Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 705

Sir Andrew Marbot

Sir Andrew Marbot, a reserved and independent British aristocrat, aesthete, and art theorist. Despite extensive, seemingly authentic documentation from sources credited to a great number of European artists, writers, and thinkers at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Marbot is a fictitious character. A portrait, painted by Eugene Delacroix in 1827 and included in the novel, shows Marbot as a twenty-six-year-old attractive young man. His controlled posture and the skeptical expression around his mouth seem intended to make him appear distant and determined. His bushy, barely tamed black hair and his large, expressive eyes with slightly drooping lids give him a touch of melancholy. The full lips and the weak chin seem to suggest a strong sensuality. His biographer describes him as an inconspicuous and very private person. He was born in 1801 as the oldest of three children and grew up on his parents’ estate, Marbot Hall, in the north of Northumberland, England. Because there was considerable wealth in the family, Andrew lived without financial worries and never trained for a specific profession. There is evidence that he would have liked to be a painter but lacked the “gift of creation.” He could have chosen the life of an eccentric like Lord Byron but has a distaste for public display and makes efforts to remain within the confines of convention. He is, however, by no means a conformist. In his work as well as in his life, he is fiercely independent, and it is his independence in judgment that earns for him a place in the history of art criticism. It is also this radical independence, together with a coolness of composure, that leads to his undramatic suicide. Beyond this seemingly cool and detached attitude, however, is an unplumbed depth of feeling, conviction, and passion. His suicide, which he views as the only logical solution to “a future full of necessary repetition,” demonstrates the radical determination of which he is capable. This determination is juxtaposed to his incestuous relationship with his mother. He manages to sever the relationship after several years, has two brief love affairs, and lives with Anna Maria Baiardi, but he is never able to forget; his lifelong occupation with art has to be understood as a sublimation of his forbidden drives. This Oedipal relationship, together with a natural insight into people, enables Marbot to analyze paintings from a psychological viewpoint anticipating twentieth century aesthetics.

The narrator-biographer

The narrator-biographer, an unnamed art historian and dedicated scholar devoted to securing a place for Marbot in the history of art criticism. The fact that the novel is presented as a real biography attributes a special importance to the narrator-biographer. Because academic convention requires that all available sources, documents, and dates speak for themselves, the biographer remains anonymous. Because the biographer is at the same time the creator of the fictitious biography, however, he might be construed as the main character. He has invented the main character as well as his life story and has selected the sources. In addition, he analyzes, translates, and sets the tone. He is a knowledgeable, sympathetic, open-minded, devoted, and partial interpreter of his main character.

Lady Catherine

Lady Catherine, Marbot’s mother. She was born in 1781 as the only child of Lord and Lady Claverton and married Sir Francis Marbot in 1799. She had three children and lost her husband after twenty-one years of marriage as a result of a hunting accident. She is a deeply religious person who suffered extremely in her incestuous relationship with her oldest son. After her separation from Andrew, she confesses her sin to Father van Rossum and dies of a broken heart in 1832, two years after the death of her son.

Father Gerard van Rossum

Father Gerard van Rossum, a Dutch Jesuit and Marbot’s tutor. He was born in 1766 and served first the Clavertons and then the Marbots as family chaplain and tutor. He is an enlightened and tolerant educator to Andrew and an understanding and compassionate spiritual guide to Lady Catherine. Despite his knowledge of the incestuous relationship, he continues the correspondence with his former pupil. After Andrew’s death, he collects, edits, and publishes his notes and letters and by doing so preserves Marbot’s work for future generations.

The Characters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 621

Sir Andrew Marbot never lived. The massive scholarly documentation—quotations, footnotes, index, interpretive digressions, refutation of Marbot’s previous biographer, announcement of a new critical edition of Marbot’s notes and letters—is merely the playful structure of what Wolfgang Hildesheimer called a “perfect biography,” that of a purely artificial figure. Marbot is the fictional counterpart of Hildesheimer’s Mozart (1977; English translation, 1982)—the similarity of the names is an indication of the mirror-like nature of the two projects—whose four essays deny any possibility of an understanding of the nature of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s genius. Other than establishing dates and facts, the biographer of a real person, Hildesheimer claims, can only speculate on the connections between his subject’s life and work. In the extreme case of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, there is an unknowable chasm between his stormy life and his sublime music.

In Marbot’s case, the biographer has no such scruples. Marbot’s own investigations into the souls of artists have but a single motivation: They are the sublimation of his sexual desire for his mother. Indeed, Marbot’s biographer so overinterprets his character that Marbot is reduced to little more than the Oedipal pawn of his creator, a schematic vehicle for numerous encounters with famous painters and writers of the time. Marbot’s biographer condemns “those terrible simplifiers, who draw lopsided and therefore false pictures” of their biographical heroes by repressing their scandalous secret practices or who, he adds with a note of unself-conscious irony, “take care that they are perpetuated in intensified form.” Marbot’s incestuous relationship with his mother dominates the biography to such a degree that it undermines the biographer’s psychoanalytic explanations and shifts attention away from Marbot’s life to what is the ultimate focus of the author’s interest: Marbot’s writings.

These writings reveal a man who exhibited great self-control and yet had “something of the darkness of the fallen angel” in him. Outwardly reserved, taciturn, independent, dignified, and unobtrusive, Marbot betrayed a violent “urge to create everything afresh.” His greatest misfortune was that he was not able to turn his inner turmoil into creative activity, and yet, the biographer artfully notes, “In contrast to so many bunglers at failure, Marbot had mastered his.” He had natural insight into people and was an astute critic of contemporary art. His self-imposed roles of outsider and nonconformist allowed him the distance to take unfashionable stands within the aristocratic world of taste and privilege into which he was born. In literature, he preferred the melancholy negations of life in William Shakespeare’s tragedies to the poetry of the English Romantics, most of whom he met. In painting, he sought out those works which displayed the greatest degree of subjective truth, that is, in which the image of the artist’s inner self was embedded most strongly.

Although, like her son, Lady Catherine was susceptible to the “charms of the forbidden,” she was a devoutly religious woman who suffered far more than he for their illicit relationship. Her overpowering sense of guilt and sinfulness persisted until her confession to Father van Rossum, after which, without her son and increasingly isolated from the outside world, she languished at Marbot Hall until her early death of a broken heart two years after Marbot’s death. Father van Rossum remained her faithful friend to the end despite the heavy burden that he was forced to share with her. Liberal and compassionate, he forgave Marbot his shortcomings and agnosticism and continued to correspond with him up until his death. As editor of Marbot’s papers, he was scrupulously thorough in assembling the materials at his disposal despite the fact that he was no match for their intellectual content.

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Critical Essays