A blaze of light: a tale of women wronged

Lux by Elizabeth Cook takes in poet Thomas Wyatt, David and Bathsheba, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

In the 1951 film version, Susan Hayward’s Bathsheba – already smitten with David (Gregory Peck) – deliberately sets out to ensnare him with her provocative and artful act of washing herself on her very visible rooftop. Photograph:  Keystone/Getty Images

In the 1951 film version, Susan Hayward’s Bathsheba – already smitten with David (Gregory Peck) – deliberately sets out to ensnare him with her provocative and artful act of washing herself on her very visible rooftop. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

 

I had long known that I wanted to write about the 16th-century poet, Thomas Wyatt – a poet whose breath can be heard and felt across the five centuries that separate us. The irregular rhythms of his poems, the roughnesses that key the surfaces, ensure that they lodge themselves in the mind and dwell there.

This novel began with one word, the title, Lux. I wrote it, in capitals, at the start of a new notebook late in December 2000. It was the name of Wyatt’s beloved falcon and plays on the Latin for “light” and also on the “luck” which Wyatt only occasionally experienced in the course of a turbulent life.

Circa 1535, Sir Thomas Wyatt, The Elder (1503-1542) the English courtier and poet. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Circa 1535, Sir Thomas Wyatt, The Elder (1503-1542) the English courtier and poet. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A poem often begins for me with an image or a phrase that hums with some kind of compelling charge – a force field that the poem sets out to trace and explore. “There’s a blaze of light in every word,” sings Leonard Cohen in his Hallelujah. My title word, Lux, showed its light from the start – in its dictionary meaning; but the process of making the novel involved a slow exploration, not just of that word but of Wyatt’s work, reading and rereading it, and allowing that experience to direct me and my narrative.

Wyatt’s work includes – and possibly culminates in – a translation of the seven so-called Penitential Psalms supposedly composed about 1000BCE by the psalmist King David in a state of agonised contrition after his passion for the beautiful Bathsheba had led him first to adulterously fathering a child and then, in an attempt to conceal his wrongdoing, to the murder-by-proxy of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah.

The degree to which Wyatt’s Englishing of the Penitential Psalms speaks of personal penitence can only ever be guessed. What is certain is that he both experienced and witnessed considerable suffering and was both agent and victim of willful power. The figures of David, Bathsheba, Uriah and David’s predecessor, Saul, have multiple resonances in the age of the pious, serially uxorious and tyrannical King Henry VIII, who liked to see himself as a second David. Through Wyatt’s translation of David’s psalms I was led to the novel’s other centre of energy, the Biblical story of David and Bathsheba.

Like all great stories this one of David and Bathsheba lies wide open to interpretation. In both rabbinical and Islamic lore it has become a fable about hubris: about a man (David) favoured by God (YHWH/ Allah) who asks God to put his faith to the test so that he can show himself greater still and the equal of Abraham, whose faith was tested and found true when asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. Unlike Abraham, David fails to resist temptation and succumbs. When Cohen alludes to the story in his Hallelujah it is this aspect that is to the fore:

Your faith was strong but you needed proof.
You saw her bathing on the roof;
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you.

In this version Bathsheba is little more than a cipher whose loveliness exists for the sole purpose of testing a man’s capacity to withstand it. Again and again in pictorial representations of the story, Bathsheba is portrayed as exhibitionistically exposing herself to the gaze of David whereas, in the scriptural account, it is David who is on a roof – looking down at the bathing woman.

I imagine – and this is important to me – a Bathsheba bathing in what she believes to be privacy, intruded upon by the eyes of the king who then proceeds to procure – as a king has power to do – and impregnate her. What has occurred in the retellings and revisualisings of her story is an instance of the displacing of responsibility from the intruder to the intruded-upon. “She made me do it, milud. There she was, looking so damned beautiful.”

In the 1951 film version of the story, Susan Hayward’s Bathsheba – already smitten with David (Gregory Peck) – deliberately sets out to ensnare him with her provocative and artful act of washing herself on her very visible rooftop.

Returning to the story I became fascinated by the way it had been bent to serve specific agendas and the way it usually seemed to be David’s story. Lux opens with a scene, witnessed by the young Bathsheba, of a young woman being stoned for adultery – a fate which hangs over Bathsheba after she has conceived David’s child. The final section of the novel, where the focus is on Thomas Wyatt, includes the execution of Anne Boleyn, another woman accused of adultery. The lethal violence done to these women extends to the violence of silencing their accounts.

In the 16th century, discussion of biblical or classical “types” could be a safely oblique way of speaking about contemporary figures and issues. Wyatt avails himself of this method. But in Lux as a whole I am not interested in suggesting simple equivalences. My woman stoned for adultery does not equal Ann Boleyn, nor does Bathsheba. My Wyatt and Henry are not other figurings of David. What interests me more is setting characters and situations into relationship with one another and watching what occurs in their interaction, each being a many-faceted crystal that can shed light at different angles on other elements. As in the best kind of conversation, understanding is deepened by a play of affinities, agreements, distinctions and divergences.

Cohen’s Hallelujah often played in my mind – and out loud – while I worked on Lux, as did Orlando Lassus’s great setting of the Penitential Psalms and John Dowland’s de profundis clamavi. In each of them there is a sense of searching through language and music for a truth beyond them: “I heard there was a secret chord/ That David played and it pleased the Lord.”

Among the many psalms that David is said to have written is Psalm 19 which begins (in Coverdale’s translation): “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament sheweth his handywork. One day telleth another and one night certifieth another. There is neither speech nor language but their voices are heard among them.”

David discerns a speechless voicing of praise at the heart of creation – his “secret chord” acknowledges this. Wyatt, constrained and enmired in the ambience of a tyrant’s court, seeks, through language, to touch “the truth of inward heart” and, though by no means a nature poet, glimpses something he longs for in the flying freedom of his beloved falcon Lukkes.

Lux by Elizabeth Cook is published by Scribe

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