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London: Little, Brown, 2003.
£15.99, 295 pages, ISBN 0-316-72550-1.
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
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, didnt I?
Catherine swallowed a cold mouthful faster than she had meant to. The wine
hit her like green-gold fire along her veins.
- But shes in France, she said: at least I thought so. Im sure
she told me on the phone. I thought she was due to leave last week.
- She said shed changed her mind and decided to stick around for a
has rashly invited the poet Vinny to the party he and Catherine
are giving that night. On this, Vinnys first visit to her sisters
new home, she makes her way up to Catherine and Adams bedroom where
a huge canvas hangs over the bed, painted during the fateful summer in
the Sarthes by Adams
father, Robert. It depicts a female nude, face blurred and features contorted
in ecstasy. She is
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
bent legs; head tipped back, half-turned to one side.
Vinny sits on Adam and Catherines marital bed, Adam himself
appears in the doorway. Neither he nor Vinny have so far divined the
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.
Robertss characters live in a world where the dead wont 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 daytill he takes to sitting
with the curtains closedhe sees him in the garden in paint-spattered clothes,
peering in through the window. Adams 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
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 writersKatherine Mansfield, Dorothy Richardson and Dorothy
L. Sayersin 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 shes 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
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:
do sometimes wonder [
] what would have happened if Charlotte
died in pregnancy. If Monsieur Heger had somehow come back into
her life. Perhaps they would have had an affair after all.
real life Monsieur Heger, demanding and charismatic, was the
source of Brontës
portrait of Monsieur Paul Emmanuel in Villette, the
last novel to appear before her death. Charlotte fell in love
she and her
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
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 someonepresumably his wiferescued
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 novels 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
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
Madame Sand proves to have been a mistress par excellence: sometimes shes
had thirty lovers. Sometimes forty. Sometimes so many that she cant 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 gardeners
hands as he crammed it into a sack.
Sands novel, Marianne, like Brontës The Professor and Villette,
deals with an attachment between pupil and mentor, and may
indeed have been inspired by the authors 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 Brontës 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 womens fiction, a contemporary
echo, perhaps, of Brontës excesses. Robertss novel sparkles
with talk about writingbetween 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 writers solitary side to physical,
pulsing life, as in Charlottes manifesto at Nohant:
when I wrote novels did I invent my own mask. Telling sanctioned
writing fiction, I could fly free of nice
I could write
of rage and of pain. I wrote about teeth grating on stones,
about scorpions clutched in the palm. I rehearsed different
I imagined alternative
selves. I discovered
what it felt like to be someone else.
small children in bed, Robertss Charlotte and Emily traced
poems and stories on each others backs. Writing, this novel
proposes, is part of the physical world, as shown again when Adam,
now aware of his wifes
secret life, balances drunkenly on Southwark Bridge and
watches the waves of the Thames
scribble a new, watery language.
During her first visit to Roberts farmhouse, Vinny caught sight of a
mystery visitor, bare feet on the hearth and a novel and notebook in her lap.
Mistressclass nears its end, it carries us back to
the Sarthes, site of the early act of sisterly treachery.
had had, without
of the middle-aged woman she would become, a woman whose
most significant act was to choose the writers 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 novels
refusal to round off its modern-day plot shows that creativity matters more
brief, individual lives.
Roberts herself, as mistress of her materials, brilliantly
imagines many writers
retreats in this hymn to the joy of writing: not only the fermette in
the Sarthes and the château at Nohant, but Monsieur Hegers cigar-scented
study in Brussels, and Vinnys 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 novels
closing sanctuary, in which Robertss 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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