E S S A Y
I've had in mind a story about a woman alone in a remote Irish cottage with an exquisite stolen painting ever since I first traveled to Ireland in 1976, on my honeymoon. My husband and I spent two rainy weeks in a tiny fishing village on the southwest coast. Every day we fished and walked and then returned to our little rented flat to cook many meals of bony fish and freshly dug potatoes. It never stopped raining. Every pair of shoes we owned was perpetually damp, and we were content.
In the cold and foggy evenings, we would often spend an hour or two in the warmth of the pub, listening to the craic -- the chat. There was still much talk about the discovery and arrest, a couple of years before, of Rose Dugdale, the IRA activist who had rented a remote cottage in this village, out on the headlands, overlooking the sea. She had spent eight days there, guarding a cache of paintings stolen for ransom by the IRA from the Beit Collection at Russborough House in County Wicklow. (The robbery, engineered by the notorious IRA "General," Martin Cahill, was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for the surpassing value of the artworks stolen).
Neither the political motivations that led to this caper nor the details of the theft and subsequent arrests were of enormous interest to me at the time. Over the next twenty years, what lingered in my thoughts was the recollection of tramping down a muddy lane with my husband one blustery morning, picking wild blackberries as we went, in order to peer into the dirty windows of what locals still called "the picture cottage." There was nothing to see but a broken- down sofa in the parlor and a dirty teacup on the kitchen sill.
I was intrigued by the notion of this woman in solitude at the edge of the sea with some of the great paintings of the world. (The stolen pictures included a Vermeer, a Goya, a Rubens and a Velaszquez.) Did she ever look at them in those days? I wondered. Did the paintings have meaning for her? The Vermeer, "A Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid," was the painting that most fascinated me, as I have always felt a powerful personal connection with Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century, particularly the interiors and still lives.
Some thirteen years ago, after a few visits back to our beloved village, the second time with our two young daughters, we bought a little house out on the headland, at the mouth of the harbor. I can see "the picture cottage" from my bedroom window. We spend time there as a family, but I also spend some weeks alone there each year, usually in early spring, and it is then that I do some of my most concentrated writing.
Most of my first novel, though it is set in Geneva and New York, was written there, at a little writing desk in an upstairs bedroom overlooking the harbor from one window and the open sea from the other. (When the Titanic sailed from Cobh it passed this headland.)
I sit on a plain wooden kitchen chair, painted with shiny blue boat paint. The chair used to belong to a wonderful man, Connie O'Donovan, whom I first met during one of those pub nights on our honeymoon. He sang "Johnny Jump Up!" and we bought him another pint of Murphy's and, as it happens, he remarked with great amusement on the imprisoned Rose Dugdale and her art collecting tendencies, among other topics.
He had spoken to her once at the creamery, he said, when he had been buying something and she was there, using the only telephone for miles. He complained of her unladylike language with the mechanic in Leap who had not repaired her car promptly. I reminded him that she had been, one must imagine, under a great deal of pressure, very nervous. No, he replied, not at all, she was a very cool customer, that one.
Connie lived just down the road, but he died the same year we bought our place, and his cottage, which he used to call "the office," is no longer occupied now that his sister Mary has gone into a home. Joker, the dog who always sat by Connie's front door, though he actually belonged to the farmer up the road, has died too, mangled by a hay baler a few years ago.
My own history and memories of this remote patch of Ireland are of course tiny insignificant things, but they provide me with a sense of connection to this land of memories and history writ large and small. In writing about the people and landscape of West Cork, I have tried to honor and preserve the things I love, not to exploit them.
That is why I am quite serious about my Note to the Reader which advises that not only have I invented the Vermeer of the book's title, but also the village in which the story takes place, and also that it would be very rude to write about my neighbors, so I haven't.
The novel left Rose Dugdale behind long before I wrote the first sentence, and anything I know about the IRA comes mostly from the pages of books and newspapers, especially the daily Irish Times. What's real and true in The Music Lesson, I hope, is the sound and feel of this magical corner of Ireland.
Last year, I was struggling with the rough beginnings of a second novel -- for the second time -- and I began to sense that the story I meant to tell wasn't quite right, my pace was off, I didn't understand my characters well enough to make them (borrowing Forster's wonderful requirement) surprising in convincing ways. I began to think about some of the other ideas for novels that have been in my head for a long time. Perhaps it was time to begin a third second novel.
At lunch with my editor, Ann, I mentioned the notion of the woman alone in a remote Irish cottage with stolen paintings. Or maybe just one stolen painting. A portrait. It would be a painting perhaps somewhat like a Vermeer, I said. No, it is a Vermeer, Ann said. I thought it might need to be a very long novel. Ann told me it was a short novel. I went home and started, that night, to write The Music Lesson.
Copyright © 1998 by Katharine Weber. All rights reserved.