Memories triggered by reading Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess”

memories triggered

My memory of my childhood is patchy and not always reliable but sometimes something stimulates my brain and, like sunlight falling on a shard of a hologram, a fragment of my past is lit up.

Today the stimulus was reading Robert Browning’s deeply disturbing poem, “My Last Duchess”and the shard contained the spirit of my little sister – an eerie thought when I consider that the poem starts with a Duke saying:

“That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive.”

Reading the poem this morning, I saw a chilling portrait, resonant with our current times, of a psychopathic misogynist with the wealth and power not only to commit evil but to boast about it with impunity.

It made me remember the very different reaction my fourteen-year-old self had to reading the poem for the first time.

I was too excited by the poem’s creepiness and too eager to read it aloud in just the right tone of dispassionate arrogance to think about the kind of man the poem depicted.   

I immediately found my then nine-year-old sister and read it to her.

She savoured the tone of the reading and, once I’d explained the meaning to her, hugged the story to herself. She demanded that I read it again. The second time she smiled at what it meant as well as it what it sounded like.

We often escaped together, my sister and I, into the imaginations of people long dead. They spoke to us with more focused power than the living adults we met, who asked us about school or spoke over us to our parents, going on and on about who had what illness and what the doctors were doing about it and saying yes thank you they’d love a cup of tea, two sugars please.

We made a shrine of our books shelves, six of them in all, filled with Children’s Classics in shiny hardback covers: “Little Women,” “Kidnapped”, “Black Beauty”, “Around The World In 80 Days”, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Beneath The Sea” and a posh Faber and Faber paperback copy of “The Children Of Green Knowe” that smelled of china clay and freedom. We knew the titles and their order on the shelves by heart. These were books that I had once read to my sister and that she had now started to read to herself.

In retrospect, the strangest book on the shelves was a newly purchased collection of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories. I was obsessed with him at the time and particularly loved “Hop Frog” and “The Cask Of Amontillado”. I had turned “The Cask Of Amontillado” into a (very) short play that my sister and I would perform. I would kick -off soliloquising: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.” My sister, cast as the doomed and inappropriately named Fortunato would end the play with an impassioned cry of “For the love of God, Montresor” and I would reply solemnly “Yes. For the love of God.”

Neither of us knew how to pronounce Amontillado but we both understood Montresor’s cold-blooded fury. Montresor and Browning’s Duke where demons we recognised at some bone-deep level.

Unlike me, my sister hated to be the centre of attention. Her passage through the school that I had made so much noise in was a quiet one and it would have been easy to assume that she had neither my anger nor my sharp tongue.

We both knew that was untrue.

In today’s memory shard, I saw my sister at fourteen, telling me of a classroom battle fought and won with quiet control but retold with passion and delicious malice.

She had been suffering silently for almost a term under an English teacher my sister thought dull. The teacher, perhaps sensing behind my sister’s quiet demeanour a deep disdain, set out to embarrass her by making her the centre of attention while performing a task the teacher must have thought she would fail at. She made my sister do a sight reading of “My Last Duchess”.

Giving no hint that she had ever seen the poem before, my sister mimicked my often-repeated performance of the poem, stunning the class into a silence that she left unbroken.

Her teacher, braver than she was wise and perhaps still hoping to triumph, asked my sister if she understood what the poem was about.

My sister held the teacher’s gaze and said, quietly: “It’s about what happens to women who don’t understand how power works.”

The memory of this telling made me smile. She and I both knew that this time SHE had been Montresor and her teacher had been Fortunato.

My sister is some years dead now but today. for a few moments, I got her back.

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