is portrayed in Grant’s painting “The Bridge of Sighs”. Pale young woman was found drowned, washed on the shores of the Thames, just near the bridge but moments ago. And now the man who found her is holding her frail pale body in his arm and taking her out of the water. Colourful shawl and the white dress are heavy and wet, but not heavier then her heart must have been before she made this decision. Look how lifelessly her arm, head and hair are hanging. The sad heart beats no more. Here is what the same-named poem says of the moment:

Ere her limbs frigidly
Stiffen too rigidly,
Decently, kindly,
Smooth and compose them;
And her eyes, close them,
Staring so blindly!

The theme of a fallen woman was very popular in the Victorian era, especially in the 1850s and 1860s. All members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhod; Rossetti, Millais and Hunt explored the theme, each in his own way, and many other artists followed their example and painted a theme which included exposing the hypocrisy of the Victorian society. It was very easy to be a fallen woman in Victorian era: “Fallen” was therefore an umbrella term that was applied to a variety of women in a variety of settings: she may have been a woman who had had sex once or habitually outside the confines of marriage; a woman of a lower socio-economic class; a woman who had been raped or seduced by a male aggressor; a woman with a shady reputation; or a prostitute. Furthermore, prostitution was defined in a range of ways and the “reality was that hard economic times meant that for many women, prostitution was the only way to make ends meet. Many … were only transient fallen women, moving in and out of the profession (of prostitution) as family finances dictated.’(*)

So this woman wasn’t necessarily a prostitute, she could have also been a working class girl whose lover abandoned her. Or, she could have been a shop worker whose destitute situation compelled her, maybe even once, to prostitution. Once or ten times, she is fallen nonetheless and tainted in the eyes of the respectable world. This painting is the most recent example of this theme that I stumbled upon, and it instantly appealed to me. It’s apparently very small, just little less than 13 cm in diameter. The round shaped canvas with closely cropped figures of the woman’s poignantly painted dead body, two men, and the sinister bridge in the background, along with the frame inscribed with a stanza from Thomas Hood’s poem “The Bridge of Sighs” is just striking. All these artworks are poetic and empathetic views of a bleak theme, and that brings to my mind the kitchen sink drama films which I love so much. In such films, the protagonist is faced with a huge life dilemma. The theme was equally explored in Victorian era literature; we have Charles Dickens’s kind-hearted prostitutes and most importantly Thomas Hood’s poem “The Bridge of Sighs”, published in 1844. The poem tells a story of an anonymous young woman, desperate and abandoned by her lover, pregnant and thrown out of her home, who committed suicide by jumping of off a bridge. Here is the whole poem:

One more Unfortunate,
Weary of breath,
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly
Young, and so fair!

Look at her garments
Clinging like cerements;
Whilst the wave constantly
Drips from her clothing;
Take her up instantly,
Loving, not loathing.

Touch her not scornfully;
Think of her mournfully,
Gently and humanly;
Not of the stains of her,
All that remains of her
Now is pure womanly.

Make no deep scrutiny
Into her mutiny
Rash and undutiful:
Past all dishonour,
Death has left on her
Only the beautiful.

Still, for all slips of hers,
One of Eve’s family—
Wipe those poor lips of hers
Oozing so clammily.

Loop up her tresses
Escaped from the comb,
Her fair auburn tresses;
Whilst wonderment guesses
Where was her home?

Who was her father?
Who was her mother?
Had she a sister?
Had she a brother?
Or was there a dearer one
Still, and a nearer one
Yet, than all other?

Alas! for the rarity
Of Christian charity
Under the sun!
O, it was pitiful!
Near a whole city full,
Home she had none.

Sisterly, brotherly,
Fatherly, motherly
Feelings had changed:
Love, by harsh evidence,
Thrown from its eminence;
Even God’s providence
Seeming estranged.

Where the lamps quiver
So far in the river,
With many a light
From window and casement,
From garret to basement,
She stood, with amazement,
Houseless by night.

The bleak wind of March
Made her tremble and shiver;
But not the dark arch,
Or the black flowing river:
Mad from life’s history,
Glad to death’s mystery,
Swift to be hurl’d—
Anywhere, anywhere
Out of the world!

In she plunged boldly—
No matter how coldly
The rough river ran—
Over the brink of it,
Picture it—think of it,
Dissolute Man!
Lave in it, drink of it,
Then, if you can!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!

Ere her limbs frigidly
Stiffen too rigidly,
Decently, kindly,
Smooth and compose them;
And her eyes, close them,
Staring so blindly!

Dreadfully staring
Thro’ muddy impurity,
As when with the daring
Last look of despairing
Fix’d on futurity.

Perishing gloomily,
Spurr’d by contumely,
Cold inhumanity,
Burning insanity,
Into her rest.—
Cross her hands humbly
As if praying dumbly,
Over her breast!

Owning her weakness,
Her evil behaviour,
And leaving, with meekness,
Her sins to her Saviour!