Mr. Bedford and the Muses
In an author’s note at the end of her book, Gail Godwin explains how Mr. Bedford, who was not a person but a turtle, became a muse for her novella. At a time when she was suffering from writer’s block, Godwin had a dream about a woman she had known when she worked in London in the early 1960’s. Afterward, looking through her journals from that period, she discovered the story of Mr. Bedford, told her by the woman of her dream. At once Godwin set about writing the story of the little turtle’s owners. What is fiction and what is autobiography in the story narrated by Carrie, a young American woman who came to London in 1962 to work at the American Embassy, the reader does not know, and perhaps the author could not specify with accuracy after twenty years. At any rate, Godwin, captivated by this sudden glimpse into the mysteries of her own creative process, made Mr. Bedford her writer’s mascot. The other stories in the volume, she recounts, were inspired by objects, persons, and events in her life that acted, in Henry James’s phrase, as “the virus of suggestion” even though there may be almost no obvious connection between the work of fiction and its muse. Godwin makes clear, too, that if her fiction is inspired by reality, it becomes also a way into a symbolic or a mythic truth that lies beneath her experiences. Of the story “Mr. Bedford,” she says, “I wanted to live in that English time again—but with the perspective that time and distance and imagination can bestow.” Author and reader share the quest for meaning that emerges when life is turned into art.
Art and life are connected in another way, as well, in Godwin’s book. All of the stories are in some respect about persons who are artists in life, endeavoring to shape not only themselves but also the lives of others into something resembling their idealization of their own existence.
In “Mr. Bedford,” the artists are Mr. and Mrs. Easton, American upper-class expatriates maintaining themselves in a good section of London by letting rooms to persons who are then incorporated into their “charming family.” These Jamesian characters act out a Jamesian story of a magnificent effort to force life to take the form and color of their illusion. When Carrie walks into their home on Tregunter Road, she becomes a character in the Eastons’ daily drama. Five young men and two young women live in the two houses, one behind the other, in South Kensington, in rooms that are much less than luxurious but with marvelous dinners prepared by Mrs. Easton, who is a superb gourmet cook. After dinner, over coffee and cookies in the common room, Mrs. Easton presides over the gathering “with the air of a grand lady entertaining a group of young people in her own home.” Delightful anecdotes, a few bars of the “Moonlight Sonata,” and lots of laughter create a sense of warmth and intimacy as the air turns cold outside, and dusk falls. The Eastons are obviously cultivated people, who dress in very good though very old clothes and always the same ones. Among their friends are the Principessa, an Italian aristocrat now living in poverty, and Lord and Lady Monleigh, prosperous members of the British aristocracy with contacts sometimes very beneficial to their American friends. Gracious hospitality, titled friends, the pleasure of feeling that they create a sense of home for young people who might otherwise live in isolation are great satisfactions for Mr. and Mrs. Easton. Although most of the burden of their life falls on Mrs. Easton, who must cook and also supervise the household, Mr. Easton does odd jobs around the house and after dinner, washes the dishes, “in a manly way,” as Mrs. Easton exclaims.
Like most of the other boarders, Carrie is at first entranced by the Eastons. She seems to have no choice about becoming part of the group; rather, she appears to audition and be chosen. One of the boarders, Nigel Farthingale, an actor by profession, sees through the staginess of the situation and tries to indicate to Carrie that the Eastons are disagreeable people whose faults include dishonesty, favoritism, and meanness. Because Nigel, who is poor and a failure, is exactly what Carrie does not want to become, she is quite willing to cast him off to curry favor with the Eastons and is also willing to believe that it is Nigel who robs her purse of a store of pound notes. Nigel disappears, and the little family circle closes behind him. The drama continues as the Eastons, about to be evicted, must find another house. When another smaller place is located at last, a little scene is played out in the common room, and the two boarders who can be dispensed with are dismissed, though they hardly realize it, so warm and generous is the atmosphere. Then a second scene must be played, as Mrs. Easton relates with delight the story of how, through Lord Monleigh, she and her husband were put in touch with the owners of a beautiful house. These owners are delighted to find a family who will clearly value their fine...
(The entire section is 2052 words.)