The Hearing Trumpet: Surrealism, Feminism and Old Lady Revolt
Regular readers will know I grew up in Cornwall, the land of old ladies. You have probably noticed that elderly women in popular culture are issued with just two personalities to share between them: the dear old biddy and the evil crone. This hasn’t been my experience of actual old women – though I have met biddies and crones both – on the whole I have met people, with all the complexity and variety that entails.
However one common characteristic did emerge, although this may be more to do with Cornwall than with old age: eccentricity. Some of the most bizarre and wonderful people I have ever met have been women in their 70s. Cornwall is full of them. And I can tell you they make ‘quirky’ young women look like amateurs. I aspire to join their ranks. Don’t want to put too many teddy bears in your cat’s room in case he feels crowded? Written a play about an easter egg’s journey to self-understanding? Eat raw onions like apples? Genuinely believe you have a telepathic connection with that robin? JOIN US.
So imagine my delight on receiving a novel almost entirely populated by said ladies. You may already know about Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington (if not, here’s a quick primer on The F Word and some decent-sized images of her work) but you may not know that she was also a writer. One of her books is The Hearing Trumpet, which features 92-year-old Marian Leatherby as its polite, sensible and intrepid heroine.
Marian’s adventures begin when she is given a hearing trumpet as a gift. She overhears her son and daughter-in-law’s plans to install her in a medieval Spanish castle that has been converted into a home for old ladies. There a mystery begins, involving a decidedly witchy 18thC Abbess, the Holy Grail, and a plate of poisoned brownies. Trying to describe the plot doesn’t really do it justice, just go and read it. If you mixed a bit of Angela Carter, Spike Milligan, Agatha Christie and Roald Dahl together you might get something close. It’s enchanting and funny, and makes for a refreshing encounter with Surrealism sans machismo.
In a cast of old women there are no crones and just one biddy: kind, timid Maude. Although even she is not what she appears to be. Instead the reader is introduced to glamorous and cynical Georgina, Veronica, who is blind, painting endless watercolours, dignified and enigmatic Christabel, religious visionary Natacha, graceful French Marquise Claude, frantic Anna, and Natacha’s devoted spiritual disciple Vera.
In her 2005 introduction to The Hearing Trumpet author Ali Smith wonders if the decision to write a story with such an elderly narrator and characters was “a reaction against Carrington’s Surrealist objectification as astonishingly gifted child-woman”. The idea of the femme-enfant was very important to the Surrealist movement, as her spontaneity and innocence (supposedly untainted by logic or rational thought) were felt to bring her closer to the unconscious. Though of course equating female creativity with youth left little room for the women associated with the movement to mature and develop as artists.
While the book is very definitely concerned with feminine experience, creativity and spirituality, there is no trace of an oppressive female essentialism. This is partly because old age has rendered most of the characters a little androgynous: Marian explains that she has “a short grey beard which conventional people would find repulsive. Personally I find it rather gallant.” But also because the book seems largely uninterested in restricting the feminine to the female.
As well as the ladies of Lightsome Hall there is Marian’s best friend Carmella, who writes letters to strangers, smokes cigars, brings port in a hot water bottle to evade confiscation, and devises audacious plans to spring Marian from the home. Their friendship is one of the loveliest aspects of the book, and was inspired by Leonora Carrington’s close friendship with fellow painter Remedios Varo.
Varo is less well known in the UK than Carrington, despite the success she found in her adopted home of Mexico – here are a few of her paintings. Their work shares some common themes and motifs, with both exploring mysticism and the significance of ritual, as well as drawing heavily on the natural world. In her biography of Varo, Unexpected Journeys, Janet Kaplan writes:
Traveling together into what the poet Adrienne Rich has called ‘the cratered night of female memory,’ they undertook a shared process of self-discovery, working together to probe the possibility of woman’s creative power. Through their exploration of hermetic and magical paths, they developed a common pictorial language, derived from the realms of domestic life, the fairy tale and the dream.
Their shared and similar experiences built a strong sense of mutual trust between them, not least the fact they had both recently been in detention – Carrington was incarcerated in a Spanish asylum following a mental breakdown, and Varo was interned in France for several months at the start of the Second World War. Carrington’s mistrust of institutions, family and doctors is very clear in The Hearing Trumpet, which ends with a joyful, absurd, anarchic revolution in society and in nature.
While they regularly spoofed their friendship in stories and letters to each other, its affectionate portrayal in The Hearing Trumpet is the best known, and particularly poignant now as Leonora Carrington is still alive and older than Marian Leatherby, but Remedios Varo died in 1963 in her early 50s.
It’s a strange and wonderful book, which I would heartily recommend to anyone with a taste for the peculiar and a playful sense of humour. Go on, it’ll brighten your January, trust me.