It was the fall of 1884 and I was in Amherst watching the leaves fall to the ground. The maple trees were dripping red and yellow foliage. In awe, I signed up for a watercolor class with the intent of immortalizing their beauty forever. It was here that I met Mabel, the wife of an astronomy professor who was often away to look at stars.
Mabel and I enjoyed taking long walks together. As our walks grew longer, so did our exchange of secrets. I told her about the exasperating crush I had on a local philosopher. In return, Mabel confided that she was having an affair with a much older and married man named Austin.
Being an accomplished piano player, Austin would sometimes invite Mabel to play for his reclusive sister and invalid mother. The sister, Emily, was a strange type. While Mabel would play, the sister would listen near the stairwell hidden by the shadows. And when Mabel would finish playing, Emily would have a glass of sherry sent to her as well as a poem she’d written to express her gratitude.
Mabel kept a diary but, fearing someone would find it, she could never be as explicit in her writing as she could when talking with me. Nevertheless, Mabel truly enjoyed writing in her diary as it was here that she was always the protagonist.
Her husband, although often nice and naughty with her, did not give her the feeling of uniqueness Austin did. And Austin, whose wife was a frigid nag, adored Mabel because she was sexually uninhibited and called him her king. Their fixation with one another did not go unnoticed and inspired much gossip.
Mabel and I kept in touch even after I left Massachusetts. Of course she was always writing about Austin. But it was the stories she told me about Emily that interested me most. Even though practically neighbors, the two never visited vis-à-vis communicating only by letters. Emily’s agoraphobic nature had given her an incredible mystique. Curious, the townspeople turned into amateur sleuths collecting info about her as if collecting clues for a whodunit.
They knew only that she wore white dresses with pockets sewn onto them for her poems, liked to garden and to bake bread, and spent much of her day in her rose papered bedroom writing poetry. Sometimes, from her window, she would lower a basket tied to a rope with little treats for the neighborhood children. Mesmerized, the children would stare at her window to see those skinny little arms lowering and raising the basket.
The first time Mabel actually saw Emily was in her coffin. After her death, Emily’s sister, Lavinia, asked Mabel to help publish Emily’s poems even though there was much bickering in the family as to their ownership. Once they were published, Mabel sent me a copy. Although I struggled to understand many of the poems, the one that starts out “A charm invests a face” intrigued me. Basically it’s about Emily standing in front of a mirror asking herself whether or not she should lift the veil covering her face. Metaphorically or not, she knew that veils are provocative as the imagined is more erotic than the real.
Throughout history, sculptors have used the Wet Drapery Effect to create veil covered bodies. The cloth clings so tightly that it becomes part of the body itself. Naked is no longer nude. My favorite such statue is that of St. Cecilia in Rome by Stefano Madero. Lying face down, the recumbent martyr has replaced the veil with the ground.
Female slaves and prostitutes in ancient Greece, as opposed to aristocratic women, were prohibited from wearing veils.
In the Koran, it’s written that the most tempting part of a woman’s body is her face. Thus, to avoid lusty desires, it’s covered.
Traditionally, women wear veils during their wedding ceremony. But, once married, the groom lifts the veil–maybe to be sure he’s gotten the right bride.
When the Countess of Castiglione, Virginia Oldoini, aged and her beauty disappeared, she acquired an appreciation for veils. But instead of wearing them, she put them over her mirrors.
Itching to see beneath Emily’s veil, I abandoned any sense of discretion and pumped Mabel for information. She told me that, an avid gardener, Emily spent years collecting and pressing flowers for her Herbarium (she had over 400 specimens!) Often she collected plants while taking long walks with her dog, Carlo, named after the dog in Jane Eyre. Her father was very strange and would give Emily books he’d then prohibit her from reading. But he did build a conservatory next to the house where Emily could care for her plants all year long. She referred to flowers as “ the Beautiful Children of Spring”.
Emily’s knowledge of horticulture influenced her writing. Via her knowledge of floriography, she used flowers as metaphors to describe emotions. Since every flower was symbolic of a particular sentiment, it was very fashionable in Victorian times to use little bouquets to convey feelings. These nosegays were also used as fashion accessories.
Some floriographic examples: roses = beauty, irises = eloquence, violets = faithful love, larkspurs = levity, daisies = innocence, foxglove = insincerity, daffodils = rebirth, sweet peas = delicate pleasure, etc.
Emily, taught as a young girl to embroidery, used her sewing skills to make little books of poetry. After editing then recopying a group of poems several times, she would sew them into little fascicles. More than a seamstress, she was a self publisher.
Raised in a Calvinistic household, Emily was very frugal and often wrote on scraps of paper including used envelopes. Her pencil, like a loaded gun waiting for something to shoot at, wrote whenever and on whatever it could. Visually, Emily’s envelope poems are quite lovely and gave me the idea of creating an envelope diary. By punching holes in envelopes from invoices to be paid, I can create little pockets for paper souvenirs that are held together with notebook rings then cover the envelops’ surface with cryptic phrases.
(from The Diary of Luz Corazzini, Cynthia Korzekwa ©)