"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace: Part 17 – House Guest

Bishop’s letters to Aunt Grace, as well as to her writer friends, were often populated by the guests who were fairly common at Lota’s house in Samambaia, especially in the 1950s. Bishop’s vivid descriptions of these people are highly entertaining. One of them even ended up in a poem, “House Guest,” which Brett Millier says was “based loosely on … the sister of one of Lota’s aristocratic friends.” (411) This funny poem rarely receives attention (Millier gives it a sentence), but its existence comes from a fairly constant experience of Bishop’s Brazilian life. Though “House Guest” is a kind of caricature, still, it is entirely sympathetic toward “the sad seamstress,” who might actually be “one of the Fates … Clotho, sewing our lives.”
(Bishop's studio at Samambaia, where
she wrote "House Guest" -- photo by Ann Marie Duggan)
In the 28 August 1956 letter, Bishop offered her aunt a lively word portrait of another house guest, “an old friend of L’s.” This guest had been with them for two weeks, “resting up from her husband and mother and general debility.” She was “a beautiful Rio ‘society lady’,” who was so “delicate” that she made her hosts “feel like peasants.”

Whereas “the sad seamstress” was obsessed with sewing, the society lady was obsessed with “deciding what she can eat and can’t eat,” opting for “tea and dry toast and baked apples.” The rest of her days were spent “taking a bath, putting on make-up, taking a short walk, [and] taking a nap.” Bishop’s conclusion is that she was a “hypochondriac.” But “in spite of it all she’s really a very nice creature, with nice manners.”

Elizabeth and Lota tried to entertain her and persuade her to do other things: “we’re getting really tough and taking her to a movie in Petrópolis — I hope she doesn’t collapse on us!” (I wonder what was playing at the cinema in Petrópolis in late August 1956!)

After all this background, Bishop finally describes this person, physically, to Grace: “tall, blond, sort of grizzled hair [rather like Bishop’s], big perfect teeth (I envy my Brazilian friends their teeth …) and — one blue eye and one brown eye.” Curiously, Bishop never tells her aunt the name of this striking person.

Bishop’s life-long struggles with asthma, allergies and other illnesses would perhaps make her a little impatient with a relatively healthy person believing she was ill, wasting “so much of her life being sick like that,” with her “five bottles of medicine at her place at the table.” Even so, Bishop wasn’t entirely unsympathetic.

This house guest was a good Catholic, too, and asked to be taken to mass. “Lota — who is very anti-church — tried to get out of taking her.” In the end, other friends provided that service, but Elizabeth and Lota were required to fetch her at “a little church” near them. They arrived and “went in and got her off her knees.”

Bishop then tells Grace an interesting fact about their guest and about the history of Brazil: “She had a Scotch governess for 27 years.” As a result, “she speaks beautiful English with a slightly Scotch accent.” Bishop met other Brazilians who had had this kind of education: “There used to be lots of these brave Scotch and English governesses here.” One of the remnants of this pedagogy and upbringing was that “their ex-pupils all still eat oatmeal every morning!”

In “House Guest” the seamstress confessed that “she wanted to be a nun / and her family opposed her.”

“Perhaps we should let her go,
or deliver her straight off
to the nearest convent — and wasn’t
her month up last week, anyway?”

Tucked in this letter, long vanished, was a sprig of jasmine, which grew outside on her studio. Scribbled in her nearly indecipherable hand, Bishop wrote: “Smell this — if it has any smell left.” Brazilian Jasmine blooms are red, unlike the more commonly thought of white jasmine flower. Perhaps it was not coincidence that Bishop included a sprig of this exotic flower after describing their delicate, beautiful, nice house guest.
(Brazilian jasmine blossom)

The next post will introduce Bishop’s letter of 19 October 1956.

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