- The Prince and the Wild Geese by Brigid Brophy
Hamish Hamilton, 62 pp, £5.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 241 10894 2
The Prince and the Wild Geese is a story of 1832 told in words and pictures, the words almost all Brigid Brophy’s, the pictures by Prince Grégoire Gagarin, artist son of the Russian ambassador in Rome after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Graceful and witty, Gagarin’s drawings portray his social world much as Pope in ‘The Rape of the Lock’ portrayed his, in a spirit of satire touched with complicity. Gagarin’s Rome, like Pope’s London, emerges the more definitively from seeming, at the outset, only the backdrop to a story of thwarted passion. The drawings illustrate a simple tale: how Gagarin is obsessed with an Irish girl, Julia Taaffe, how he meets her in Rome’s villas, squares and esplanades, and how in the end she refuses him. Since social convention bars him from speaking or writing seriously of his passion to the object of it, he translates himself, Julia and Rome into fantasy, a more eloquent medium than their polite foreigners’ French.
Every family with a series of drawings by the gifted professionals and amateurs of the 19th century should get them out. The Taaffes must have thought they had in their possession nothing more than a quaint relic of a long-dead great-aunt, until Brigid Brophy’s tact and ingenuity released its literary potential. For Gagarin’s series of eighteen or so drawings came without words, and the novelettish story seems to call for torrents of them – if not in lovers’ dialogues, then in letters and diaries. This is all, as Gagarin says of his one illustrated letter, a magic-lantern show, and that’s not much of a form nowadays. Brigid Brophy must have wondered whether to use her novelist’s skills to invent the missing documents, but has finally had the discretion to supply nothing but a commentary which fills in biographical information and ‘reads’ Gagarin’s pictures. The drawings are left to tell the story, in the form of a very high-class strip-cartoon, rather as though Byron had elected to give an episode of Don Juan in the medium of Feiffer or Posy Simmons.
Julia Taaffe and her sister Joanna (or Martha – the name is in doubt) were the youngest of ten daughters of the late John Taaffe of Smarmore Castle, Co. Louth. At the ages of 26 and 30 respectively, they have been despatched to Rome by the current head of the family, their half-brother, another John Taaffe, to visit a distant kinsman, Lord William Fitzgerald. Actually they have been sent, all too transparently, to get themselves off the shelf. Gagarin is younger, 22, and a Roman resident. He has lived there since he was six, and now occupies his leisure studying art in the studio of the Russian painter Karl Pavlovitch Bryulov, who is currently working on a 21-foot picture of The Last Days of Pompeii. Gagarin’s small, witty and contemporary drawings make an ironic commentary on Bryulov’s grandiose manner, and on that of his other leading artist friend, the Frenchman Horace Vernet, an ex-Bonapartist who specialises in heroic battles.
Vernet is an important figure in Roman society, for he presides over the Villa Medici, a college and community-centre for a colony of young French musicians, painters, sculptors and architects: funded by the French Academy, they spend two years in the eternal city, studying art and, on the side, revolution. Gagarin is a frequent visitor at parties at the Villa Medici, along with Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Stendhal, the French consul at nearby Civitavecchia. French seems to have been Gagarin’s natural language, and Vernet’s group of radical young bohemians his natural social circle. Julia Taaffe’s prim little group from Co. Louth, always escorted and chaperoned, comes piquantly up against a mob of artists and intellectuals: bespectacled, idealistic, not always very eligible-looking. Conventionally they might have been expected to rout her but, in Gagarin’s ironic vision, talent and intellectuality is no weapon against Julia.
On the one hand, the story as it unfolds is precisely located and specific. Gagarin shows Julia attending a masked ball in Carnival time. She is rudely stared at by a visiting Englishman on a promenade. (Gagarin does not give his nationality, but Anna Jameson, author of the contemporary Diary of an Ennuyée, another first-hand description of Roman cosmopolitan society, states that it is Englishmen who stare at pretty girls, while other nationals laugh and clap.) She drops her glove, perhaps deliberately, over the balcony of a seaside hotel, for a similar-looking young man to pick up. And so on. Gagarin documents his actual world: the band of adoring young men who surround Julia are individuals, Gagarin’s friends and fellow students.
But many of Julia’s actions belong only to fantasy or to art. She descends on a baroque cloud, accompanied by Cupid, and fires darts unerringly at her suitors, the youthful intellectuals of the Villa Medici. She blooms on a high stem as a rose, while her caterpillar-lovers crawl helplessly below. She enters Rome as the conqueror in an ancient triumph, but her monstrous throne suggests an Indian Juggernaut, which is likely at any point to crush the male heroes of the human race (Moses, Julius Caesar, Montezuma, Frederick the Great) who crowd meekly in her train. ‘The centuries pay homage to the perfect woman,’ says Gagarin’s caption tenderly, or drily. Julia watches a bloody duel fought over her, with the courteous interest of a lady at a medieval tournament, from what appears, surreally, to be the window of a public bathhouse. This puzzling scene provides a turning-point to the drama, for it is followed by the one drawing of a tête-à-tête between the lovers – a misnomer, since her head is turned away – and, in French, by the only snatch of dialogue:
‘Madam, I am your servant ...’
‘I detest people who are importunate.’
‘Does your health continue good?’
‘In what way are you involved? It’s no concern of yours.’
Gagarin captions this ‘Irish Amiabilities’. It is the end of the affair.
Who and what is Julia? The ‘plot’ of Gagarin’s picture-sequence implies that she is pretty, but the face he draws is hard to read – unresponsive, even characterless, and slightly out of focus. Julia, true to her 1832 form of coinciding with the latest fashion, here performs the 1980s function of an absence in the text. Brigid Brophy injects more pathos into her situation than Gagarin does, by reminding us that she was choosing between a life of permanent exile with a foreign husband and return home to the probable social disgrace of spinsterhood. In fact, she did afterwards marry one Theobald McKenna, another connection of her large family, and lived on in Ireland until 1881. In old age she showed Gagarin’s pictures to a great-niece, and told the story of them, though not apparently giving any hint of her own emotions towards Gagarin. And what of the ‘duel’ that seems to end the affair? Was she threatened with a scandal – something that Gagarin, with the egotism of the 22-year-old male in love, never allows for?
In one respect Brigid Brophy sentimentalises Julia. It is a cheat in her commentary that she links her heroine with a more exotic kind of Irish émigré, and more principled patriots, than she and her sister had a chance to be. The Wild Geese of the book’s title were the Irish upper-class Catholics who in the 18th century served the monarchies of Continental Europe because the Penal Laws at home prevented them from serving both their religion and the British King. Calling it The Prince and the Wild Geese cunningly strengthens the story’s links with folk and fairy-tale, but Julia is no Wild Goose (how different it sounds in the singular), even if, inevitably, she has relatives who are. She is a 19th-century tourist, or a debutante, having her belated Season not in London, Bath or Harrogate, but in a setting in which most of the prospective husbands are likely to be Catholics.
At times Gagarin sees her just like that: a provincial girl, who might well prove boring if he can get at her – but he can’t because she is enclosed in her prim little family group, who do nothing that is not predictable for tourists in Rome, and insist on doing that together. Yet he can also see her as Venus, Psyche, perhaps the goddess Kali, just as he can see himself as an Elizabethan courtier and as Young Werther. To us he is John Keats, fantasising about Fanny Brawne and making her into a monster, or William Hazlitt, who in 1822-3 imagined a dialogue with the girl Sarah Walker which is always neurotically monologue.
Sarah, daughter of Hazlitt’s London landlord, and heroine of his autobiographical letter-novel the Liber Amoris, acts the part of goddess and slut in Hazlitt’s fevered imagination, while in life acting no discernible part at all. In writing about Sarah, Hazlitt both struggles to render her real-life slatternly household, and makes her into his Muse, a disconcerting variant on Keats’s Psyche. Sarah becomes unreadable, most of all to Hazlitt, and he knows he has done this to her with his intellectuality: ‘Instead of yielding to the first natural and lively impulses of things, [authors] screw themselves up to some farfetched view of the subject in order to be unintelligible. Realities are not good enough for them.’ He warns his young son not to become an intellectual, if he wants to be happy with women. ‘Do not place thought as a barrier between you and love; do not abstract yourself into the regions of truth, far from the smile of earthly beauty.’ The ideal and the physical cannot be served at the same time, and Hazlitt, besotted with Sarah, wants the physical. He and Gagarin, both perversely occupied in making their girls unreachable, would have understood one another very well.
Brigid Brophy has the feel of post-Napoleonic Romanticism. Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir is its text, with its nostalgia for a once-upon-a-time idealism, its perception of the world of 1830 as hopelessly trivial. Brigid Brophy writes of Scott’s escape into the past to find the true heroic: actually Scott, who as a novelist is himself post-Napoleonic, always depicts heroism as superseded, however far back in time he goes. Gagarin is a child of his age, and sharp in these matters, as Brigid Brophy is clever in pointing out. He is indeed a caricaturist in the Thackeray style, who anatomises young socialites and artists, and the aesthetic premises conveyed by their actions, their pursuits and their clothes. Brigid Brophy declares that the historical painting and the monumental sculpture were done away with by the advent of that irredeemable male garment, trousers. Sure enough, Gagarin’s elegant drainpipes, very long, impractical for walking in dirt or even on natural ground, give a dandyish narcissism to his young men, who also seem to be in mourning for the dazzling uniforms that peace has robbed them of.
Then, when the characters get into fancy dress, Gagarin’s imagination hints at something odd. In the backgrounds of his two carnival drawings, beasts lurk, bears, goats and leopards, indeterminate creatures with horns, pointed ears or tails. The non-acting ladies in the foreground, in their invariable evening uniform, off-the-shoulder, bell-sleeved, small-waisted, belong in a world which has perfected its defences against unleashed instinct and misrule. Or do they? Brigid Brophy keeps a wary eye open for Gagarin’s ironies, and here at the masked ball she finds traces of the Romantic solipsism which fleetingly makes aliens even of the Taaffe sisters. Fuseli, a generation earlier, found women’s tall hairstyles nastily threatening. Gagarin extracts a curious and apt grotesquerie, she observes, from ‘the high, tripartite coiffures that make a woman’s head, seen from the back, look like the head and ears of a rather scrawnily furred animal’.
While decorum, mannered behaviour and clothes like a uniform robbed Julia in life of attributes, Gagarin’s rich consciousness bestowed them on her in abundance. Which is, perhaps, why Theobald McKenna got her.