2011’s “Project: Deal Me In!” has been one of my most enjoyable (and successful – I actually finished it!) projects I’ve tried. And random chance (I chose in which order to read my 52 stories by drawing from a dwindling deck of cards over the year) saved one of the best short stories for last, Rebecca West’s oh, so poignant tale, Parthenope.
Rebecca West may not be well known to many readers. To me, she (unfairly) had been most famous for an affair she had with H.G. Wells, which I first read about in his Experiment in Autobiography – quite the weighty tome, I must say. The affair produced a son, Anthony West, who also wrote a biography of Wells that I own, “H.G. wells: Portrait of a Life.” She also wrote an acclaimed account of the Nuremberg trials, “A Train of Powder” in 1955.
The story of hers that I read for my project was originally published in The New Yorker magazine in 1959. ***Spoilers Follow***
I think almost all of us have in our memory certain magical moments in time, or magical places visited in our youth. This story describes both. The narrator is actually telling the story of her uncle who, as a child, was sent to a neighboring house with a message. In this house lived seven daughters (of “The Admiral”) who her uncle, from his window, had frequently observed in the gardens, playing croquet and generally being – at a distance – enticing and alluring.
He is greeted by the eldest of the sisters, Parthenope (for pronunciation help, think “Penelope”) who seems more serious and mature than her sisters. He is quickly under her spell, though just a boy and twelve years younger. It seems clear that there is also “something wrong” with the sisters. In one encounter, the narrator’s uncle describes Parthenope as:
“…playing a game by herself, a game that he knew well. She was throwing a ball high into the air, then letting her arms drop by her sides, and waiting to the last, the very last moment, before stretching out a hand to catch it. It was a strange thing for a grown-up lady to be doing, but it did not distress him like the playground gambolling and chattering of her sisters. They had been like children as grown-ups like to think of them, silly and meaningless and mischievous. But she was being a child as children really are, sobered by all they have to put up with and glad to forget it in play.”
Sadly, there is mental illness in Parthenope’s family, from her mother’s side. And her sisters, after being “hectored into” unsuitable marriages by the Admiral, have become worse than only “silly,” as they were first presumed. It seems it will be Parthenope’s fate, as the healthy sister, to watch over them.
The uncle’s few encounters with Parthenope and her sisters have stuck with him over the years, and as fate would have it, he encounters them once more, quite by chance, when he himself is full-grown.
In a meeting filled with tenderness, he calls upon them and speaks again to Parthenope, with whom he has come to “know” that he is “…united by eternal bonds” though “they hardly knew each other, which was the reverse of what usually happened to men and women.”
Telling him of her sisters’ fate, and their husbands, she says, “They married my sisters because they were beautiful, and laughed easily, and could not understand figures. They might have considered that women who laugh easily might scream easily, and that, if figures meant nothing to them, words might mean nothing either, and that, if figures and words meant nothing to them, thoughts and feelings might mean nothing too. But these men had the impudence to feel a horror of my sisters.”
There is a near infinite sadness associated with Parthenope – one which the uncle cannot but acutely empathize with. She tells him, “You do not know what it is like to be a character in a tragedy. Something has happened which can only be explained by supposing that God hates you with merciless hatred, and nobody will admit it.” She is also haunted by the fear that one day, she too may lose her mind (“Every night when I lay down in bed I examine my day for signs of folly”).
His offers to help her in her misery are gently rebuked. When he offers to at least write to her on occasion to assuage her loneliness, she says, “You must not be involved in my life. There is a force outside the world that hates me and all my family. If you wrote me too often it might hate you too.”
I wish I could say that the story had a happy ending, but how could it? It makes me wonder why I like this story so much. I’m guessing it’s because West succeeds in making the reader feel the exact emotions of not only Parthenope, but also those of her would-be benefactor. Not emotions that one wants often to feel, but emotions that are nonetheless quite real and powerful.
(below: Rebecca West)