What Does It Mean to “Look” Ill?
Alice Hattrick on Invisible Pain and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Portrait
“That was the day I couldn’t walk,” she says.
Over breakfast, I had noticed a photo of my mother and brother that I hadn’t seen before, newly displayed in a frame on the dining table. I told her she looked nice, not thinking about what year it must have been. My brother looks about five years old. She tells me it was taken by my godmother—her oldest friend—on my brother’s birthday. We were all in Stanmer Park, an estate on the outskirts of Brighton. She thinks we played rounders—these are things I don’t remember at all, they are the things she has to tell me.
“I ran,” she says, “and then I couldn’t move.”
Back at our flat, she went to bed while my godmother rang her GP. “It was early on,” she says. What she means is: I didn’t know how ill I was. I didn’t know I was going to be ill—on and off—for the next twenty-five years.She doesn’t look like a sick woman—at least, how they are depicted in paintings, or films, or stock images: slumped over, head in hands.
It is just the two of us and the dogs for Christmas. Even without my brother—who for the last eighteen months has been dropping in to see my mother twice a week, and driving her to memorial services at the care home where my grandfather lived the last months of his life, and going to all events where her LGBT choir is singing at the weekends—we are squeezed in her house amongst too much furniture on which too many things are precariously perched, and not enough working radiators.
At first, I can’t bear her doing things, my patience is too limited. She won’t be helped and won’t listen when I tell her to stop and sit down. And I frustrate her. She doesn’t want to be told what to do and acts like I am telling her off. I do the same to her: I have brought my stress with me and refuse to eat enough food. It always goes like this. We have both become too used to living alone, and too riled by each other’s habits. I am too lazy, and she is not lazy enough. But after a few days, we settle. Her chest infection is clearing, but she keeps saying her legs hurt—“You know, in that way.” That way means: “I am too tired to try and explain what I mean.” I am too tired to explain what she means.
“But don’t I look fresh and gorgeous,” my mother says, looking at the photograph of herself in her early thirties, with my brother on her lap. She does look young, and gorgeous, because she is. She is tanned, her face set with a calm, smiling expression. She doesn’t look like a sick woman—at least, how they are depicted in paintings, or films, or stock images: slumped over, head in hands.
In the photograph in the park with my brother, she looks so composed. This composure was the product of innocence, of not knowing the severity of her illness, or the effects it would have on her life, but also of maintaining an appearance of wellness for her children and friend, of keeping it together. This composure masked an interior turmoil.My mother always looked well, and that, I am sure, worked against her.
“I was unravelling,” says my mother.
This metaphor is structural more than visual. Unravelling refers to a textile that was once complete, woven and neat, until it starts to fray. Fabric can fall into nothing if a single thread is pulled for long enough.
To unravel is also to solve something complicated. It applies when the mysterious becomes known, when the case is solved. It is how Elizabeth Barrett Browning described her illness, which no doctor could explain: “Time,” she wrote, “seems to have no effect in unravelling it.”
I know what it is to unravel. I cannot imagine what it would feel like to fall apart with two children to take care of.
My mother always looked well, and that, I am sure, worked against her. She did not look as ill as so-and-so, a woman my grandparents knew, who, they told my mother, really had Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME). My mother did not look as unwell as the woman on her third or fourth round of cancer treatment who we would visit quietly in her single bed in the afternoons. When she was not bedridden, she always got dressed, every day. When she was able to work, my mother was never seen to be anything other than well, as the carer rather than the cared for, as if you can only be one or the other. In the mid-1990s, when that photograph in the park was taken, she might have looked well but she was anything but.
What does a sick woman look like anyway?
EBB’s portrait hangs next to her husband Robert Browning’s in the National Portrait Gallery “Early Victorians” room. Their bulky gilt frames tilt towards each other, slightly away from everyone else: the three Brontë sisters looking decidedly unimpressed, their brother having erased himself from the group portrait; George Eliot; Charles Dickens; the leader of the Gothic movement in architecture, Augustus Pugin; and Queen Victoria’s favorite painter, Edwin Landseer.
On the other side of the wood-paneled room is a bronze cast of the Browning couple’s clasped hands in a glass cabinet. It’s hard not to be immediately skeptical of such an object. They look too small to be life-size. How would you make a cast of two hands clasped together? Surely you would have to cast the two hands separately, in which case they were not holding hands at all.
The Brownings are seated in each of their portraits. Quick, messy strokes of paint describe the white lace around EBB’s sleeve cuffs and the buttons down the front of her high-neck black dress. You can’t see her hands. Her head drops slightly forward. The expression on her face says she is not at all surprised to see you. It says she has agreed to receive you, and that she would like you to leave again at some point soon, so she can rest, and work. She has puffy circles around her eyes, as if she told the painter, Michele Gordigiani, “Don’t bother painting them out,” or, perhaps, “Try adding them in.”
Robert leans forward, his weight on his right elbow, resting on a table, or perhaps the arm of a sofa. His pose is immediately active. When I look at his face, I see hers: similar, as if they are related by blood rather than marriage. EBB also leans on her left arm, but her whole pose is stiffer, less chosen somehow, more difficult to hold, and there is something about the chair, which is as wide as it is high-backed, made of dark wood covered in an ochre fabric, and decorated with two rounded oreilles, or ears, at the top. The chair makes her look grand, like she’s sitting on a throne. It is as if her body is boxed into the furniture, propped up by the back and arm of the chair, because she’s unable to sit up for very long.
When I walk around the rest of the gallery, I see that no one else has a chair like it in their portrait. The strange chair, the tired skin around her eyes, the sloping position: standing in front of the Browning portraits, I read her as sick and him as well. I am convinced this is a portrait of an ill woman, even though there is no mention of her condition in the wall text. Her profession is listed as Poet, not Invalid. Would you know she was housebound for most of her life from her portrait, if you did not know already? Maybe the chair was painted in afterwards, or it wasn’t a chair at all. Perhaps it was a bed.I am convinced this is a portrait of an ill woman, even though there is no mention of her condition in the wall text. Her profession is listed as Poet, not Invalid.
How is a sick woman seen?
Harriet Hosmer, the sculptor who cast Clasped Hands of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, described EBB as well as any portrait painter: “The same abundant curls framing a face, plain in feature, but redeemed by wonderful dark eyes, large and loving and luminous as stars. The nose slightly disposed to upturn; the mouth, well, perhaps in this feature we discover the key to some of Mrs. Browning’s less delicate verse, large, full-lipped, yet harboring always a sweet compensating smile. Her voice, slow and with the somewhat labored enunciation peculiar to delicate health. The manner ever gracious, with a touch of shyness at times. Small in stature and in form so fragile that the gentlest zephyr might have borne her away.”
Hosmer thought Robert stood “on a higher plane,” “fulfilling in every sense the ideal we have formed of a poet.” If Robert was energized and present, EBB was barely there at all. She was too delicate, too slow and contained, too unknowable, to be described as the ideal we have formed of a poet, and therefore more fascinating to Harriet, as a sculptor whose self-presentation and success relied on being energetic, a friend, and a woman who loved women.
In 1857, at the end of a four-page letter from Robert about sick houseguests and winter weather forecasts pre-empting Harriet’s arrival in Florence for another visit, EBB added her own note to the sculptor, written in the third person, using her nickname Ba, as if to confirm the tenuousness of her physical presence in the world: “Ba’s best love and as Robert won’t wait, dearest Hattie, at Florence now, and Rome afterwards. E.B.B.”
It is said that Hosmer did not carve into the hands but left them precisely as they were cast: authentically theirs. Hosmer would know the difference, being welcomed first into their circle to spend time with the Brownings, and then into the intimate and time-consuming act of molding their clasped hands herself.
At first, I thought it impossibly small, and too difficult to create the cast, to be real: a refusal on my own part, perhaps because of the general stuffiness of some of the pictures on the walls, and the power dynamic represented in such an uncommanding object. It is not just the cuffs around each of their wrists—Elizabeth’s in lace, like that around her neck in her painted portrait; Robert’s plain—that distinguish one from the other. Robert’s hand is active; his fingers clasp hers, passively laid on top of his, as if someone had just put it there. If you turned the object around in your own hands, you would not see hers at all. The body from which her hand was cast could be asleep, or dead. That hand would slip out of hers if he only loosened his grip.
How does a sick woman see herself?
Unlike her predecessor, George Sand, “Thou large-brained woman and large-hearted man,” Elizabeth would write as a woman. Influenced by those who came before her, she would be a poet of her own making: EBB. In 1844, after many years of suspicious treatments for her confounding ill health, there were to be no more doctors. She prescribed her own treatment of poetry, rest, warmth, sensible eating and her beloved laudanum to help her sleep.
EBB thought herself “little & black like Sappho”—who, like Hosmer, loved women—with “a mouth suitable to a larger personality” and “a very little voice.” She described herself as a “blind poet” who knew little of “life and man,” for which she would gladly exchange her ponderous, helpless knowledge of books for some “experience of life and man, for some…” Her painted likeness at the National Portrait Gallery captures her entirely: uncapturable, there and not there.
The personality Harriet described, EBB’s contradictions expressed in her physicality—upturned and loving, mouthy and sweet—are painted in with the dark circles around her eyes and the ornate carvings of her chair, its scale, I see now, used to show her small stature, rather than the grandness of her lodgings. I recognize myself in Harriet: invited into EBB’s life and kept at a distance; unable to completely identify, or even fully encounter her—Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Ba, E.B.B.—as anything other than the elusive presence she created for herself.
Excerpted from Ill Feelings by Alice Hattrick, published by the Feminist Press.