Review: Carmel Birdon Leonora Carrington

When The Old Women Take Charge

On 6 April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. On that day also, feminist, surrealist, painter, writer, untamed serious joker Leonora Carrington was born to a wealthy family in Lancashire. In 1937 Leonora left England for France. She had fallen in love with the Surrealist artist Max Ernst, and they were living together in Provence when the whole world again went to war. In 1940, when German troops occupied France, and her lover was interned, she fled first to Spain and then, to Mexico. In 1985 she left Mexico after the earthquake that killed 10,000 people. She lived in New York and Chicago, sometimes visiting Mexico, until her 2005 return there, where she died in 2011 at the age of ninety-four. The ninety-eighth anniversary of her birth was celebrated with a Google Doodle.

Leonora’s surreal, moving, and satirical novel The Hearing Trumpet was published as a Virago Modern Classic in 1991, which was when I first read it. It was a revelation, moving as it does from a repulsive facility for old women to apocalyptic scenes from a post-atomic New Ice Age. And this year, the New York Review of Books has republished it, with an Afterword by Olga Tokarczuk, a magnificent gift to relish at the end of the book (or if I’m to be honest, before reading it).

The patriarchy dictates that when writing about an author one must refer to that author by surname. Personally, I prefer to use the full name, but in the case of Leonora Carrington, I will simply refer to her as Leonora, and I am pretty sure she would approve.

The narrator and principal character in The Hearing Trumpet is Marian Leatherby, and by page two she has stated her age, which is 92. (Another character claims to be 184 years old.) The wisdom of the crone is being invoked. Marian speaks with the simple clarity of an observant child, with the conspiratorial tone of an eavesdropper. The title of the novel offers to the reader a device for listening in on uncomfortable truths. The narrative dances between the shapes and shades of ancient fairy tale and the brutal angles and surfaces of a world shattered by the warfare of the twentieth century. From this fantastic pirouette emerges the possibility of a whole new way of seeing. Marian is the other face of the Surrealists’ ‘femme-enfant’, that figure of salvation who embodies both innocence and knowledge. Like Leonora, she originated in Lancashire. She is deaf, toothless, and bearded; she lives in a Spanish-speaking country, and holds a ‘lifelong dream of going to Lapland’, a place that hovers in her memory and imagination from a childhood reading of ‘The Snow Queen’. Her close friend Carmella, who is bald and wears a red wig, gives to her the ornate hearing trumpet ‘encrusted with silver and mother o’pearl’, bought in a flea market. It is Carmella who utters the wise words: ‘People under seventy and over seven are very unreliable if they are not cats.’ Carmella has ‘the gift of perceptive psychology’. With the aid of the trumpet Marian can hear that her daughter-in-law is plotting to confine her to ‘an institution’, for she is, after all, just a ‘drooling bag of decomposing flesh’.

About half of the narrative is a glorious, subversive, sage, wonderful, mischievous, and lethal account of Marian’s life within the walls of Lightsome Hall, home of the Well of Light Brotherhood. This appalling place, a wild and entertaining parody of George Gurdjieff’s Institute for Harmonious Development, is cruel and monstrous, masquerading as ‘care’, while being purely for the business interests of the manager, the sadistic, fascistic Dr Gambit, who is aided by his ghastly wife. It was particularly shocking to consider Lightsome Hall in view of the 2020 revelations of grotesque, sub-standard conditions in many Australian institutions whose ostensible purpose was to ‘care’ for old and vulnerable people. The attitude of much of Western society generally to people near the end of their lives is one of graceless dismissal, of monstrous unkindness. It is sobering to think that Leonora was exposing this fact back in the 1950s, and that by 2020 nothing had changed.

Emerging from the horrors of World War One, the Surrealists delineated the absurdities and grotesqueries of human habits and institutions in a vivid light, but any wisdom thereby revealed seems to have been largely discounted, apparently disappearing in a dark and terrifying whirlpool of greed and stupidity. As I write these words, the monstrous forty-fifth President of the United States has just been replaced by the more sober forty-sixth, after four years of dangerous antics and traumatic grand Guignol in which the weaknesses of democracy were exposed and exploited.

Leonora knew, even as a child, that society’s constraints on women were like the bars of a prison. The male-female figure of Joan of Arc sometimes surfaces in her work as a call to arms. Early in the novel, Marian questions the vengeful patriarchal God of the Old Testament, a God who sends ‘plagues and massacres’. She wonders why Eve, the female, was ‘blamed for everything’ from the beginning. Christianity is mocked throughout. When Lightsome Hall is troubled by rats ‘as big as spaniels’, the remedy could be ‘Last Supper rat poisoning’, which is ‘the most virulent and they die almost at once’. The rats are the gun on the wall in this tale of intrigue, murder, rebellion, suicide, siege, earthquake, burning at the stake, and transformation.

Leonora’s response to the hideous ageism found in the patriarchal world of The Hearing Trumpet is to invent a magnificent other world in which the old women take charge of absolutely everything in ways that only a supreme female Surrealist could imagine. The novel, biting and hilarious, was written in Mexico, probably in the early 1960s, when Leonora was in her thirties. It was circulated privately, then published in French (Le Cornet Accoustique) in 1974, and in English by Routledge in 1977. Now, it’s a long time since 1977, and although the novel has appeared, over the years, on literary lists of great books, books to read before you die, I think it is fair to say that it has not yet penetrated very far into a popular readership.

Leonora’s life was dedicated, in part, even from her convent schooldays, to a feminist revolution. Today her reputation as a writer and artist still exists in a certain shadow cast by the figure of her lover, Max Ernst. When I saw that the New York Review of Books was republishing the novel, I was particularly keen to write about it, seeing the publication at this moment as a sign that its time might have come at last. And after all, the star of a woman writer who can get a Google Doodle on her birthday four years after death, must be rising.

Marian Leatherby narrates, giving the delighted and astonished reader a vision of a disquieting world where past, present, and future are all perfectly naturally accessible, one time zone sliding easily in and out of another. Anything can happen, and does. There is no need for a plot twist, since the whole business gracefully twists and turns as it produces itself like an intricate multi-textured rope that ravels and unravels as it goes. Overall, the novel is a mock-solemn quest for a supreme mystical experience, for some form of ultimate knowledge. Fear itself is exquisitely transformed into comedy, some of it elegant, some of it gross, some of it sly. When her son delivers the news that Marian must go to Lightsome Hall, the old woman’s mind blots him out and transports her back to scenes of sunken gardens and tennis matches from Leonora’s own privileged childhood. The nine inmates of Lightsome Hall are housed in bungalows of various shapes such a toadstool, a Swiss chalet, a boot, a railway carriage, an Egyptian mummy, a birthday cake, a circus tent, an igloo. The women are kept busy peeling vegetables, doing ridiculous exercises. One woman is a blind artist who paints on toilet paper at the rate of a yard a day. Another gives ‘lurid accounts of battles she had fought and won all over Europe and Africa’, invoking battle scenes from World War One.

On the wall of the dining room is a portrait of a Spanish nun who is winking. She is a (fictional) saint, Dona Rosalinda, and she appears to Carmella, who is outside the institution, in a dream. Carmella has plans to rescue Marian by helicopter, which she hopes to win in a crossword puzzle competition. Many of the surreal motifs and little narratives are delivered within the text not as action, but as the dreams and imaginations of the characters. Marian overhears extraordinary things with her hearing trumpet. Sentences change direction in the middle, ending with shocks that are either amusing or frightening, or both. There are sections where Marian reminisces about her life, where that life bears close resemblance to that of Leonora. Carmella in the helicopter recalls Leonora’s childhood nanny, Mary Cavanaugh, who is believed to have travelled from England to Spain for fifteen days in a warship in 1941 to visit Leonora in the ‘lunatic asylum’ where she was confined. I may be wrong, but I have always found this story to be far-fetched. Did warships go from England to Spain in 1941? And why would the journey take fifteen days?

Throughout the novel, White Goddesses such as Venus, Isis, Diana, are presented as the female guardians of the Holy Grail, an artefact which has long since been hijacked by Christianity. One project of the novel is to restore the Grail to its rightful position, rescuing it from the Knights Templar who stole it when Venus dropped it. A long section of the text is concerned with a book in which the life of the winking Dona Rosalinda, who has the hybrid energy of a woman crossed with a wild animal, reveals the true history of the Grail, and reveals also the nasty habits of the clergy. The androgyne as well as the half-human-half-animal are creatures who naturally and regularly inhabit Leonora’s work, which is always layered and complex, while being also strangely and lyrically simple. In the novel there is a feathered hermaphrodite, there is witchcraft, violence, orgiastic dancing, cross-dressing, alchemy, and then transformation when Marian is boiled up in a soup which she also drinks. That’s Surrealism for you. The cauldron of the cook or the witch works as a motif throughout the narrative, and the stewing of Marian recalls the religious boiling of heretics, being made into soup is a comic pastiche of the historic punishment. The action of the novel swirls into alchemical mysteries. The voluptuous furnishings of Dona Rosalinda’s octagonal room spill across the page in kaleidoscopic silks and furs and ivories. She has flasks of an aphrodisiac ointment brought from the tomb of Mary Magdalen. Rosalinda performs ‘disgusting acrobatics’ with the Bishop in mid-air. And the orgies of the nuns are ‘far too horrible to set down with honest ink’.

Dona Rosalinda, in the form of Don Rosalendo, is banished from the Templars and proceeds to expand until she/he explodes, leaving behind just a ‘morsel of damp black skin’. After this the narrative reverts to scenes in Lightsome Hall where the women are staging a hunger strike and a rebellion after the murder of one of their number. They survive on chocolate biscuits provided by Carmella who has become very wealthy as a result of accidentally discovering a uranium mine. The women are swept up into the search for the Grail, and the earth trembles and splits and enters the New Ice Age.

Beneath the bizarre and convoluted details of the story run the grisly facts of two World Wars, with Carmella blaming the Ice Age on the dropping of the atom bomb. ‘If the planet is to survive with organic life’ the Goddess must be ‘induced to return, so that goodwill and love can once more prevail in the world’. In the glorious tradition of the Surrealists, news of the location of the Grail is delivered by a postman. The sacred cup is in the Womb of the World underneath the Bank of England. The Goddess, with an ‘army of bees, wolves, six old women, a postman, a Chinaman, a poet, an atom-driven Ark, and a werewoman’, reclaims the Grail.

The interior of the Ark was like the opium dream of a gypsy. There were embroidered hangings of wonderful design, perfumed sprays shaped like exotic feathered birds, lamps like praying mantis with moveable eyes, velvet cushions in the form of gigantic fruits, and sofas mounted on prostrate werewomen beautifully sculptured in rare woods and ivory.

So the Goddess and the Grail are re-united, and the narrative concludes on a curious but unstated note of hopefulness.

Apart from anything else, The Hearing Trumpet tells the story of a woman who exposes and defeats a corrupt institution where a phony leader intends to control, rule, and exploit the people in his ‘care’. Leonora knew oppressive institutions from the inside. As a child in the 1920s, she refused to give in to the nuns in the convent schools from which she was expelled. On 26 April 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, Germany bombed the Spanish Basque town of Guernica. Picasso’s vast visual response to this event is one of the most powerful anti-war paintings ever. I probably am being over-fanciful, but I can read the painting as a version of Leonora’s own state of mind in August 1940 as, after losing her connection with Max Ernst, then losing control of her mind in Madrid, she was taken to a psychiatric hospital Villa Covadonga, in Santander. In a short ‘autobiographical fiction’ titled ‘Down Below’, she wrote a vivid and un-nerving account of her experience of mental illness and the treatment she received in the sanitorium. I first read ‘Down Below’ in 1989, when Virago Press published it with an introduction by Marina Warner, who had interviewed Leonora.

The 1989 Virago Press edition of The House of Fear which includes ‘Down Below’.

Leonora finally engineered her own escape from Villa Covadonga, via Madrid and Lisbon, from where she made her way to Mexico, via New York. A reading of The Hearing Trumpet is enriched by a reading of ‘Down Below’, many of the horrors of the novel having had their genesis in the experiences in Santander where, in the vortex of schizophrenia, Leonora became a prisoner, her hands and feet bound in leather straps. She was given Luminol and Cardiazol which caused epileptic seizures, and she was subjected to the most abject punishments.

In The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington, Joanna Moorhead says: ‘… how much of the account she gives in “Down Below” is true, and how much is a result of being unbalanced, is unclear’. I believe that Mary Cavanaugh was sent by the Carrington family to accompany Leonora from Spain to another sanitorium in South Africa, although I still find the means of Mary’s transport by warship (or submarine?) improbable. Leonora sent Mary away, and ultimately made her own escape from the grip and plans of her family. Leonora writes, a third of the way into ‘Down Below’:

I am afraid I am going to drift into fiction, truthful but incomplete, for lack of some details which I cannot conjure up today.

How much thereafter has drifted into fiction is not clear. She did in fact tell her biographer that everything she ever wrote was ‘autobiographical’. Her paintings, like her books, are a vivid invitation to see into a world, filled with magnificently strange animals, vigorous demons, fabulous birds, and mysterious juxtapositions, that could easily be a woman-centred annex to the visions of Hieronymus Bosch. Figures shift between human, animal, plant, and inanimate object. Is it a woman, a tree, or a deer? What is clear is that Leonora’s experience of mental breakdown itself, and the sadistic treatment at Villa Covadonga, constituted the material of hellish nightmare and gave her a lifetime of inspiration for her art. She spent five months in the asylum, suffering clumsy, brutal, humiliating, experimental drug treatments during which she was left naked, disoriented, bound to the bed, in her own urine and excrement, at the mercy of mosquitoes.

Her skill as a painter was not impaired when, while still a patient at Villa Covadonga, she did a picture of the place, also titled ‘Down Below’, peopled by five strange figures, each of which probably represented an aspect of herself. In a sinister horrible greenish background broods the castle-like sanitorium. Among the figures in the foreground, which is lit by an eerie glow, is a prancing horse, an animal that served throughout her life as Leonora’s principal ‘totem’, another being the hyena. The central and dominant figure is a luscious female, sporting scarlet stockings and a large mask resembling a goat with monstrous teeth. In her hand she holds a sad empty face-mask stamped with trefoil holes. One figure is possibly a woman who has a handsome moustache, another has a scaly, naked body and the head of a bird, another is a kind of over-dressed princess, and another could almost be a dead woman visiting from some dark canvas by Picasso. In the background to the right there lurks a pair of menacing, slimy wings, and a tiny winged horse adorns an elegant little archway that marks the entrance to the distant buildings. It is a singing, eloquent, screaming, haunted painting, lurid and sad.

Can there be any sort of happy ending to this long, convoluted, and anarchic life saga? Well, Leonora flourished as a painter and writer in Mexico where she married photographer Chiki Weisz and had two sons. She also re-connected with Remedios Varo, model for Carmella of The Hearing Trumpet, with whom she enjoyed a wonderfully fruitful sisterly relationship – two fantastic women painting and conspiring to perpetrate Surrealist tricks and jokes such as writing weird letters to strangers whose names they took from the phone book. Or serving omelettes stuffed with human hair. She pursued political and psychic freedoms for women, so often expressing such freedoms in the language of Surrealism. Her later years were spent in Mexico where she was celebrated, principally as a painter, and her reputation both as feminist, painter, and writer continues to widen. As a New Ice Age looms once more, readers in 2021 can marvel at the fact that long ago this extraordinary and visionary woman created, in The Hearing Trumpet, a character who saw it coming.

In her Afterword to The Hearing Trumpet Olga Tokarczuk writes that people read fiction in order to try to discover answers to the question: ‘On what principles does the world operate?’ She says each person is ‘a stitch in a piece of knitted fabric’ that is the ‘shared communal order’. She classifies The Hearing Trumpet as a novel that ‘eludes categorization’, as ‘presenting an internally coherent cosmos governed by self-generated laws’. In these qualities lie the freshness and the gloriousness of the novel, a work of revolution and revelation. It is, says the Afterword, ‘one of the most original feminist texts ever written’. It is also one of the most breath-taking and satisfying Surrealist texts you will ever read.

Works Cited

Leonora Carrington ‘Down Below’ published in The House of Fear with Introduction by Marina Warner, Virago Press 1989

Joanna Moorhead The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington, Virago Press 2017