This will be an essay about exquisite literary bowls and granddaughters of the same quality. It is also about the creativity of youth and the contemplation of age. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes—I refer to the biblical book of that name--is gloomy, but what a poet! His justly famous admonition to the young is best understood by the old. Remember your Creator, he says, before it is too late. Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher: all is vanity (Ecc 12:6-8). Around the image of the broken golden bowl Henry James created one of the marvels of our literature.
That’s the background on literary bowls. Now for the background on granddaughters, or rather one in particular. Lulu Mae Fleming-Benite, our Number Two granddaughter, is a young woman of parts. Fulsomeness in pursuing this theme is a grandfather’s prerogative; but I shall be brief. She recently turned eighteen, shortly after learning of her early acceptance at her college of choice, Barnard, where she will begin a course of study next fall. Like her two lively sisters, Lulu has a wide range of interests and abilities. A talented visual artist in several media and an aspiring musician, she also has a frank intellectual passion that reminds me (yes) of my own adolescent self. In Marseille, where she spent a visiting semester of her high school junior year, she became interested in philosophy—philosophy being a high school subject in France. She is now in fact working on the English translation of a book written by her philosophy teacher.
At Christmas Lulu presented, us, her local grandparents—those on her father’s side live in Jerusalem—a pair of gifts that exhibit some of the range of her artistic talents. Working from a photograph taken in our yard last year, she painted for me a unique souvenir of an affectionate moment during a family summer dejeuner sur l’herbe, quite the peer, in my biased opinion, of similar efforts of Manet or Seurat. And she poured her love for her grandmother into a remarkable work of ceramic art. It is a beautifully proportioned bowl, three inches deep, with an eight-inch diameter at its top. Its glossy, slightly curving sides taper down to a base with a diameter of six inches. But it is its literary iconography that makes it so distinctive.
My wife Joan, Lulu’s grandmother, studied English at Oxford and has been a life-long lover of good literature. Among her admired modern authors is Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), a writer of revolutionary importance in terms of the aesthetics of English language fiction. Her early novel, Mrs. Dalloway (1925) is on the face of it not about very much: Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-crust London society lady, throws a cocktail party for a group of friends, most of whom are as conventional as herself. But what was not on the face of it—subtly shifting points of view, the examination of inner life, a bold prose lyricism—was akin to a literary explosion.
I am an admirer of the fine ceramics one sees in museums, and years ago, when they were still affordable in England, I gathered a few old blue and white ginger jars that add a little class to the shelves that flank our hearth. But in truth I know little of ceramic technique, and have no idea how one potifies an image of Virginia Woolf. I do, I think, grasp something of the meaning of the floral decorations around the bowl’s exterior. Lulu has captured a whole bouquet with botanical exactitude, and even I can recognize many individual species: pansies, dahlias, asters, hydrangeas perhaps, a rose certainly. I seemed to remember that Mrs. Dalloway is full of flowers, but until I pulled it from the shelf I had forgotten just how full. The novel’s first sentence-- Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself—contains but the first of literally dozens of obviously significant floral references. One sees them everywhere, even in hastily skimming the book, as I did. Roses—the one flower Mrs. Dalloway really approves for cutting--seem to be particularly significant.
I am no expert on Virginia Woolf, but there are many such experts out there, and I was sure that even casual Internet research would turn up a few. It took me approximately a minute and a half to find several promising titles, including an entire master’s thesis on the topic. I promised myself when I retired that I would never again read a student thesis, but of course I’ve already broken that rule a few times. Truth is, there are some very good student theses including one that Betty I. Rychen presented to the faculty of the English Department at the College of William and Mary in 1982. It is entitled Mrs. Dalloway’s Flowers: An Attempt to Define a Symbol.
Mrs. Dalloway is a stunning work of art, but I find it immensely sad, as I think most readers, especially other elderly ones, might. It is about many things, but one of them is how the promise and daring of youth can be stifled by caution and social convention. The saddest victories of convention are those that coerce love. Oversimplifying only grossly, Clarissa Dalloway married the wrong man thirty years ago. He is a perfectly nice and decent man, not without a certain worldly eminence, but he is the wrong man. Right in the middle of the book there is a moment when Peter Walsh, the one Clarissa should have married instead of Dalloway, and for whom her decision has had consequences no less sad than for herself, is about to hail a taxi near the Regents Park tube station, across from which “a tall quivering shape like a funnel”, an old woman, a hawker of newspapers, stood singing in “a voice of no age or sex” a song as old as the earth. “Through all ages—when the pavement was grass, when it was a swamp, through the age of tusk and mammoth, through the age of silent sunrise” the woman “stood singing of love” remembering walking with her dead lover through long summer days. The day he disappeared was “flaming, she remembered, with nothing but red asters.” Peter is moved to press a shilling into the crone’s hand.
One of the marvelous qualities of great art is that it is so often midwife to other art. For the rest of her days Joan will enjoy this bowl, uniquely original in its unique allusiveness, the gift of a delightful young woman and a beloved granddaughter. Lulu is now at about the same age as Woolf’s character Clarissa in what might be called the first movement of Mrs. Dalloway. Many great decisions of her life lie ahead of her, but the nearly mystic bond of kinship, as much of character as of blood, is one which her grandparents will always cherish and will be brought to mind with floral drama whenever they sit down around the table.