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About the Author
MARIO VARGAS LLOSA was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010 "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat." Peru's foremost writer, he has been awarded the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world's most distinguished literary honor, and the Jerusalem Prize. His many works include The Feast of the Goat, The Bad Girl, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, The War of the End of the World, and The Storyteller. He lives in London.
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The Lady from Somerset
The story is as decorous and discreet as she herself must have been, and as unreal as the romances she wrote and devoured until the end of her days. That it happened as it did and that it now forms part of reality is moving proof of the power of fiction, that beguiling lie which every so often comes true in the most unexpected of ways.
The beginning of the story is surprising, and quite suspenseful. Great Britain's Society of Authors was informed by an executor that a woman, recently deceased, had left it all her worldly goods £400,000, some $700,000 in order that it establish an annual literary prize for novelists under the age of thirty-five. The winning work had to be "of a romantic or traditional, but not experimental, nature." The news hit the front pages instantly, because the prize thus created $70,000 a year was four or five times bigger than either the Booker McConnell or the Whitbread, the two most prestigious British literary awards.
Who was the generous donor? A novelist, of course. But the shamefaced directors of the Society of Authors had to confess to the press that they had never heard of Miss Margaret Elizabeth Trask. And despite their best efforts, they had not been able to find even one of her books in London bookstores.
Nevertheless, Miss Trask had published more than fifty romance novels since the 1930s under a nom de plume thatshortened her given name and made it sound slightly less aristocratic: Betty Trask. The titles of the books suggest the nature of their content: I Tell My Heart, Irresistible, And Confidential, Rustle of Spring, Bitter Sweetbriar. The last appeared in 1957, and no copies of any of them were to be found at the offices of Miss Trask's publishers or the literary agency that handled her rights. In order to have a look at one, the reporters on the trail of the mysterious English literary philanthropist had to bury themselves in those odd neighborhood libraries which even today lend out romance novels for a modest yearly fee.
Thus the biography of the enchanting Miss Trask was reconstructed. Unlike her Spanish counterpart,Corín Tellado, she refused to adjust her moral standards to the times, and in 1957 she put down her pen, realizing that the gap between everyday life and her novels was growing too wide. Her books, which, judging by the money she left, were very popular, fell immediately into oblivion. This seems not to have mattered at all to Miss Trask, who outlived her work by more than a quarter century.
The most extraordinary thing about Margaret Elizabeth Trask, who devoted her life to reading and writing about love, is that in all her eighty-eight years she never had a single romantic experience. The evidence is conclusive: she died single and a virgin, body and soul. Those who knew her speak of her as a relic of another age, a Victorian or Edwardian anachronism lost in the century of hippies and punks.
Her family came from Frome, in Somerset; they were prosperous silk manufacturers. Miss Margaret received a strict and careful education at home. She was a shy, attractive girl with aristocratic ways who lived in Bath and Belgravia, London's most exclusive neighborhood. The family fortune dried up when her father died, but Miss Trask's habits, already frugal, weren't much altered by this change. She never enjoyed much of a social life, went out very infrequently, claimed a benign allergy to men, and never permitted any flirtatious compliments. The love of her life was her mother, whom she cared for devotedly after her father's death. This caretaking, and the writing of romances at the rate of two a year, were the sum total of her life.
Thirty-five years ago, the two women returned to Somerset and rented a tiny house on a dead-end street in their hometown of Frome. Miss Trask's mother died in the early sixties, and Miss Trask's life became a neighborhood enigma. She rarely ventured out, she was coolly and distantly polite, she neither received visitors nor made visits herself.
The only person able to speak of her with some familiarity was the director of the Frome library, to which Miss Trask belonged. She was an insatiable reader of love stories, though she also liked biographies of unusual men and women. The librarian made a weekly trip to her house, bringing her books and picking them up again.
As the years went by, the frail Miss Margaret's health began to deteriorate. The neighbors deduced this from the appearance of a National Health nurse, who began to come once a week to give her massages. (In her will, Miss Trask rewarded these attentions with the cautious sum of two hundred pounds.) Five years ago, her condition worsened until she could no longer live alone. She was taken to a nursing home, where, surrounded by the poor, she continued to live the austere, discreet, nearly invisible life she had always lived.
Her neighbors in Frome couldn't believe their eyes when they read that the spinster of Oakfield Road had left so much money to the Society of Authors and that she was a writer. What they found even harder to understand was why, instead of using her £400,000 to live more comfortably, she had given the money away to reward the writing of romance novels. They spoke condescendingly of Miss Trask to newspaper and television reporters, and said how sad and dreary life must have been for someone who never invited anyone over for tea.
Her neighbors in Frome were fools, of course, as are all those who believe that Margaret Elizabeth Trask should be pitied for her life of quiet routine. In fact, Miss Margaret lived a wonderful, enviable life, full of excitement and adventure. In it there wereastounding deeds of derring-do, wild passions sparked by smoldering glances, and acts of generosity, sacrifice, nobility, and bravery like those in episodes out of the lives of the saints or novels of chivalry.
Miss Trask had no time to socialize with her neighbors or gossip about the high cost of living or the behavior of today's disrespectful youth because every minute of her life was concentrated on impossible passions: burning lips brushing lily-white fingers and causing young maidens to blossom like roses; knives buried with fierce tenderness in the hearts of unfaithful lovers. Why should Miss Trask have gone out to walk the stony streets of Frome? Could that miserably real little town have offered her anything like the sumptuous country houses, the farmhouses battered by storms, the haunted forests, the marble pavilions alongside lagoons that were the settings of her dreams and imaginings? Of course Miss Trask avoided making friends or talking to anyone. Why should she have wasted her time with people as ordinary and limited as the living? The truth is that she had many friends. They kept her from being bored for even an instant in her modest little house on Oakfield Road, and they never said anything stupid, out of place, or unpleasant. Who among the earth-bound could speak with the charm, respect, and wisdom of the ghosts of Miss Trask's novels when they whispered in her ear?
Margaret Elizabeth Trask's existence was surely more intense, varied, and dramatic than that of many of her contemporaries. Propelled by a certain upbringing and her own particular idiosyncrasies, she inverted the relationship that usually establishes itself in human beings between the imaginary and the real, or what is dreamed and what is lived. What generally happens is that people, caught up in their busy existences, "live" the majority of the time and dream the rest. Miss Trask went about it the other way. She devoted her days and nights to fantasy and shrank what we call living down to a bare minimum.
Was she happier than those who prefer reality to fiction? I think she was. If she wasn't, why should she have left all her money to encourage the writing of romance novels? Isn't that proof that she went to the next world convinced she was right to exchange the reality of life for the lies of literature? Though many see it as an outrageous document, her will is in fact a stern judgment on the odious world into which she was born and in which she contrived not to live.
London, May 1983
Copyright © 2003 Mario Vargas Llosa
Table of Contents
The Lady from Somerset
Shadows of Friends
The Morality of Cynics
Postmodernism and Frivolity
Tragicomedy of a Jew
God Will Provide
Aid for the First World
Italy Is Not Bolivia
The Death of the Great Writer
Trench Town Rock
The Prince of Doom
Under the Skies of Jerusalem
The Sign of the Cross
The Joys of Necrophilia
The Old Man with the Bunions
A Bourgeios Paradise
The Devil's Advocate
A Defense of Sects
A Walk through Hebron
Seven Years, Seven Days
Nudes in a Classical Garden
Epitaph for a Library
The Hour of the Charlatans
The Other Side of Paradise
Painting to Survive
The Language of Passion
The City of Nests
The Unborn Child
The Weaker Sex
The Permanent Erection
The Lost Battle of Monsieur Monet
A Death So Sweet
The Suicide of a Nation
The Life and Trials of Elián