A Profound Secret

First of all, before I get into reviewing a book about deep, dark secrets, let me just inform you that my own are on view over at Necessary Acts of Devotion, where the delightful Quillhill interviewed me and posed some of the most thought-provoking and tricky questions I’ve had to answer in years. It was a lot of fun to think up responses, so thank you, Quillhill.

Now I’ve always been fascinated by family stories; I’m so intrigued by the strange and complex patterns of genetic repetition, the way tales get passed down as self-fulfilling prophecies, the politics and the love and the civil warfare. Families are little microcosms of the society they live in, exaggerating the ideologies of the day, and yet always striving through their youngest members to do something different and break out of the mould. I loved reading A Profound Secret as it was clear that Josceline Dimbleby was interested in the same kinds of family patterns as I am, and found the discoveries she made about her ancestors to be completely thrilling. But then again, she did have more illustrious and interesting ancestors than most of us. Rarely do we come across a stash of carefully preserved love letters from one of the most prominent members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement to our great-grandmother, for instance, which was the event that sparked off this book. Josceline Dimbleby’s great-grandmother, May Gaskill, was a charming, gracious and thoroughly miserable woman, locked into a now loveless marriage with a man who was alternately bullying and depressive when she met the painter Edward Burne-Jones. He was in his late fifties but a great appreciator of women; he had had a string of deeply loving friendships set alongside his marriage, only one of which blossomed into a full affair. After that damaging experience, he restrained himself to passionate but platonic friendships, accompanied, as was indeed the case here, by a stream of ardent letters. Despite a full painting schedule and many calls on his time, Burne-Jones managed to write a reasonably regular five times a day to May; now there’s devotion for you. What interested me was that the post got delivered this frequently in the nineteenth century. No wonder email had not been invented back then, and no wonder also we had to dream it up when the postal service became so stingy.

But I digress. Burne-Jones’ letters are moving to read. Some are intensely passionate: ‘It’s terrible that one creature should have such power over any other – and I lie under your feet – and have no will or strength against you. Why did I leave you today – I left all my happiness with you – a poor thing come back here, a poor shell and my heart was away – my heart nestles under your feet so tread softly…’ To rather beautiful promises of love and protection:

‘…you see May, it is these things of the soul that are real, and the only real things in the universe – and the little hidden chamber in my heart where you only can come is more real than your little bedroom – if you can believe it – I will furnish it for you – such a couch for your tired soul to lie on, and music there shall be always, soft and low, and little talks when you are refreshed – news of the outer world – when you are rested and can sit up and stand I’ll open a little magic window and you shall choose what land you will see and what time in the world – you shall see Babylon being built if you like – or the Greeks coming into Greece.’

For six years, up until the painter’s death (at 65 of heart failure) the relationship between them sustained them both, although it seems that Burne-Jones was the more constant of the two. May, like many relatively well-off people of her era, traveled extensively, partly for her health which was fragile. Nowadays I think she might have been diagnosed with ME, but there was also clearly a desire to escape her husband in her world tours, some of which lasted months. The author often comments on how these lengthy trips took her away from her children, and expresses some modern childrearing concerns about the effect this might have had on them. May had three children, all of whom turned out rather strange, to say the least. The book is as much about Amy, her eldest and best loved child as it is about May, and the mysterious circumstances of her life and death. I won’t say more about that, as the book is cleverly structured as, in part, a kind of detective story, in which Amy is posed as the enigma to be solved and I don’t want to spoil the story for you. But it is clear that a deep depressive vein ran through the family, and a kind of melancholy emotional intensity. Dimbleby’s rather delightfully caustic 94-year-old aunt, Diana is quoted as saying that: ‘I think that generation rather reveled and made the most of their loneliness and misery, and felt they must leave evidence in letters for all the world to find. Lovely of course for writers like you.’ But that deep romanticizing, idealizing streak that was in the family and rampant in the art and culture of the time must also take some responsibility. After Amy’s death, May burned all her letters and anything that could be constituted as evidence of her true past, and in its place had glorious marble memorials made, blocked off her room as a shrine and created a family myth about Amy’s beauty and perfection. It is little wonder that she was frozen in her grief and unable to mourn properly and move on.

At the end of her life May had something of a renaissance. With the outbreak of the First World War, she started a library, based on charitable donations, that was circulated to the wounded soldiers in hospital. This venture took off beyond her wildest dreams, became a dramatic success and resulted in over 6 million books and magazines being distributed to soldiers around the globe by the end of the conflict. After that she kept going, trying to persuade hospitals to maintain a library to distract the convalescent and having some success despite much opposition. Altogether this was a wonderful story of a family and a rich and intriguing portrait of the end of the Victorian era and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone.

15 thoughts on “A Profound Secret

  1. I had understood that Burn-Jones was a kind of passionate womanizer when reading A Circle of Sisters, a biography by Judith Flanders on Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne-Jones and her 2 other sisters. Flanders speaks of his affair with Mary Zambaco but I don’t remember her mentioning May Gaskell. If you’re interested by the women close to Preraphaelites (who were also quite repressed and melancholic), I warmly recommend you the Flanders book.

  2. How wonderful this book sounds and those letters! The post office may only deliver once a day now but emails don’t get saved and so I wonder what future generations will miss because they won’t have such letters and stories as these.

  3. I love reading letters (especially ones from another century) and find them particularly fascinating. Its like being given permission to spy on someone’s deepest thoughts and confessions. This book sounds wonderful.

  4. People are just not like this anymore. But maybe even then they were not exactly the norm? Writing five times a day? Can you imagine? I think we’ve lost something with all this technology no matter how much easier in many ways it has made life. As I was reading your post it sounded awfully familiar. I have this book on one of my piles (the US title is different)–now you make me want to grab it and read it now. It does sound fascinating!

  5. Oooh, this sounds like it’s right up my alley. What is is about other people’s families that is so, so fascinating. I’ve toyed with the idea of becoming a 21st-century letter-writer, because I worry so much about the lost art. But, it does take time, and it’s not as instantly-gratifying as email and blogs (actually, that’s probably a good thing).

  6. Stefanie – I know what you mean about letters! When I was an adolescent and in my twenties I still wrote a lot of letters (particularly when I lived abroad) and I have great bags of them sitting about. One day I ought to sort through them, although I fear there is not a great deal worth preserving! Love emails, even if printed off, could be the same thing as Burne-Jones’s letters which he decorated with drawings. Ravenous Reader – I would love to know what you think of this if you do read it! Dorothy – I find I get a far better sense of history from these kind of books and stand a chance of actually remembering some of it! Kate – I would love to know what you think of it. It concerns the lesser known group of art appreciators called ‘the souls’, so I think it may well be interesting to you. Verbivore – oh it is just like peeking into someone else’s inner thoughts! The author describes her family very well, I think, never less than scrupulously honest, but ready to be compassionate too. Danielle – yes, the five times a day really struck me too. I had to laugh to think you possess this – of course you do! We like all the same books! Emily – electronic media just is such immediate gratification, isn’t it? Don’t worry, I don’t think I can wean myself off it either! I’d love to know what you think if you read this, by the way.

  7. This is a book I must get hold of. We have many of the Burne-Jones tapestries her in Birmingham and their beauty has to be seen to be believed let alone appreciated. Whenever the Art Gallery gets them out I invite friends by the dozen to come and see them because their detail and luminosity is incredible. Many of the women in them are based on people he actually knew so it wold be interesting to know if May is in there at all.

  8. I found, in an old suitcase, the letters of my great grandparents written between the years 1904 – 1945. I arranged them chronologically, added photos and commentary and it makes a great family treasure as well as a poignant tale of early Australian life.

  9. Ann – I had no idea the tapestries were there! I should think they must be gorgeous. I don’t recall whether Dimblely mentions May being one of the faces of the tapestries, but there are some lovely pictures of her by BJ reproduced in the book and her face is distinctly recognisable from his work. Oscarandre – what a wonderful find! How fortunate for your family to have such a treasure from the past and a slice of social history. Jan – thank you!

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