Gilman peered at his watch: the day’s work had begun at eleven. He allowed himself to settle into the concentrated trance that he knew only too well. In a sense it was not so different from the trance that he fell into when he went walking – for he was a great walker, and being tall and strong, had the body for it too – except that when he walked, Gilman did not really think. Instead he let his senses breath and his body exhale – enjoying the steady rhythms that accompanied such reconnaissance of city or land. Painting was a different order of trance because it required total focus and concentration from Gilman. Indeed, when Gilman painted, he did so with the whole of his mind.
Bertha appeared to be well settled and Gilman began to methodically delineate her shape upon the canvas in front of him in light touches of pale purple oil. As he worked the sun broke through the clouds and suddenly beat in full force upon her stomach and legs. Bertha was unperturbed, and continued to lie, still as a sleeping child upon the bed where she read, completely motionless except for when she moved to turn a page or give her body an itch or rub.
Gilman searched for a "way in" to the painting. His search for this secret key was a variable and sometimes time consuming procedure, which had no clear beginning or end. It reminded him of the way his father used to work when he was first confronted with a problem that he needed to solve or the details of a new plan, and would sit, biting his nails at the living room table, before Eureka! some answer had come to him from the depths. Gilman allowed the disparate elements to rotate in his head: the diagonal of the figure, the downcast face, the dirty sheets upon the bed. Then he narrowed his vision, to hone in on two colours. Just two colours are enough! Sickert had once told him. Then he had it: plum colours and yellow colours. The most important moment in the execution of any great work of art is when the painter decides upon his palette. This was the wisdom of the Impressionists – and it had worked.
With his key in place, Gilman worked quickly, fleshing out Bertha’s limbs in his canvas in strokes of buttery yellow and dusk-rose. He had decided that the tension in this painting resided between the twin poles of lightness and darkness – sunshine and gloom – that Bertha’s form united like a rainbow. And so like a street performer upon a piano: he struck at the canvas – here and there – scoring upon it various notes of colour: violent blue upon the hair, violet upon the forehead, citrine upon the thighs. When he struck a hundred strokes he had composed a melody, five hundred a prelude, five thousand a sonata … she was being scored into life.
As the hours passed by in silence, the furrows in Gilman’s brow deepened. He could almost feel it – the migraine that came on when he painted. Suddenly his field of vision was awash with the crowd of silent faces that had watched him for the past five years in bedrooms and studios across London. There was Chicken, Sickert’s chit from the opera; his mother, Sylvie, the flower-girls passed onto him by Bayes; Mrs Mounter of course – who could not forget her? Her face had first won his the attention of the royal academicians, dear old Mrs Mounter with her interminable cups of tea.
Why do you always paint women? His step-father had once asked him, half amused, half-accusingly. He had no real justification to fire back: he had painted some men of course, his friends, the Camden Towners, even some members of the Friday Club. But women, well they were the ones who were around to sit for hours at one o’ clock in the afternoon – and working-class women, well they were the ones who needed money. So that was the rational – depressingly economic. "Romance of everyday life" was a philosophy that had sprung from a coincidence and the economic inequalities of the city.
He could feel it: the ball of pain mounted like a pulsing sun in the upper cortex of his brain was growing. Gilman could bear it no longer, he had to speak.
End of Extract
“Why? Are you a suffragist?”
Bertha sighed a little – or was it a yawn?
“Oh I don’t know about that… I don’t know that I am high-born enough to be a suffragette, or organise a conference or speak at a meeting. But I have marched a couple of times…”
Gilman was suddenly interested: “Where did you march?”
“Oh … in 1909,1907, 1910. I was there for Black Friday more recently,” Gilman looked down, “but also at the Mud March back in 1907. I was there at the great rallies in Leicester Square and when Ms Pankhurst chained herself to the railings of the Prime Minister’s residence …”
Gilman recalled some of these names from newspaper headlines and hearsay. He had even gone down with Bevan to watch the Mud March demonstration in 1907. It had struck him then as more of a parade than a protest: the fine, swaying forest of skirts, bright colours and standard-bearers with gilded ensigns. It was beautiful really, like a vision in a dream, this army of women, singing, chanting, and marching ceremonially upon the blackened London streets arm in arm. It was very different from an industrial picket, and seemed, funnily-enough, almost decorous; except that these angels were knee-high in mud, rain and sewage water. Some of his friends had been very derisive about the whole thing, he knew others that had plainly forbid their wives to attend the rallies and demonstrations. Others he knew – such as Sickert’s sister – were very active indeed. No one could stop her from doing anything. But in the later years, with the escalation of violence, damage to property, acts of aggression, hunger striking, the movement had become more desperate. They were no longer just angels in the mud, Gilman reflected; that pacifism belonged to a former time. Now the papers were reporting incidents of smashed windows, and most recently, that abominable case of the Richardson woman and the Rokeby Venus. For Gilman, the movement seemed to have lost a clear sense of itself and of course now attracted far more criticism from on high.
“Could I ask you something?”
“Yes, of course.”
“I have nearly finished. Do you mind reading to me a little? From your book I mean?”
Bertha seemed surprised but not offended or frightened.
“Well of course, if you want to listen! What would you like to hear?”
Gilman didn’t answer; he didn’t know the first thing about this Schreiner woman or her book.
“Well… you’re a starter, so I’ll read you something from the beginning: are you ready?”
In a clear voice, silvery and strong, that had now lost all hints of its former sarcasm, she began:
“I had always been strangely interested from childhood in watching the condition of the native African women in their primitive society about me. When I was eighteen I had a conversation with a Kafir woman still in her untouched primitive conditions, a conversation which made a more profound impression on my mind than any but one other incident connected with the position of woman has ever done…”
Gilman continued to paint, he was so almost there! Just a few minor adjustments, score: score. Almost there … and Bertha’s voice, like a silver bell, swinging to and fro in his consciousness.
“She was a woman who I cannot think of otherwise than as a person of genius. In language more eloquent and intense than I have ever heard from the lips of any other woman, she painted the condition of the women of her race; the labour of women, the anguish of woman as she grew older, and the limitations of her life close in about her, her sufferings under the condition of polygamy and subjection; all this she painted with a passion and intensity I have not known equalled; and yet ….”
He had finished. He put his brush down. Now all his attention was on Bertha who had repositioned herself on the bed and was not sitting up.
“… and yet, and this was the interesting point, when I went on to question her, combined with a deep and almost fierce bitterness against life and the unseen powers which had shaped woman and her conditions as they were, there was not one word of bitterness against the individual man, nor any will or intention to revolt; rather, there was a stern and almost majestic attitude of acceptance of the inevitable; life and the conditions of her race being what they were…”
“Go on,” Gilman urged from behind the canvas. He didn’t want to look at her. She continued— her voice this time a little less steady:
“It was this conversation which first forced upon me a truth, which I have since come to regard as almost axiomatic, that, the women of no race or class will ever rise in revolt or attempt to bring about a revolutionary readjustment of their relation to their society, however intense their suffering and however clear their perception of it, while the welfare and persistence of their society requires their submission: that, wherever there is a general attempt on the part of the women of any society to readjust their position in it, a close analysis will always show that the changed or changing conditions of that society have made woman’s acquiescence no longer necessary or desirable.”
Bertha stopped abruptly. “Gosh, I am so sorry Mr. Gilman, but I am absolutely desperate for the toilet!” Her eyes opened wide while she bit back a laugh. She appeared to find the situation funny.
Gilman was gobsmacked.
“Of course! Do go!” he spluttered out.
Without further ado, Bertha scurried across the room, along the corridor and into the bathroom. In the silence of the house, the sound of Bertha relieving herself into the chamber pot was clearly audible. Gilman reflected to himself with surprise, that really he was not in the least embarrassed by this shocking lack of ceremony. He felt that he had been inducted so totally into her biological reality, into Bertha – with one vital exception of course– she seemed to be to him one holistic entirety. Thus, the sound of her relieving herself did not truly appal or offend him, but seemed natural and good; an extension of her – of Bertha. Gilman was surprised at his own conclusions.
He heard the heavy loping tread of her feet making their way back to him. Suddenly a thought occurred to him. She lunged back onto the bed, playfully, like a rocket, without as much as looking at the finished painting.
“How are we progressing?” Her mouth was open, crookedly, revealing two lines of teeth.
“Good,” he replied – eyeing her keenly. “In fact it’s going very well. When you were away, I had a thought. I wondered if you could stay with me here, for a few more hours…”
He wanted to explain but she wouldn’t let him:
“Of course, I have nothing better to do! No family, no husband or hungry mouths to feed, thank goodness! Of course I’ll stay.”
“That’s very kind of you Bertha,” said Gilman, genuinely pleased. Sylvie could take care of Duncan and Susy this evening.
“Well, I do try my best, for the noble profession…”
“Yes, there was just one more thing…”
“What’s that now?”
“Well, I don’t want to do a life drawing study exactly… would you mind sitting for a portrait?”
“Well of course! How nice! Shall I get dressed?”
“No…” Gilman paused. “Would you mind remaining as you are?”
“Not at all! In fact, as you may have already guessed by now, I prefer life in the nude.”
Gilman blushed, Bertha laughed.
“Yes I know, it’s a strange thing for a woman to admit!”
“How shall I sit?”
“Well, if you wouldn’t mind. I would like you to sit before me here – Gilman indicated a place on the mattress before the easel. I am going to elevate my position, so that my perspective is a little higher than yours.”
“Oh… but your back is unsupported. Perhaps you will tire.”
“No problem, I’ve played this game before. Is it alright if I clasp my knees like this?” She sat rigidly with straight arms cupping her left knee cap. “I can sit for hours in this position.”
“Yes of course, that’s perfect.”
“And there’s just one more thing that I would ask of you…”
“Oh really sir, what is that?”
“Would you mind smiling at me?”
Gilman didn’t need to ask, as soon as he had articulated the words, Bertha’s face burst into the frankest, loveliest and most charming smile he could have hoped for.
The afternoon had ripened into evening. Plums and pinks had become byzantine blues and burgundies.
Looking upon his new model for the thousandth time that day, Gilman couldn’t help himself but begin to draw some comparisons between herself and Sylvie. Of course he realised this was crass, something about the mode of this women’s physical awareness and sexuality that was fascinating to him. Of course he loved his wife – immeasurably – he knew he could love none more, and there was nothing about her that he would wish to change. But suddenly, he just wished that there was less timidity about her. Their love-making, beautiful, tender, penetrated with love was magical world for him, filled him with an abundance of joy; yet, he looked upon Bertha once more – the thought momentarily flashed across his mind – it was not fun.
He did not desire her. He knew that. But there was something about this woman that drew him towards her powerfully. It suddenly dawned on Gilman that if she remained as she was but had been given the same education and opportunities as someone like himself or Sickert, well, they would be friends. They would be equals. His mind flashed back to Sylvie. She was perfect, absolutely perfect in her way. But would she ever be a friend? One of the chaps? Someone who would laugh with Bevan, trade stories with Augustus or go to the Horse Fair? No. But this woman…
He felt it. In that moment he felt it with certainty. And it was not solely down to the Woman’s movement, or even his meeting with Bertha, or the fact that everyone was talking about war, or the sorts of things that were happening in America, or the new types of dances that were coming out, or the way that young women were beginning to walk on the street … something in the blood of the city, in the blood of the people was changing. Bertha was the first one he had met, he knew there would be more women like this to follow: self-confident women, economically independent women, women who disdained the traditional family life and sought employment for themselves. Women who risked throwing everything away except for their freedom. Gilman in that moment felt alive, inspired, his heart glowed with the certainty that tomorrow’s world would be a better one than he had known. It would be a society of equals. In that moment the whole room seemed to light up, filled with a gushing radiance like a Christmas light. He almost wanted to hug Bertha, with or without her clothes on. But instead he stood still, smiling gloriously while he painted and allowed his joy to seep into the room like air into a balloon.
For three more hours he had laboured at the easel. For three hours they looked at each other and chatted a little as he painted about this and that, whatever came to mind. Bertha told him about the friends she had made in London, especially through the Movement and committee meetings. She told him about all the sorts of books she loved to read. He told her stories of growing up in the Midlands, of his father’s projects on the canals, wheat silos and railway lines.
For the second time that day, Gilman put down his paint brush. It was eight o’ clock – and most definitely time to go home. The painting – the most recent one – was almost finished, he could complete it in Clerkenwell. All the most important groundwork had been laid.
“All done old girl!” he said, finally.
“I’m not that old!”
“Well how old are you?” The question tumbled from his mouth before he could prevent it.
Fifty. The situation was ludicrous and brilliant. Why Bertha was just a few years younger than his mother. Fancy her taking to the revolution now!
“Well, why not have a look and tell me what you think?”
Gilman was curious. Would she approve?
Without warning, Bertha let her body crumple into a heap on the bed like a sagging tent. The soles of her feet – yellowed and cross-hatched with tough skin and blisters – rose up to meet his gaze.
“God, I’ve got a cramp in every inch of my body!”
She rose to her feet with difficulty by the side of the bed.
“Well I appreciate for your perseverance. I have really got a stupendous amount done today,” Bertha was beside him now. Gilman meant it; if every day could be as productive as this… As he was still seated, Gilman’s ear was in line with a bruise on her left thigh that looked like a squashed grape. He hadn’t noticed it before.
Suddenly Bertha squealed. “Why it’s me!”
“Well of course it’s you, who else?” Gilman replied indulgently, and smiled. He really liked this woman. “No, you don’t understand, I mean it’s really me – its Bertha!”
Gilman looked at Bertha’s face. Not the other Bertha – the one he had created – but at the real one. She was smiling again, but there was something else happening to the woman beside him; her eyes were shining; or did he imagine it?
He would never know. She was too quick for him.
“A fine portrait Mr. Gilman,” she said bombastically. “I hope you shall gain a prize for it.”
“I hope so too, though I fear that the prize would not be going to the one who really deserved it.”
“I hope you don’t mean me!” said Bertha. Her breasts swayed, she turned her back. She walked towards a small pile of clothes that she had left in a heap on the floor and dipped her feet into a pair of black stockings.
Gilman averted his gaze. It was time for him to go home. All he needed to do was pack up his things, find his wallet and pay Bertha.
As he searched his pockets, and then, more urgently his satchel, he suddenly realised what it was that he had forgot. His wallet.
Bertha had finished dressing and was now standing behind him. She had noticed his restiveness and touched him lightly on the shoulder. He turned around, his face a contortion of apology. She looked older in clothes, he thought.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“What do you mean? Of course I worry about it. Bertha, I’m so sorry, I will pass it on to you through Sickert when I see him at the Café Royal tomorrow. I must insist that you retrieve it
“I said, don’t worry about it.” Bertha was standing stock still. She looked suddenly, very serious; she wasn’t joking.
Then her face creased into a smile again. She winked at him.
“Think of it as a gift!” she said. Gilman was stunned: he didn’t know what to say.
Before he could reply Bertha had stormed or skipped out of the room, run down the stairs, slammed the door shut and run head-long into the night and backstreets of Euston.
Gilman had no idea what he would tell Sylvie when he returned home. Only the phrase a gift chimed like a bell in his mind.