Table of contents
2. Art-genres in As for Me and My House and A Saving Grace
3. Art and Nature in As for Me and My House and A Saving Grace
4. Art and communication in As for Me and My House and A Saving Grace
Ever since its reprint in 1957 Sinclair Ross’s As for Me and My House has been considered to be one of Canada’s most important literary works and has been honoured with great attention amongst numerous critics. The discussion ranges from gay / lesbian approaches over biographical comparisons of the characters with historical figures to psychoanalytical approaches to the protagonists’ personalities. Written as a fictional diary of the narrator Mrs. Bentley, the limited, subjective point of view from which the story is told has always been an obstacle for the critics. As the diarist she slips into the roles of author, actor and reader, which leads to a constant shifting of her position as “desiring subject, desired object, and analytical (jealous) observer, or third person apparently excluded” (Raoul 1998: 15). Especially the critics who consider Philip to be the main character of the novel (e.g. Stouck 1974: 143) see themselves curbed by this filtering point of view. Besides it remains unresolved whether Mrs Bentley is building up false fronts in her diary as she does in life (Hinz / Teunissen 1986: 102). The reader can never be sure how far it is possible to trust her perspective. Mrs Bentley has the power to cover up the truth by any idealisation, projection or simply one of the gaps between her entries. On the other hand her writing seems to be free from any outer indoctrination or influence because she doesn’t tell anyone about it. The diary’s destiny or purpose is unknown and it neither has any relevance for the plot nor is it ever reflected upon by Mrs. Bentley herself (Raoul 1998: 15). Still Mrs. Bentley’s literary production, which seems to be a mere means to an end for her, is of importance for the development of her personality throughout the novel.
John H. Ferres has pointed out three capital themes in Sinclair Ross’s works, which are of special relevance for As for Me and My House : the difficulty of communication, the strive for authenticity and the struggle against “the harsh elements and desolate wilderness” of the Canadian prairie (Ferres 1983: 1). Being categorized as a “Künstlerroman” (Stouck 1974: 143), artistic expression of any kind plays a major role in the novel. Ferres’s three themes are all connected to art, which is functioning as a medium for the expression of the characters’ personalities, for coping with the hostile natural environment and finally for the constant try to carry their inner concerns outside. Ross uses the three genres writing, painting and music as mirrors, and with their current symbolism assigns certain qualities and possibilities to each character of his novel.
Based on As For Me and My House the volume of poems by Lorna Crozier, named A Saving Grace give further insights into Mrs. Bentley’ nature. The poems picks up the topics of As for Me and My House as a kind of fictional continuation of Mrs. Bentley’s diary in the form of very personal and intimate poems dealing with the same themes of nature, art and communication. They reveal astonishing or at times even shocking details of the Bentleys’ life in Horizon which haven’t been discussed in the diary, for example a sexual affair of Mrs. Bentley and Paul (Crozier 1996:71). Others deal with the genres, the landscape and the weather and its impact on the people. The form of intertextuality used by Crozier is called the model of participation. It follows a strategy of continuing a preceding text and thus evoking a perpetual intertextual dialogue between the present and a past culture. The detailed explanation of the dominant pretext is an inevitable condition for the understanding of the new text (Lachmann / Schahadat 1992: 678ff). , so that in the current case the reader can only grasp the full meaning of the poems if he is familiar with Ross’s novel.
This essay will discuss the relevance of the three mentioned themes and their reappearing in the different art genres treated in the texts, especially writing, painting and music. It will focus on the way in which art is used as a medium of expression and how it distinguishes the characters from each other. Three poems from Crozier’s volume, each dealing with one of the three main genres, will give further insight into these aspects.
Following this the essay will examine the presence of nature in the characters’ lives and artworks, and its significance for their state of minds. Three further poems revolving around the weather and the landscape will illustrate this additionally.
The last point will examine the verbal and non-verbal forms of communication established by the characters. Again the attention lies on the importance of art, here functioning as a medium for communication.
2. Art-genres in As for Me and My House and A Saving Grace
Citing Maurice Bebee in her essay, Barbara Godard claims that writers of artist novels have an unspoken agreement upon a certain hierarchy in the arts. She compares the composer and the performer or rather the creator and the copyist, and says the first is valued higher than the latter. Bearing this in mind, Philip Bentley, the painter and thereby creator is rated higher in this hierarchy than his wife, the piano-performer (Godard 1981: 60). This has an enormous impact on their relationship, for Mrs. Bentley is condemned to stand in the shadow of her husbands creative talent. Keeping her authorship, which makes her become a creator as well, a secret, she enables herself to escape this situation. She simply “conceal[s] [her journal’s] artfulness by denying it” (Kroetsch 1978: 22). Nevertheless, by making her the fictional author of a volume of poems Lorna Crozier adds another level which makes it impossible to blend out her creativity. Thus theoretically her position in the artistic hierarchy has to be one equal to Philip, although she categorizes herself as a performing musician.
Mrs. Bentley starts her journal after the arrival in Horizon, where she finds herself trapped in the same situation as in the towns she has lived in before. Since she married Philip she followed him to several small-towns where he worked as a preacher. Very soon she found herself being forced into a certain role: “In return for their thousand dollars a year they expect a genteel kind of piety, a well bred Christianity that will serve as an example to the little sons and daughters of the town. It was twelve years ago, in our first town, that I learned my lesson […]” (Ross 1989: 5). She grows a sense of exposure and the need to hide from the eyes of the town. The narrow ceilings and small windows of their house in Horizon make her feel even more imprisoned (Ross 1989: 17) and because of the fact that it is built very close to the street she feels spied upon by the town: “[…] they must have build the house up close to the street like this in order to learn a little about the occupants. Anyway I feel exposed, catch myself walking on tiptoe, talking to Philip in half-whispers.” (Ross 1989: 18) Feeling pressurized like this the only possibility to be herself and to reflect upon her situation openly is her writing. Here she records the developments of the relationships between herself, Philip, Judith, Paul, Steve and a couple of further characters. Since she has a talent in dealing with other people, she has a strong influence on these relationships. She repeatedly invites guests for dinner and while she is presenting herself as a perfect hostess she analyses their behaviour to write it down in her diary when they have left. This kind of relationship-management reveals an aggressive need to be in control of things and to maintain the overview. On the other hand this is a sign for her powerlessness in the marital life. The frequent need to invite people to the house shows her incapability to handle the tension between herself and Philip (Compton 1992: 65). He would retreat into his study and leave her in the house’s silence if he weren’t obliged towards some guests. Mrs Bentley’s behaviour is passive and manipulative at the same time. She exercises power as an influential person and as a writer, while being powerless as a preacher’s wife caught in hypocrisy and the indifference of her husband and the surrounding prairie (Compton 1992: 67f).
He’s a failure now, a preacher instead of a painter, and every minute of the day he’s mindful of it. I’m a failure too, a small-town preacher’s wife instead of what I so faithfully set out to be – but I have to stop deliberately like this to remember. To have him notice, speak to me as if I really mattered in his life, after twelve years with him that’s all I want or need. (Ross 1989: 23)
This statement shows not only Mrs. Bentley’s despair but also the reason why she prefers to confide in a diary instead of her husband. Both of them find themselves caught in misery about having failed the dreams they had before their marriage. They have withdrawn from each other and live side by side without being able to communicate. However, it is not only Philip who is indifferent and impassionate about Mrs. Bentley but also herself who although longing for his attention slips away from his rare approaches (Ross 1989: 31, 32, 64; compare Cude 1979: 473). It seems that they hinder each other in their constant try to retain their artistic abilities simply by being in the same room. This might be the reason why we only find Mrs. Bentley writing when Philip has left the house or has locked himself into his study. Most of the time she finds a quiet moment like this in the evening, “in those hours when mothers settle their children for the night, recalling with the children the day’s events” (Compton 1992: 73). Since she lost her child in the first year of their marriage, she felt guilty for having failed in the most essential duty of a good Christian wife. To satisfy Philip’s fatherly needs she arranges two adoptions. The first is the one of Steve, a neglected 12 year old catholic boy, the second that of Judith’s illegitimate baby, which ironically happens to be Philip’s biological son, for he has betrayed Mrs. Bentley with Judith.
Mrs. Bentley herself is so busy with finding ways to tempt Philip out of his resentment and arranging his life that she seems to forget her own needs and longings. It is her writing that finally makes her discover her significance (Compton 1992: 73). Keeping it a secret she creates something of her very own, something she won’t share with anyone. Her unawareness of the literary quality of her writing makes it plausible to suggest that she doesn’t write for artistic reasons but that she is probably motivated by the urge to get closer to herself. At the beginning of the year in Horizon she still refuses this insight which is underlined by the following remark on Philip’s attempt to write:
Once he tried to write, the second year we were married, and all through his clumsy manuscript I read himself. That was what spoiled it, himself, the painful, sometimes bitter reality. Even I might have done it better. […] It’s his way to look through himself, always to see just the skeleton. (Ross 1989: 39f)
Only her fear of the truth could make her think like that. She prefers a life behind false fronts and thus confuses a talent to write with a talent for hypocrisy. Plagued by a constant bad conscience for being responsible for the frustrating situation she and Philip are in, she is afraid of confronting herself with the past like Philip has done it in his writing. This fear shines through in her paranoia triggered by the roses on the wallpaper “that stare at you like eyes” (Ross 1989: 17) or her complaints about the house’s smell which seems to her like an exhalation of the past (Ross 1989: 18). Thomas M. F. Gerry describes her as “haunted by a sense of guilt” and makes an intertextual comparison by quoting the following lines from Dante’s Divine Comedy: “Ay me! How hard to speak of it – that rude / And rough and stubborn forest! The mere breath / Of memory stirs the old fear in the blood.” (Gerry 1989: 114) However, while Philip doesn’t make another attempt to write and resigns himself to his situation, Mrs Bentley seems to become aware of the necessity to somehow face her fears in order to handle her life. She realizes that she has to master her own situation before she can turn to other people’s concerns. Her repetitious writing about failure, hypocrisy and the fear of her own insignificance makes her confront reality and this becomes her chance to find a way out of the vicious circle she created (Compton 1992: 74).