(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Marbot opens with Sir Andrew Marbot, age twenty-four and on his second Grand Tour of the Continent, conversing in flawless German with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Not awed in the least by the elderly German poet, Andrew had made it his life’s work to conduct research into the inner lives of gifted artists and writers. He had spent the first nineteen years of his life on his family’s estates in the north of England, where he came to hate his father and love his mother with a passion that was later to become incestuous. A melancholic and pessimist, Marbot saw art as the only creative response to the otherwise senselessness of life. As much as he longed to be an artist, Marbot apparently had no artistic talent and remained a critical observer of painting, past and present, until his suicide in Italy in 1830.

Marbot acquired his aesthetic interests from his maternal grandfather, Lord Claverton, a foreign diplomat who retired in 1797 to his estate, Redmond Manor, seventy miles from Marbot Hall. Catherine, Lord Claverton’s only child, was born in 1781, grew up in Italy, was converted with her parents to Catholicism in Rome in 1790, and was married to Sir Francis Marbot in 1799. Sir Francis, unlike his cosmopolitan and cultivated wife, was not intellectual and devoted himself instead to hunting, fishing, raising cattle, and looking after his holdings. The three months each summer that Lady Catherine would spend at Redmond Manor with her children (Andrew and his younger brother and sister, Matthew and Jane) but without her husband gave Andrew ample opportunity to acquaint himself with Lord Claverton’s collection of Venetian masters. Writers and artists were frequent guests at Redmond Manor, as was Father Gerard van Rossum, a Dutch priest who converted the Clavertons. He joined them in England and became the Marbot family chaplain and the children’s tutor. Father van Rossum, fluent in German and Italian and well-versed in literature, art, theology, and philosophy, was the boy’s only teacher and a very liberal and tolerant one.

Among his grandfather’s paintings, Tintoretto’s Origin of the Milky Way was particularly mysterious to the young Andrew. In it, Hercules sucks so strongly from Juno’s breast that a stream of milk shoots into the heavens, thereby creating the Milky Way. The five-year-old child asked his mother to explain the painting and, especially, to show him the parts of her body that corresponded to those of the naked Juno. She refused, but she held him in her arms in such a way that he might feel “this mysterious territory” with his body. In one of the first of the entries that became his secret diary, Marbot notes that this experience was his earliest, and most wonderful, conscious memory.

Marbot left on his first Grand Tour of the Continent in the spring of 1820, when he was nineteen. His mother accompanied him to...

(The entire section is 1184 words.)