Authors: Susanna Moore
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright © 2012 by Susanna Moore
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The life of objects / Susanna Moore.—1st ed.
“This is a Borzoi book.”
1. Germany—History—1933–1945—Fiction. 2. Self-realization in women—Fiction. 3. Aristocracy (Social class)—Germany—Fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Jacket photograph by Hugo Erfurth © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Jacket design by Jason Booher
To Richard Moore and Cheryl Hardwick,
and to Michael Moore
y name is Beatrice Adelaide Palmer. I was born in 1921 in Ballycarra, County Mayo, the only child of Elizabeth Givens and Morris Palmer of Palmerstown. My family had come down in the world, and we were no longer gentry, but we weren’t tenant farmers, either (not educated at university, but not peasants). I attended a small school kept by Mr. Hugh Knox, a Church of Ireland clergyman with a passion for birds who gave lessons in Latin grammar and mathematics. As there was no lending library in Ballycarra, Mr. Knox encouraged his pupils (there were only three of us) to read from his own collection of books—
Robinson Crusoe, Cranford
, Shakespeare, Dickens, Trollope and Thackeray,
, the sermons of Jonathan
Grimm’s Fairy Tales
, George Eliot, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Hardy,
The Journal of the Beagle, The Complete Father Brown, The Crusade and Death of Richard I
, Siegfried Sassoon,
The Cloister and the Hearth, The Diary of Samuel Pepys
Biggles and the Black Peril
(a book that instilled in me a terror of Russians).
Mr. Knox also had an extensive collection of bird journals and scientific papers, and although much to Mr. Knox’s disappointment, I didn’t read the ornithology books, I read the novels, some more than once, and the fairy tales many times (particularly the story of Little Red Riding Hood, who Dickens claimed was his first love: “I felt that if I could have married Little Red Riding Hood, I should have known perfect bliss”). When Mr. Knox went to Dublin each fall, he always returned with a book that he knew would give me pleasure, such as the new Daphne du Maurier or Agatha Christie, and to my delight he allowed me to keep those books. Mr. Knox liked to say that novels help to show us that the world is a place of strangeness, ruled by chance, which makes it difficult to maintain our certainties. I had no certainties other than my desire to leave Ballycarra.
Mr. Knox encouraged his students to accompany him on his excursions to study the birds of the Moy Estuary, but I was the only one who walked with him, just as I was the only one who read his books. That is when he taught me to fish, giving me the name of Maeve of Connacht, the pirate queen.
He was the sole companion of my girlhood. Were it not for Mr. Knox, my loneliness would have been more than I could bear. When he was not distracted by fieldwork, I asked him questions. Mr. Knox, unlike anyone in our village, had been in the world. He had, by his own admission, seen things. He’d been to university in England and had served in the Great War. He had even traveled in Canada before taking orders. I had been once to Glasgow as a small child with my mother and father. My mother was ashamed of her relatives and never spoke of the trip, other than to remind my father that he’d been sick crossing the Irish Sea.
I was a quiet girl, by all accounts, conversation considered an unnecessary luxury by my parents. I heard no family tales or instructive anecdotes, my head filled instead with the stories of willful heroines, vivacious of temperament unlike myself, with whom I shared a longing for the world and its imagined pleasures—irresistible girls like Eustachia Vye, Maggie Tulliver, Becky Sharpe, and even the wicked Gwendolen Harleth.
It is no wonder that my curiosity threatened my peace of mind. I couldn’t explain my thoughts, or begin to understand them. There was nothing in my family that would have anticipated such a seeking temperament as I possessed, a mystery which often distressed me. Without knowing how to remedy it, I understood that I was already estranged from my parents, if only in my desires, and that my efforts to earn my mother’s regard were fruitless. She behaved more like a stepmother to me than a mother, and now and then I questioned if I was indeed her child.
She rarely spoke about herself and I knew very little about her. She’d worked as a waitress in the teashop in Sligo where my father, a student at a nearby technical school, took his supper every Saturday night. When my grandfather Palmer died shortly after their marriage, my father abandoned his studies to take over the family shop. My mother said that she’d never have married him had she known she’d be lost for the rest of her miserable life in the filthy bogs of west Ireland. She claimed to envy her sisters—one had run off with a commercial traveler, and the other had drowned in childhood. She was born a fool, she said, and she would die a fool. I did not think her foolish—she had too little charm for that—but her disappointments had rendered her bitter and unkind. My father and I were in constant dread of her. I lived in a chaos of desire and disappointment.
When I turned fifteen, my mother, who had long felt that Mr. Knox was filling my head with ideas that would do me little good in the world of haberdashery, took me from school to work in the shop. I was heartbroken, but no amount of pleading or persuasion could make her change her mind. Mr. Knox sent word through one of my fellow pupils, a smirking boy named Peter whose father was bailiff at the castle, that he hoped I would continue to read his books and to accompany him on his walks. My mother told Peter to inform our teacher that I was far too busy to idle in the woods.
A few days later, I announced that Mr. Knox wished to
engage me to clean the schoolroom. My mother, who welcomed the chance for me to earn a little money, allowed me to go to the rectory every Saturday when the shop was closed. When I told Mr. Knox my lie, knowing that my mother would demand to see the money, he said that I’d more than earned it, having read aloud to him for years. He was happy to give me a shilling every week.
Mr. Knox particularly liked me to read from
The Peterborough Bestiary
, which I’d come to know by heart:
Cranes divide the night into sentry-duty and they make up the sequence of the watches by order of rank, holding little stones in their claws to ward off sleep. When there is danger they make a loud cry
. The bestiary also advised that parrots be beaten with an iron rod should they refuse to talk, a passage that always made him laugh. He had a pet gull named Wedgwood that he’d raised (from the shell, he liked to say), and the bird often accompanied us on our field trips. Mr. Knox also taught me to keep his lists in order, and through observing the comfort he took in them, I began to keep lists of my own. In my first list, made when I was twelve, I wrote:
A fine pair of shoes, a diary with a key, a parrot, a curling iron
Although we had few customers, my mother did not let me read in the shop, lest it appear that I gave myself airs. To ease the tedium, I studied my father’s ledgers as if they held the answers to all that I longed to know. They were narrow books with maroon board covers, and in them were kept the names of customers and their transactions. I conceived elaborate tales to match each entry. The notation
Mrs. Dennis Gurney, doz.
handkerchiefs, no monogram, one bolt pink tulle, three packets needles
made me wonder what Mrs. Gurney possibly meant to do with so much tulle (as it was pink, it could not be for a bridal veil) and, less interesting, why she had chosen plain handkerchiefs, as the monogramming was done to order by my mother and free of charge. That the Catholic priest, Father Timothy, fancied costly cashmere hose that had to be ordered from Dublin was, thanks to my youth, less compelling, although mildly titillating.
There were only two boys in Ballycarra who were not Catholic (my former schoolmates), and my mother took care to remind me that if I did not soon make a match with one of them, I would end my days a spinster. I found the boys to be ignorant and dull, and I avoided them whenever I saw them in the village. I was intrigued by the handsome Catholic boys, despite (or thanks to) my father’s horror of Roman Catholics. He’d been told by a great-aunt that the audience at a Punch and Judy show in Killala had cheered at the news that the French had landed nearby, and the shock of it had done it for him, even though the landing had been one hundred years before his birth. I was curious about the Catholic girls, too, but they kept themselves apart, a snub that infuriated my mother, who, despite her complaints, had done well for herself.
It didn’t take long to exhaust the mysteries of the shop’s ledgers, and I began to teach myself to crochet, copying the patterns I
found in the ladies’ magazines my father kept on behalf of his customers, studying them until the pages grew soft with use.
I stole lengths of thread from the shop, rolling them into a ball until I’d accumulated enough to make my first cuff (I unraveled it eight times before it was to my liking, and even then I didn’t think it good enough). Copying Mr. Knox’s notes had given me patience and an appreciation of tidy handiwork, and the hours I spent sewing seemed to pass in a dream. Silence had become natural to me, and a tendency to secrecy, if not dissimulation.
I sewed at night, using the ends of candles I found in the kitchen, which burned for an hour or two. My mother, naturally suspicious, took to creeping up the attic stairs to make sure that I was not committing any sins of impurity. At the sound of her footstep, despite her attempt at stealth, I hid my work under a blanket, my furtiveness undoubtedly encouraging her fantasies of vice. My mother was right to worry, as the patterns from Madeira and Brussels and Murano served to further excite my restlessness. I began to dream of the day when I would escape from Ballycarra.
I determined to teach myself to make lace after I saw a Youghal tablecloth drying on a hedge, said to have been made by the girls who sewed in the byre across the bridge, where the moist warmth of the cows kept their thread supple and their hands from stiffening in the cold. I wished to see more of their work, but my mother would not allow me to call on them. It confused me that girls considered so uncivilized could have made something as beautiful as the lace tablecloth with its design of ferns and heather. On warm evenings, I used to
watch from the dark shop as the girls made their way to the river, and sometimes I wished that I were Roman Catholic, if only for the summer.
One morning, I brought down one of my finished pieces—a lace collar I’d studied in a magazine—and left it on the counter for my father to find when he opened the shop. Neither my mother nor my father mentioned it, but my father began to leave spools of thread at the foot of the stairs for me. By the end of the year, I had a dozen Valenciennes cuffs and collars, which I again left for my father to find. To my surprise, he offered to display my work in the window of the shop. Although the lace did not sell, even marked very low, it was admired, and I began to gain a certain small renown in the neighborhood. My father, who rarely praised me, reminded me that his father, my grandfather Palmer, had been notorious for the beauty of his salmon flies and suggested that I had, perhaps, inherited something after all.