"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Lines I Wish I’d Written: Sylvia Tietjens from Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford

I finished the first novel, Some Do Not…, of Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy, Parade’s End.  What a great work.  It’s high modernism, which usually means it’s complex, much of the action within the subconscious, and unconventional.  It’s as if one combined Henry James, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence.  I’ll have a post where I’ll provide some thoughts, but for now I wanted to just share this finely written passage.  The central character of the novel is Christopher Tietjens, and his wife Sylvia is one of the most distinct characters in all of literature: unfaithful, cruel, stunningly beautiful, aristocratic, and utterly self-confident.  Here is a mostly expository description of her character. 

Sylvia Tietjens rose from her end of the lunch-table and swayed along it, carrying her plate.  She still wore her hair in bandeaux and her skirts as long as she possibly could; she didn’t, she said, with her height, intend to be taken for a girl guide.  She hadn’t, in complexion, in figure or in the languor of her gestures, aged by a minute.  You couldn’t discover in the skin of her face any deadness; in her eyes the shade more of fatigue than she intended to express, but she had purposely increased her air of scornful insolence.  That was because she felt that her hold on men increased to the measure of her coldness.  Someone, she knew, had once said of a dangerous woman, that when she entered the room every woman kept her husband on the leash.  It was Sylvia’s pleasure to think that, before she went out of the room, all the women in it realised with mortification—that they needn’t!  For if coolly and distinctly she had said on entering: ‘Nothing doing!’ as barmaids will to the enterprising, she couldn’t more plainly conveyed to the other women that she had no use for their treasured rubbish. 

Once, on the edge of a cliff in Yorkshire, where the moors come above the sea, during one of the tiresome shoots that are there the fashion, a man had bidden her observe the demeanor of the herring gulls below.  They were dashing from rock to rock on the cliff face, screaming, with none of the dignity of gulls.  Some of them even let fall the herrings that they had caught and she saw the pieces of silver dropping into the blue motion.  The man told her to look up; high, circling and continuing for a long time to circle; illuminated by the sunlight below, like a pale flame against the sky was a bird.  The man told her that that was some sort of fish-eagle or hawk.  Its normal habit was to chase the gulls which, in their terror, would drop their booty of herrings, whereupon the eagle would catch the fish before it struck the water.  At the moment the eagle was not on duty, but the gulls were just as terrified as if it had been.   

Sylvia stayed for a long time watching the convolutions of the eagle.  It pleased her to see that, though nothing threatened the gulls, they yet screamed and dropped their herrings…The whole affair reminded her of herself in her relationship to the ordinary women of the barnyard….Not that there was the breath of scandal against herself; that she very well knew, and it was her preoccupation just as turning down nice men—the ‘really nice men’ of commerce—was her hobby. 

She practiced every kind of ‘turning down’ on these creatures: the really nice ones, with the Kitchener moustaches, the seal’s brown eyes, the honest, thrilling voices, the clipped words, the straight backs and the admirable records—as long as you didn’t enquire too closely.  Once, in the early days of the Great Struggle, a young man—she had smiled at him in mistake for someone more trustable—had followed in a taxi, hard on the motor and flushed with wine, glory and the firm conviction that all women in that lurid carnival had become common property, had burst into her door from the public stairs…She had overtopped by the forehead and before a few minutes were up she seemed to him to have become ten foot high with a gift of words that scorched his backbone and the voice of a frozen marble statue: a chaud-froid effect.  He had come in like a stallion, red-eyed, and all his legs off the ground: he went down the stairs like a half-drowned rat, with dim eyes and really looking wet, for some reason or other. 

Yet she hadn’t really told him more than the way one should behave to the wives of one’s brother officers then actually in the line, a point of view that, with her intimates, she daily agreed was pure bosh.  But it must have seemed to him like the voice of his mother—when his mother had been much younger, of course—speaking from paradise, and his conscience had contrived the rest of his general wetness.  This, however, had been melodrama and war stuff at that: it hadn’t, therefore, interested her.  She preferred to inflict deeper and more quiet pains.

What a way to connect her with a hawk.  That is her subconscious identity brought to the fore.

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