Vida Winter, a bestselling yet reclusive novelist, has created many outlandish life histories for herself, all of them invention. Now old and ailing, at last she wants to tell the truth about her extraordinary life. Her letter to biographer ...
Margaret Lea - a woman with secrets of her own - is a summons. Vida's tale is one of gothic strangeness featuring the Angelfield family: the beautiful and wilful Isabelle and the feral twins Adeline and Emmeline. Margaret succumbs to the power of Vida's storytelling, but as a biographer she deals in fact not fiction and she doesn't trust Vida's account. As she begins her researches, two parallel stories unfold. Join Margaret as she begins her journey to the truth - hers, as well as Vida's.
The story Miss Vida Winter, the famous writer had told Margaret Lea, the biographer, unmade and remade itself, in every event identical, in every detail the same—yet entirely, profoundly different. Like those images that reveal a young bride if
..." you hold the page one way, and an old crone if you hold it the other. Like the sheets of random dots that disguise teapots or clown faces or Rouen cathedrals if you can only learn to see them. The truth had been there all along, only now had Margaret seen it. There followed a long hour of musing. One element at a time, taking all the different angles separately, she reviewed everything she knew. Everything she had been told and everything she had discovered. The missing parts were regenerated. Puzzles explained themselves, and mysteries were mysteries no longer. At last, after all the tale telling and all the yarn spinning, after the smoke screens and the trick mirrors and the double bluffs, Margaret knew. She knew what the governess Hester Barrow, saw that day she thought she saw a ghost. She knew the identity of the boy in the garden. She knew who attacked Mrs. Maudsley, the doctor's wife, with a violin. She knew who killed John-the-dig. She knew who one of the twin, Emmeline was looking for underground. Details fell into place. Emmeline talking to herself behind a closed door, when her sister Adeline was at the doctor’s house. Jane Eyre, the book that appears and reappears in the story, like a silver thread in a tapestry. Margaret understood the mysteries of Hester’s wandering bookmark, the appearance of The Turn of the Screw and the disappearance of her diary. She understood the strangeness of John-the-dig’s decision to teach the girl who had once desecrated his garden how to tend it. She understood the girl in the mist, and how and why she came out of it. She understood how it was that a girl like Adeline could melt away and leave Miss Winter in her place. ‘I am going to tell you a story about twins,“ Miss Winter had called after me that first evening in the library, when Margaret was on the verge of leaving. Words that with their unexpected echo of her own story attached her irresistibly to hers. Once upon a time there were two baby girls… Except that now she knew better. Miss Winter had pointed Margaret in the right direction that very first night, if she had only known how to listen. ‘Do you believe in ghosts, Miss Lea?“ she had asked her. ”I am going to tell you a ghost story.“ And Margaret had told her, “Some other time.” But Miss Winter had told Miss Lea a ghost story. Once upon a time there were two baby girls… Or alternatively: Once upon a time there were three. Once upon a time there was a house and the house was haunted. The ghost was, in the usual way of ghosts, mostly invisible, and yet not quite invisible. There was the closing of doors that had been left open, and the opening of doors left shut. The flash of movement in a mirror that made you glance up. The shimmer of a draft behind a curtain when there was no window open. The little ghost was there in the unexpected movement of books from one room to another, and in the mysterious movement of bookmark from page to page. It was her hand that lifted a diary from one place and hid it in another, her hand that replaced it later. If, as you turned into a corridor, the curious idea occurred to you that you had just missed seeing the sole of a shoe disappearing around the far corner, then the little ghost was not far away. And when, surprised by the back of the neck feeling as if someone has their eye on you, you raised your head to find the room empty, then you could be sure that the little ghost was hiding in the emptiness somewhere. Her presence could be divined in any number of ways by those who had eyes to see. Yet she was not seen. She haunted softly. On tiptoe, in bare feet, she made never a sound; and yet she recognized the footfall of every inhabitant of the house, knew every creaking board and every squeaky door. Every dark corner of the house was familiar to her, every nook and every cranny. She knew the gaps behind cupboards and between sets of shelves, she knew the backs of sofas and the underneath of chairs. The house, to her mind, was a hundred and one hiding places, and she knew how to move among them invisibly. A shadow that fell across a carpet where a shadow ought not to be did not cause them to stop and reflect; such mysteries seemed only a natural extension of the shadows in their hearts and minds. The little ghost was the movement in their peripheral vision, the unacknowledged puzzle in the back of their minds, the permanent shadow attached, without their knowing it, to their lives. She scavenged for leftovers in their pantry like a mouse, warmed herself at the embers of their fires after they had gone to bed, disappeared into the recesses of their dilapidation the instant anyone appeared. She was the secret of the house. Like all secrets, she had her guardians. The housekeeper saw the little ghost as plain as day, despite her failing eyesight. A good thing, too. The other person who had the knack of seeing ghosts, you see, was the gardener, and he was glad of an extra pair of hands. In the garden and in the kitchen the little ghost did not need to hide. The housekeeper and the gardener were her protectors, her guardians. They taught her the ways of the house and how to be safe in it. They fed her. They watched over her. When a stranger came to live in the house, with sharper eyes than most, with a desire to banish shadows and lock doors, they worried about her. More than anything else, they loved her. But where did she come from? What was her story? For ghosts do not appear at random. They come only to where they know they are at home. And the little ghost was at home in this house. At home in this family. Though she had no name, though she was no one, still the gardener and the housekeeper knew who she was all right. Her story was written in her copper hair and her emerald eyes. For here is the most curious thing about the whole story. The ghost bore the most uncanny resemblance to the twins already living in the house. How else could she have lived there unsuspected for so long? Three girls with copper hair that fell in a mass down their backs. Three girls with striking emerald eyes. Odd, don’t you think, the resemblance they both bore to the little ghost and she to them? ‘When I was born,“ Miss Winter told Margaret, ”I was no more than a subplot.“ So she began the story in which Isabelle went to a picnic, met Roland and eventually ran away to marry him, escaping her brother’s dark, unbrotherly passion. Charlie, neglected by his sister, went on a rampage, venting his rage, his passion, his jealousy on others. The daughters of earls or of shopkeepers, of bankers or of chimney sweeps; to him it did not really matter who they were. With or without their consent, he threw himself upon them in his desperation for oblivion. Isabelle gave birth to her twins in a London hospital. Two girls with nothing of their mother’s husband about them. Copper hair—just like their uncle. Green eyes—just like their uncle. Here is the subplot: At about the same time, in some barn or dim cottage bedroom, another woman gave birth. Not the daughter of an earl, I think. Or a banker. The well-off have ways of dealing with trouble. She must have been some anonymous, ordinary, powerless woman. Her child was a girl, too. Copper hair. Emerald eyes. Child of rage. Child of rape. Charlie’s child. Once upon a time there was a house called Angelfield. Once upon a time there were twins. Once upon a time there came to Angelfield a cousin. More likely a half sister. “You asked me once for my story,” Mrs Winter said to Margaret “And you told me you didn’t have one.” ”Silence is not a natural environment for stories. They need words. Without them they grow pale, sicken and die. And then they haunt you.“ Her eyes swiveled back to me. ”Believe me, Margaret. I know.“ “Now you know, I do have one.”Margaret answered. She was my twin,” she said. “She was here. Look.” She pulled at the jumper tucked into my skirt, revealed my torso to the light. Her scar. Her half-moon. Pale silver-pink, a nacreous translucence. The line that divides. ‘This is where she was. We were joined here. And they separated us. And she died. She couldn’t live without me.“ ‘The thing is I don’t think I can live without her“. ‘I never doubted it.“ She smiled a poor regretful smile. ”When I invited you here I thought I knew your story already. I had read your essay about the Landier brothers. Such a good essay, it was. You knew so much about siblings. Insider knowledge, I thought. And the more I looked at your essay, the more I thought you must have a twin. And so I fixed upon you to be my biographer. Because if after all these years of tale telling I was tempted to lie to you, you would find me out. Bereaved twins are half-souls. The line between life and death is narrow and dark, and a bereaved twin lives closer to it than most. To Margaret's mind it was this child who was losing her sister, and this is where Miss Winter’s sorrow met her own. Her drama was going to be played out here in that house, in the coming days, and it was the very same drama that had shaped her life, though it had taken place for her in the days before she could remember. The separation of twins is no ordinary separation. Imagine surviving an earthquake. When you come to, you find the world unrecognizable. The horizon is in a different place. The sun has changed color. Nothing remains of the terrain you know. As for you, you are alive. But it’s not the same as living. It’s no wonder the survivors of such disasters so often wish they had perished with the others. "Life is compost. - said Miss Winter- All my life and all my experience, the events that have befallen me, the people I have own, all my memories, dreams, fantasies, everything I have ever read, all of that has been chucked onto the compost heap, where over time it has rotted down to a dark, rich, organic mulch. The process of cellular breakdown makes it unrecognizable. Other people call it the imagination. I think of it as a compost heap. Every so often I take an idea, plant it in the compost, and wait. It feeds on that black stuff that used to be a life, takes its energy for its own. It germinates. Takes root. Produces shoots. And so on and so forth, until one fine day I have a story, or a novel. Quite simply because my story—my own personal story—ended before my writing began. Storytelling has only ever been a way of filling in the time since everything finished. My story is not only mine; it is the story of Angelfield. Angelfield the village. Angelfield the house. And the Angelfield family itself. George and Mathilde; their children, Charlie and Isabelle; Isabelle’s children, Emmeline and Adeline. Their house, their fortunes, their Fears. And their ghost. One should always pay attention to ghosts, shouldn’t one, Miss Lea? People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic.“ Human lives are not pieces of string that can be separated out from a knot of others and laid out straight. Families are webs. Impossible to touch one part of it without setting the rest vibrating. Impossible to understand one part without having a sense of the whole. Margaret felt a strange sensation inside. Like the past coming to life. A puzzle. A secret code. A cryptograph. It could be a word or a part of a word. She remembered Miss Winter told her: "Adeline's desire for flames was all the kindling she needed." and immediately Margaret thought about Aurelius, found as an infant, wearing an old-fashioned garment and wrapped in a satchel, with a spoon from Angelfield and a page of Jane Eyre. Why was he separated from his mother? Why abandoned? Why left to fend for himself in the world without knowing his own story? ”He’s safe.“ My words come in a croak, but they are clear enough. Why doesn’t she understand? I try again. “The baby. I have saved him.” said Miss Winter. Surely she has heard me? Inexplicably she resists my tug, and her hand slips from mine. Where is she? I can see only blackness. She is bound to her sister. She is bound.
The baby. I must tell Emmeline about the baby. She will be happy that I have saved him. It will make things all right. I turn to her and open my mouth to speak. Her face— Her poor beautiful face is black and red, all smoke and blood and fire. Her eyes, her green gaze, ravaged, unseeing, unknowing. I look at her face and cannot find my beloved in it. ‘Emmeline?“ I whisper. ”Emmeline?“ She does not reply. I feel my heart die. What have I done? Have I… ? Is it possible that… ? I cannot bear to know. ‘Adeline?“ My voice is a broken thing. But she—this person, this someone, this one or the other, this might or might not be, this darling, this monster, this I don’t know who she is—does not reply. " "I was alone. No name. No home No family. I was nothing. I had nowhere to go. I had no one who belonged to me.
I stared at my burned palm but couldn't feel the pain. What kind of a thing was I? Was I even alive? I could go anywhere, but I walked back to Angelfield. It is the only place I knew. Then one of the women looked in my direction. ‘Look,“ she criess, pointing. ”She’s here!“ I opened my mouth to say… I didn’t know what. But I said nothing. Just stand there, making shapes with my mouth, no voice, and no words. The flames. My books. I don’t think I could bear it. I remembered the page of Jane Eyre, the ball of words I saved from the pyre. I havd left it behind with the baby. I couldn’t answer, couldn’t feel myself, couldn’t move. My voice was not my own. Some other girl, some sensible, capable, ordinary girl had found her way into my skin and taken me over. She seemed to know just what to do. I was only partly surprised. Hadn’t I spent half my life watching people live their lives? Watching Hester, watching the Missus, watching the villagers".
Margaret cried for Miss Winter, for her ghost, for Adeline and Emmeline. For her sister, her mother and her father. Mostly, and most terribly, she cried for herself. Her grief was that of the infant, newly severed from her other half.
The day will come when Isabelle and Charlie, Adeline and Emmeline, the Missus and John-the-dig, the girl without a name, will be so far in the past that their old bones will have no power to cause fear or pain. They will be nothing but an old story, unable to do any harm to anyone. And when that day comes—Margaret Lea will be old herself by then— she will give Aurelius' nephews that document. To read and, if they choose, to publish. She hopee that they will publish. For until they do, the spirit of that ghost-child will haunt her. She will roam in her thoughts, linger in her dreams, her memory her only playground. It is not much, this posthumous life of hers, but it is not oblivion. It will be enough, until the day when Aurelius' nephews release this manuscript and the girl with no name will be able to exist more fully after death than she ever lived before it.
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