An imagined story behind Philip Wilson Steer’s 1887 painting
Having revisited this story for the 3rd time over 20 years, my view oscillates but has ultimately concluded with my last viewing and reading.
I recall the film when it was new, interested because of its Suffolk setting and because it was about an impressionist painter. Something made me seek it out, unsuccessfully, a few times, until a print as dappled as Walberswick is pebbly was shown in my local cinema. It was then that I discovered that it was also a book, which despite my disappointment with the film, I sourced from Australia. This time, it was a visit to Walberswick where I walked over the bridge in question that made me pull out the book again.
Like Anne of Green Gables, there are times when the description is brilliant and part of the story; there are many more when it is well written trivia. The languid prose is painterly, but of a different style of painter. The tiny and exact details – such as the dolphins on the staircase – are more Constable than Philip Wilson Steer, who uses dashes of his brush more than the meticulous precision of etching to make his paintings. Steer also wouldn’t have painted those dolphins and the contents of drawing rooms which Maggie Hemingway pads out her thin volume with.
Yet there is much here that is missing. Emma, the youngest daughter, begins the story – somewhat oddly, I thought. I like the line on p3: “She could not bring herself to arrive”. If it had been my book or adaptation, that would have been my opening line. We share the perspective – often in dashes rather than particularities – of many characters, but we are often seeing the scene from Emma’s canvas, especially those where her mother and Mr Steer seem to be particular friends. But Emma’s voice ceases at the turning point; the scene is told from the perspective of her aunt, and Emma is delirious, unaware of her words. We do not hear from Emma again.
We omit scenes that help with the trajectory, as if the writer has anticipated a film adaptation and wanted to be brief, oblique and come in late to her scenes, to let the dialogue be largely invented by the screenwriter, and for her languid prose to find its ideal translation to a slow, arty, cinematic film. But we never see Reginald meet his wife and family after his long absence, we never know what Walter Sickert advises his friend Philip to do about Isobel, we never know what Philip is doing in France – does he even go there? – and what makes him return to Walberswick. The story ends with the making of the painting, having worked backwards, but to me (perhaps because I use this structure myself) it is a moment to catch up with and then go forward from. What is the outcome of the meeting on the bridge?
We are introduced to villagers who play no part except to fill out the background. They are not abetters, accusers, assuagers or in any way really shape the narrative or the characters. In the film, I was infuriated by the rubbish attempt at Suffolk accents, which is like doing a pathetic Irish one for an Scottish film, lazy for its inaccuracy and almost mocking portrayal, and for not understanding that accents are part of a region’s identity. There is a Scot in the film, although in life, Steer was from Birkenhead so would have been perhaps Scouse if he had an accent. So both those jarred.
But Maggie Hemingway, born in Orford, clearly knew the Suffolk coast and depicts it in multisensual detail, bringing in the philosophy and quest of painting – the portrayal or beauty and of light (as photography soon would). Yet I didn’t agree about Isobel being so desirable or that you can fall in love with your eyes closed with a vision of a stranger that seeps through your eyelids into your unconscious brain. This is how the schoolboyish obsession of Philip’s begins, with a woman he knows nothing about and has not seen interact. Because have many of their scenes together reported by Emma, we never know what it is that he and Isobel say or truly feel, and there is not the connection I would seek in a believable romance. It seems chemical rather than soul driven; their souls can commune little though words because of the strictures of the day.
I often wonder if the Victorian era was so strict. Nonconformists are the stuff of stories, but not often the keepers of history; yet the fictional Philip and Isobel are neither. No one grows, no one is set free, no one challenges the system that keeps them apart, nor demonstrates that they really deserve to be together. We leave Isobel – certainly in the film – as a prisoner; a woman who came to realise her prison – but that its bars are made more permanent. It is like Awakenings, where they go back to their torpor, but in this case, probably more unhappy. No-one is strong and no-one gets stronger. It is the lack of arc, the lack of stricture smashing, that made me as frustrated as the selfish consummation had when I first saw this. Nothing physical happens in the book, and yet the reaction is the same as if it had.
The Philip of the film is more selfish and less sensitive – painting the grief of a bereaved woman (which isn’t in the book) and of telling Isobel to find a way to come to him – in the book she can barely walk 100 yards without her servants wondering about her.
On my second reading, I thought it masterly and savoured the writing. But the ending made me revert to my earlier view. I hoped that its pages might contain a new story if I read them again and with more admiration and sympathy, having abandoned the expectation of the physical affair of the film. I hated the once affable Aunt Jude, who goes from favourite aunt to grandchild boaster and society rank booster, who slaps her niece and locks her away.
Reginald’s role in the book is less, but he is never sympathetic. Reginald never comes to value his wife in a non monetary sense. The writer of the Anthony Higgins (who plays him) site is wrong to assert that Reginald loves Isobel. Unlike the End of the Affair, I had no pity for the husband who is compassionate and acts with dignity, never revenge, never trying to control. Henry is a friend to Sarah; but Jude knows that Reggie is not one to Isobel, which Isobel has few of. I wanted a better relationship for Henry and Sarah – it would have been one good outcome for the Heatheringtons, but no-one is set free; only Philip’s career improves because we know the titular painting made him more acclaimed. But we know from reading the introduction that he didn’t marry and we wonder if he or Isobel found any form of satisfactory companionship in their lives.
Hence my own satisfaction was also missing.