Part One, Chapter 27
The notes of Ada’s sexual susceptibility and Van’s jealousy sound suddenly at Van’s last parting from Ada at Forest Fork, at the end of I.25: “ ‘But, my love, my Van, I’m physical, horribly physical, I don’t know, I’m frank, qu’y puis-je? Oh dear, don’t ask me, there’s a girl in my school who is in love with me, I don’t know what I’m saying—’ ‘The girls don’t matter,’ said Van, ‘it’s the fellows I’ll kill if they come near you’ ” (158-59). The same notes sound more mutedly and implicitly through the frustrations and pointed dwindling of the coded correspondence in I.26. Now, they sound loudly and sustainedly through the whole of I.27, and in more elaborate chords.
Apparently on the very day of Van’s parting from Ada at Forest Fork, Demon takes him to a party to meet Cordula de Prey. Immediately I.27 introduces a number of themes complexly connected for Van with his anxieties about parting from Ada: the Other Women theme, the jealousy theme, the duel theme, the sexual hypocrisy theme, the lesbian theme.
There will be many other women in Van’s life, including hundreds of prostitutes, in counterpoint to his intense life-long love for Ada. But we hear of only one in recurrent detail, Cordula de Prey, apparently the sole woman other than Ada that he lives with as a lover.
It is no accident that it is Demon who introduces Van to Cordula. Van learns his rakish attitude to women from his father, whose reason for being at the party is to promote his own latest sexual prize, a Cordelia O’Leary. Not only does the young actress’s name absurdly match Cordula de Prey’s (the first name, the particle, the final y); it is also in itself a comic name for a potentially tragic actress; and it stresses the disparity of age between father (the aged Lear) and daughter (Cordelia), or in this case between Van’s father and the mistress almost as young as Van himself. Demon’s most memorable and consequential mistress has been Marina, Van’s and Ada’s mother. Now, at the home of Countess de Prey, who like Marina is also a noblewoman-cum-actress, Demon pursues a much younger actress, one in a long line of ever-younger mistresses.
Van’s pursuit of other women derives in part from Demon’s example, which he admires, and even from Demon’s encouragement (“a daughter of fifteen summers, called Cordula, who is sure to recompense you . . . You’ll stick to Cordula de Prey,” 163-64). But where Demon’s passion for Marina has long gone, and he has a keen current interest in Cordelia, Van’s passion for Ada persists unabated, his grief at separation still remains fresh, and he finds Cordula dumpy, “terribly unsmart” in attire, with off-puttingly braced teeth. Nevertheless he brusquely asks her: “Would you come to Riverlane? Are you a virgin?” (165). He has his father’s sexual swiftness (colorfully recorded in Demon’s first conquest of Marina in between scenes on stage at the start of I.2) as well as his father’s proclivity to avail himself of women whenever he can (as in Demon’s report at the end of I.2 of finding Marina’s runaway maid—whom he has presumably sampled previously—in a brothel in Texas).
Already on the day he meets Cordula, Van wonders (164-65) whether she could be the lesbian Ada referred to at Forest Fork. When he arranges a meeting with Ada at Brownhill and sees Cordula as the chaperone, his jealousy of her possible relations with Ada erupts, without foundation and despite his own immediate and crass advances to Cordula.
The pattern of Van’s sexual hypocrisy will become even more pronounced when he leaves Ada and Ardis in a fury of jealous rage in 1888, hoping to kill his rivals, but fondles a now much more fetching Cordula in the crumpeter of the train he has taken from Ardis in pursuit of his first rival and intended victim, Philip Rack. The train’s “‘crumpeter,’ as Kalugano College students used to call it in the ’Eighties and ’Nineties” (302), makes a pointed connection with the railway station tea room near Brownhill (169) where Van’s misplaced jealousy toward Cordula as a rival for Ada’s attentions first erupts into fury.
Van’s jealousy here at Brownhill also echoes his father’s. Van was conceived as a consequence of Demon’s first fierce jealousy of Marina, after he pursued a rival across the Atlantic to fight a duel, and then “in the ecstasy of reconciliation” neither he nor Marina “remembered to dupe procreation” (15). Demon parts from Marina, professing to be definitively wounded by her betrayal (although they will later reunite long enough to conceive Ada), but he lets her know he has renounced her for her infidelity in a letter that ends with the sting that he has just visited the whorehouse where he has found one of her runaway maids.
In I.2 Demon fights a spectacular duel with Baron d’O, his rival for Marina. Here in I.27, even before he introduces Van to Cordula, the de Prey name recalls for Demon his role as the second, apparently, in another duel fought over an infidelity with the wife of another de Prey, Percy’s father. Notice that the names of the duelists advances one letter from Baron d’O to Count de P[rey]. Notice too that Demon himself has had his own early turn at Percy’s mother: “a woman I preyed upon years ago, oh long before Moses de Vere cuckolded her husband in my absence and shot him dead in my presence” (242). And notice that Demon heard of his own rival to Marina from a woman seeking his help for a job in Boston, and wounded his rival who died in Boston (13-15); here, he reports acting as second to Count de Prey, also in Boston. The pattern of aristocratic infidelities, jealousies and duels is nothing if not intricate.
Although Van’s “Demonic” jealousy of Cordula de Prey after Ardis the First is misplaced, his jealousy here prefigures the real reason he discovers for jealousy in Ardis the Second, when he learns of Ada’s infidelity with not Cordula but her cousin Percy de Prey, and plans to ensure his death in a duel, until the Second Crimean War kills Percy and saves Van the trouble. Just as Demon’s blends violent jealousy of Marina with his own sexual philandering—which helps drive his wife Aqua to suicide—so his son mingles jealousy fury against first Cordula then Percy with his almost simultaneous sexual advances or engagements with Cordula herself.
The Other Women theme interweaves throughout Van’s memoir with his relations with Ada and serves as a counterpoint to the rhythms of their time together. In I.4, just before Van visited Ardis for the First time, he had two contrasting foretastes of relations with girls: one purely romantic, an infatuation for the schoolgirl daughter of Mrs Tapirov, who owned a shop for objets d’art near his school, Riverlane; the other his first “fubsy pig-pink whorelet” (33), whom he and other schoolmates avail themselves of at the back of the corner shop. I.27 reprises the contrast, as it strikes Van “that the dumpy little Countess resembled his first whorelet” (168)—and as later becomes apparent, he will treat her as a whore, as an outlet for brisk sexual gratification (456-58)—and Ada, in shop premises by another high school, becomes, at least while she remains at Brownhill, his unattainable, untouchable love.
The lesbian theme first sounded at Forest Fork, with Ada’s admission that she is “physical, horribly physical,” and that “there’s a girl in my school who is in love with me” (158), leaps to the fore in I.27. At Van’s boys’ school, Riverlane, there had also been homosexual experimentation (“Every dormitory had its catamite,” 32), and Percy de Prey has just been involved in “the latest homosexual or rather pseudo-homosexual row at his school ( . . . had been caught with a lass disguised as a lad . . . )” (168). Van’s suspicion that Cordula is the lass who longs for Ada is misplaced, but his intense jealousy of Cordula, despite assuring himself he would only be titillated by the thought of Ada in another woman’s arms, foreshadows the complicated relationship he will have with “horribly physical” Ada and her sexual initiation of Lucette. Lucette sends Van a ten-page declaration of love in 1891, reporting in lubricious detail on her initiation by Ada. Visiting him in Kingston in the fall of 1892, she reports again about her relations with Ada, with Van as narrator returning to her earlier letter for help in reconstructing the dialogue. She ends:
“You must not press me for the details of our sweet torrid and horrid nights together, before and between that poor guy and the next intruder. If my skin were a canvas and her lips a brush, not an inch of me would have remained unpainted and vice versa. Are you horrified, Van? Do you loathe us?”
“On the contrary,” replied Van, bringing off a passable imitation of bawdy mirth. “Had I not been a heterosexual male, I would have been a Lesbian.” (382)
Cordula serves as a foil to Lucette as well as to Ada. Contra Ada, she is someone with whom Van can engage sexually with pleasure but without more complicated feelings; she will not be Ada’s other woman, as Van here suspects, but Van’s own, and it will be another de Prey who will be Ada’s other partner. Contra Lucette, Cordula is someone with whom Van can engage sexually, without either restraint or regret.
Cordula is someone Van thinks of immediately in sexual terms, both in terms of his own sexual access to her and her imagined sexual access to Ada. Lucette is someone neither Van nor we as readers think of in sexual terms, until too late, until growing into sex has damaged her. She is utterly pre-sexual in Ardis the First. In Ardis the Second, although brimming with curiosity about Van and Ada, and embroiled in the messy threesomes (Ada-Van-Lucette) or twosomes (Van-Lucette) that Ada sets up to allow herself to steal off and wind up her relationship with Percy de Prey, Lucette still seems comically innocent in comparison with Ada at the same age. Cordula strikes Van as dumpy and unappealing when he first sees her, yet he immediately asks for an assignation she scornfully refuses. When he sees her next time, she seems far more appealing, and becomes more urgently sexually stirring on each subsequent encounter. Lucette is far too much a child for Van to think of her in sexual terms not only in 1884, but even in 1888, at the age Ada had been in 1884, when she was already sexually hyperactive. Only in 1892 does he discover how attractive Lucette has become, yet to her chagrin he still does not think of her in sexual terms, despite her eagerness to entice him into changing his mind.
Ada embroils Lucette in her and Van’s relationship in 1888, as a way of allowing herself to slink away to join Percy de Prey. She avails herself of Lucette in 1891, to appease her own sexual itch in the deserts of Arizona. She encourages Van to fondle Lucette, under her direction, at Cordula’s apartment in Manhattan in 1892, as if in a fantasy of repercussion-free sex. But Lucette escapes in distress, and Van does not see Lucette again until 1901 in Paris, just after making love twice to Cordula—a few days before he masturbates twice over the image of Ada in order to defuse the sexual arousal Lucette has awoken in him through her attentions to him on board the Tobakoff.
The conflicted relationship between roving desire, raving jealousy and sexual restraint plays out throughout I.27. Without any strong attraction to her, Van seems unable not to attempt to avail himself of the sexual opportunity Cordula seems to represent, yet he also resents fiercely the sexual opportunity he suspects she could also represent to Ada.
When he meets Ada at Brownhill, he feels an intolerable frustration at the restraint the school setting imposes, yet feels even more strongly the jealousy aroused when he imagines Cordula and Ada together. When he meets Cordula later, even after situations that stir his potentially violent jealousy, like his rage at Percy de Prey and Philip Rack in 1888, and his brief flare of rivalrous resentment toward Greg Erminin in 1901, he will engage in sex with her at the first opportunity despite his bond with Ada (in 1888) or despite Cordula’s with her husband (in 1901).
But with Lucette Van feels a strong internal restraint. Unlike Ada, he cannot treat Lucette as a sexual partner whom he can engage with as freely as he does with Cordula. While he does not have sex with Cordula while he is with Ada (at Ardis the First, at Ardis the Second, in Manhattan)—unlike Ada, who can have sex with Percy de Prey while she and Van are together at Ardis—he can engage in sex with Cordula immediately afterwards. With Cordula, the image of Ada never complicates the picture.
But with Lucette, things are different. She has a sexual relationship with Ada, at Ada’s forceful instigation. Toward Lucette, Van feels less of the jealousy he had earlier felt towards Cordula and Ada, partly because he still cannot think of her in terms of sex at all. But just before he meets Lucette in 1901, he sees Cordula, and twice makes brisk love to her. He even feels ready to succumb to Lucette’s insistently seductive wiles aboard the Tobakoff, until Ada appears on screen.
Several factors in the Brownhill tearoom scene prefigure the circumstances of Lucette’s death. Van will treat Cordula as a whore, even when he feels intense jealousy of Ada’s relations with others. A woman in a black picture hat sits at the counter in the tea-rooms at Brownhill while Van berates Ada and Cordula for their actually non-existent sexual relationship. The woman at the bar seems to Van “a cocotte from Toulouse” (169). When Van visits a bar at Kalugano, a few hours after first fondling Cordula, and the night before what he foresees as a fatal duel, a displacement of his jealous rage against Philip Rack as well as Percy de Prey, he sees another black-hatted harlot at a bar. When he sees Lucette in 1901, at a bar in Paris, she seems like a cocotte from a Toulouse-Lautrec poster, and the image to whom the other two prefigurations point. She has already admitted to behaving “as a cocotte,” as Van notes, although as she agrees, sadly, she qualifies: “As a rejected cocotte” (379). She now offers herself to Van still more frankly, but he turns her aside.
Yet she learns from him he is headed off on the Tobakoff, and from Cordula she manages to wangle a last-minute room aboard the ship. There Van has almost succumbed to Lucette’s touch and temptations when Ada steps on the screen of the shipboard cinema—as the woman in the picture, aboard the tossing Tobakoff, reminiscent of herself at Brownhill, in down-brimmed oilcloth slick hat, like Garbo as Anna Christie rescuing someone at sea—only this time Lucette will not be rescued when she pitches herself into the sea in despair.
(This page is part of ADAonline, which depends on frames for navigation. If you have been referred to this page without the surrounding frameset, follow this link.)