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A Rose For
Miss Burney

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EST. READING TIME

10 minutes
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What seemed to her almost more dreadful than the pain was the sound of the knife scraping her breast-bone; years afterwards, she could not pass a butcher's shop, where a man was jointing a piece of meat, without a shudder. The smell was another thing: was there any more abominable, she thought, than the smell of one's own blood, freshly spilt? It was the smell of pain… but she would not think about the pain.

What remained most vivid in memory was the moment of no return. Straw had been put down in the street outside, to muffle the sound of the horses' hooves, and so she had no warning of the arrival of the cabriolet. The door had been flung open. Seven men, all in black (although that might have been a fancy of her own, to dress them in the colour of mourning) had walked into the room, the surgeon at their head, with his case of knives. They had sent her women away. Only after she had protested in the strongest terms, was her maid allowed to remain. It was then that she had known – or rather, not known but feared, how bad it was to be.

They had given her a wine cordial, to calm her, but this, though it went to her head, could not prevail against the dreadful steel. They had placed a cambric handkerchief over her face, as she lay upon the bed, but this was transparent, and so she saw everything that followed. The glitter of the blade in the surgeon's hand; his other hand describing a cross – then a circle – over her naked breast. He had motioned to his assistant to hold the breast, but she said she would hold it herself. Then came the moment of incision.

*

She remembers the time he gave her a rose, the mad poet. She was seventeen. She had gone to his rooms in Chelsea with her father. They had talked for an hour – she cannot remember exactly about what. Money, or poetry, she thinks. He had not seemed mad, that day: his wild talk of Blood, and Sacrifice (which was only his way of praying, Father said) restrained, perhaps, by her presence. He had not been so very dirty, either (her father had prepared her for this): his shirt must have been a new one, in honour of the company. His teeth were bad, but that was only his poverty, her father said; a man might not be blamed for that. His eyes were fine. She remembers that they never left her face, as he and her father had talked of this and that, and she had sat silent, sipping tea from a small cup.

When they had drunk their tea, he had read aloud some of his poetry. Amongst this, were some verses he had written for 'another young lady', he told her – but he hoped she would not take it amiss if he said that they reminded him of her:

Look in that glass, survey that cheek -
Where FLORA has with all her roses blush'd;
The shape so tender, - look so meek -
The breasts made to be press'd, not to be crush'd...

She had not quite liked the allusion to her breasts (or rather, not hers, but Another's); then recollected that a good many things not fit for polite company were permissible in poetry.

Afterwards, they had walked in the garden – it was a fine October day, a Friday, she seems to recall – and he had cut a rose from the briar that grew upon the wall, and presented it to her. A pink rose, it was – as blooming and sweet as if it had been the month of June, and not the last days of Autumn.

'A rose for a rose,' he said.

*

A cross and then a circle. She had closed her eyes, thinking that not to see might be some defence against the appalling moment. But, even sightless as she was, she could not escape the mental picture of what was happening: the instrument describing a curve, as it cut (against the grain, it seemed to her) while the flesh – her flesh – resisted the force of the blade. She had screamed at the first incision, and again, as the knife was withdrawn, and she felt the air rush into the wound; by the second cut, she had no more breath to scream.

It occurred to her in that moment, that she might die - a cold, clear thought, as if it had been etched on glass: 'Alex will be sorry.'

*

A hand holding a pen. It is her own hand, which seems always to have been thus engaged. Scribble, scribble, scribble. Is it an affliction, she sometimes wonders – to be compelled, as if by some outside Agency, to write things down? Certainly, it seems to her to serve no good purpose, other than that of recording... what, exactly? Even now, she finds it hard to say. When she was a child, she had thought that putting down all that happened to her in a journal (red morocco) would preserve it forever: the walks with her father in the garden on a summer's evening, with the smell of the box hedges, and the feel of the mown grass under her slippers, and a new moon, thin as a pared fingernail, in a sky of purest blue... She had thought to keep it all, only to find that such things are not for keeping.

In the end, she had made a bonfire of everything she had written: stories, verses, plays, and journal. Especially the journal. After that atrocious woman, her father's wife, had come across her, unawares, at her desk, and confiscated the volume, she had vowed never to write another word.

It was a vow she had broken a few months later, as she had half-known she would. Because surely it was an Addiction, as powerful as the one for drink which had so afflicted poor Mr Smart? She had begun a new journal (green, with marbled end-papers), addressed - since there was nobody in the world apart from herself who would ever read it – to ‘Nobody'. Into this, and with Nobody to read, she would pour all the secrets of her heart. Every desire, every disappointment, every ambition, every aversion… Nobody need ever know.

*

When the cutting was at its worst – the pliant flesh resisting in a manner (she later wrote) 'as to oppose & tire the hand of the operator, who was forced to change from the right to the left', she fainted: a merciful oblivion. Revived, thereafter, with sal volatile – M. Dubois being unwilling, he said, to operate upon an unconscious woman – she had thought her torment to be over. But he had shaken his head, his black brows drawn together in a frown made all the more ominous by the extreme pallor of his face. There were, she saw, through a haze of pain, spots of blood upon his face. Hers, she supposed. Seeing she was conscious, he spoke to her, in a low voice. She did not at first understand him. 'Madame, il faut que...'

Then she remembered where she was, and was able to nod, by way of assenting to his proposal. She could not, by this stage, have uttered a word, in English or in French. He took this as a signal to proceed, however. It was then that, weak from loss of blood and with the mass of diseased tissue now removed, she was forced to endure a third trial. Bad as the others had been, this was perhaps the worst.

*

Yes, on reflection, she thinks writing is a disease – although not one from which (that one auto-da-fe aside) she has ever tried to cure herself.

Sometimes it felt as if she lived to write, rather than the other way about, although that was an impiety, she knew. Yet was it not a gift from God, and therefore not to be refused? She recalls the Parable of the Talents. Whatever sins she has committed, she has not wasted her 'talent' – even if it has turned out to be no more than a talent to amuse. But she is read – even the Emperor has read her. Ten years after the promise she had made that she would write only for 'Nobody', she had published her first book. Now 'Everybody' could read what she had to say.

That had been a good day, she thinks: the best of her life, up to that point. Only the moment, sixteen years later, when they had laid the child in her arms (her beloved Boy), could compare with the moment of receiving the parcel of proofs - heavy as a swaddled infant - and unwrapping the same. Seeing her words (but not of course her Name) on the title page, and on all the pages that followed. Being pointed out as 'the Author of Evelina’. Knowing that those she revered (the good Doctor; Mrs Thrale) believed her work to be not undeserving of praise.

*

A circle, and a cross. The sound of blade scraping bone. The feel of the blade. Scrape, scrape. A gouging motion. How many times this was done, she did not know. Only that, every time she thought it must be over, she felt it begin again. The knife returning; scraping; withdrawing, atoms of her flesh upon the blade.

As she gathered her strength for the next assault, a thought crossed her brain: I will write this. That gave her something to hold onto. Her only other comfort was the fact that she had sent D'Arblay away. She could not have borne it, for him to see her like this.

*

He had brought her a rose-tree: it was his first gift to her. He had walked all the way from Mickleham to Chelsea with the shrub (in a pot) in his arms. Afterwards, she had teased him about it, saying he might have spared himself the trip (it was eighteen miles) and sent it by the carrier. But he replied, sounding a little offended, that it would not have been the same. She had been out, as it happened, visiting Mrs Ord, and so had not seen him – he being obliged to hire a horse to take him back to Juniper Hall. The rose, a red one, with a beautiful scent, was waiting for her in the drawing room, on her return. A vegetable expression of his love.

*

A cross. A circle. She heard the doctor say, 'I think that will do.' (It was said in French, of course.) She opened her eyes, and saw his face, streaked with sweat, looking down at her. The front of his shirt was soaked with blood, as was the mattress on which she lay. Red roses, red roses, she thought drowsily. Perhaps she said it aloud, she did not know. Only that a startled expression came upon his face, as he bent to dress the wound. 'You will sleep now,' he said, and the words were both a command and a benediction.

She was like a rose herself, the mad poet said: her skin as smooth as a rose-petal, and as prone to blushing. She supposed she must have blushed at that. Seventeen was an age for blushing. She remembers the hot sun on the nape of her neck, and the feel of the gravel under her thin-soled shoes. Her father's voice, and that of the mad poet, Mr Smart (who was not so very mad that day), rising and falling in the still Autumn air.

Yes, she had been a bashful little Miss, she supposes; later she had learned to command her feelings, or at least to conceal them. To be inconspicuous was - she found - a useful attribute. To be in company, and yet remain, as far as possible, unnoticed by one's companions, afforded opportunities for observing the same. Her dialogue was much admired – it was very lifelike, people said. That was because it was taken from life; the most reliable method, in her opinion.

The habit of paying attention was one she had contracted early. So she had noticed the poet's stained teeth, but also his beautiful eyes: a clear, light brown, like freshly-poured tea. His hands, too, were beautiful: well-shaped, with long fingers. Their nails were bitten down to the quick, however, so that the crescents were bloody.

A circle. The ring upon her finger. Enamel, decorated with flowers, and an inscription: Sa douçeur m'enchent. They had walked up the lane to Mickleham Church, with the dew still wet upon the grass. A scent of roses from the cottage gardens. A sound of bells. If she had any regrets about the match, it was only that she and D'Arblay had not met when both were young. It surprised her, nonetheless, that the emotions of seventeen endured – indeed, appeared to have grown stronger – beyond the age of forty.

A cross. The crucifix upon the altar of the chapel in Lincoln's Inn Fields. It was here that, two days after they had become man and wife, they had taken their vows for the second time. It was a Catholic ceremony, since that was D'Arblay's religion. Her father did not like it, but since D’Arblay was to be her husband, she would be separated from him by nothing in earth or heaven.

A rose. When she woke, after a long strange dream, there were roses – white – in the vase beside her bed. She knew at once that her fever was gone. With extreme care, she put her hand on the place where her breast had been. Of course, there was nothing to feel – or rather, there was but a pad of bandages, over an absence. A concavity, where there had once been a soft mound. Not that her breasts had ever been large. D'Arblay preferred her so. Her breasts were like those of a young girl, he said, the first time they had lain together in bed. He had kissed the tips of them: rosebuds, he said... A tear ran, suddenly, down her cheek. She brushed it away.

From somewhere in the house below, came small sounds of people moving about. Her women. They would be laying the fires, she supposed. It was still early. Through the half-drawn curtains, a clear, cool light came filtering. It would be a fine day: the first of October, she recalled. Slowly, she uncurled the fingers of the hand that lay upon her breast. Her left hand. It would be a while before she could use the other one again. That was her writing hand. But that she would use it, and for that purpose, was no longer in doubt. It seems I will live, she thought.

Christina Koning is the award–winning author of seven novels.

Published on May 1, 2016.