A Portrait of a Study
October 11, 2012
The room is remarkably bare now and bears little resemblance to what it once was. An armchair upholstered in a nondescript faded yellow pattern sits in the far corner near a small table holding a coral lamp from the 1950s. A wooden table with thin legs and missing drawers, paired with a rickety, thatched-bottom chair, rests beneath the room’s lone window. There are no curtains. Hanging on the wall opposite the window is a white banner, describing the room’s history and giving an account of its original furnishings. A table whose hollowed center is covered with glass stands in the middle of the room, creating a distinct path in and out of the space for visitors to follow while displaying a few manuscripts, books, and knick-knacks. The rest – the shelves, the carpet, the books, the pens, the violin, the grand oak desk – have been taken away and removed to a museum a few miles from the house. By wishes of the author, the furnishings were sent to be displayed in a permanent exhibit and his study reconstructed there, away from his home. Its insides torn out, the study itself sits gravely empty in the upstairs corner of the quiet house.
Yet somehow, this skeleton of a room still has a soul in it. The walls, though barren of the bookcases and pictures they once held, still whisper of the tales that have been imagined there. It is as if they soaked in the words the writer composed within their frame: they are, indeed, the only witnesses to his mutterings and exclamations. They stood silently by as his pen scratched over the surface of his papers and journals, watching the lines of ink become letters, the letters become words, the words become sentences, and the sentences become stories. Perhaps they could testify to seeing the author shed a tear as he wrote Tess’s farewell to Angel or to observing a curious cringe on his face as the first chapter of Henchard’s tale crossed his mind. Maybe the storm that battered these walls on their exterior inspired the supernatural torrent and flood that claimed the lives of Eustacia and Damon. As wind and rain shook the window in its frame, perhaps the man inside experienced the storm, in his mind, out on the heath through the eyes of his creations. The walls may have also heard the tales that were never told – the ones started but never finished, the sketches set down on scraps of paper but never flushed out. If one sits down in that faded yellow chair, will they share some secrets? Will these walls bear witness to the tales created within them?
The room’s hardwood floor, though it has had some of its boards replaced and its panels polished, still creaks along the space behind where the great desk once rested before the window. Its symphony survives from all those years ago when the writer trod an anxious path across his workshop. As he paced – plotting his narratives, visualizing his characters, recalling details of a landscape recently explored, or sorting his poetic emotions – the floorboards took notice and bear the scars of his shifting weight. Their audible ache, a result of the steady pounding they received under his feet, adds sound to where there is silence; adds life to the soul that resides in that lonely space. If one walks long enough across these timbers, will the writer’s thoughts seep back up through the boards he so often ground them down on?
One feature of the study as it was remains, yet even its facade is a reproduction (a form of emptiness despite its substance). The fireplace, quite small in size for even the south of England, emerges from the far wall; its ceramic front with replica tiles is the only decoration in the room. Behind this fireplace and mantle, however, hides the chimney. It was through this dark passage that the smoke from the writer’s little fire escaped, bearing with it his daily cares as his mind settled into circumstances of his own invention instead of the reality of his life. Perhaps, on occasion, the joyful or sorrowful notes of his violin would float upwards through the flue, sending music into the trees and onwards into the stars. Did the night air enjoy his music? Does that black metal chimney still resonate with the sounds of his last serenade?
The yellow armchair is uncomfortable and as they no longer light the fire, the room is quite cold. A cup of coffee was my source of warmth as I sat there that afternoon, reading and dreaming. Can a study – an empty study in a nearly-empty house at that – really speak to me, a young writer anxious to share stories of her own? I listened; listened for the writer’s voice, for the shuffle of pages, for the strings of his violin. I waited for his wisdom, his inspiration, anything. I turned my eyes back to the pages of the novel before me and took in the words that the author had penned here, in this space. After I finished A Pair of Blue Eyes, I sat a moment longer in the chair, my feet tucked under me to fight against the coldness that was starting to numb them, and pictured him sitting at a desk (his desk, not the sorry one that now stands in its place). I saw him writing, sealing the fates of his characters – fates that I was just enlightened to over a century later. Did he feel what I feel now: that overwhelming sense that we cannot escape our destinies? When he wrote the ending, here in this room, did he share in the thoughts floating through my mind? It was then that I understood. He wrote this story, this tale of love and chance and fate, so that someone would feel exactly what he felt as he first imagined the tale in his mind. Here, a hundred years later, a kindred spirit sits near where his chair used to rest and experiences complete sympathy, complete understanding. We, me and the soul of his study, breathe together at the end of our journey through his creation.
As I walk back down the stairs at Max Gate with my empty cup, I only then realize that the novel I had just finished was written by Thomas Hardy before he lived in this house – before his study, now stripped to its bare frame, was even built. I find that I do not really care: nothing has changed. The same man, the same mind that imagined the story had inhabited these rooms, though perhaps some years after the words had been penned. While sitting in his vacant study, I had put myself in his presence in the only way I knew how and we had understood each other for a moment. That was enough.
Lindsey Grudnicki is a junior from Westland, Michigan, majoring in History and English.