Old portraits

Or, Why I read Charles Dickens.

Growing up I spent summer weeks with aunts and uncles and cousins. In the old country home of Uncle Mack, Aunt Myra and my cousins Kay and Lanny, the walls were hung with those old ancestral portraits in large oval frames.

The stern looks of women dressed in 19th and early 20th Century costume and bearded gentlemen with right hands tucked inside their vests were at once intriguing and intimidating to a child.

My first night there I was lying in a back bedroom with two of these faces staring down at me. As I pulled the quilt up to my chin, a ghostly light played upon the portraits, then disappeared. I froze, breathless in the dark. Once more the faces were eerily illuminated.

I caught my breath, then woke the house with a blood curdling scream.

The ghostly apparitions faded back into their frames, and I into my feather bed as Uncle Mack closed the drapery and explained.

He raised pheasants out back in cages where naked light bulbs hung on cords. As the pheasants jumped to catch the bugs around the lights, the cords swung, momentarily casting a light into the bedroom window and bringing long dead kin to life.

Now, listen as Charles Dickens, in “Bleak House,” describes old portraits hanging on the walls of Chesney Wold:

“Through some of the fiery windows, beautiful from without, and set, at this sunset hour, not in dull-grey stone but in a glorious house of gold, the light excluded at other windows pours in, rich, lavish, overflowing like the summer plenty in the land. Then, do the frozen Dedlocks thaw. Strange movements come upon their features as the shadows of leaves play there. A dense Justice in a corner is beguiled into a wink. A staring Baronet, with a truncheon, gets a dimple in his chin. Down into the bosom of a stony shepherdess there steals a fleck of light and warmth that would have done it good, a hundred years ago. One ancestress of Volumnia, in high-heeled shoes, very like her — casting the shadow of that virgin event before her full two centuries — shoots out into a halo and becomes a saint. A maid of honour of the court of Charles the Second, with large round eyes (and other charms to correspond), seems to bathe in glowing water, and it ripples as it glows.

“But, the fire of the sun is dying. Even now the floor is dusky, and shadow slowly mounts the walls, bringing the Dedlocks down like age and death. And now, upon my Lady’s picture over the great chimney-piece, a weird shade falls from some old tree, that turns it pale, and flutters it, and looks as if a great arm held a veil or hood, watching an opportunity to draw it over her. Higher and darker rises shadow on the wall — now a red gloom on the ceiling — now the fire is out.”

That’s why Dickens’ words are immortal, and I’m writing a two-bit blog.

PHOTO: My great-grandmother Sarah Allie Castle Lindsey Holman, affectionately my mother's "Grandma Holman," 1898.


Phillip Hill said...

I love it... you transported me back to a time in my grandfather's house. There were no pheasants but plenty of old pictures. Don't sell yourself short. Your words were just as exciting. No Excuses. I want a book. LOL.

Bill Sumrall said...

I agree with Phillip Hill.
Book 'em, Danno, er, Betty-o.

Lucy Van Pelt said...

Charlie Brown

Debra said...

Yes, I too, think a book would be a great legacy to all in the family.
You are brilliant and it would not be any effort to one so skilled....
what are you waiting for.......
Love ya, Deb

Tiny said...

Tiny agrees. We expect the first chapter next week!

B.J. said...

Let’s see. I’ll write a book about what’s going on in the world around me – what I know.


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way.

Oh, damn, someone already wrote that?


Annelle said...

Let me see...if I remember correctly, about 40 years ago, there was a first chapter. I still think that if you set your mind to it, you could have a best seller. Go for it girlfriend.