Great Droppings from a Bird of Paradise

bird of paradise

In my last post, “Heart Histories,” I introduced my readers to the nineteenth-century novelist Mary Virginia Terhune (penname Marion Harland).  I shared a scene from her second novel, The Hidden Path (1855), in which four young friends contemplate the hidden heroism in the lives of seemingly ordinary people, and conclude that the dramas in the history books would pale beside these “heart-histories,” could they only be recorded.  The theoretical Frank and serene Maurice are in agreement on this point.  So are the women who complete the quartet, Bella and Isabel, and these two personify another dimension of the dilemma of invisible valiance.

            Bella and Isabel share the spotlight as heroines of the novel, and it is no accident that they also share a name (Bella’s full name is Isabel), for they represent two sides of their creator’s own personality.  Terhune believed in the virtue of feminine domesticity and the beauty of a gentle, quiet spirit.  She also believed in romance.  At the same time, she knew that she was talented, and she was persuaded that talent ought not to be hidden under a bushel.  In her two heroines, the twenty-four-year-old novelist was working out the rewards and the costs of each path.  The modest Bella works as a teacher, but her heart is with her sickly mother at home.  Isabel, on the other hand, is a brilliant poet, and although she has qualms about the propriety of a woman publishing her work, her friends assure her that she has a moral responsibility to share her art with the world.  The two women, who are close friends, are both thoughtful and deeply good.  Both are beauties in their own way, Bella softly blond and Isabel dark-haired and fiery, so that Bella’s sensitive younger brother compares them to a dove and a bird of paradise.  It is the bird of paradise who has been most taken with the idea of those hidden heroes suffering in silence.  “To suffer and be strong!” she muses.  “To suffer and be strong!”

            And Isabel is called to do just that, in a ferocious scene that puts to shame every critic who ever dismissed the domestic novel as “sentimental.” She is in love with Frank, but mid-novel Frank falls head-over-heels for a pretty, doll-like creature whose vapidity calls into question the whole notion of “hidden heroism.”  The doll’s name, ironically, is Alma.  Isabel overhears Frank declare his love, explaining that while he admires Isabel for her genius, his heart belongs to her, Alma.

            Late that evening, Isabel kisses Bella once, Alma twice, then retires alone to the library.  She is smiling in scorn of herself.  Frank’s words echo in her head.  “I glory in her – I love you!”  The fire is still burning in the grate, and Isabel pulls up an easy chair, gazes into the fire, and confronts her fate.  She envisions herself walking hand in hand with Frank, only to see the adorable Alma lure him away.  She then sees a phantom procession of women trudge by.  They are crowned with laurels and singing bravely, but their heads are bowed and blood puddles in their footprints.  They are the gifted women of the world, and Isabel knows that she is summoned to join the parade.  The sharp aroma of the bay leaves nauseates her.  “She tramples on scentless flowers, grinds into dust tinsel garlands – votive offerings of the admiring herd, whose clamor deafens, maddens her.  And with a hand pressed tightly over her mangled heart – whose great droppings men treasure up as gems, or sport with as toys – she staggers forward.”

By the time the grey morning seeps through the shutters, the woman who rises from the cold hearthstone is calm.

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