Florence and I are packing her bags when my father calls. Mum has collapsed and been admitted to the hospital. It’s a diversion I haven’t anticipated although I’ve been looking for a diversion. Trying to stall the moment when Florrie leaves. She is going to Paris for a year, sloughing off school-shoes and uniform and running for her life out into the dizzying world. Freedom. I can see her scenting it on the breeze and it doesn’t smell of mother, of nights chatting by the fire, of home cooking. But the packing stalls and instead, we fly together to Sydney and drive up the Pacific Highway getting to the hospital just before closing time. Mum has been ill for months from an infection caught looking after dad when he was in the hospital recovering from heart surgery. Nothing seems to stop him, not even a heart attack. Before long he was tapping out tunes with his stick as he walked the streets, cap perched jauntily, whistling Ode to Joy as jubilantly as he had all through my childhood. But the staphylococcus hooked mum. It was drawing her in — hook, line and sinker. No matter how she squirmed and twisted it cut a channel through the soft folds of her flesh. My bottom is weeping, she says on the phone, but I don’t want to hear. Dad has always been bigger than life but these days he says life is an ever-increasing diminishment and sure enough, we find mum diminished.
Hearing is easier than seeing, I think when I see her.
The hospital room is loud with flowers; roses, tulips, tiger lilies, sunflowers and my mum — a solitary storm-drenched snowdrop barely able to lift her head from the pillow. They have injected her with so much cortisone that even the shower has tracked its path on her like rain falling on glass.
The next day Florrie and I are sitting in my brother’s garden, sipping tea — attempting to comfort each with small pats — when Mr C. phones to say that the chooks have been killed in the night.
He has found them strewn across the garden.
Floraville lying in the doorway of the hen house has her head bitten off and her red-petalled crown is lying on its own some way from what is left of her. Henrietta is not far off, her guts spewing out of her stomach. Lucy’s feathers fill the hen-house where she has been cornered. Millie’s feathers stretch in a trail across the garden under the fence and into the neighbour’s meadow. The fox has stopped several times to pluck out snatches of feathers and whole clumps of them are drifting across the grass. This is what Mr C. says, on the phone, as Florrie pats me, and we sip tea, trying not to think of mum lying in that bleak room overrun with flowers.
‘Devastated’ is a word mum overuses. There are many things in her life that are ‘devastating’ — hard days, heat waves, minor injuries — but as I drive Florrie home from the airport, I think the word has found its proper place.
We called them Lucy, Mildred, Henrietta Pennyworth and Floraville, each of us naming and claiming one of them as our own. I can see now that from the beginning, I was making Floraville something beyond herself, something that belonged more to me than to her. Call it foolish anthropomorphism, call it what you will, but from the beginning, Floraville was a chook in a floral dress bound for misadventure.
Long ago I had named a doll Floraville. Although back then we named her in the language of her native tongue, Fleurville, the slight purr on the r, the pause between syllables — so much more evocative than the harsh conjunctive ‘a’. It was when my husband and I were living in Paris before Florrie was born. When we hadn’t yet arrived at any of the events that would tear us apart. Before the death of his parents and before I was found guilty of a crime I have never quite been able to put my finger on. Before she died his mother charged me with them all. I was the wrong age, the wrong nation, the wrong religion, and, intractably — wrongly mannered. But my crime was all of these and something more. Some blemish of joy rusting out the iron in him — in them. Something that got in, as he said when he left. But long before all this, there had been Fleurville. I found her in pieces in a shoebox at the puce. Even disassembled, horsehair spilling from the tears in her cloth-body, her face mired in a century’s grime — I knew her as mine.
How strange to think that in those days, mad rushes of love for a doll in pieces in a box was not unacceptable. Books were sold, the week’s food money whittled away. Even broken, she was too dear for us. I wonder if I hadn’t been so impetuous, so taken up with passing fancies, he might not have left, but who would that girl have been? Not me. Some other more habitable person. Maybe the word I’m looking for is decorous, maybe I would have been more decorous.
Warm water and soap, a needle and thread were all it took to stitch her back into life. There were small holes in her legs and arms so that her body could be stuffed into porcelain limbs and stitched back into place. I patched. I stitched. I washed. I knew she would be finely boned and beautiful but the quizzical expression that came up out of the muddy water — a look of such perplexed intelligence — made the thrift she cost us small penance for the joy of her sitting on the mantelpiece and part of our lives. She was waiting there when I bought Florence home from the hospital, Fleurville, our Sadean heroine, ravaged by misadventure, but still bearing up. But then we lost her. She disappeared along with all our possessions when the shipping company we’d entrusted them with went bust. Perhaps she was sold off in a job lot along with our books and china but I prefer to think of her still in the trunk where I carefully packed her, floating down into the bottomless ocean depths, lost at sea. I often imagine her there. I can see her bobbing amongst the dishes, still puzzled, still gently questioning this new twist of fate.
Floraville the Australorpe, was quizzical and curious too, but far more robust in the way she leaned into life. She came into our life loudly. Chattering, vociferous, bossy, and relentlessly curious about everything human.
People who know nothing about chooks imagine that there is some rightness in the fate allotted to them. Chooks stuff cushions, lay eggs, eat food scraps, reconstitute garden soil, fuel fast-food industries, grace tables with soups, salads, pies, dumplings and ultimately, are fully realized stuffed with lemon and thyme, wings upturned for the roast. Clever chooks. Constantly in service at table while syllabising away at us from the sidelines. Stop. Go Back. Wrong way. One is never far from a chook running amok without its head. A dumb chook … an old chook … they are the negative form of us. I can’t imagine a woman buoyed up by the thought of becoming chook. Compliments never come in the form of a chook (chickens, yes, chooks, no) but despite all the warnings chooks give us of how not to be, most of us slowly, inevitably become chook — ending lives of service as plucked, silenced and trussed as a chook en route to the oven.
Cheer up, I tell myself; you are not the good woman, the little red hen, doing the doing — all the way to the pot. Nor was Floraville. My red-crowned girl was never going to be anyone’s dinner. But Floraville has lost her head and I am the one who opened the door.
Within days of Floraville’s arrival in the garden, she had left the caged bird behind and was running with her sisters through the dark tunnels of the garden, romancing the day with secret egg-hordes and mysteries we could only guess at it. Roaming with her sisters further and further afield she crossed the creek-bed and entered the thickets of briar along the fence-line and there, on the far side of a hen allowed her freedom — we caught glimpses of her becoming chook. Unleashed from duty, amok with desire, perfumed with dust, she gambolled, played, discoursed and discovered herself; a chook acquiring the lost art of becoming.
Chookness belongs to the undergrowth. It takes long grass; hawks overhead, the neighbouring cat; rivalry, hierarchy — and the passing of seasons. There are vocabularies to learn, grammars to accomplish. These chatterers of the under-garden arrive at rhetoricity like we do, babbling first, then endlessly repeating plosives until finally, they arrive at chook song, a carolling to and fro — announcing bounty, the coo-ings of guarded moments, the rhythmic silences, the triumphant cry of a new egg seizing the day.
Strangely, her becoming didn’t preclude us. Lining up at the front door every morning, she and her sisters stood in a row peering into the kitchen, waiting for Mr C. and me to make our first appearance. Head down, tail up, eyes pinned for a sign of movement and then, the announcement: humans afoot. Floraville ran a commentary on all the goings-on of the garden, announcing everything we did to her sisters, and then running tales to us. Bossing us along until we’d come and see, an egg dropped, food scattered.
Floraville, I tell myself quietly so nobody can hear — choreographed the day. I would have liked to choreograph dances but my feet got in the way. I have a slight lameness that trips me up when I walk and sends me flying when I dance. It’s an awkwardness that Mr C. is rather fond of but I guess it gets in the way of other forms of imagining. Floraville didn’t have this problem. She had long elegant yellow toes and always landed on her feet. She and her sisters performed the prettiest ballet when the pot of white begonias standing at the kitchen door came into flower. They could hear music, I’m sure, as they rhythmically rose and fell as one by one each chook lifted her bottom from the ground, feet falling away below her as she plucked a single flower from the stem and then, the elegance of that feathery plummet, a single white begonia in the beak, always in turn, always in time, until the plant had lost all its flowers, and the dance was done.
I could tell so many stories about Floraville but I doubt the world has heart enough to allow a chook much narrativisation unless of course, it is a chook in a children’s story, then it is allowed a certain goosiness. Goosey, I think, is the right word. Even now as I march towards 60 I still have that same goosey look, that same goosey walk, calling out for a fox to sniff me out.
Florrie has had enough of the melodrama of the dead chooks and wants to get back to packing. I have to be in the airport in three hours, she says, as I fuss over what to do with the feathers. There are so many of them milling around the garden and the neighbour’s dog is sniffing out bits that Mr C. has missed.
There was nothing goosey about Fleurville. Finely coiffed, her floral dress trimmed with a fine lace petticoat, she was as elegant as the red and gold books that gave her, her name. Hachette’s La Bibliothèque rose illustrée with their red covers and gold lettering — how children must have loved to line them up on the mantelpiece. Fleurville always belonged in a story, belongs to story for hundreds of pages have been written on the world of Fleurville and the unnamed doll that begins the Fleurville trilogy in the Comtesse de Ségur’s (1799-1874) famous and much-loved French children’s stories.
Book One of La Trilogie de Fleurville, Les Malheurs de Sophie, begins with the doll’s arrival, a gift to Sophie from her father. The doll is beautiful — la plus jolie poupée qu’elle eût jamais vue. And, as one might expect of a doll whose beauty cries out for a smacking, she ends up in pieces in a box. Perhaps if I had given more thought to the fate of dolls in The Fleurville Trilogy I might have named my Fleurville differently, or even left her in peace in pieces in her box. But I’m forgetting how it was back then, my belly blossoming with Florrie and salvation in reach, something I could arrive at if only I stared down the nursery-world and its demons.
The doll starts to decompose from the moment she falls into Sophie’s clutches. On the first day of her new life in the world of Fleurville, Sophie leaves the wax doll in the sun and her sparkling blue eyes are lost inside her head. Putting things to rights, Sophie’s mother decapitates the doll, plucks out the missing eyes with a long pair of tweezers, and then glues them back into the doll’s head with molten wax. Then Sophie gives her a bath, scouring her so furiously that she scrubs off her face. The doll’s hair is lost to a hot iron and curling wraps. Hung from a tree, her arms become disjointed and deformed, one permanently shorter than the other. Next, in yet more maternal solicitude, Sophie boils her feet off, until beauty disarmed, the doll becomes simply ridiculous. Only death can release her from further humiliation and this arrives blessedly in a coup-de-grâce that leaves her shattered in pieces at the foot of a tree. But it’s not over. Interred in a pink-ribboned box, the doll is buried at the bottom of the garden. Sophie and her friends water in the two lilacs they have planted at the graveside. Down in the dark soil, the broken doll in the pretty sateen box is becoming mud. If only they had another doll to break, the children lament, then they could have another funeral.
Sophie and her doll. One can’t imagine when you read those first pages of The Fleurville Trilogy that Sophie the doll-killer will end up sharing the doll’s fate. She slices up goldfish, feeds her pet-chicken to a vulture, drowns a turtle, decapitates bees, bludgeons a squirrel to death, spikes a pin through a donkey’s hoof and then beats it with a holly branch. Readers — they number in their millions — have adored these antics for generations.
First Sophie tortures the doll, then the stepmother tortures Sophie. First Sophie decapitates, bludgeons and perforates small animals, then she is starved, stripped, striped and humiliated by her step-mother. Ségur slips it in so you barely notice. One minute the Fleurville girls are trying to rescue a family of hedgehogs from a game-keeper who has shot the mother and thrown the babies into a pond and the next minute Sophie is whacking one of the hedgehogs on its head to help it die faster only to tumble into the pond herself, and then its her stepmother doing the whacking. Amidst remonstrations from the good Madame de Fleurville, Sophie is beaten so furiously that the switch finally breaks and then, with more remonstrations from Madame de Fleurville, she is smacked out the door. These alternations and altercations of kindness and cruelty occur with such rapidity that the reader becomes quite benumbed to cruelty. What is at first astonishing — the slicing up of goldfish by a little girl — becomes the normalcy of the same girl being whipped till she bleeds.
People imagine whipping as something significant, something of such moment that it must cause at least a pause, after the act; but isn’t it ever thus. Families accommodate whipping just as they do an awkward family member. Events flow. A child is opening a present. A shoe flies through the air and sends the child flying. The child picks herself up and the party goes on.
Ségur’s noir nursery world earnt her the title of ‘Sade en Jupes’ but critics leapt to her defence. Some say that first the Comtesse de Ségur’s mother tortured her daughter and then her daughter created The Fleurville Trilogy as a form of witness to the brutality of her own childhood. Others counter that Ségur’s fascination with the spectacle of children being smacked is repeated with such excess that Ségur is clearly enthralled by the spectacle of her own childhood beatings. The bared bottom, the raised switch, the loving hand that strikes and stripes had become a fantasy she couldn’t help repeating. In one of her tales, Jacques Laurent counts nineteen cases of beating and whipping in thirty pages chosen at random. Ségur never spoke of what her mother had done to her but she recreated the humiliation, again and again, casting herself in the role of the one who remonstrates while another child is being beaten. Throughout the trilogy, the good Madame de Fleurville remonstrates against the rod as she ushers Sophie and all the Fleurville girls along the path of goodness. Sade would have loved this oscillation between sermonising and smacking. By the end of the trilogy, Sophie is truly chastened. She’s left the wild girl behind and become — as all good girls must — sized down for matrimony and maternity. But she’s also left all her millions of readers with the lingering memory, as Freud wrote, of a child being beaten. Amongst his patients, it was almost always the same books ‘whose contents gave a new stimulus to beating fantasies: those accessible to young people such as what was known as the ‘Bibliothèque Rose …’1
That old fox Sade would have known exactly what was afoot in the Chateau de Fleurville. Every little detail would have made him smirk especially the poked out doll’s eyes that are soldered back into place with melted wax. After he’d cut up the beggar-woman Rose Keller, he filled the incisions he’d made in her body with Spanish wax and then claimed in court it was just a balm to help her heal. Sade knew how to dress up dirty acts but he let slip his outrage that a court would pay such heed ‘to a swished tart’s backside’.2 Sade created his own Florville, a girl of uncommon beauty who never gets swished but is torn up just the same. He compares her skin to a lily, her mouth to a springtime rose; a sweetness of beauty and temperament that makes her ruin all the more delectable. She’s a good girl too, in every way, and her goodness leads her step by step into monstrosity. By the end of this tale she has stabbed her child, slept with her brother, married her father, instigated her mother’s death and then, on learning of her crimes shot herself in the head without, as Sade writes, saying another word.
Flesh was the old fox’s passion and all the things he could do to it if hatred was unhooked, but he subdued his more malevolent obsessions in Florville et Courval in the hope of staying out of prison. Perhaps that is why Florville et Courval is more a Sadean nursery-tale than a fully-fledged Sadean bacchanal. Unlike poor Justine in Les Malheurs de la Virtu, Florville is not cut up and she keeps her identity intact until the very end of the tale when she is shattered by the revelation that every step she has taken on the path of goodness has led her deeper into the mire. In Sade’s moral universe, to be small, innocent, pretty or good is to give yourself to the strong. As Angela Carter writes of Justine, ‘when she offers her innocence to others as shyly as if she were offering a bunch of flowers, it is tramped in the mud’.3 Sade likes to play with flowers awarding garlands to the vicious as he crushes the petals of gentle things. Madame de Verquin, the woman whose great joy is to lead Florville into catastrophe, goes to her grave happily knowing that she will be buried in a grove of jasmine and her disintegrating body will nourish the flowers she has loved. Florville dies in the throes of despair, her body contorting in a pool of her own blood.
Floraville. Fleurville. Florville. That is what I’m thinking of as I stare into the devastation of my mother’s skin blossoming crimson as she lies in a room overflowing with flowers. Mum was born into a house of flowers. They were her father’s gift to her. He was a florist and as a young girl she would accompany him to the markets to buy flowers for the shop, or work with him in the back garden tending the flowers for his shop. In the depression, she walked the streets selling posies of violets to anyone with a penny to spare. She never had many stories to tell. Story belonged to my father who filled the house with grand tales of the pitched battles of our people and their heroic stand for labour. Enthralled by a story of struggle that found its verity in the daily news I barely noticed mum’s stories unfolding in the garden beds that ringed the house, in the earth she turned from clay to soil, in the azaleas and camellias that flowered under the window sill, in the wisteria that crept over the front doorway. When she came to visit me in France she collected the gardens of Europe. France was a photo of geraniums spilling over black wrought iron. Amsterdam, a doorstep of purple roses in a green pot. By then, my childhood garden had been replaced by a succession of gardens, each smaller than the one before, until finally there was just a balcony of a small apartment. This, too, she transformed into a rosary that would have honoured Flora. When I visited her, always after a long absence, she would bring me first to see the large vases standing in the hallway, and then the small pots on the balcony, and finally the posies my father gave her clustered on the dressers that filled the apartment. Her news was the bouquets she had placed in the churchyard to commemorate friends passing, or the flowers she had arranged for the Sunday church service. But … I am telling a story. My mother raised five children, taught generation after generation of children to read, sewed for the poor, read for the blind. In every way, she was a good woman. But still, the fox got in.
Mr C. is disheartened by the task of picking up the dismembered remnants of chook and he gives up on digging a grave in the hard January ground. He puts Floraville and her sisters in a plastic bag in the bin where they rest alongside the carcass of a chicken we’d eaten the night before. I fear we are all foxes, carnivores, cutting up and devouring the bodies of chooks that are kept for our pleasure, from their pleasure. But sometimes no matter how you circle an idea you can’t seize it — not properly. And so I collect Floraville’s feathers and stand them up along the fence posts and leave the last of the eggs in the garden, commemorating her secret places. They won’t last long. Foxes like eggs and sniff them out. In time I will find traces of her, turn up a scurf of feathers and remember our Sadean heroine who became. I hope she stood her ground when the fox came for her, although headless, there was not much she could do as the fox rounded on her sisters. Maybe she ran around for a while as headless chooks do, but I hope not. I hope that as her life leaked out of her in the dirt of the chook-yard she saw the fox dispatch her undefended sisters and knew him for what he was. A fox and a foe. But I digress.
It’s time to go to the airport. Florrie and I drive down the hill and wend our way through the city. I try not to let her see my devastation but I keep running out of air, my words faltering before they reach her. I don’t know how I could have imagined that Flores could be allowed her freedom. But now I have to leave it to Florrie to keep us on track. Turn right she says. That’s the road. No — that way. I do what I’m told. At the departure gate, she turns to me and says: it’s as if you think the worst thing that’s happened is the death of the chooks. And then she leaves me — once again in the daisy chain of mothers and daughters.
Jennifer Rutherford’s ‘House of Flowers’ was first published in Best Australian Essays 2017, Carlton: Schwartz Publishing.
1. Sigmund Freud (1955) . ‘A Child is Being Beaten’ A Contribution to the Study of Sexual Perversions’ in An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works (1917 – 1919) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 17, trans. James Strachey with Anna Freud, (London: The Hogarth Press).
2. David Coward (2005). ‘Introduction’ in The Marquis de Sade, The Crimes of Love; Heroic and Tragic Tales Preceded by an Essay on Novels, (New York: Oxford University Press), pp, vii-xxxii, p vii
3. Angela Carter (1979). The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (New York: Pantheon), p 47