Jane Austin was very sparse in her descriptions of people and places. Miss Taylor, the governess in the opening of Emma, is never physically described at all: Austin seemed to be satisfied with whatever look and taste the reader believed a governess should have. The description of a businessman as “short, round, with a row of straining buttons” is all that is needed to give the reader a detailed image even if the reader is the one to provide most of the detail. In the first scene of Colm Toibin’s new book, Nora Webster, Nora, a recent widow, is confronted by a neighbourly visiter, May Lacey, who just wants to console. Toidin writes,
“May Lacey, wisps of thin grey hair appearing from under her hat, her scarf still around her neck, sat opposite Nora in the back room and began to talk.”
This is all the description Toibin gives to a character important enough to have a name, but it is all a reader needs. To me the image is clear: many layers of clothes (it is 60’s Ireland after-all), short, chubby, anxious to please, with a disheveled look no matter how hard she tries to tidy herself up. Of course, other readers will concoct a different picture; there will be as many different images of May Lacey as there are readers of the book.
So it won’t surprise you to hear that I was shocked to read Gerald Windsor in his review of Nora Webster in the SMH of September 26 when he referred to Toibin’s previous work, The Testament of Mary, as “a disastrous biblical fantasy, so thinly imagined it’s hard to believe Toibin wrote it.” I sat up straight in my chair when I read that, not just from indignation at such pointed criticism of one of my literary idols but Windsor seemed not to understand what Toibin was doing.
There is possibly no more iconic female character in the Western literary tradition as the Virgin Mary, not just to Christians but to ex-Christians as well; and I don’t mean just in her physical appearance. The place, the biblical lands, atmosphere, attire, emotions and almost everything else to do with the Bible is incredibly personal to anyone who has had anything to do with it, from reading and studying it assiduously to simply watching Ben Hur all those years ago, even if those impressions are historically wrong.
The Virgin Mary is just one of dozens of characters emblazoned on our collective imagination.
The reader is one half of the equation that leads to the creation of a work of fiction; and the reader not only brings his/er history, experience, belief system and the social and personal sense of him/er self to the work but also colours its meaning. Toibin, and all creative artists, I believe, allows us consumers to provide our own detail and our own meaning to what the writer writes.
This applies to all creative endeavour. The manuscript in the bottom of the bed-linen drawer or the painting behind the broom cupboard are not pieces of art until they are consumed and allowed to effect the consumer, even is small ways: a snigger, a smile or a wince; but also is dramatic ways: a sense of understanding, immense pleasure or outright disgust. Art has to cause something to happen in us.
All a reader needs is for a writer to allow us to use our history, internal and external, to bring meaning, our meaning, to what has been written; it need only be a phrase or an adjective. We can do the rest.