The extract below, taken from my novel ‘Violet’, is connected to a childhood memory.
When she was fourteen Beth became Saffron. “Call me Saf,” she said to Meg, examining an art book spread across her bedroom floor, “or Saffy. Saffron if you have to.” Her friend turned a page. “Saf’s best,” she said, pausing at a print of a raven-haired woman with one hand wrapped around a pomegranate. “You like it?” Both girls stared at the picture. The woman was red-lipped, blue-eyed, wearing a loose, grey-green robe. Her skin was smooth and pale as water. “Why Saffron?” “It’s a girl in a book.” “Like her?” Beth shook her head. “One of my gran’s books. She wrote it, about Saffron.” “Your gran wrote books?” Beth confirmed. “For children,” she added, “with girls dancing and poetry.” “Were they fun?” “Jolly – or meant to be.” Meg bent forward peering at the picture. “But not jolly.” The long-necked woman in the art book was gazing at smoke rising from a burner. Her double-jointed hands were artist-thin and wasted. Behind her the light from a window spread across some ivy on a wall. “Supposed to be. But sad… very sad to me.” “Don’t say that.” Suddenly Beth was crying. Meg placed her hand on her friend’s wrist. “You loved your gran.”
Looking at a picture, a personal memory: One of my favourite spots in my grandparents’ house was the landing upstairs. What drew me there were the albums and travel books I found in the large white cupboard built into the wall. My favourites were the illustrated hardbacks with titles like ‘Stories from Around the World’. When I opened them I found, on one side of a double page, large-print words in Gothic script, on the other side, colour plate pictures behind see-through paper. I remember the reproduction of St George and the Dragon by Gustave Moreau. To me, this picture had a floaty feeling. Having no idea of French Symbolism, I saw it as pure image outside time, without any reference to Raphael or art history.
Beth looking at a picture: To capture that sense of unmediated experience, I wrote the passage above about my protagonist looking at a picture with her friend Meg. My aim was to keep it simple because death – in this case the loss of Beth’s gran – is best underplayed. The subject itself is powerful enough not to need rhetoric. So, for instance, when the Duchess of Malfi faces death the elaborate Jacobean metaphors all fall away. In the extract, the simple naming of details from Rossetti’s portrait of Jane Morris carries the emotion. And not naming the picture quietly reinforces Beth’s sense of absence and loss. Meg, acting as her foil and echo, takes on that loss. In their innocence, the girls don’t understand the source of the picture’s dark sadness, but what we know about Jane Morris’s personal history adds another layer, and the myth of Proserpine deepens it further.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting Proserpine shows his lover Jane Morris as the Roman goddess who lives in the underworld during winter. In the seasonal myth, Proserpine, daughter of Ceres, is gathering spring flowers in a meadow when Pluto forcibly carries her off to the underworld. Ceres, in her grief, searches for her lost daughter and neglects the Earth, causing nothing to grow. The starving populations join Ceres in an appeal to Jupiter, king of the gods, asking for the return of her daughter to Earth. Jupiter agrees on condition that Proserpine has not eaten any fruits in Hades. As Proserpine had eaten six pomegranate seeds, Jupiter rules that she should remain in Hades for six months of the year and be allowed on Earth for the other six.
There is a personal story behind the picture. Jane, trapped in an unhappy marriage to William Morris, found her ‘spring freedom’ in a love affair with Rossetti. During the summer months William Morris went off to Iceland, leaving Jane and Rossetti to furnish their house, Kelmscott Manor. During the winter William Morris returned and the love affair went underground.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here.