When you live in a house through which many children pass, you get used to being asked what your favourites are. It is inconceivable to children that you don’t have a long list of best things you can reel off at speed, for the things that you love make you the person you are. You may pride yourself on keeping an open mind or skilfully being able to hold great themes in opposition in the fashion of – I don’t know – William Shakespeare, but does this impress the little ones? Not so much. A person without favourites is a person without qualities.
You may reason with them: “I just don’t have a favourite animal, never have done, never will. Animals and I have never seen eye to eye.” But, in the face of the little ones’ disappointment, you then hear yourself, in a panic, utter: “I suppose giraffes are nice.”
Warming to your theme, you add, “And they are a bargain, because you can see them when you are driving past the zoo, from the neck up, without paying the entry fee.”
“Giraffes,” the child mentally notes, “because they are good value.”
Then you remember you always loved Kind Dog, the dog in the Ant and Bee books, because he reminded you of your brother. Will that do? Not really. You try again: “Kermit the Frog’s mixture of forlorn courage, sentimentality and showmanship often strikes me as appealing, if that helps?” The child, wide-eyed, shakes its head.
It turns out these inquiries actually make up an official questionnaire for a school project. The responsible party does not want to be a laughing stock, like the hyena of legend who swallowed a box of Oxo cubes.
When I was at school, I was asked to track down five smokers and ask them why they smoked, and then to fill in the answers on a little colour-coded bar chart as part of CSP (careers, social and personal). What transpired were the kinds of testimonials that would have delighted any high-ups in the tobacco industry: “Smoking is relaxing. A quiet little moment all to yourself. So soothing,” one of my correspondents said, and I wrote her words down dutifully thinking everyone should try it. Maybe.
Sometimes, in the small hours, I dimly prepare distinguished lists of favourites to impress the tots with clipboards next time they ask. Favourite film: Les Enfants du Paradis, on account of the poetry, the intermingling of love, grief and the theatre and the fact that Jean-Louis Barrault looks very like my father in his youth. Favourite colours: apple-green, rose-pink, and silver. Favourite pudding: poached pears with raspberry sauce and chocolate shavings, the Ritz’s hot passion fruit soufflé, panettone ice cream …
I had favourites on the mind this morning as I went to the Manet exhibition, where I gazed at the portrait of the impressionist painter Berthe Morisot with a bouquet of violets with great interest and admiration. I have long felt attached to Morisot for no better reason than the fact that Manet’s portrait of her adorns the cover of my 1980s Penguin edition of Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove. I have always assumed this painting was of the heroine of that book, Kate Croy. I pictured Croy/Morisot being shown off to great advantage at her Aunt Maud’s Lancaster Gate salon, ripe for admiration. I see in her face the series of decisions that mark Croy’s moral decline.
When I got home I reread the first chapter of the book. In the fraught and sometimes excruciating world of Henry James fanciers, there is a stark division between those who prefer Isabel Archer from Portrait of a Lady and those who prefer Kate Croy. Archer is the obvious choice, full of freshness, ardour, self-belief, hope and a sort of full-blown rosy glow. Croy is darker, more shadowy, cleverer, more complicated, more compromised: “She had stature without height, grace without motion, presence without mass.” She is also dirt-poor.
We first meet this handsome half-high-minded creature in the seediest of all settings, her father’s apartments, which are steeped in mistakes of every sort, ranging from misery and dreadful furnishings to mean stale feelings, the whole thing sticky, sordid, and absolutely “wanting in freshness”.
Looking at the portrait of Morisot in the flesh for the first time, I was struck by something I had never noticed before: the sitter’s eyes, which are very different from each other. The left is clear and cool. The right is sad and troubled-looking. The two together suggest an air of watchfulness in this otherwise immaculate-looking fashionably-dressed person, a tension and an anxiety that indicate a character going against the grain of itself.
James’s interest in “the fathomless equivocation of … life” of characters “who concealed their play of mind so much more than they showed it” – it’s all there. I’ll tell the children it’s my favourite.