I have been a volunteer warder in the Sir John Soane Museum for four months. Soane himself, of course, was the warder to end all warders, inviting his architecture students over to gawp every week or so, so that they might learn of a classical world which, thanks to Napoleon, they had no other access to. If it was raining, nobody was allowed in for fear of their muddy imprints. I am pleased at the thought; its nice to carry something on that was considered so very important by its initiator.
The weight of it is the thousands of fragments of plundered plaster and stone that line the walls as high as you can see, intersecting with light through cross-sections of yellowed glass in every enclave and gap. The breakfast room is bursting with mirrors. When I am sitting in the far left hand corner and you enter opposite, if I glance up to the small convex mirror above your head there are nine of you. As you move around, your twins multiply and subtract with a pleasing randomness until you pass through and leave it, again, empty.
When I am stationed in the crypt, I stand at the exact midpoint between the death mask of General Richard Parker and the life mask of Sarah Siddons, which are hung facing each other on opposite walls of the room. Sarah Siddons was an actress at the turn of the eighteenth century. Soane was probably at Sarah’s final performance of Macbeth in 1812, the performance at which the crowd refused to allow her to get past the sleepwalking scene, at which the curtain closed and reopened on Sarah as herself, in her own clothes, delivering a ten minute long farewell speech to her beloved fans. This is the ultimate retirement of an actor: to be on stage as herself, to admit that the artifice was all along reality and vice versa. It clearly had an effect on Soane.
General Parker was the son of a baker. He was posted to a ship called HMS Sandwich on the Nore in 1797. A horrible ship, full of rats and vice and squalor – a Kingsmill marmite sandwich, if you will. He did not really do much in the mutiny of the Nore, but because he was intelligent the sailors made him their leader. He told the navy that if they did not give in to the sailors’ demands, ‘such steps by the Fleet will be taken as will astonish their dear countrymen’. What a sweet and retiring threat.
An actress and a baker’s son might have seemed like a good couple, though. Two people who were a little rogueish, a little risqué, but highly inoffensive, two people of whom one could be rather fond, as one paced about one’s private personal crypt of a Sunday evening.
Where I am standing is always the point at which their genitals meet. What you don’t know is that their grotesquely distended bodies are actually locked in a carnal embrace. This explains several observable facts. The main one is that both of their expressions are orgasmic. More precisely, they are appropriate to the moment just after ecstasy, the exhalation of exhausted pleasure. It also explains the positioning of the masks, which to me is weirdly confrontational and prompts the question of what these two faces have to do with each other.
What is really there is just two faces oddly lined up amongst other fragments on opposite walls of the cavernous room. The room is vaulted and at the far right side, in an enclave of its own, is the great sarcophagus of King Seti I of Egypt (d. 1279 BC), discovered in the early 19th century by George Belzoni who was an off-duty clown. I am fond of standing in from of the fragment of a woman’s leg, raised and bent as if in childbirth, and looking at the man’s leg nearby, taught, muscular and running away. This makes me chuckle bitterly to myself (a good look for a warder). Behind it is the large Classical god’s head, which is either Pluto or Jupiter depending on what I can remember and what I think is correct. All the action of the scene comes from me. There are no extended limbs locked in sexual embrace, and I agree, it’s a weird sex position. They would both need to be on their backs, legs scissored across the room like two sycamore seed pods slotted one into the other.
The reason Sarah Siddons and General Parker are having sex is immensely complicated. We will return to it.
There is part of me that wants to give in to a sort of eighteenth-century soft porn now: ‘said the actress to the General’… The General is ushered into her dressing room at the end of Macbeth:
‘Miss Siddons, you were wonderful.’
‘Oh, I don’t know about that, General. I am terribly sorry about the wardrobe mishap. Bess won’t be hearing the last of it for a while, neither will I.’
‘I must confess…ahem… I was not sorry.’
But it’s not like that at all. They never met, Sarah and Richard, they did not hang around in the same circles. But, now I’ll let you in to the greatest twist of all. Soane was mistaken about the identity of his death mask. Hilariously mistaken, given the circumstances. The Soane Museum’s brochure tells us that what we are looking at ‘is in fact that of Oliver Cromwell’. So, Oliver Cromwell, the one who seized and whipped actors who dared to tread the boards, is the one to be caught in flagrante in the crypt of Sir John Soane’s museum clenched between the outstretched legs of Miss Sarah Siddons, who trod the boards to death. Remember General Parker’s benign threat to ‘astonish’ the navy? Now forget it. We are dealing with a very different manner of address: ‘Ye sordid prostitutes have you not defiled this sacred place, and turned the Lord’s temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices?’ Soane was actually in possession of the death mask of one of the most excoriating and vicious figures in English history.
Cromwell, I think, did not like dying. He was probably the sort of man for whom that messy and human process would have been a dreadful trial. His final words were apparently, ‘my desire is to make what haste I can to be gone’. This is a face that died in haste – that got it over with (god forbid that he should give in to the theatricality of death!). I am thinking now of that famous Tosca who cried her, ‘O Scarpia, devanti a Dio‘, and leapt off the parapet only to come bouncing back up again and again, her net replaced for a trampoline by devious stage-hands. That’s a theatrical death.
Sarah Siddons, though, was a great tragedian. The mask was not, for her, ‘warts and all’, and all death. For her it was as much a part of life as crouching in the corner of her dressing room, pissing in her chamber pot one minute before she is Lady Macbeth marching out in sleep to scrabble at her damned spot. Sarah once famously fainted at the sight of the Elgin marbles. All those naked bodies in stone, the writhing, enslaved, agony of the bodies were nothing stone to her. There is no simple boundary in Sarah between life and statue: her life mask proclaims it. Funny that Oliver’s mask looks so similar to hers then, given that he was dead and she was alive when they were respectively made. This is something Oliver cannot control, just as he cannot control the look of luxurious bliss that settled on his features after death. Captured forever, oh the humiliation, in beige plaster.
It seems appropriate that at the moment of sexual climax, Oliver Cromwell is dead and Sarah Siddons is alive. It poses no problem to the whole set up. Oliver – a man – cannot be out of control. It is too undignified. His life juices are to be channeled into what’s important: faith, justice, leadership, the nation’s honour, and his own. It would have been the same with General Parker. His ejaculations were heavy with shame and the consciousness of wasted vitality. He needed that for battle, for mutiny. Both men surrender themselves to a deathlike state in sex, a state that carries with it the knowledge of impending judgement, purgatory and gloom. They have headed into the underworld of their carnal desires and mingled juices with the Cerberus of a woman’s sexual appetite. It is hardly their fault, but it is nothing to be proud of — ‘my desire is to make what haste I can and be gone’.
It was Sarah’s gift, on the contrary, to bring life to the lifeless. Thomas Campbell wrote in his adoring Life of Sarah Siddons, ‘with the sorriest text to justify the outpouring of her own radiant and fervid spirit, she turned into a glowing picture what she had found but a comparative blank’. Nothing could be more necessary for the situation she finds herself in now. This is not about Oliver. This is her moment of ecstasy and she is making do with what there is. Sarah Siddons is a ‘splendid fiend’. Her Lady Macbeth, as she describes her in Memoranda, is not a written character. She is a wonderful creature with a living body, a character that re-lights the fires of wet men. As she hatches her plans: ‘now vaulting ambition and intrepid daring rekindle in a moment all the splendours of her dark blue eyes’. Her husband Macbeth is ‘yet amiable, conscientious, nay pious; and yet of a temper so irresolute and fluctuating, as to require all the efforts, all the excitement, which her uncontrollable spirit, and her unbounded influence over him, can perform’. Quite so. When the curtain drew back on Sarah, not Lady Macbeth, standing on stage at the Covent Garden theatre that final night in 1812, wasn’t she just Lady Macbeth as Sarah Siddons?
So here I am standing, absolutely still on one leg, because somebody told me it is good for me, my head is squeezed somewhere in the sticky embrace of Oliver and Sarah, entangled in their groins. A boy on a school trip leaps away from me in terror as he notices my pen moving across my notebook. ‘I thought it was a statue, but then it was writing!’ It – there is a thingness to me too, here. Wherever I move about the room their bodies twist and extend to allow the continuation of the coupling around the nexus of my skull. The embrace exists in my head. I am genderless, I am stone, I am simply the vessel of something very sexy and illicit happening right there in front of you all, and none of you know about it.
Plaster casts of human faces may be the most inanimate possible objects. Like plastic fruit which are the less fruit for resembling it so closely, plaster faces announce their lifelessness incontrovertibly against the backdrop of what life-full face is really like. So what I’ve done, in the Soane Museum – what I think a lot of people do – is a real feat of animation.
I stand among objects and find myself arranging the unfixed points of a narrative.
The parts exist and the stories behind them exist, but the connections between them are not yet created. I am not more powerful than the parts (the objects) because we exert equal control over the governance of the narrative. They can change it just as easily as I can. For example, when General Parker turned out to be Oliver Cromwell, what power did I have then? A property of the object changed the story for me, and though the change could not have happened without me, it could not have happened without the object either. The objects are writing and reading me, they are reading my opinions on sexuality, on history, and whilst I am reading them, I am writing them, too.
Here I am – here ‘it’ is – deliriously both author and authored. But though I have been mistaken for a statue too, a lifeless thing, and though, in a way, I am as much object as Sarah or Oliver, I am still a woman. The story I have told has been a way for me to explore female sexuality, and what I think about male sexuality. What I wish I could change.
It is clear that I must think only women are coached to find fulfillment in the sexual act – to live through and throughout it. That is because they are coached to exist for and among other people, to make allowances, to accept, to enable. Have you ever heard a forward-thinking employer extol the virtues of female employees? ‘They’re such good negotiators, so much more empathetic, real team players.’ No doubt. In some ways no act could affirm this more powerfully than the receipt of man’s sperm, or his deepest secret. I am going to quote Lady Ottoline Morrel at you to bolster this point. She lived long enough ago (early 20th century) to have had her memoirs published, but not so long, I think, that her position in life can be written off as out of date.
Carlyle’s letters to his wife are good. Never was he serene. He was forever groaning and travailing in pain, and her self-centred nervous temperament could not stand the strain. He needed a big, great-hearted, understanding woman.
I do not find myself surprised, given that Ottoline herself was an extremely powerful individual and self-centred (not at all necessarily in the negative sense), that she later says this:
Why, oh why, does the question always and forever haunt me like a menace of the utter uselessness of my life? Why don’t I feel that Philip and Julian [husband and child] are enough raison d’être – a tie to earth?
A woman who believes she must be oriented entirely around others, but isn’t, is sure to feel that way.
Having said all this, it is also clear that I love to think women are more capable of ecstasy and more powerful in their pleasure than men. That they rejoice in the sexual act and that there is a power in that. This puts me in tension with my own first point. Doesn’t it then mean that I too see women as exciting and dangerous precisely in their capacity to relate, to receive and give, to exist with and for others, and not as free-standing individuals? If a man is a bust or a David, is a woman, then, some sort of frieze?
Motherhood cannot stay out of this any longer. This precise viewpoint – the woman as frieze – is determined in part by her creation of other bodies, bodies which are both her and are not her. I am parroting Adrienne Rich because the sentence is permanently lodged in my head, ‘the child that I carry for nine months can be defined neither as me nor as not me’. Is that to do with the questionable status of the unborn child as object or as a person? When it is an object, is it part of its mother? When it is a person, does it belong to itself? If the child inside the mother is a person, doesn’t the mother then become an object herself – a vessel? Or is it possible for them both to be people? We would hope so. The question is both unanswerable and absolutely central to a woman’s experience of her own motherhood or the termination of it. Rather than answering it, which would be brash of me given that I am not a mother, I want to extract something useful from the confusion: when we exist in participation with objects, both governing and governed by them, we become nebulous ourselves in a way that is profoundly important and liberating.
A person’s authorial and readerly participation in creating a narrative among objects will always be more or less self-consciously gendered. The same goes for their participation in any act whatsoever, even if the act is to cast off any gender (oh the endless loop – can we ever deny something without affirming it?). But it will be a freer mode of expression, and a freer exploration of gender, if they want, than they can have in writing or reading. This is because they are not using someone else’s tools, they are using someone else’s parts. What did Audre Lorde say? ‘For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’.
I am an ‘it’ amongst objects. I am neither writer nor reader. The story is built in and around me. The tools I use are my own; they are my thoughts, but the parts with which I am building are supplied to me with all their baggage just as they appear on the walls of Soane’s house. Before the narrative takes written form it is precisely, and in this case quite literally, the servant’s tools dismantling the master’s house. Smashed between groins. A good negotiator, I guess.