Monday, 28 November 2016

HELENA AND ELIZABETH The Diary of "Helena Morley", translated from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Bishop

The Church of the Rosary in Diamantina, Minas Gerais, Brazil
Re-reading Helena Morley thirty years later, the stories grow in beauty and truth. The Brazilian mining town of Diamantina, obscure and remote in itself, returns to rich social life, just as Candleford and Lark Rise do in Flora Thompson's books. There is even an element of Daisy Ashford about Helena, though Helena's spelling is better than Daisy's and she has no interest in fictionalising her own people.

Adolescent perception of adults in their adult world is determined by the necessities of dependence and self-learning. The twelve-year-old who opens her Diary for the year 1893 is secure and free, free enough to say almost anything within the limits of her experience, secure enough to speak of her microcosmic world in knowing terms.

Helena was fortunate in her English translator. Elizabeth Bishop, as her poetry shows over again, relishes the colour and detail of the physical world. This is enabled further by reference to the tropical mountain scenery, replete with strange anthills and contiguous waterfalls, steep cobble streets and copious diamond mines that she shares along the way, though Helena’s attention is first and last, people with their hopes, mishaps, and fallibilities. Elizabeth's poetry tends towards conclusions she is tentative to make conclusive. This stands in contrast to Helena's firm opinions and startlingly percipient summaries of situations.

Elizabeth herself was famously shy, her childhood (to believe the poetry) one long process of observation and withdrawal, longing and introspection. I cannot help reading the Diary now as the admiring interpretation of an uninhibited extrovert by a born introvert. Elizabeth once wrote to her friend the poet Robert Lowell that "When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived." Which is scarcely one of the funniest lines in world literature, unlike many of the lines in Helena's Diary. I'm not going to quote any here, because this is an invitation to go meet Helena Morley for yourself.

It has never been explained, that I can see anyway, why the pseudonym Helena Morley stays put on the title page, when we know her real name was Alice Dayrell Caldeira Brant. Elizabeth respectfully calls her Dona Alice in her Introduction to the book and one can only assume that it may have been Dona Alice's wish to keep her pseudonym for posterity. The resulting sense of an author removed both in time and age enhances the Diary's unique provenance.

Her real name epitomises the meeting of English and Portuguese culture in late Victorian Brazil. Someone online has called her the Jane Austen of Brazil, which is fine insofar as Helena in a few words or a quote delivers telling implications about people’s feelings, interests, and status. However, to confer such honour on a twelve-year-old girl is to overlook the sheer thrill of reporting, by candlelight, on the day’s events, with little more purpose than to get the story right. Her neighbours laugh at her just as she laughs at them, and life goes on.

This, in turn, raises the question, who is she writing to? Who is it she wishes to entertain and inform? The most probable inspiration is Helena’s grandmother, Dona Teodora, at whose place we find her more often than even her own home. Or so it seems. The Diary could only have been written in a highly conversational milieu, in which anything is source for a story, and everyone knows everyone else’s business, to the point of a fine art. This mixture of simplicity and sophistication, ordinariness and wit, appears to be a characteristic of Diamantina generally, though having Helena to write it all down is a blessing.

In the recent film ‘Brooklyn’, the housekeeper who cares for the emigrant colleens adds an Eighth Deadly Sin which she defines as “Giggling Girls”, and indubitably fits of uncontrollable laughter are the test for a lot of what is going on here. Helena, her sister and close friends, are prone to find most things irresistibly funny and this inspires her repeatedly when pen goes to paper. 

Helena is encouraged to write every day by those close to her. We know this because she tells us. She is very good at speaking her mind, which gets her into trouble sometimes. At the same time, a more arresting ability I noticed this time around is how Helena can recognise the changes in her own feelings. She is remarkable for her age in knowing her emotions, reading what they mean in the circumstances, and how they are related to one another. As a result, her understanding of what others may be going through grows empathetically, as the Diary proceeds over its three years (1893-1895).

Elizabeth, with her close attention to the subtleties of time and place, teaches us new lessons about her adopted country. She remains on or just below the surface of so much going on here, conscious of how her own adult choice brought her to Brazil, that energetic contrast to the cold northern lands of her childhood. We share her delight in discovering a life so very different from her own upbringing, Helena’s life, bursting with humorous talk, taking pleasure equally in dances and meals, church-going and carnivals. Though, like all girls her age, having to get good marks at school can be a bit of a pain.


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