THE NIGHTMARE by Nancy Means Wright
London: Spring, 1781
Henry Fuseli had run through three models already, each unable to hold the pose he demanded. Now the fourth girl, Sophia, was complaining, "I have to move. I can't feel my arm. The blood is running out of my head. I may faint."
"No," Henry said. "Not yet." The girl was lying on her back; head, neck, and left arm hanging off the bed, fingers twitching. He waved away her plaint. The pose was nothing for a girl of sixteen years. Why, he himself had lain on his forty-year-old back for weeks in the Sistine Chapel, musing on Michelangelo's ceiling!
The girl's cheeks were tinged with pink, her hair a lemony pool on the Turkey rug. Turning back to his canvas, he painted an incubus squatting on her breast, its head toward the viewer, an impish smile on its thin lips for what it was about to do.
The arrangement was perfect: folds and pleats of reddish drapery; the arm white as milk; the soft curves of flesh—he touched the nipple with his brush, let it linger there. He stood back to contemplate the painting. It was coming to fruition; still, it lacked something. He wiped his hand on an oily rag and breathed in the turpentine, the linseed oil. He squeezed his eyes shut, straining for the vision that had come to him the week before, when he had woken from a bad dream. The raw pork he had eaten for dinner did that to him: bad dreams. But then the images came flooding, like this one—idea and image, fused. The sleeping woman, the incubus, the light from the south window illuming her body, and in the upper left corner—ja! he would paint a horse, that ancient sexual symbol. Just the horse's head, the pointy ears, the bulging eyes of the voyeur, the open mouth—saliva on the tongue.
He was painting furiously now, deaf to the model's whimperings; he applied a dab of burnt ochre with a fine brush. When the candle burned to the nub he lit another. He was inside the painting, inside the dream. He was horse and incubus, voyeur and participant. Horse and devil, unseen by the sleeper but instilling in her its terror. He was the female sleeper as well: dreaming, unaware of horse and devil, yet filled with its dread. Wanting and not wanting to be taken, ravished.
But how to show the literal—the reality?
A looking glass, ja! There would be a looking glass, showing only the sleeper—not the incubus, not the horse—only the sleeping woman in her nightmare. Nightmare... the title of the work came to him. The Nightmare! Night-mare. He laughed out loud at the pun; with his trembling right hand he picked up his mug, tipped the strong ale down his throat, and let it spill into his collar. He glanced at the young model and saw she had fallen asleep. The fingers were quiet. It was better that way. Later he would take her to bed and she would have her reward.
He took up the brush again in his left hand, and leaning forward, propelled his vision onto canvas.
Midwinter & Spring, 1792
An Insulting Proposal and an Impious Painting
When the knock came, Dulcie was in the sitting room of the Store Street house in London, curled up on the shabby green sofa, and sipping a dish of freshly brewed China tea. She did not bother to get up. It was probably a tradesman, come for payment of last night's mutton chop or the bottle of claret the mistress had ordered for her publisher's supper. Miss Mary disliked having to deal with tradesmen—usually she owed them money. She had nightmares enough without that, she said. She had instructed Dulcie not to open the door.
But when the knock sounded louder and a voice with it: "Open up for the love of God, I've an offer of marriage for the lady of the house, I ain't got all day!" Dulcie slapped her teacup into its saucer and tiptoed to the front window. A bent stick of a man in a grease-stained coat was standing on the doorstep with a withered rose and a paper in his grubby hands. Surely it wasn't himself making the offer? Miss Mary would fell him like a fly with a crack of the swatter.
"Open up!" he shouted. "The master awaits 'is reply. 'E's a colleague of 'er bookseller's printer. I were told by Mister Johnson, the lady'd be in. The gentleman's a-waiting, I said." "One moment, if you please," Dulcie called, then sat back to finish her tea. Did he think she had nothing to do all day but wait on his rude words? Dulcie did not consider herself a menial, but an "unservant," a "helper-about-the-house." She had made that clear when she took the position, and Miss Mary understood. She was swallowing a last bit of raspberry jam when voices erupted outside on the step. Good Lord—it was Miss Mary herself, home from her walk—and already accosting the fellow. Grabbing a broom, Dulcie began a vigorous sweeping by the window.
For a moment there was quiet. She peeked through the curtain. Ah yes, her mistress was by the street door, reading the note, the offer of marriage. Dulcie giggled. She knew what was coming next. For one thing, the mistress did not believe in marriage. "Marriage is merely a legal prostitution," Miss Mary had read aloud at the writing table one day—and Dulcie had sharp ears, something a non-servant-lady's maid-cook like Dulcie had learned to cultivate.
"A marriage proposal for me?" The authoress sounded amused. "From whom, may I ask?"
A moment later she was in shock—or so it seemed. "Edgar Ashcroft is it? That arch-conservative who belittles women in his editorials? Why, he'd have me lisp and play at cards and spend five hours a day at dressing and never read a book. I could not do it. No!"
"Dear madam," came the whining voice of the scraggy go-between. "'E just 'eard you was wanting for money. 'E owns a newspaper, 'e does. 'E can 'elp with your writing."
"What help do I need with my writing? I have all the help I need in here." She jabbed a finger at her forehead. "I do not want Mr Ashcroft's money. I do not need his advice."
A yellow carriage with ornamental red wheels and the image of a sunflower with a woman's smiling face halted in front of the house. A man in a red satin coat and tight black breeches leapt out, arms extended as though he would embrace the mistress. Seeing her step back, he flung himself on his knees. The mistress looked down, and laughed.
"Mister Ashcroft," she cried. "Here is your answer." She ripped the paper from the envoy's fingers, and flung the pieces in the air. A fragment landed in the man's high-crowned hat; another caught in his collar. "So much, Mr Ashcroft, for your scribbling-women-should-be-banished attitude. For your adulation of King Louis and his gaudy queen. Oh, I read your anti-Revolution piece: Hang the mob? Save the monarchy? I say, down with kingcraft and priestcraft. Up with the people. Up with women writers!"
"But madam," Mr Ashcroft stammered, stumbling to his feet. "It was your own publisher, Mr Johnson, who told me of your, er, impecunious state. I own my newspaper. I own two dress shops. You shall have your pick of gowns, you shall be—"
"A fool," she said, "that's what I'd be. Now, pray, go." She took a giant step forward, risking a pile of dog droppings on the cobblestones. "And do not come to me again as if I were a—a hapless female needing charity. I may be poor, sir. But I belong to myself. No other. And certainly not to you, sir!"
"But past the marrying age, if I might say so, 'scuse me, madam," said the sly envoy. And got a whack on the cheek as she stepped forward to pluck a fragment of the torn offer out of the underling's bobwig. Faces peered out from a passing carriage; a man and a woman snickered. The suitor's face darkened.
Behind the window glass, Dulcie gave envoy and suitor a fist. Past the marrying age indeed! True, Madam was two years past thirty—but made no secret of it. And if she was not ready to marry, she was surely ready for love—and this rude fellow offered money, not love. It was the notorious artist, Mr Henry Fuseli, who might offer love—or so Miss Mary hoped. Dulcie had seen the flames that lit up her face and neck whenever the Swiss artist came to call. She opened the door wide and the mistress swept into the entryway, her beaver hat askew, the hem of her black greatcoat and dress splashed with a putrid brown. The man was angry. Dulcie saw it on his face as he stalked back to his gaudy carriage.
"For God's sake, pour me a glass of claret," Miss Mary said, and flung herself, exhausted, onto the sofa. One arm hung down to the dusty floor and Dulcie was chagrined that she hadn't finished the sweeping. But the mistress didn't seem to notice.
"I did for him, did I not, Dulcie?"
"Aye, you did, ma'am—for the both of them. 'Twas a wonder to witness." She watched the pleasure of the victory creep slowly over the mistress's full lips.
Dulcie thought of the black look Mr Ashcroft had given as he left. Folk did not like to be humiliated—especially in front of others. They did not like to be laughed at. Were the mistress a man, he might throw down his glove and demand a duel. What, she wondered, might he do to a woman?
Mary was not in the best of moods when she arrived at No.72, St Paul's Churchyard, where the bookseller, also her patron and publisher (along with many other such) had his home, shop, and salon in the shadow of the great cathedral. She set down the first six sheets of Part Two of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman for typesetting. Part One was already in circulation, and despite the shock and outrage from certain conservatives, it was applauded (to her delight) by the cognoscenti, and Joseph Johnson wanted a sequel.
She was still smarting from yesterday's encounter with Edgar Ashcroft. And she was unhappy that no opportunity was given to revise her work. Pages were rushed into print as soon as they were written, by the surly printer, Hunt, and set in stone, as it were. Hereafter she would give Mr. Johnson the entire manuscript at once—she would not do it his way. She told him so.
"And so be it, my dear," said her publisher, with a stiff little bow of his slight body — then, accommodating as always, a wry smile, a shy wink.
He had a way of saying nay with the same indulgent smile, as though Mary were his daughter and he was refusing her request for chocolate because they both knew it marred her complexion. She could not help but smile back at him. Such a funny little asthmatic man he was in his rumpled blue waistcoat, his grey-black hair tied back with a stained blue ribbon.
"Sit down now and I'll tell you what I've arranged for this afternoon. Something you've been wanting to see." He thrust a glass of cider and a chocolate biscuit into her hands. A forthright, earnest man in his fifties, with large, dark blue eyes that probed her every mood and foible, Joseph Johnson had taken her in when she was penniless and exhausted from a somewhat humiliating year as governess in Ireland, and set her up in a small house, rent free. Now he touched her cheek with his ink-stained hand. "Why, you're all in a heat, my dear."
"Why should I not be, after that dreadful man came to my house. You set him on, Mr Johnson, admit it! He claimed to be a colleague of Cyrus Hunt."
And there was the printer in the shadows, crouched over a manuscript the publisher had handed him to take back to the Fleet Street print shop. She knew the toady was listening; she saw the muscles work in his sallow cheeks.
"Consider now," Joseph said, getting up to reset the mahogany grandfather's clock that had just donged the wrong hour. "A little money would see you through your sequel to Vindication. Not that I encouraged Ashcroft, no," he said when she held up a hand. "He came to tea with a friend—and will not come again, I assure you. He is not one of us."
Mary took a gulp of the cider and squared her shoulders. She did not want to alienate her benefactor—she owed her very life to him. But the proposed marriage implied nothing less than a prostitution of her person for a maintenance. Her cheeks ripened. "I'm proud of my poverty," she cried. "I will not be insulted by a superficial fop!"
"There, there," he said, patting her hand, "no one is asking you to. You've given your answer, you must stand by it. Oh, absolutely. We'll see how much money the new book makes for us. In a month or two we'll take our trip to Paris, shall we? See what's going on with the Revolution? Watch the world change before our eyes, hey?"
"Shall we?" she said, clapping her hands, her mood altered with thoughts of France, the uprising of the people. Oh, but she did long to see history in the making. And she wanted to meet the liberal Marquis de Condorcet who shared her advocacy of equal education for girls and boys, and who was writing a plan, she heard, for the schooling of French females. Why they might write one together! She wanted to change not only her own, but all women's lives. She wouldn't allow a man to keep his unhappy wife's baby as her brother-in-law had. Or an inheritance, the way her brother Ned had kept their grandfather's legacy for himself alone—ignoring his needy siblings.
Joseph was refilling her glass, pressing another chocolate biscuit into her hand. It was worth a blemish or two, yes. She could cover those with powder.
He leaned closer and she tilted her head. He had said something about an arrangement for this afternoon—an outing, perhaps. He was a good man, a kind man, the father she didn't have. Her own father was a drunkard, a man who had killed her mother with his womanising ways. A man who sent letters twice a week, demanding his "rightful" share of her money. What money?
But here was the publisher grinning at her, full of his plans. She squeezed his hand. He returned it and wheezed a laugh. "So what is it, sir," she asked, "this arrangement, this wintry afternoon's outing?"
"I have arranged with our mutual friend Henry Fuseli—"
Ah, Henry, as she'd hoped! She felt the blush coming on. She had been full of Henry Fuseli ever since they had met at one of Johnson's literary suppers. The artist was romantic, dangerous, diabolical. He was the grand passion she had been longing for. Years of male betrayal had brought her low. Now Henry Fuseli's love—well, he did greatly admire her, did he not?—was bringing her to life again.
It would not be physical, no, nothing like that. She was still a virgin. A virgin at thirty-two! Ah well. She glanced over Johnson's shoulder to see The Kiss, a painting that Henry Fuseli had loaned, a painting that carried the effect of the kiss from the lips down to the thighs, and even the quivery toes. Ah...
"To see the original of The Nightmare," he said. "The painting is back from Russia, home now in his private gallery. It is a bit shocking, my dear, prepare yourself. But I think you should see it."
Joseph was narrowing his eyes at her: he knew her all too well. He had seen her conversing with Henry Fuseli. It was the way the artist probed her psyche with those black orbs that melted her bones; the way he cocked his head slightly to listen to her, smiling, as though he agreed; as though he thought her a genius, like himself. Had he not said so one time? But with him she had met her match. Along with Joseph, he was her teacher.
"Shall we go then, my dear?"
She looked down at her old wool dress, the black worsted stockings still mud-stained from yesterday's encounter. Her hair, at its lankest under the old beaver hat. "But you might have warned me. I can't go like this!"
"Oh, dear me, he's seen you in that gown," Joseph teased, and she smiled.
So she had worn the black wool every day the past week. What did she care about fashion? To dress fashionably suited neither her inclination nor her purse. "All right then. But let me scrub the mud off the hem. Brush my hair."
She ran down a flight into the kitchen to find a basin of water; then two flights up, her wet hems dragging, to the looking glass on the wall of the spare bedchamber. A scissors was lying on a nearby table. She trimmed her hair until it curled about her face. She looked like a fringed curtain, but no matter.
"Ah, Henry, my dear..." she whispered into the mirror, and pinched her cheeks to summon up the blood. She was ready, yes, for an afternoon's adventure.
Mary was unprepared for what she saw on the wall at the Fuseli gallery. A sleeping woman in an attitude of utter abandon, looking naked as a summer day under the translucent white shift. She lay against a crimson-draped background, her fair hair and plump shoulders dropped back over the edge of her couch. A grinning goblin crouched on her chest. Mary gasped. In the left corner of the painting, the ghostly head of a horse loomed, its flaring nostrils and staring eyes inflamed at the sight of the reclining virgin.
It was horrible. It was wonderful. It was fascinating. She could not stop looking. She put a hand to her cheek and it burned. Earlier she had walked past scenes painted from Shakespeare and Milton depicting hunts, battles, deaths, despair, horror, exalted emotion. She saw faces with staring eyes, slumped bodies, heaving breasts, tensed and muscled thighs. Incubi and succubi, witches, magic steeds, dreams, fire. A Lady Macbeth like a maenad with daggers. A naked Richard III, visited by ghosts.
But The Nightmare...
People called the artist vain, sardonic, lecherous—they were wrong. Mary's friend William Blake, who had illustrated her Original Stories, called him a genius. And so he was. Why, Henry Fuseli was kind, humane, and thoughtful! Mary formed her judgements quickly and stuck to them. Her first instincts were often right. Though when wrong, she conceded, very wrong. In future she would try to correct such failings.
A man loomed behind her: a tall, lean, pallid fellow in his thirties. "Mon Dieu, a painting of genius!" He spoke in a thick French accent; he had a brown mole on his chin that he kept stroking. "This entire room: a melange of terror! Blood and murder! Fuseli was eating raw pork, that is what brought on The Nightmare. Imagine! See the way he uses light, the way the shadows fall on the drapery. The muscularity of his figures—one thinks of Michelangelo. C'est merveilleux!"
Mary was not looking at the light. Or the texture. She was looking at the goblin that was squatting on the sleeping woman's breast. It leered, as though it would bide its time, then plunge to ravish her. The woman was asleep, yet one could sense her terror the way her head fell back, exposing her bare throat. Mary thought of her own recurring nightmares, and shuddered.
"A priceless work! But surely not one for ladies." The Frenchman gave a short laugh. "Allow me to introduce myself: I am Alfred de Charpentier. Le Comte de Charpentier," he hastened to add. He had recently fled the flames of Paris; he was now living in a shared enclave of émigrés. "You see, I value my head highly," he said, with another laugh. "But perhaps you do not know all that is happening in ma belle France."
Mary knew quite well, she informed him. She had followed the news with great interest—even joy. She pitied this count, truly she did, but he must see how important for the world this revolution was, how corrupt the monarchy, her own English king and queen as well. "Indulging themselves," she said, "pampering, eating pastries and cream while the people starve."
Monsieur was not prepared for her eloquence. He was not a monarchist himself. "Mais non! I am aristocracy on my mother's side only, but targeted by those starving people."
When Mary told him her name, his eyes lit up. He had heard of her earlier work, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, a work she had written to rebut the conservative Edmund Burke. "It is indeed revolutionary. I congratulate you on its publication. But I am afraid I cannot read it and smile. I have lost my home and title as a result of that revolution." He moved on, bowing gracefully.
Henry Fuseli came up behind and clapped a hand on her shoulder. "He's not a bad fellow. You turned him away, did you?" He laughed. "One more impecunious emigré living off the fat of the English land. Drifting with the tides of public opinion. Trying to save his ugly head. London is full of them."
He saw her glance again at the painting. "Shocked, eh?" He seemed pleased with her reaction. "They all are. But they'd like to get their hands on it. In Russia they shot a fellow for trying to steal it." He laughed, and she gave a tremulous smile, but could not look at him. All that voluptuous flesh lay between them. He was married now, but no matter. She wanted only to share his mind.
He was half an inch shorter than she (though she was tall for a woman), small-boned, but such an aura of mystery about him. Those penetrating eyes that drilled right through her gown. The hair unruly, unpowdered like her own—she liked that; it was white from some long-ago, mysterious illness that had afflicted his hands as well as his hair. Even now she felt a hand tremble on her shoulder. So much trauma in those fifty years that had known the love of woman and man—oh yes, there were rumours about Henry Fuseli.
Whatever the artist had done was his prerogative. A genius need not abide by the rules of the majority.
The genius pulled her about to face him, his movements quick and catlike. She squinted into the dark eyes, mesmerized. Then he turned her toward The Nightmare, and she looked back into the eyes of the voyeur horse.
She felt torn in half, as though the beast in the painting were stalking her, taming her, propelling her toward a bedchamber. She grew lightheaded, she had to sit down. She pushed past him, out of breath, out of words. Mary Wollstonecraft, out of words?
"I told you it's powerful, that Nightmare." It was Joseph Johnson, bending solicitously over her where she had collapsed onto a scarlet settee. "But you wanted to see it. I couldn't refuse you. Every painting in here, brilliant. But The Nightmare is Fuseli's favorite, like the child he's never had—or acknowledged. A masterpiece, indeed. It hung for a time in my own house, did I tell you? He made me lock all my doors."
"Oh," she said, imagining tea and crumpets in front of all that eroticism.
"But my housekeeper kept covering it up. So I gave it back. And then all the museums in Europe wanted it. He's thrilled to have it home now in London."
The artist was standing at the gallery entrance, and at the moment he didn't seem thrilled at anything; rather his eyes were hot with anger. It seemed directed at a young man and woman standing before him. Behind them, the blond Sophia Fuseli stood smiling, triumphant, as though she had brought her husband a pair of sweet cakes.
The man, Mary saw, was Roger Peale, a dark-haired young radical who had lately taken part in the weekly gatherings at the publisher's house. He was poor, a struggling artist—talented they said, though she had not seen his work. Joseph had given him, in good faith, an assignment to critique Fuseli's Shakespeare paintings at a local gallery. And what did the impetuous Peale do, Joseph whispered to Mary, but belittle the work: "'Not his cup of tea,' he wrote. Well, all right, but then he went on to call it 'crude, indulgent, filled with gratuitous violence.' The knave disparaged it in no less than three newspapers. And now he presumes to enter the private gallery?"
Mary struggled to her feet. And was pulled back down. "Wait," Joseph said. "Let's see what happens."
Henry was ordering the pair out of the house, his cheeks swollen with resentment. The young woman, too, looked upset; she was trying to pull her companion out with her. Mary recognized Lillian Guilfoy, who had once accompanied Roger Peale to the publisher's. Mrs Guilfoy painted teacups with roses and lilies; she was pretty with her dark curly hair and wide cornflower eyes, the smooth white bosom peeking above the snug bodice.
Mary had once seen Henry Fuseli peering down that bodice. She curled her hands into fists.
Mr Peale was here to review The Nightmare for The Times. He would be open, he was shouting; he would be objective. "You must take bad with the good, sir. You have dozens of disciples. Why are you so worried?"
He was not worried, Fuseli growled. "Not from an objective reporter. You, sir, are hardly objective. Now leave the premises or I shall have my man escort you out!" His Swiss accent thickened, Mary observed, when he was upset. He signaled to a footman; the blond, hulking fellow took a menacing step in the young artist's direction. Peale was a slight but handsome man—poetical was how Mary would describe his features. She hoped there would be no violence. She tried to stand again, this time in favour of young Peale, but Joseph had her arm.
"It's hard for Peale to be objective," he whispered. "I didn't realize when I first assigned him a piece."
"And why not?"
"Think," he said. "He's in love with the Guilfoy woman. She had a child, you know. They say it was Fuseli's."
Mary did not know. She looked at Henry Fuseli. She was feeling lightheaded again.
"Perhaps it was his, my dear. Though he denies it. And Henry wanted nothing to do with any child. What could he do? He was involved with that cousin of his at the time. 'Twould have been damned embarrassing. He gave Mrs Guilfoy a painting. But she destroyed it. Over his head, I believe."
The intruders were backing away. The blond footman resumed his stance by the wall. Sophia Fuseli was in tears. She had made a mistake by letting them in: "It won't happen again," she said, wiping her eyes. Her husband did not comfort her.
"It was naive of Mrs Guilfoy to destroy it," Joseph said. "A Fuseli painting would take care of the child's education had she sold it. I can't understand such carelessness."
Mary understood. One day she would call upon Mrs Guilfoy; they would talk, woman to woman.
The artist's face was a wreath of smiles. He had rid the gallery of his biased critic. He moved swiftly toward Mary, reaching for her hands.
"You look be-eau-ti-ful today," he told her. "What have you done with your hair?" His eyes gazed deeply into hers, and the earth reeled about her sun.
Though when he turned away to speak to Joseph, she could see only the brown goblin, leering.