Friday, April 12, 2013

stories of my family: Art & Life


I am burdened by the stories of my family.

Snatching from the air just two that swirl around my head:  My wicked many-greats grandfather who is casually referred to  in travel books to the south of France as "the cruel Simon de Montfort."  My not-so-many-greats aunt, Fanny Mary aka "the magnificent Mrs Bernard-Beere" who trod the London stage with Bernhardt and Kemble and had her face emblazoned on biscuit tins and cigarette cards, not to mention appearing full-figure on the front page of the Illustrated London News.

Or my greatgreatgreat . . . great-grandpa de Montfort, a tall, muscular, and handsome man with a magnificent mane of hair and a winning, straight-talking manner, who was famous for his "conspicuous monogamy," for his unbreakable word, for his devout faithfulness.  And notorious for his ruthless slaughter of the Cathars, a utopian proto-Protestant rural people in the troubadour country of Languedoc.

He and his wife, Alix de Montmorency, my many-greats grandmother, in an age when marriage was more a merger of political interests, would not bear to be separated from each other.  She and the young children, one of the youngest a boy who carried a bit of the DNA that now is mine, lived in castles on the edge of the fighting, close enough that Alix would regularly roust up reinforcements and supplies and march at the head of the troops to bring aid to her darling and doting husband.  I don't know what that growing up may have been, but one son at least, Simon Jr., grew up determined to live his adult life with no authority bearing down on him ever again and set about with such steel purpose that he forced the Magna Carta on the king, thus breaking the ground for English democracy.  That wasn't my line, though, which instead wandered off into Britanny, then East Anglia and lost itself in obscurity.

Allies spoke of their father, Simon the elder, in glowing terms: fearless, straightforward in his dealings and leading by example with no breath of hypocrisy.  But he and Alix, as united as they were, were not kind to those outside their recognized group:  she taking time to persecute the Jews in Toulouse while her dear one gouged out Cathar eyes and lopped off arms and noses and upper lips, sending defeated men home to their heretic villages with the bloody faces of living skulls. Poets' eyes that had gazed skyward on starry nights.  Hands caressing lute-strings.  Lips that had sung,  
I go to her with joy  
Through wind and snow and sleet.  
The She-Wolf says hers I am 
And by God she has it right


It was my line cut them off.




On the other hand, my tragedy queen half-aunt was the daughter of an alcoholic landscape painter (my great-greatish grandfather) and the Other Woman in a menage a trois from which my  great+ grandmother fled, preferring handcarts and sagebrush and out-in-the-open polygamy.  I've read the letter our shared forefather sent his other emigrating children, a heart-wrenching scrap of good sentiment explaining why they ought never, never to succumb to the devil drink and to forgive him if they can.

From all accounts, he lived the rest of his life in happy dissolution, painting his landscapes for people who would pay, a boon companion of Charles Dickens.  He was content to be known not by his own name but as the father of the famous Mrs. Bernard-Beere, who was Thackery's goddaughter and who kept her second husband's name through all her subsequent marriages.  She played some great parts, but usually picking up after Sarah Bernhardt or Ellen Terry had moved on to other roles:  "a conscientious and painstaking artist," "one of the finest emotional actresses on the English stage," "an actress of some merit," "not a powerful actress but a picturesque-looking woman who dresses characteristically in rich aesthetic gowns and artistic ornaments."  She was a lifelong friend of Oscar Wilde, appearing in his plays and producing later plays of his when she formed her own acting company, touring Europe, America, and Australia.  She is noted for the first "disastrous production" of Sullivan's The Foresters.  She had no children.

There is a reason I gravitate to these stories -- they act out for me my own central battle. 

On one hand, the successfully fond and cooperative marriage, found handfast with a blinding anti-poetic bigotry. 

On the other hand, the domestic sacrifice made for the sake of art . . .  all those second-rate, third-rate landscapes and now-forgotten performances.

Aunt Fanny Mary, who remembers her now but me?  Well, some scattered someones obviously, who mention her in passing. But did she really choose art over life, or did she just live the life that lay before her?

As if these were immutable sides to choose from.   As if  Greatish Grandpa's bohemian lifestyle or Great-Aunt Fanny's aesthetic gowns could have been a stay against artistic mortality.  As if I didn't have other happily married foreparents who managed not to ravage any countryside whatsoever, nor slaughter poets.  I trust, no matter how deeply I indulge in fervent monogamy, I am not in any grave danger of sudden uncontrollable bouts of eye-gouging and arm-lopping.

So does there have to be this battle, this wall, this false choice between faithful family makers and serious song makers?

If I could just think of anyone who lived in kindness with their children and mate and wrote with excellence.  Okay, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Elizabeth Gaskell. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, if I stretch the idea of excellence a little, and then a little more.

Surely there are others.

I do wish though I could have descended from William Blake.  Who may have seen angels swinging from the trees and, in his middle age, was fond of taking the air in his garden all Adam-and-Eveish without even a fig leaf,  his sweetly complacent Catherine by his side with only her knitting for cover, surprising afternoon callers.

So he was a little mad.

At least he managed to write well and live in domestic happiness for 45 years, until he died.  Catherine believed he visited her regularly through the intervening years until she too passed, calling out to him that she was coming.

They had no children, though. So I can't be descended from them.  I can't count Blake among the writers who managed to live with and love their families successfully.


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