Dr. Robert Hickson
3 June 2022
Saint Clotilde (d. 545)
West Point Graduation 58 Years Ago (Class of 1964)
Maurice Baring on the Mystery of Mortal Beauty and the Supreme Sacrifice:
The Lonely Lady of Dulwich(1934)
“She was beautiful, in spite of looking listless and pale at the moment. Yes, she was beautiful, more than beautiful, he thought, and he wondered why she was so particularly beautiful; and he wondered for the millionth time at the mystery of mortal beauty.” (Maurice Baring, The Lonely Lady of Dulwich, 1934), (New York: Alfred A. Knopf), page 25, chapter three—my bold emphasis added.)
“The opportunity had come to her [Zita] at last to make just such a sacrifice as she was longing to make—the supreme sacrifice. Yes, she would face all the consequences, even if it meant leaving Robert [her mixed marriage and longstanding sacramental husband]. It would prove [sic] to Walter [Price] how much she loved him.” (Maurice Baring, The Lonely Lady of Dulwich, 1934, page 130—my bold emphasis added,)
“The Harmers [Robert and Zita] were to start on Wednesday, and on the Sunday morning Zita went to Mass at Saint Philippe du Roule. Zita was not, or had not been, until now, a religious woman. She [as a Catholic] was just pratiquante: that is to say, she went to Mass on Sundays and abstained on Fridays. She fulfilled her Easter duties. But that was all.
“The church was crowded and stuffy. Zita was a prey to distractions until a Dominican got into the pulpit and began to preach. She found it was impossible not to listen to him, although she tried. He was eloquent and forcible, and he seemed to be speaking to her personally and individually, as if he was aware of her personal difficulties and secret thoughts. He pointed out among other things how necessary it was that the individual should cheerfully accept sacrifice for the good of the community. The Church might seem hard on the individual; the hardness must be faced and accepted. He [the Dominican] had spoken, too, of the danger of illicit love [as with the efect of “Queen Guinevere” (page 136), given her own betrayal of King Arthur]. Zita listened to this eloquence unmoved. His words applied to her.” (Maurice Baring, The Lonely Lady of Dulwich, 1934—pages 75-76—my bold emphasis added.)
“Walter Price [the journalist] had christened her [Zita as] Queen Guinevere because one day she [Zita] had said to him: ‘Robert’s name is Arthur as well as Robert, but he can’t bear the name, and he can’t bear being called Arthur, even in fun,’ and Walter had said: ‘That’s because he doesn’t want you to be Guinevere.’” (Maurice Baring, The Lonely Lady of Dulwich, 1934—page 136—my emphasis added.)
One of Maurice Baring’s distinctive and recurrent talents in prose and verse—especially about his fallen comrades and close friends in war—is his heartfelt presentation of dignified elegy, not just of tragedy. His writing vividly conveys in small ways an elegiac atmosphere, also with his subtle tones.
In this brief essay about Baring’s short 1934 novel—The Lonely Lady of Dulwich—we may poignantly and gradually follow much of the life and sorrows of Zita, a Catholic woman and her mixed marriage and her resultant yearnings and their grave consequences, after she had lost, through death, her only child soon after birth.
This essay invites a willing reader to enter into the sorrows and indifferent negligence, or nonchalance, of this haunting woman with her enduringly beautiful (but insufficient) ways. We shall thereby likely come to consider more closely and more fully the meaning and the purposes of “mortal beauty.” We hope that the sequential hints already given above in the Epigraphs will have also already stirred a sincere and searching reader—fostering the desire to acquire and to savor this little novel of much elegiac import.
The novel is a portrait of an increasingly lonely lady, a portrait that is both musical and picturesque, as well as literary. After having been raised for five years in a Catholic convent, Zita as a young woman had to face the impoverishment of her mother due to the somewhat irresponsible way of living of her adventurous and robust father who then had suddenly died. Zita was the youngest of three beautiful sisters. More out of convenience than out of love, she married a wealthy man, Robert Harmer, with whom she then lived for some decades as a couple, living the life of an upper class family in England, traveling and vacationing and enjoying varied entertainments.
She is a formal Catholic, following the Church’s daily precepts with regard to the life of a Catholic. Yet, at the same time, her life seemed not so touched by Grace. While living with her husband in Paris, she is touched by the attentiveness of a poet, Jean, who tried to convince her to go to Algeria with him and leave her husband. Even after hearing at Mass a piercing homily by a Dominican priest, her heart, however, seems not to turn away from her adulterous plan; merely her husband’s urging her to implement what he surmised was her plan made her alter her plans at the last moment.
When she later more deeply fell in love with a younger journalist, Walter Price, she was willing to reveal to him her past history and love story with the now-deceased, but famous poet, only to make, in her eyes, a seemingly “supreme sacrifice” for Price (who then was already secretly engaged to a different and younger woman). Price published then his candid story about her disloyal past that destroyed her current life, with her husband sending her away without a word, never to speak with her or even see her again. Two years later, he died, and she was a widow. This beautiful lady wound up living her last twenty or thirty years alone in the village of Dulwich outside of London.
The way Maurice Baring presents the larger, often implicit, story of Zita, the tones and enduring mysteries are important. Often they are even evocative of the sacraments and of the sacred. It sometimes alluringly included what was also essentially missing. That is to say, what G.K. Chesterton had profoundly called “The Presence of Absence.”
© 2022 Robert D. Hickson