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The Mistressclass
Michèle Roberts
London: Little, Brown, 2003.
£15.99, 295 pages, ISBN 0-316-72550-1.

Jenny Newman
Liverpool John Moores University

As suggested by its cleverly punning title, the principal characters in The Mistressclass are women who will not live as conventional wives and mothers. Like all good mistresses, they are expert at what they do, which is mainly writing. Two plots are cleverly entwined. The modern-day one centres on two sisters, Vinny and Catherine, whose love and betrayal of each other are echoed in the nineteenth-century strand, a sequence of fictitious letters from Charlotte Brontë.

On a summer holiday in the Sarthes, in northern France, the beautiful Catherine stole Adam, boyfriend of her younger sister Vinny. Now the two sisters, in their early fifties, live a few streets apart in north London, close geographically but not emotionally:

- I bumped into Vinny yesterday, [Adam] said: by the way. Down by the river. I forgot to mention it, didn’t I?
Catherine swallowed a cold mouthful faster than she had meant to. The wine hit her like green-gold fire along her veins.
- But she’s in France, she said: at least I thought so. I’m sure she told me on the phone. I thought she was due to leave last week.
- She said she’d changed her mind and decided to stick around for a bit.

Adam has rashly invited the poet Vinny to the party he and Catherine are giving that night. On this, Vinny’s first visit to her sister’s new home, she makes her way up to Catherine and Adam’s bedroom where a huge canvas hangs over the bed, painted during the fateful summer in the Sarthes by Adam’s father, Robert. It depicts a female nude, face blurred and features contorted in ecstasy. She is

seen from the side, arching back on a salmon-pink bedcover, knees up and parted, one arm flung wide; the other arm crossing the belly, hand reaching between the bent legs; head tipped back, half-turned to one side.

While Vinny sits on Adam and Catherine’s marital bed, Adam himself appears in the doorway. Neither he nor Vinny have so far divined the model’s identity, which hangs over the novel like an unexploded bomb. It is Vinny who later guesses that Catherine has not only betrayed her sister, but also the man she stole from her. In a lesser act of betrayal, Vinny soon forces Adam to see that his wife, Catherine, has posed and masturbated for his randy, flirtatious father.

Roberts’s characters live in a world where the dead won’t stay in their place. No one in this haunted and haunting novel fails to see ghosts, though the word fails to do justice to their energy and solidity. At night Adam hears his recently-dead father tramping to and fro downstairs with his ‘characteristic tread; heavy-footed and determined.’ By day—till he takes to sitting with the curtains closed—he sees him in the garden in paint-spattered clothes, peering in through the window. Adam’s wife, Catherine, mourning her marital failure as she walks along the Strand, has a Little Gidding-like vision of the dead who had walked before her, now ‘going along together in the dark rain.’

The London of the generous, likeable Vinny is also haunted, with pavement slabs like underworld lids, ‘pressing down on the too lively dead, who long to rejoin the living and involve themselves in their affairs.’ But instead of flinching from the deceased like Adam, or mourning with them like Catherine, Vinny honours their unseen presences. On her days off work she seeks out the homes of neglected writers—Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy Richardson and Dorothy L. Sayers—in ‘shabby-genteel streets in Kensington and Pimlico’, using the paving-stones as substitute blue plaques on which to write their names, dates and perhaps a few lines of their work in coloured chalk which will wash away with the first rainfall. She paces Cornhill for traces of ‘Brontë arriving to confront her unsuspecting publishers who think she’s a man. She searches for the Chapter Coffeehouse where Charlotte slept.’

For Vinny, the poet, ghosts have more to do with books than they do with places. In a mistressclass on what it means to read, we see her finish Jane Eyre, a novel she knows almost by heart. Conscious of still loving Adam, she talks about Brontë at the party later that evening:

I do sometimes wonder […] what would have happened if Charlotte hadn’t died in pregnancy. If Monsieur Heger had somehow come back into her life. Perhaps they would have had an affair after all.

The real life Monsieur Heger, demanding and charismatic, was the source of Brontë’s portrait of Monsieur Paul Emmanuel in Villette, the last novel to appear before her death. Charlotte fell in love with him when she and her sister Emily went in their twenties to study at the Brussels pensionnat run by his wife. Back in Haworth, where she remained for the rest of her short life, she wrote a series of passionate, pleading letters to ‘the only master I have ever had,’ the man who, as Vinny puts it, taught her to write more plainly and realistically, and who hailed her as an artist.

The historical Heger told Brontë to stop writing to him, and only a few of her outpourings survive because someone—presumably his wife—rescued the torn-up pieces and stitched them together. But writing, according to Vinny, is a work of resurrection, and in this exhilarating book Michèle Roberts liberates Brontë from her slow and painful death in early pregnancy and has her survive to ‘tear open the silence of years’ and write to her former mentor. These imaginary letters (burnt, not sent) spike the latter-day plot. They are at times needy, vindictive, rapacious, as from a madwoman in the cellar, threatening to tear apart the Hegers’ bourgeois home. Like the contemporary stories of Catherine and Vinny, Adam and Robert, they shuttle backwards and forwards in time, underlining and developing the novel’s main themes: passionate sisterly closeness and rivalry (here between Charlotte and Emily); and how it feels to have lost the love of your life.

But as well as baring her anguish, these letters recount in the novel’s most playful fantasy how Charlotte leaves her ‘double’ behind in Haworth, an ‘effigy cold and correct as a corpse, to tend to Arthur and Papa’, while she travels not to Brussels to see Monsieur Heger but to Nohant to ‘frolic’ with best-selling novelist George Sand, otherwise known as Amandine-Aurore-Lucille Dupin.

Madame Sand proves to have been a mistress par excellence: ‘sometimes she’s had thirty lovers. Sometimes forty. Sometimes so many that she can’t remember the precise number, and certainly not their names.’ She teaches the lovelorn Charlotte la douceur de vivre, and in her château Brontë starts leading a life of sensuous ease, loitering under soft quilts in her four-poster bed hung with pink and cream chintz; breakfasting in the flower garden; harvesting beans, pumpkins, and spinach that ‘squeaked and jumped’ in the gardener’s hands as he crammed it into a sack.

Sand’s novel, Marianne, like Brontë’s The Professor and Villette, deals with an attachment between pupil and mentor, and may indeed have been inspired by the author’s love for the then lesser-known Gustave Flaubert, who Roberts has visit while Charlotte is staying in Nohant. ‘Monsieur Flaubert dressed up as a woman one night and danced the chahucha. Accordingly I donned a cravat and waistcoat and twirled opposite him.’

Most crucially, Roberts makes Brontë’s imagined letters discuss what it means to be a writer, a topic which unites both strands of The Mistressclass. Vinny is a poet, Adam a novelist, and even Catherine has, unknown to her husband, written lucrative, trashy sadomasochistic women’s fiction, a contemporary echo, perhaps, of Brontë‘s excesses. Roberts’s novel sparkles with talk about writing—between Vinny and Adam, Catherine and Vinny, George Sand and Charlotte Brontë, Sand and Flaubert: ‘armchairs pulled up to the fire, feet up on the fender, dashing at it hammer and tongs’.

This novel also brings the writer’s solitary side to physical, pulsing life, as in Charlotte’s manifesto at Nohant:

Only when I wrote novels did I invent my own mask. Telling sanctioned lies, writing fiction, I could fly free of nice Charlotte the good daughter. I could write of rage and of pain. I wrote about teeth grating on stones, about scorpions clutched in the palm. I rehearsed different lives. I imagined alternative selves. I discovered what it felt like to be someone else.

As small children in bed, Roberts’s Charlotte and Emily traced poems and stories on each other’s backs. Writing, this novel proposes, is part of the physical world, as shown again when Adam, now aware of his wife’s secret life, balances drunkenly on Southwark Bridge and watches the waves of the Thames scribble a new, watery language.

During her first visit to Robert’s farmhouse, Vinny caught sight of a mystery visitor, bare feet on the hearth and a novel and notebook in her lap. As The Mistressclass nears its end, it carries us back to the Sarthes, site of the early act of sisterly treachery. Vinny had had, without realising it, a vision of the middle-aged woman she would become, a woman whose most significant act was to choose the writer’s life. Though Charlotte Brontë has learnt that true love is indestructible, we cannot be sure that Catherine and Adam will ever recover their love, or the sisters their friendship. The novel’s refusal to round off its modern-day plot shows that creativity matters more than our brief, individual lives.

Roberts herself, as mistress of her materials, brilliantly imagines many writer’s retreats in this hymn to the joy of writing: not only the fermette in the Sarthes and the château at Nohant, but Monsieur Heger’s cigar-scented study in Brussels, and Vinny’s London council flat with its rickety bamboo table, its balcony a garden in the sky, and the armchair (rescued from the skip) in which she reads and writes. Her lime-green room is a foretaste of the novel’s closing sanctuary, in which Roberts’s Charlotte Brontë decides to stop writing to Monsieur Heger and to save her words for herself. Like Vinny she salvages an armchair and a bamboo table. These she carries to the top of the parsonage garden, with ‘two cushions, my little desk, a basket of books, a bottle of water, a tin cup.’ Tied to the lilac bush and the hawthorn hedge, the sheets in which Emily and she once slept shield her from view; and the shadowy marks of the garden ferns dance over them like writing, the latter word appropriately the last in this compelling novel.

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