It was a rainy August morning, and a light mist had descended on a large crowd gathering around Dorchester Gaol. The usual levity and callousness of the public by the gallows was replaced by another form of pleasure—not unlike the kind the Elizabethan groundlings experienced while watching Juliet, Ophelia, or Desdemona die on stage. The woman who provoked such sentiments was Elizabeth Martha Browne, a shopkeeper who murdered her husband with an axe a little less than a month before. Dressed in black, and looking much younger than her age, she resembled a portrait of a martyr. She was extraordinarily calm, and her composure in meeting her death invoked even more pity and compassion.
A young boy of sixteen watched from a tree overlooking the scaffold. He was so haunted by her beauty and tragic disposition that the image stayed with him for the rest of his life. Seventy years later, he could still recall “what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back.” If she were older, plain, or diseased like countless other men and women hanged before and after her, the young Thomas Hardy might not have cared enough to immortalize her in his own tragic heroine, Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
Only a decade prior, another writer had a vision of three women invading his chambers at Oxford; the eldest and the most elegant of these sisters was Mater Lachrymarum, or Our Lady of Tears. You can hear her whispers through Rachel’s inconsolable weeping for her children, Dido’s lament, Isolde’s Liebestod and probably the rustling of Martha’s gown as she ascends the scaffold: Our Lady of Tears is paradox personified, the beauty of a perennial perfunctory mirage. She cannot exist for long and is swiftly replaced by her vicious younger sisters, despondency and destruction. Although she will be reincarnated ad nauseam, her perfect picture lives only in celluloid, paper, and a certain revered branch of erotica. She is the mother of tragedy, the delicate shroud that covers the deformed face of Oizys. She visits all, regardless of their age or creed.
From the moment the child wakes to find himself in his body, pain and death gnaw at his happiness. He sees seedlings sprout out of his father’s corpse, and soon finds his own bones disintegrating, or his teeth decaying. As two decades pass his life, his lovers, friends, and children vanish before his pleading, hungry eyes. It is then that Our Lady of Tears appears to him. This soul of tragedy permeates his pain, and cleanses him of the ugliness that pollutes it.
For a multitude of suffering men and women with no salvation waiting for them, there is no Romantic or heroic aspect to their fate. Viewed from outside by an observer, these lives are so distant from the alluring stage of tragedy that a woman’s persistent, prolonged cries for her lost lover is a commonplace symptom of hysteria; the financial woes of an aspiring artist only turn him into a bitter and difficult companion. The mimesis of tragedy, then, becomes an ardent desire, that gradually finds its way in the erotic.
Angela Carter’s parody of Our Lady of Tears is perhaps the best depiction of this sexual and aesthetic obsession. Tristessa St. Ange, the retired Hollywood actress in The Passion of New Eve, is the embodiment of the desire for tragic beauty. This desire is presented so well in the female image that it transforms the passion into lust. Dying numerous times as Madeline Usher, Emma Bovary, or Catherine Earnshaw on the screen, Tristessa never slips into the mundane and excruciating reality of pain. Instead, her constant metamorphosis and immortal beauty turn her into the “fleshly synthesis of the dream.” It is only later in the book, when we find her isolated in her glass mansion, in the middle of a California desert, that we learn Tristessa is a man who has constructed his persona based on his most intense erotic dream. Tristessa is both the dream and the dreamer: “beautiful as only things that don’t exist can be, most haunting of paradoxes, that recipe for perennial dissatisfaction.”
She is buried in the desert because the discovery of her true identity, a man embodying the archetypical women of his dreams, shatters the divine quality of this most “virtuous” form of love—the romance of the wronged beautiful woman. Or, as Hardy loved to put it, “pure woman”. However, the fact that Tristessa is a façade fabricated by Hollywood is largely irrelevant. The male body that lies beneath the delicate and feminine tragic mask is not her main attraction. What distinguishes her is a certain idea of purity that shrouds her body; she is pure because she is not stained by hideous marks of plain pain. Her pain has an otherworldly, saint-like air, which transcends mass suffering.
Yet, she is not necessarily a rare creature. Her identity is easily replicable not only in fiction, but also in real life by women like Martha Browne, whose beauty and grace unwittingly turns them into Tristessa, the object of both desire and bizarre entertainment for a bored public. The ephemeral nature of women like Tristessa and Martha too, adds to this charm, as their death or disappearance relieves the audience from witnessing the reality of their situation and depth of their suffering.
Like Tristessa’s movies, Martha’s execution is a cathartic ritual for the audience. What they see is not the jealous wife of a drunken, unfaithful man, but a heroine who committed a crime of passion out of desperation and years of abuse. This invention of her public image by the masses is the embodiment of people’s obsession with embellishing the banality of pain. This romanticization does not only idealize Martha; it also cleanses the public of the grimness of their own suffering. Martha and Tristessa are both the ghostly echoes of the human longing for romantic suffering.
The hunger of this audience for tragedy might remind one of Françoise, Marcel’s maid in In Search of Lost Time. We find her violently sobbing in the library as she reads the account of painful symptoms experienced by the ill and the dying but her tenderness turns into ill-tempered mutterings by the bed of a patient who suffers the same symptoms. For Françoise, like many others, pain is only lamentable when it is beautiful—an appalling aspect of our collective subconscious, which we pretend does not exist.
For Françoise, like many others, pain is only lamentable when it is beautiful—an appalling aspect of our collective subconscious, which we pretend does not exist.