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I WAS LATE FOR CHRISTINE'S LECTURE.
I almost didn't go. I wouldn't have gone if she hadn't especially asked me to come. The force of her preference was as irresistible now as it had been nearly twenty years ago when of all the girls at Penrose College she chose me to be her best friend. So even though I'd made a vow to avoid the campus during reunion--and had managed to do so, so far--I find myself on Sunday afternoon rushing through the lengthening shadows toward the library, just as I had on so many Sunday evenings during college, making a last dash to catch up on everything I'd avoided doing all weekend.
Usually it was Christine herself who had lured me away from my work in the first place, who had unearthed me from whatever hole I'd buried myself in. "The Middle Ages can wait," she'd say, "but the Sargent exhibit at the Whitney is ending this weekend." She was always reading about some art exhibit that was just about to close. Carried along by her enthusiasm, I'd follow her to the train station, trying to keep up with her fast stride, in the wake of her long blond hair that streamed out behind her like the wings of a dove quivering on a current of air.
As I open the heavy library door I almost catch a glimpse of that hair, shining in a swath of sun behind me, but of course it's an illusion. Christine is inside, standing at the podium, miraculously transformed into this older, more constrained woman--a lecturer--her long golden hair tamed into a sleek coil.
"This is where you'd find me," Christine is saying to the audience as I slide into a folding chair in the back of the crowded hall--even the second-story galleries are packed with students sitting on the floor between the stacks--"after dinner Sunday nights, when the work I'd happily neglected all weekend finally caught up with me."
Rueful sighs stir the group seated beneath the stained-glass window. Clearly, I'm not the only one who'd been reminded, walking toward the library through the late afternoon sunshine, of those last minute penitential pilgrimages. And this is where I would find her, already at work on some paper due the next day, somehow arrived before me even though when we'd finally gotten back to the dorm from the city she'd claimed she was going to her room to sleep. While the escapades she'd led me on left me tired and bleary-eyed, they somehow left Christine refreshed and inspired. She had managed to write through the night and the paper she'd turn in on Monday morning would be the one the professors would hold up as the most original, the most brilliant.
"When I approached the table here below the window I always imagined that the Lady looked down at me askance," Christine continues, "'Oh, so you've finally seen fit to join us,' I imagined her saying. I believe I endowed her with the voice of Miss Colclough, my sophomore Chaucer professor." Christine pauses for another ripple of knowing laughter. Miss Coldclaw--as we called her--was legendary for her withering comments and draconian teaching methods. "In fact, over the years, as I studied below her I endowed the Lady in the Window with many roles--muse, companion, judge. But of course these were my own projections. What we've come to consider today is who she really is, what she has to tell us--the class of 1987--about ourselves, and why it's so important that we save her from decay."
Christine turns slightly and tilts her head up, meeting the gaze of the figure in the glass as if she had been passing on the street and recognized a friend at a second-story window. Throughout the lecture she turns like this to address the Lady as if they were contemporaries--and truly, even though Christine is dressed in a spare, sleeveless black shift (Prada, I think) and the Lady is robed in a medieval gown of embroidered damask (ruby glass acid-etched with a millefleur pattern and layered with white drapery glass), there is a kinship between the two women. There's something in the curve of their spines--Christine's when she leans back to look up at the window, the Lady as she arches her back away from her loom to look up from her labors--that echoes each other. They've got the same yellow hair. The Lady's by virtue of a medieval metallurgical process called silver stain, Christine's thanks to a colorist on the Upper East Side. The Lady's abundant Pre-Raphaelite locks, though, are loose, while Christine's long blond hair is twisted in a knot so heavy that when she bows her head back down to her notes her slender neck seems to pull against the strain. I realize, from that strain and from how thin she's gotten, what a toll this lecture has taken on her and instantly forgive her for not making time to see me these last six or seven months--the longest we've gone without seeing each other since college.
"No doubt we all heard the same story on the campus tour. The window was designed by Augustus Penrose, founder of the Rose Glass Works and Penrose College, in 1922 for the twentieth anniversary of the college's founding and it depicts Augustus's beloved wife, Eugenie. As we all know, Penrose College grew out of The Woman's Craft League which Eugenie had created for the wives and daughters of the men who worked in her husband's factory."
A college born from a glorified sewing circle, is how Christine put it once, a bit too loudly, at a freshman tea. But of course she doesn't say that to this assembly of women in their tailored linen skirts and pastel silk blouses, their Coach bags and sensible Ferragamo shoes. Penrose College may have originated from a socialist dream of aiding women from the underclasses, but it soon became a bastion of East Coast wealth and privilege.
"But before we accept that the Lady in the Window is merely a celebration of the medieval craftswoman," Christine continues, "let's review the social and artistic background of Augustus Penrose. His family owned a glass works in England, Penrose & Sons, in Kelmscott, a small village on the Thames River near Oxford, which supplied medieval quality glass for stained-glass designers, including William Morris, the Pre-Raphaelite artist who also happened to live in Kelmscott. Young Augustus was particularly influenced by the opinions of William Morris, who believed that integrity ought to be restored to the decorative arts. When Simon Barovier, a wealthy factory owner from the north, purchased Penrose & Sons, he encouraged young Augustus in his artistic pursuits--and so did Barovier's daughter, Eugenie, who fell in love with Augustus. As you know, the two married, and were sent by old Simon over to this country in the 1890s to found an American branch of the glass works. Augustus and Eugenie wanted to do more, though, than run a glass factory. Influenced by Morris's ideas, they were soon in the vanguard of the Arts & Crafts Movement..."
Now that Christine has moved onto the firmer ground of her expertise in art history I let out a breath I hadn't known I was holding. I realize how nervous I am for her--how much I want this lecture to be a success for her--a comeback.
Back in college, Christine had a sort of glow about her--a radiant energy that drew people to her. We all believed she would go on to great things--even when she eschewed a PhD in favor of a job at a New York gallery and freelance writing on the arts. We thought then that she'd write a brilliant book or at least marry one of the famous artists she was often seen with at gallery openings. By the tenth reunion, when none of these things had happened and she got so drunk that she passed out during the Farewell Brunch, that glow of promise began to fade. Her name disappeared from the class notes; when I ran into people from the college that had known her they would ask after her with a solicitous edge of concern in their voices as if expecting to hear the worst. Sometimes, I suspected, hoping to hear the worst.
Many were surprised, then, when the programs for the fifteenth reunion arrived with the announcement that Christine would be delivering the lecture on the Lady window which the class of 1987 had elected to restore as their class gift. I wasn't, though, because I'd seen Christine through rehab four years ago and urged her to apply for a Penrose Grant, which supported alumnae who wanted to switch careers ten to twenty years out of college (the "second-chance" grant we often called it, a perfect prize for Christine who always managed to pull her act together at the last minute and shine brilliantly) so that she could go back to graduate school. I even suggested she make the window the subject of her thesis and when McKay Glass won the bid to do the restoration of the window--the first really big conservation project we've gotten since I convinced my father to expand into stained-glass restoration--I suggested to the college that Christine deliver this lecture. So you couldn't really blame me for being nervous for her.
While Christine's lecturing on the Pre-Raphaelites and Arts & Crafts Movement (material I've heard before), I let my mind wander and my gaze shift to the window itself--brilliant now in the late afternoon sun. The upper half is dominated by a large rounded window--a window within a window--which frames a green pool carpeted with water lilies and shaded by a weeping beech. The view of mountains in the distance is the same as the view we would see if the window were clear--the deeply wooded hills of the Hudson Highlands on the western bank--still forested because Augustus Penrose bought up all the land on that side of the river for his mansion, Astolat. When Astolat burned down in the 1930s he and Eugenie moved back to Forest Hall, their house on this side of the river. All that's left of Astolat are the water gardens that Penrose designed--the centerpiece of which was a lily pool similar to the one depicted in the window.
Although the window is executed in opalescent glass and uses techniques made popular by Tiffany and LaFarge in the 1880s, the Lady herself could well be from a medieval window. Of course, as Christine is explaining now, the Pre-Raphaelites were in love with the Middle Ages--and in love with beautiful women with long flowing hair and expressions of abandon. This one has just looked up from her work. As she arches her back you can feel the strain of the long hours she has spent bending over her loom. A flush of color--skillfully produced by sanguine, a hematite-based paint used since the sixteenth century to enhance flesh tones--rises from her low-cut bodice up her long neck to the plane of her high cheekbones. It makes you wonder what she's been dreaming of over her loom.
"What I always wondered," Christine is saying now, "is why she is looking away from the window and why she has such a rapturous expression on her face. Her expression suggests some kind of revelation. Who is this weaver supposed to be? Remember that Augustus rarely painted his beloved Eugenie just as Eugenie. As the Pre-Raphaelite painters he admired had before him, Augustus often chose to depict his model in the guise of a figure from literature."
Christine presses a button on the speaker's dais and a slide screen unrolls on the wall to the right of the window and fills with an image of a young girl bending over a lily pool, her cascading hair turning into heavy branches that trail into the water, a sheath of bark just beginning to creep up her slim legs. "In fact, the only other work without a known mythological source is this one, The Drowning Tree, which seems to echo the tales of transformation Penrose was so fond of. He painted Eugenie as Daphne turning into a laurel as she flees from Apollo--" The Drowning Tree fades and is replaced with the more familiar image of the running girl sprouting leaves from her fingertips, "--and as the nymph Salmacis merging in her sacred pool with Hermaphroditus, and Halcyone turning into a kingfisher with her drowned husband..."
Christine clicks through one picture after another, naming each mythological or literary figure as the image appears and fades. She goes so quickly that the faces begin to blur together until we are left with the impression of one face--one woman appearing in many guises. Which is, of course, the impression Christine has been trying to create. They are all Eugenie--whether frightened as Daphne, lusting like Salmacis, or in the throes of shape-shifting like Halcyone. When the screen goes dark an image of that face--radiant, haloed by bright red gold hair--seems to burn on the blank screen for just an instant, glowing like the face in the stained glass-window.
"WHO, THEN, IS SHE--OUR LADY IN THE WINDOW? WHY, AFTER ALL THESE TALES OF transformation, would Augustus chose to depict Eugenie as some anonymous weaver in his last known portrait of her? To answer that question I ask you to notice the 'window' at her back. Many people have assumed that the landscape in the window depicts a view of the Hudson Highlands where Penrose built his grand estate, Astolat. But if you look carefully at the arrangement of ridges in the landscape,"--the flickering red arrow of Christine's laser pointer skims over the ridgelines in the window--"and compare them to the arrangement of hills in the actual landscape"--a photograph of the view across the river appears on the slide screen--"you will notice that the ridges are actually reversed. This is not a window--it's a mirror reflecting a window.
"And in what medieval story is a beautiful young maiden condemned to look at life only in its reflection? Why 'The Lady of Shalott' of course, Tennyson's version of an Arthurian legend. You probably remember it from Miss Ramsey's Nineteenth-century Lit class."
What I remember from Miss Ramsey's class was having to memorize Tennyson's endless ode to friendship, "In Memoriam." But as Christine outlines the story, "The Lady of Shalott" comes back to me: the enchanted maiden in her island tower, prohibited from looking directly at the world, weaving what she sees reflected in a mirror set opposite the window....
I look at the river landscape in the window and then at the scene unfolding in the Lady's loom. If this were the Lady of Shalott, they would be identical, but they are not. In fact the loom is blank. She seems to be weaving plain, unfigured cloth.
Still Christine makes a good argument for identifying the Lady in the Window with the heroine of Tennyson's poem. The name Augustus Penrose gave his mansion--Astolat--is an alternate name for Shalott. The pose of our Lady is similar to that of several Pre-Raphaelite Ladies of Shalott, as Christine demonstrates through a series of slides. She even has an explanation for why the scenes in the window and on the loom don't match. According to Eugenia Penrose's design notebook, the original painted panes for those sections were cracked during firing and had to be replaced by plain colored glass in order for the window to be ready in time for the library's dedication.
From the Hardcover edition.