Elisabet Ney’s final sculpture


Originally from Austin, Texas, Carly Brown is a writer, performer and postgraduate student based in Scotland. She graduated from the University of St Andrews in 2014 with an undergraduate degree in English Literature and she’s currently a doctoral student in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. Carly is the author of a children’s picture book, I Love St Andrews, and a poetry chapbook, Grown Up Poetry Needs to Leave Me Alone. In 2013, she was Scotland’s National Champion of Slam Poetry and 4th at the World Series of Slam Poetry in Paris. Her website is: carlyjbrown.com


This fictional story is told from the perspective of Elisabet Ney, a celebrated female sculptor and feminist in the 19th century, who is known for her statues of famous personages in Europe and, later, Texas. Two years before her death, she completed her last major work: a statue of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, featured above thanks to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.


 

I break an egg and sip it raw. A dribble of yoke slides down my chin and I wipe it clean with my shirtsleeve. Then take another sip. I pour a glass of lemonade and swig it down in one gulp. It tastes bright, tangy and sweet.

It’s early in the morning and silence spreads out around me in the kitchen. It’s time to continue work on her.

Well, I shouldn’t say ‘her’ as she isn’t finished yet. She waits in that in-between place. Part of her has emerged from the marble and part of her I’m still uncovering. Every day, I walk into my studio and chip at that shell of rock to find the life inside. A moat of dust and hunks of white surround her as she looks on at me with an expressionless face, blank and gleaming like a star. I’ve not yet given her eyes, a nose, lips.

Yet I can imagine clearly what her face will look like, when it exists. Her eyes will be shut, her mouth twisted downwards. Her body will be twisted too and she will be turning away from her hands. She doesn’t want her hands to be a part of her anymore. She has done such terrible things with them. She blames herself. She blames herself for blaming herself.

I wipe my mouth again, put down the glass and walk into my studio.

 

*

 

When I told everyone I was making a sculpture of her, they were surprised. Probably because she is fictional and I usually sculpt people who are alive. Men, typically. Famous men. Statesmen, war heroes, prominent doctors. I look at them, memorize their features, and then find them again, hidden in stone. I chip away until their double stands before me. Their exact likeness in white marble. It makes them feel immortal. Like a God, with a slab of rock created in their image. They never consider that it could possibly be me who has the power. That their double is the result of my years of observation, study and practice. My calloused hands. They always say things like: ‘That’s miraculous!’ or ‘It’s magic!’

‘I am working on a sculpture of Lady Macbeth,’ I announced at a dinner a few weeks ago. The woman near me snickered.

I shrugged. This was the same person who had sneered when I refused to ride sidesaddle on their ranch years ago, giggling as I swung one leg over so I wouldn’t fall off. Riding like this is complicated for a woman. It’s easier and harder at the same time.

On the one hand, you’re less likely to fall. You’re not at the mercy of some big and braying beast that could crush you. It’s also easier to steer. On the other hand, you might garner chuckles, or worse, they might make things up about you, your marriage, your life, at the sight of you in black trousers galloping through the grass.

‘But Lady Macbeth was the villain,’ someone else remarked to me at the dinner table. They seemed shocked I wouldn’t want to sculpt a ‘hero.’

I shrugged at this, too. ‘She did things she regretted,’ I said. ‘But she was powerful, manipulative, strong. Don’t you just find her fascinating?’

The other guests murmured. ‘I suppose, yes.’ ‘Fascinating.’ ‘A bit frightening.’

That’s it. Frightening.

She scares people, because she was bold, calculating. Because she was stronger than her husband. She killed someone with her own hands and then drove herself mad with regret. We fear her. We mourn with her. We’re not sure what to make of her. She’s dangerous because she’s complex and compelling; we don’t like to let women be those things.

 

*

 

I set to work on carving her this morning. I’m not as fast as I was in my younger days and sometimes I have to take breaks if I get too hot and place a wet rag on my forehead.

Even in my studio, which I keep cool and clean as marble, the Texas heat seeps through the windows. It was never so hot in Germany. Here the land is baked brown in summer, but I love the harshness and the huge skies of America. My husband, Edmund, loves it too.

When we left Europe years ago, I left my full name behind as well, the way someone leaves behind clothing or knick-knacks, sheds their excess: Franzisca Bernadina Wilhelmina Elisabeth Ney. I took only what I liked with me: Elisabet, sans ‘h’. I enjoyed chopping off the ‘h’ and correcting people when they called me Elisabeth on accident. I kept my surname, too. My husband’s surname never overwrote my own. He remains Edmund Montgomery and I remain Elisabet Ney. I would not have my name subsumed by another and he understands this.

He is a man of science and philosophy and respects my views, my art. He still beams when he introduces me, ‘Have you met my wife, the celebrated sculptor?’ He still looks at me with such admiration, ever since the day we met. Yet sometimes there are long silences between us. These days we’ll be eating dinner and the only sound is the clatter of silverware on china or my knife sawing slices of brown bread from the loaf. We don’t sleep well anymore. I want to ask him if he dreams of Lorne, like I do. If sometimes he wakes up and it’s like something has gone rotten in his stomach, leaving a foul taste in his mouth.

I lift the chisel up and tap the end with a hammer. Her gown is starting to take shape. I’ve draped it across her shoulders, disheveled and crisscrossed, like it’s about to come off. I want people to look at her and feel undone.

 

*

 

I break at lunchtime and eat brown toast with strawberry jam. My fingers go red with it.

My son, Lorne, used to love strawberry jam, less so my German cooking of cabbage and smoked meats. Lorne probably loved jam because the other children ate it too. He liked things that other people liked. In that way, he was not similar to his father or me at all. He begged me to stop dressing him in white togas, which I thought were the freest clothing for young boys. More room to run and play. But he pulled them off and told me he wanted to dress like the other little boys.

And why didn’t I dress like the other mothers? Why did I wear an artist frock and heavy boots like a man? Why didn’t I have the same name as his father?

I thought he would grow out of it. Soon, he would see how the other little boys and girls were caged up in their full skirts and waistcoats, the fabric telling their limbs that ladies move this way and men move that way. Their clothing instructing them how far they could raise their arms, how quickly they could run. My son was free. Free to tussle around in the mud in his light, airy clothes. He could be anything that he wanted, except ordinary for the sake of it.

As Lorne grew up, Edmund and I fought about him.

‘Why don’t you let him dress like the other boys,’ Edmund begged. ‘If we push too hard, Elisabet, we don’t know what he will do.’

‘We agreed to raise him like this,’ I said.

‘Yes, but it’s driving him away,’ Edmund said. ‘We’ll lose our son.’

I push the memory down, scrape my hands clean with a dishtowel. They’re sandpaper, raw and strong. I never relented. Lorne slammed doors and ripped his clothes and threatened to move away. To never come back.

I throw the dishtowel on the floor. The plate full of crumbs I leave on the table. I’m through with work for the day.

 

*

 

The next days and weeks I wake early, restlessly, and work on her. Slowly, she reveals herself to me. In a way, it’s easier than the famous men I’ve done, because I don’t need to worry about their vanity. Making their noses straighter and their bellies flatter. I give them all muskets and stern expressions. Same old, same old. She is free to express something other than staid pride, power or triumph.

I step back and admire her round, marble shoulders, her face contorted in pain. I’m most proud of her hands: how she tugs on her fingers and tries to scrape the blood from them. ‘Out, damned spot! Out, I say!’

She is a portrait of regret. That kind that makes silence stretch out around you and you wonder if you wove it yourself. Regret that cuts into your sleep and makes the late nights bleed into early mornings. Regret that roots in your stomach, flowers, then rots.

 

*

The last time I saw Lorne he was a teenager, skinny, still growing into his overly long arms and legs. He packed an old brown suitcase and he told me that he couldn’t stand it anymore.

He wouldn’t tell me where he was going.

I always thought he’d come back. But days passed, then weeks, then months. It’s been many years now and still I have no idea where he is.

Edmund never truly forgave me for the loss of our son. He blamed me and I did too. Sometimes, when I hear a knock at the door, I think it could be Lorne. Lorne with his little brown suitcase, saying that he understood how I just wanted him to be happy and free. How I did the best I could. How I love him.

 

*

 

Many would ask me, after the statue was unveiled, why I chose her for a subject. Why not a triumphant Macduff after he storms the castle, taking revenge?

I always said that I was tired of sculpting famous men looking ferociously in the distance at nothing in particular. I wanted to show something else. Someone else.

Some who saw the statue wept or clutched their hands over their mouths. Or just nodded solemnly, saying it was like they could feel her pain.

Many said she was my greatest work. Elisabet Ney’s newest sculpture has a passion, a life force even the most vibrant pieces of her previous works do not come close to.

People came from around the state to see her. When they approached, I could tell that she unnerved them. Her bold grief, her face of turmoil made them uncomfortable. She frightened them. A pain that women were taught to hide, to lock away, was right there in the room. Wailing.

One shrewd art critic, upon seeing her for the first time, asked me, ‘Who is this a sculpture of?’ He raised an eyebrow as if he knew the real answer.

I looked him square in the eye and said, ‘Sir, this is a sculpture of Lady Macbeth.’