Celia, Oh Celia…
Celia Sling has always had problems with the coincidences in Thomas Hardy, not especially because they are an affront to one’s experiences of reality and the everyday but because they are devices, a more disagreeable species of what Conrad called accidents, those twists and turns of narrative that sacrifice psychological or some other insight for the saleable convolutions of plot and manners. She always chuckles at Conrad’s mild upbraiding of H.G.Wells – “But what is all this about Jane Austen? What, my dear Wells, is it all about?”
I can laugh at this, too, because Celia is my colleague in academe, ‘my emasculated mate’, as she cheekily refers to me, and we agree on everything. When I tell her that this story is about her or based on her – heaven forbid that all or anything should be revealed about a woman who only tells to titillate – she will both chastise me for being too tame and praise me for making the authorial real instead of anonymous and all-seeing. She has long thought that third-person narratives must be written by God or some invisible hand, and first-person narratives can find no possible excuse for being penned, except as therapy and therefore not for publication. What’s going on? she asks. Well, she’ll give me a real squelchy fistful for this, because I’ve wrested control from the Hidden One to laud her virtues, if that’s the word. In any case, she’s always saying, “Make something up about me, Carl. Go on.” But you can take this too far. What’s happening in a theatre? Are these characters real or are they actors? Well, actors. We all know that, though we are no less seduced. In the Groves of Academe, most of the plants are choking on their own tendrils. But in the clearings, Celia dances.
As with ‘coincidences’, so with conceits. Celia has just been sent a collection of stories to read for Bigsweir and Hoopoe, and before she reached the fourth tale – about suggestions of incest among a family group holidaying in Grasmere, the Lake District home (it scarcely needs to be said) of the carnally-attracted Billy and Dot Wordsworth – she was yawning. What next, she whispered: a story about an elderly Jew who simply vanishes overnight, leaving a few belongings in a cardboard suitcase? But she flicks back to the Grasmere story and thinks of her own family, especially her brother-in-law Gerald, who with a possibly sustaining sense of humour works in a hospital canteen: “I put the grey lumps in the mashed potato and make the beans run!” She recalls Gerald – her brother-in-law, family – when she is alone, without Johnny, at times of abandoned longing.
Which is like now, in a vine-draped ristorante on the shores of Lake Garda, the ribbon of her wide-brimmed straw hat pennant-like in the breeze, her boobs freed of their English fetters and making as they gently bump together what she amusingly likes to think are collusive passes at old Italian men with cobwebbed faces. (Sometimes she makes her tits jostle, almost willing other people nearby to surmise that that’s precisely what she’s doing but without the conclusive proof to complain or raise their noses, short of a damp patch on the seat when she leaves.) It is her intention, as brazen and illicit and as undetected as she can make it, to swim unclothed in some secluded part of the lake, close to the shore, perhaps with one of the leathery peasants watching helpless and hopeless from behind a rock. She embarrasses herself to think what she might be able to get away with while floating on her back. Johnny once told her that he was ‘a leg man’, that her legs were the longest, the most blanched, the most perfectly sculpted he could imagine. She often strokes them with both hands from top to bottom, not to measure the worth of his opinion but to protect them from injurious counter-argument. But they are their own defense and, when straight and stiffened while she is prostrate with her bum slightly lifted, will separate in the manner of like magnetic poles, inviting her to explore, again with both hands, the sweet marshlands to which they are the portals. In private, of course, for the ungovernable pleasure it gives her.
All this… this physicality, is contradicted by Johnny, by Gerald, his brother, and by what she does (as opposed to the secret proclivities she encourages in herself). She is Dr Celia Sling, Reader in Victorian Literature at the University of…well, that, like all the names and relationships in this story bar mine (Carl who?), is fictitious, as only testimony from a woman whose breasts are normally corralled north of the Mediterranean can be. She calls the women subjects of her research – her latest discovery excepted – ‘sisters in vice’, for she supports the underwhelming theory, validated by its easy reversal seventy years later, that the Victorians were simply sex-starved. It’s a shame that she is separated from them wholly by arid text, words on paper. She would have loved to get ‘stuck in’ with them, as rugby-mad Johnny would say, and shared the joy of peeling away the skirts, dismantling the buttressing – painfully slowly, of course – for the sound, distant at first, of the cool, underground streams, thick with undulating plant life slimy to the touch.
The most important difference is that she needs to go away on her own to work. I think Johnny agreed to the principle for the pleasure of wondering what she really gets up to. She tells him the pleasure is hers, knowing that he misinterprets. It really is hers; no-one else is involved. This is the way she likes it: everyone comes to her unconditionally, in her room, where her antics, once surprising, now have no bounds and are willed to recklessness. Whatever will she do next? she asks herself. They are malleable spectres, these visitors, they submit to her whims, they give and take without question, she dresses up (‘plays the tart’ as the saying goes) and lies sprawled before them as her fountain – figuratively speaking a cheap, tacky thing with the STOP button deliberately vandalised by her in a rage – plays unceasingly, sometimes dribbling long after she has returned to polite society from her impolite gyrations. And the oaths – how her cowering Victorian loves would recoil at the loud accompaniments to pleasure, to her (sometimes painful, often ungainly and ‘impossible’) gymnastics. None of her visitors is aware of what they do to her. None of them realises that even in pictorial form they give her russet cheeks. None can ever assume in reality the power she invests in them. This is certainly true of Gerald, whose sense of humour has its limits but whose beefcake is all lean. She lusts after Gerald, knowing instinctively that his wife does not crave the loins of Johnny. After three kids and a phantom pregnancy, Margaret has given up sex and tells everyone, sometimes in Gerald’s presence. “But I expect the trouser snake still makes the occasional foray”, she adds, by way of admonishing and pre-empting a contemplated act.
This time Celia is reading for a publisher – they usually abide by her verdict – and marking a few theses, in between phoning Johnny to assure him that she is hard at work, which she is, and waiting interminably for il conto. Young Italian men she regards as a joke – too greasy, too thick, to much like mail-order catalogue models. She yearns, I don’t know why, for the wayward contour, a bit of flab, probably for purchase. Gerald is this almost to a tee, to judge by his photograph. Photos are all Celia has, all she needs. He is the sort of person one invariably thinks as of having a head start in love, in passion, for the paradoxical reason that his looks are flawed, as if a certain amount of imperfection, though not much, were necessary for proving that vitality arises from what is known as the Lawrentian dark. Otherwise, Celia hates Lawrence, thinks he was as prudish as any late-Victorian could be.
Celia has lately come across a manuscript by Lady Gwyneth Poynter, the pen-name of an unmarried Victorian who knew no taboos and apparently spent her life in breathless pursuit of her cousins, both male and female, describing in detail how she ‘primed’ her body – she would go abroad provocatively gaitered and without underclothes – before each, necessarily abortive, foray, then imagined her quarry’s ultimate complicity. In reality, of course, her unknowing ‘victims’ were recipients of the most solicitous love and affection and the subject of a philosophical companion text on sexual independence and the power of the imagination, which chronicled a non-procreative society’s ecstatic journey to oblivion, unencumbered by Malthusian concerns of productivity and subsistence, each dwindling generation outdistancing its predecessors in the pursuit of carnal pleasures. Embedded among its pages is the first modern recorded use in print of the word ‘fuck’. Celia says she doesn’t know whether to publish a paper on it, claim it as her work and submit it (in the interests of literary legerdemain) under her own name, or keep it with her photographic collection as a source of secret euphoria. I’ll wager it’s the last.
I have seen the pocket album with the green marbled covers that Celia reserves for pictures of Gerald and Margaret. As in Lady Poynter’s manuscripts, conventional behaviour skeins the gloriously outrageous. There are pictures of Gerald and Margaret beside a swimming-pool or lounging on a beach, and some of Gerald alone, sunning himself on his back. In one or two, Gerald returns a serious stare behind shades, and this Celia interprets, wrongly of course, as lust or its hungry impatience reciprocated. In the fevered exploration of bodies, others’ or one’s own, there can be no amusement and no diminution of fantasy.
As the sun dips into the lake and the triggered electric lights bring out the boys and girls down below, Celia invites Gerald to share the ministrations of the evening breeze that zephyrs at her window. Her lifted portals lie lazily open, almost horizontally, and she fingers her ladyship’s gaiter with its faux-ruby studs, for she believes there is time, so much time, for the elaboration of a conceit on the perfumed route to effacement. Tutto e cosi strano e meraviglioso…
There – it’s done.