Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Picture of Dorian Gray

As I zoned out on the bus from Dublin on my way to stay with Christine at Gilford Castle, I was initially content to simply watch the landscape unfurl. Then the MP3 sounds emitting from the ears of the lad in the seat behind me started to get under my skin. It had that thin, tinny sound as if he and I each had our heads in separate tin cans that were somehow linked by string – the way that we used to do that as kids. So, I met fire with fire and hauled out my own IPod.

Since I was going to be seeing a production of The Picture of Dorian Gray later that night, I decided to see if I had Frederic Rzewski’s De Profundis with me. I had first heard it on a five CD set that my daughter Sabrina had given me last Christmas. In it, Rzewski recites passages from a letter that Oscar Wilde wrote when he was in prison at Reading to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. Part of what makes this composition so under-your-skin-effective is the use not only of voice and piano, but also whistles, hums, sighs, moans and a bleat or two from a bicycle horn.

 Unfortunately, it turned out that I hadn’t copied that particular piece onto my IPod yet, so I contented myself with several sections of Rzewski’s The Road. It was infinitely better than the tin-can-on-my-head buzz emanating from behind me. By the end of the ninth piece, the bus was on the downward slope approaching Banbridge.

The play based on Dorian Gray was staged at a converted barn at Anaverna House, Ravensdale, Co. Louth, the ancestral home of the Fortescue family, and also adjacent to a couple of townlands where previous generations of COULTERs and BRADFORDs had lived – families that figure in the ancestry of the Thomas Jackson, the character who is the focus of my current research. The serendipity of this bit of geographical proximity amused me.

The owner of Anaverna, a wonderful gent called Vere Lenox-Conyngham, has transformed the buildings in the stable yard into a number of artists' studios and music recital rooms. It is a space that has an ease and organic integrity as one room flows into another. Supper was prepared by the same young man who had painted the stage backdrop – and both were perfect. After dinner, about 40-50 of us sat in two sides on either side of the stage area. There is a word for this kind of staging, but I forget what it is.

The adaptation of the novel was spot on, the acting was surefooted and according to one member of the audience who chatted with us afterwards, the production was even superior to the April version. It had played then to full houses in the James Joyce Tea Room at Bewleys on Grafton St., Dublin. Certainly, I left with a satisfied smile on my face. Part of the pleasure was also catching a glimpse from time to time of Vere, whose face radiated a boyish delight in the pleasure of the audience.

One of the other bits of serendipity that night was that we were joined by a painter friend of Christine’s, Lindy Guinness also known as Lindy Dufferin, since she is also the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, aka Lady Dufferin. Perhaps not co-incidentally, given her ancestry, she did have the requisite Guinness in hand. Age-wise Lindy is technically in the territory of seventy, but her body moves with the ease and impetuousness of a teen-ager. She also goes jogging daily. Do you think that kind of vitality could be bottled? I could use a whiff of it from time to time. During the entire meal, she was nonstop irrepressible, talking and corkscrewing around, the better to hear Christine’s every word. As a bystander, I was simply listening and watching and enjoying every minute of it.

Her estate at Clandeboye is just down the road from where I will visiting my 3rd cousin Eilie in a week or so in Bangor, Co. Down. Unlike most of us, Lindy has a staff of something like 300 running the show and taking care of her. I feel like a queen, she said, I do have to say I love it. As for me, I found her absolute frankness to be a breath of fresh air.

At Clandeboye, there are hundreds of acres of farmlands, woodlands, gardens and dozens of buildings. Heck, they even have a saw mill, and make yoghurt there. Not at the same time and place, I presume. In fact, the whole estate has been so well run over the years that it has been able to stave off being chewed up by piecemeal development like so many other Irish estates.

The estate also has an essential historic value as a completely intact repository of records reflecting several centuries in the life of an Irish Ascendancy family, a family which was pivotal in many of the significant events of not only Ireland but the British Empire – including Canada. When Lord Dufferin was Governor General of Canada, starting in 1872, the Supreme Court of Canada was one of many institutions introduced under his watch.

These days, Lindy is not only well known for her advocacy of environmental issues – after all, the headquarters of Northern Ireland’s Conservation Volunteers lies within the estate – but also for her gifts as a painter. She is about to have an exhibit of her recent paintings at the Palaise Royal in France. You can also catch a glimpse of her own version of her life in a Sunday Times article, April 19, 2009.  As I said earlier, do you think they can bottle this intensity of focus and vitality?

When we got home, Christine showed me a biography written about Lindy’s famous sister-in-law, Caroline Blackwell. Caroline was not only a novelist, but had a habit of marrying illustrious men, the painter Lucien Freud and the poet Robert Lowell being two of them. I have ordered a copy of Dangerous Muse on  because the next morning when I dipped into Caroline’s biography was when the final serendipity penny from the previous day dropped.

Before I started out on this trip, I had done some work on the BLACKWELLs of County Down because one of the descendants of Isabell BLACKWOOD, who died in 1738, was a Susanna NICHOLSON who had married a Hugh JACKSON. He was one of the local merchant and farmer JACKSONs who show up in the Bangor area in the 1600s and onwards. I had also already found a mention of a Mrs Anne BLACKWOOD née JACKSON – though I still don’t know who her husband was. She had died 30 Jan 1814 aged 90, and was buried at the Bangor Abbey graveyard. Since her age at death means that she was born in 1724, this date is early enough to intrigue the hell out of me.

Who knows where this next set of questions will take me? Mostly, I never know where the next set of critical slam dunks will turn out to be. Curious. Curious. Curious.

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