Violet Trefusis’ Broderie Anglaise & the Writer’s Persona

Why aren’t you the woman of your books?”

In Violet Trefusis’ Broderie Anglaise, translated from the French by Barbara Bray, 37-year-old Alexa, a novelist who lives in Oxford, is having an affair with handsome 29-year-old Lord John Shorne.  When he tells her he is going to Rome for two weeks, she knows it is “to see that Pamela.”

Broderie Anglaise by violet TrefusisHe wishes she would restrain her feelings, because it’s dull for him to deal with them.  He says,

…the least of your heroines is so much cleverer than you.”

“They’re my own portrait touched up,” she answers.

Even if we’re not novelists, don’t we understand this?

Has anyone ever asked you why you’re not exactly like the smart persona of your blogs/books/articles/comments/tweets/online discussion groups?

Once my boss wondered why I couldn’t be as buoyant as the persona of a very silly column I wrote.  The persona was of course myself, without the emotions or wandering attention that might keep me  a couple of beats behind in conversation.  Yes, I liked myself as a smart, endearing bubble-head, too.   When I wrote I had time to think of witty things that didn’t occur to me while I was talking.

Readers expect writers’ voices to be as sharp in life as in their books.  It seems naive that we should think this, when we know they spend hours shaping their prose.  I have met witty writers who aren’t at all witty in real life.  I have interviewed writers who long for nothing more than  to get away from their minders on book tour:  could I give them a clandestine bus schedule?  Or taxi fare?  Once at a dinner party, a friend said of talking to a writer, “It was just like talking to a guy,” and…well, he was a guy.  (As opposed to being a writer?)

In Broderie Anglaise, Alexa learns about storytellers’ voices. She learns that John, too, chooses what to tell, just as she chooses what to reveal in her novels.   When she finally meets Anne, a cousin he was very much in love with, she is surprsied that Anne is very different from the woman he described.

Viola Trefusis was the lover of Vita Sackville-West, who was later Virginia Woolf’s lover.  Trefusis met Woolf once.   In the novel, she recreates the triangle as heterosexual, not lesbian.  I thought John was a perfect male character. Turns out he’s Vita Sackville-West.  Alexa is based on Virginia Woolf,  and Anne on Trefusis.

Trefusis lived for years in France, and wrote novels both in English and French. You might be familiar with her light novel, Hunt the Slipper, published by Virago.

I very much enjoyed Broderie Anglaise and think it’s a better book than Hunt theV Slipper.  Perhaps I’m in the minority here, though.