Mariana by John Everett Millais, 1851 … in One Woman’s Island

This painting was posted to Facebook and I commented that it had always been a favourite – so much so I worked it into my yet-to-be-completed (that description is for you, Tim Baker) second Bequia Perspectives novel, One Woman’s Island. The main character is also named Mariana, but that came about because my middle name is Marie … So here’s the excerpt from Chapter Six about this painting from my WIP (unedited).

11009856_888600287849489_1949889716693087294_o The sisters dropped me off at my house and I discovered Sel and Fred had left the front door unlocked when they finished work that morning. Damn! But perhaps, I thought, that would finally be grounds for dismissal, although I doubted it. I walked into the house and Thom greeted me. At least Sel had had the sense to release the cats from the bedroom before she left, even if they had still been locked up inside the house all afternoon. I was going to let Thom out, but noticed the bedroom French door to the patio was not only unlocked but wide open, and I could see that someone was in my hammock. I looked around for something to arm myself with before going out there, but there was nothing within immediate reach, so I cautiously walked towards the doors. I heard humming. Whoever was in the hammock was singing.

It was Felicity and her children. Philbain and Ayayla lay along either side of her, fast asleep, and she was humming a tuneless song, one foot on the ground gently rocking the hammock. The picture of these three was so perfect I hated to disturb them. But I couldn’t have them in my house when I wasn’t there, even if the door had been left unlocked. Then I also noticed a pile of books had been scattered on the floor under the hammock. That really was too much! I don’t like other people messing around with my books. I was suddenly furious. At that same moment Felicity turned her head and saw me standing in the open doorway.

“Oh, Missus, I is sorry,” she said, hurrying to wake the children and get out of the hammock. “De maid, she takes de key and leaves de door unlock. I no likes have de house open when you no here. De chiles an’ me, we stay look after de house and de cats. We falls ‘sleep in de hammock. Oh, I is sorry,” she repeated, looking as though she was about to start crying.

I knew she was sorry, and I was thankful she had been concerned enough to want to protect my house after the thoughtlessness of the maid. The door was dead bolted and had to be locked with a key. The maid knew that.

But I was still also very angry with Felicity and her children for handling my books without permission. As I reached to pick them up I said, “Please do not to touch the books again.” I checked them over for damage as I stacked them. They all seemed to be okay except for one, a collection of paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites, that had been left opened, face down on the floor, causing the spine to crack a bit. I pointed the damage out to Felicity. “This is what I mean,” I said. “Now this copy is ruined. My books are very important to me. This one I’ve had since university—a very long time. And I’ve always been careful with them, because some can never be replaced.”

Instead of apologizing this time, Felicity said, “But Missus, dis picture.” She took the book from my hands and opened it again. “Look, de woman. She wait.” Felicity outlined the woman’s figure with her finger. “She be sad, plenty sad,” Felicity added, shaking her head.

The painting was a reproduction of Mariana by John Everett Millais and had long been a favourite of mine, not only because I shared the subject’s name, but because I also loved the colour of blue the artist had used for the subject’s dress. I was stunned that this simple girl had immediately been able to deduce the true theme behind this work of art.

“Yes, you’re right,” I said, forgetting my anger. “She waits for her lover who will never come. This woman is the subject of a famous poem as well, and that poem is based on a character in William Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure. You’ve heard about Shakespeare, haven’t you?”

Wide-eyed, she shook her head no. Shakespeare, considered one of the greatest writers in all the world, yet this girl had never even heard of him. In light of the fact she’d likely left school at a young age to have Philbain, it shouldn’t have surprised me that Felicity’s education was lacking. But I was to discover over the next few months that the general knowledge of many things, things I take for granted and think everyone should know, is greatly lacking among many of the local people. What a shame this girl had been cut off from so much.

The children were now completely awake. Philbain had made his way out of the hammock and was restacking the books I had already piled to be reshelved. He grabbed and opened one of my favourite children’s books, Curious George, the copy that has always traveled with me since I was Philbain’s age. He looked at me, pointed at the book and said, “Missus.”

“He wan’ you read to he,” Felicity said. “I no read,” and she turned her head away, ashamed at her admission.

I was still standing in amazement, looking at Philbain. He had just called me ‘Missus’. He’d said a new word. When I pointed this out to Felicity, she said, matter-of-factly, “I teach he.”

So I realized that Philbain was capable of learning something after all. I scooped him up off of the floor along with the book, and settled into one of the plastic chairs, Philbain on my knee. I opened the book to begin reading, but before I could say the first words, Ayayla managed to scramble out of the hammock and climb onto my other knee. It was crowded, but the two children managed to make themselves comfortable and I began reading.

Felicity said, “Missus, you mus’ speak loud.” She motioned to her ear and then at Philbain who was now looking up at me with big eyes.

“He has a hearing problem?” I asked. Felicity nodded Yes in answer. Well, that made sense of the fact he didn’t speak much. “But Ayayla’s hearing is okay?” I asked, and Felicity nodded yes again. So I put my mouth as close as I could to Philbain’s ear and read to both of them in a loud, clear voice. I was soon into the story, although it was a picture book and didn’t take very long to read anyway, which was just as well because, while the children may have been mesmerized, my knees were soon beginning to ache from the unaccustomed weight.

When I finished the story, I set the children and the book back on the floor. Ayayla looked up at me with her squinty eyes and said, “T’anks.” Philbain was already looking at the pictures in the book again.

Felicity got out of the hammock, and said, “We’s go back now.” She held her hands out to the children.

Before I knew myself what I was doing, I said, “I can cook dinner for all of us. Please stay.”

Felicity protested at first, “Oh, no, Missus. We goes.” But when I pointed out to her that the children were already quietly settling back into looking at books, Felicity left them and came into the kitchen with me to see what we could throw together.

I guess at that point I also just didn’t want them to leave me yet.

From the book ...

From the book …

The cover with ripped dustjacket. Book bought at The Guild Gallery in '78 or '79, still has $6.95 written inside in pencil - my handwriting.

The cover with ripped dustjacket. Book bought at The Guild Gallery in ’78 or ’79, still has $6.95 written inside in pencil – my handwriting.


16 responses

  1. I am absolutely taken with this story. It’s a delightful read. I love the painting as well. ❤

      1. It’s an intriguing story! ❤

  2. I love this picture too. That achey back feeling of life’s creative burdens

    1. Millais truly captured that feeling. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. Beautiful! I can’t wait to read more 🙂

    1. When my editor wants to read more, I know I’m doing something right! Thanks, Rach!

  4. Author Rebecca Heishman

    Reblogged this on Dancing With The MS MonSter.

  5. Author Rebecca Heishman

    Everything about this is just beautiful. I also was smitten with the phrase “humming a tuneless song.”

  6. Can’t wait to read it, Susan. I’m already intrigued.

  7. Great way to set the scene.. beautiful image and terrific words.

  8. And you know the last line makes us desperate to know more….
    You set the scene so well then just plop those character in there.
    Like that “humming a tuneless song” – fits.

    1. Thank you!!! Now I feel like getting back to finishing the rest of the book!

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