‘The heart which cannot know another,
Which will not learn to sympathise.
In whom the voice of friend, or brother,
Unheard, unechoed, sleeps or dies;
Between whom, and the world around,
Can stretch no life-uniting ties.’
— Emily Bronte (or was it Branwell?)
Earlier this autumn, one sunny Saturday when I arrived in London with some time to kill, I stopped in to the ‘all books for £2’ bookshop across the road. I always enjoy browsing there and am often pleasantly surprised by an unexpected find. The chance encounter. On this occasion I was, it felt, inexorably drawn to a shelf with a well-presented hardback on display. The book was Daphne by Justine Picardie. I hadn’t heard of the book but I knew of the author through friends. It had to be about Daphne du Maurier – the cover said it all. A salmon-pink dustjacket with a bold black line drawing, heraldic in shape framed by trees in a wood; a young woman dressed in modern-day attire her back to us, confronting a large house circled in flames. The heroine’s journey.
I confess I bought it because I liked the way it looked and felt, and also I had read Daphne du Maurier’s novels in the distant past, and I love Hitchcock’s film of Rebecca.
This isn’t a book review. It’s just that this fragment of a poem, which is at the heart of the book, and maybe is shorthand for what the book is about, has resonated for me, just as it did for the characters in the novel.
I found it a bleak read, not exactly gripping but somehow inescapable. It has a dark tone which seeped into the mind, colouring life events imperceptibly. The oppressive state of the characters in their lives overstepped the boundaries of the novel’s covers. Maybe this is a sign of effective writing, or maybe I was just in a place to feel this way.
The three key characters are all fascinated by the Brontes and in particular Branwell. They are keen to establish whether he in fact authored some of Emily’s works. Daphne du Maurier begins to write a biography of Branwell and that path leads her to make contact with a discredited scholar and librarian, J A Symington, who she corresponds with and eventually meets once though he pretends unsuccessfully to be someone else during the meeting, and whose full discrediting only becomes clear to her after he dies. The third main character is a modern-day scholar who is a version of the author herself, with some vital differences. Picardie makes this clear in her afterword.
All three characters have lives like houses of cards that are collapsing around them, partly it appears because they have each been drawn so deep into the inner worlds of their psyches and are living in a disconnected somewhat obsessive way. In a way, the book is a warning as this is a trap we can all be drawn into, sometimes gradually and inadvertently. Rather like the frog in a pot of water that is gradually being warmed to boiling point, this intense inner preoccupation can grow silently but insistently and then suddenly, the frog is being boiled alive.
To some degree though each of these characters is conscious of their predicament and its implications as their story unfolds, yet each appears also to be somehow powerless to step outside it and resist the pull of absorption into their psyche. While at the end, the modern-day character does find that her life is opening out once she takes some important decisions, there is not much hope in this book.
However, the book ends with Daphne taking a backbend to move forward:
‘Daphne stood up, put her head back, and stretched her arms, so that her fingertips reached the ceiling. Then she walked out of the writing hut, out of its shadows and into the sunlight, and the day was so bright, her eyes were dazzled, and as she stepped forward, she could not yet see what lay before her.’
The world lies all before her just as at the end of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Sometimes stepping out of our inner worlds, no matter how disturbed they may be, feels a little like paradise lost – but is that just about giving up the habit of self-absorption? For there is always the promise of paradise to be regained by rediscovering a deeper contact than what the disturbed psyche has to offer.
‘The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.’
The hope here is in companionship and connection, a shared endeavour. Coming back to the opening fragment of the Bronte poem, ‘the heart which cannot know another’ – there is such a strong feeling of poignant and inescapable isolation here. And yet there is also a feeling of deliberate resistance – ‘Which will not learn to sympathise’. The relationship of the unable ‘cannot’ and obdurate ‘will not’… And the parallel relationship of the dormant ‘sleeps’ (and by implication can be awakened) and the terminal ‘dies’.
Another version of this poem is:
‘The Heart which cannot know another
Which owns no lover friend or brother
In whom those names without reply
Unechoed and unheeded die.’
This verse is a lot more settled and a lot less alive.
While I was thinking about this, I came across another quotation from a source I cannot find – ‘the noise of the mind, eats away the silence of the heart.’ This captures the message well. These characters’ minds are so busy, so full of noise, that they cannot hear, or be, the silence of their hearts. If only they were able to let their preoccupations go, then they might be able to reconnect – with themselves, with others, with awareness itself. It is fitting that Daphne is left at the end after Symington’s death with the notebook of Emily Bronte which has been so mildewed that it is no longer readable, ‘a wordless book in the wordless woods’. Perhaps this is the moment when she can start to know the silence of the heart.
Through an unexpected path starting with Methera, I came across a beautiful image the other day, from A Stone in Water by Swami Viprananda:
‘Father Jean-Pierre de Caussade, the eighteenth-century French Jesuit, once wrote to a nun concerning her anxieties, fears and distractions of mind: “Allow them to drop as a stone drops into water.” With this simple metaphor Caussade has beautifully described an indispensable part of all spiritual paths: detachment, or ‘letting go;. The metaphor he used is particularly appropriate for two reasons. First, it suggests a finality to the act – once the stone is dropped, it is gone, not to be recovered. Second, it suggests that the stone is relatively unimportant. Similarly, detachment gives the mind the freedom to let things drop once and for all and allows us to see that what is being dropped is not as important as we had thought.’
If we will drop the stones in our minds into water, then we can reconnect with the silence of the heart.
I am Madhu’s tortoise, my awareness moving slothfully across the keyboard as my psyche settles down.