Reading this book made me reflect, again, on how reading a novel is a very different experience when you have been exposed to marketing, and when you haven’t.
If I had read this book with a dust jacket the blurb would most likely have told me that this was a story of dangerous woman – a musical genius who turns out to also be a manipulative egoist.
As it was, knowing nothing, I had to gradually discover for this myself… and how much fun it was! However, at the beginning of the novel I was not sure I would manage to read the thing at all. Sedgwick presents us with the public persona of ‘Madame Okraska’ the concert pianist:
she stood before them and her dark eyes dwelt, impassive and melancholy, upon the sea of faces, tumultuous and blurred with clapping hands. The sound was like the roaring of the sea and she stood as a goddess might have stood at the brink of the ocean, indifferent and unaware, absorbed in dreams of ancient sorrow. […]
Her face was strange, that crowning face, known to all the world. Disparate racial elements mingled in the long Southern oval and the Slavonic modelling of brow and cheek-bone. The lips, serene and passionate, deeply sunken at the corners and shadowed with a penciling of down, were the lips of Spain; all the mystery of the South was in the grave and tragic eyes. Yet the eyes were cold; and touches of wild ancestral suffering, like the clash of spurs in the langours of a Polonaise, marked the wide nostrils and the heavy eyelids and the broad, black crooked eye-brows that seemed to stammer a little in the perfect sentence of her face. (p. 10-11)
Lordy! The language is so romantic and melodramatic, and this description of Madame is typical of the kind of racial essentialism that Sedgwick employs with every character. Madame Okraska is surrounded by adoring worshippers, all prostrating themselves before her beauty and her artistic ‘genius’, and Sedgwick tells the story absolutely straight; I felt that as a reader, I too was expected to adore Madame Okraska, which I could not do.
Then the character of Gregory Jardine is introduced. A rather conventional and ironic lawyer, he does not prostrate himself before Madame, who immediately notices the lack of homage and a mutual dislike is formed. Gregory falls in love with Madame’s ‘adopted daughter’ Karen. It is Karen, Madame’s most devoted companion, who calls her ‘Tante’.
Karen, the daughter of Norwegian and American artists, was rescued when her parents died by Tante and her late husband. Tante’s husband killed himself, and these death bind Tante and Karen together, it appears, in mutual understanding and devotion.
Despite her dislike of Gregory, Tante agrees to Gregory and Karen’s marriage, but then the trouble starts… The wonderful skill of this novel is that I was not at all sure for at least the first half where my sympathies were supposed to lie. Should we share Gregory’s suspicions that Tante is trying to manipulate Karen? Or is Gregory cold, suspicious, and unable to understand the artistic temperament?
I have never had much time for the artistic temperament, so I greatly enjoyed the slow revealing of Tante as a self-obsessed, controlling bully. Sedgwick understands so well the psychology of the domestic abuser, who always manages to make the victim think that what has happened is their fault. (I was reminded of Elizabeth von Arnim’s fantastic creation of Wemyss in her novel Vera.)
I have long thought that you should never trust a character who talks about themselves in the third-person and here there was further proof. When Karen asks Tante if she is glad to have her home again when she leaves her husband (for she clearly isn’t) Tante chastises Karen for ‘wounding’ her by suggesting a thing: “Tante is sad at heart. It is a heavy blow. But her child is welcome.” (253) I don’t think so…
After a tricky start wading through the apparent treacle of the romantic style, I would thoroughly recommend this novel. Tante is a magnificent creation and should be up there in the gallery of monstrous egomaniacs (should there be such a thing). A silent film was made of the novel in 1919, called ‘The Impossible Woman’. The novel is available now as an ebook, otherwise the 1931 reprint that I read is easiest to get hold of.