by Cheryl Sadowski
Artists and aesthetes may debate whether morning or afternoon light casts a more pleasing shadow, but they are likely to agree it is the marriage of light with mood that creates moments of Grace. Grace delights, transfixes, and seduces. Grace is the dream that buffers us from the bustle and busyness of the external world.
In the springtime of this Covid-era, I happened upon The Letter, painted in 1917 by William James Blacklock. Blacklock was an English landscape painter in the Romantic tradition, known for imaginative panoramas of balustrades, historic towers, and the tangled wildness of his northern native county, Cumbria.
The Letter keeps that landscape at bay, hinting at it through two windows as a young woman stands reading, a crumpled envelope on the floor near the hem of her indigo skirt. Soft light (morning or afternoon, it is difficult to say) brightens the spartan room: a hurricane lamp, knick-knacks and bibelots, modest paintings on the walls. The bottom drawer of her bureau is partially open, and nearby a cat dozes in a chair, its fur tinged in the glow of light.
Despite the painting’s title, the mood of the room is not about the letter, the contents of which are unknowable. Rather, the tincture of light and mundane objects suggests the tranquility of a moment, interiority, upon which the outside world imposes itself through the letter. In contemporary terms, she is jolted from her dream by a strident text message or news alert.
As the coronavirus spreads across the U.S. and the globe, nonessential workers like myself are burrowed into our homes or apartments. Suddenly the spaces we inhabit between destinations become whole worlds—miniature ecosystems in which we wake, work, nurture, sustain, sleep, and then wake again. The cut-and-dry delineations of day and night, punctuated by morning and evening commutes, are stretched like saltwater taffy. Within thirteen or fourteen waking hours spent largely in two or three rooms, I see patterns of light move across furniture and surfaces in accord with the sun’s arc across the sky—a gift I was never afforded in office life.
On one particular afternoon I take up E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End, the story of three families of varying socioeconomic class whose lives are changed forever through external influences. I’d read Howards End many years ago, but in the late afternoon on my damask blue sofa, Forster’s story of the deleterious toll of speed and industrial life on interiority, natural beauty, and sense of place takes on new meaning for me.
The friction of past and present is embodied within the character of Margaret Schlegel, whose soul exudes a constant battle of dueling selves—artist with practicalist, idealist with realist, prose with passion. Prose is the reality of the external world; passion is the grace of moods and moments.
“That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at is height.”
Margaret is surrounded by extremes: her sister Helen sees everything solely through the lens of social justice, while her husband, Henry Wilcox, is incapable of noticing anything at all, so fixed he is on maintaining symbols of wealth and status. Poverty and yearning on the part of another key character, Leonard Bast, juxtapose with trains and automobiles that speed the Wilcox family from mansion to mansion. The anonymous bustle and constant building in London are stark violations against the past, as technology and economics move ever closer to subsuming the pastoral peace of Howards End, a modest manor with wych-elms and vines that harbor stories of a more pagan England countryside.
The only person who matches Margaret Schlegel in her innate appreciation for beauty and grace is Henry’s deceased wife, Ruth, whose love for her childhood home Margaret understands:
“To them [the Wilcoxes] Howards End was a house: they could not know that to her it had been a spirit, for which she sought a spiritual heir.”
Forster’s position is clear: he is on the side of grace and opposed to anything that interrupts it. Even poor Leonard Bast, whose possesses a genuine artistic soul, is forced by circumstances of survival to turn away from the indescribable moments he finds in the countryside, in art, and in books. Leonard cannot afford to be seduced by anything that feeds the soul but not the body. In this way, the Schlegel sisters are almost a threat:
“… to him they were denizens of Romance, who must be kept to the corner he had assigned them, pictures that must not walk out of their frames.”
It is not surprising that Blacklock’s The Letter and Forster’s Howards End were created within seven years of one another during a time when Edwardian England was reckoning its pastoral past with its industrial future, when places of the heart did not stand a chance in the gathering storm of war and social upheaval. I cannot think otherwise: the woman in Blacklock’s The Letter and Margaret Schlegel of Howards End are kindred spirits, the grace of their moods and moments is similar, parallel, and fleeting.
But we must wake from the dream and be interrupted by life so as to not grow somnambulant and sluggish. One day, when the coronavirus abates or a vaccine is developed, we will return to our human connections and to the industry of life. The intimacy we came to know in rooms where we spent hours upon hours and days upon days will leave an imprint on our souls. If we can remember the light and grace of those moments, we might stand to carry both out into the larger world.
Cheryl Sadowski writes personal and lyric essays from a suburb of Washington D.C., where she works in nonprofit branding and communications. Her writing explores memory, culture, art and the natural world. You can follow her on Instagram @cherylsadowski.