Mighty pleased with herself

Balthus: ‘Jeune Fille en Vert et Rouge’ (1944)

The Collectors by Philip Pullman,
illustrated by Tom Duxbury.
Penguin Books, 2022 (2014).

‘What a very pretty girl. D’you know who she is?’ ‘No idea,’ said the Bursar, ‘but she looks mighty pleased with herself.’

p 68

“A sad tale’s best for winter,” opines a character in The Winter’s Tale, thus confirming that the tradition for ghostly, tragic accounts has a long and distinguished pedigree. Many and varied are the expected ingredients for such narratives, their purpose to excite shivers of nervous anticipation. The author of this short story duly delivers the shivers with his particular concoction.

In order to give grounding to some aspects of the unspecified ivory-towered institution mentioned in the story Pullman seems to have based it on his own Oxford alma mater, Exeter College, setting it a couple of years after he’d graduated in 1968. But this college seems to be an altogether spookier place, and that’s down to the recipe typically specified for such winter tales.

The ingredients, many chosen from late Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories, include a cloistered setting with academics, curious objects which exude a baleful influence, a hint of mysterious or even otherworldly origins, and of course an unexplained death or two. What gives The Collectors its especial flavour is its implicit link with the worlds of Pullman’s His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust, but – as with any good winter’s tale – it has to stand on its own merits. Does it do so?

Balthus: Portrait de la jeune fille en costume d’amazone (1932)

Horley has rooms in this currently fog-bound college, but it’s in the Senior Common Room we first find him entertaining his male visitor Grinstead after the evening meal. Horley is regaling the younger Grinstead with details of the provenances of the newest acquisitions for his private art collection – an ugly bronze statuette of a fearsome monkey, and a small portrait, which back in his rooms he reveals to his visitor:

The young woman stood modestly, hands entwined, head slightly tilted, fair curly hair loosely restrained behind her neck with a red ribbon.

p 27

But, uncannily, the painting appears able to show “characteristic shifts of meaning” such as “a little curve of triumph somewhere in the lines of the model’s mouth and her eyes,” and Horley wonders how that is so. But now he is distracted – he’s suddenly not feeling well; meanwhile his guest is talking about parallel worlds of existence, and discrepancies in time; who in fact is this man whom he scarcely knows, and why is he himself having problems opening up the packing case with the statuette?

This is such a tight little tale, full of unanswered questions but also revelations. The young woman is identified as the 18-year-old Marisa van Zee, and fans of His Dark Materials will gather this is the maiden name of Lyra’s mother Mrs Coulter, while readers of The Book of Dust will link Marisa to her brother Marcel Delamare; both Delamare and van Zee mean “of the sea” in, respectively, French and Dutch, while Marisa is the Italian equivalent. The monkey then clearly represents her dæmon from which, in the trilogies, she is able to separate.

For the first appearance of The Collectors in print Pullman has chosen to feature an early twentieth-cemtury painting by the artist Balthus entitled Portrait of the young woman dressed as an Amazon, which we must assume represents Marisa in the fictional portrait. This isn’t the first time that Pullman used a Balthus image to front a novel – the artist’s 1944 Young girl in green and red was on the cover of the ‘adult’ edition of Northern Lights – but the author’s wide artistic interests not only feature prominently in this story’s text but also in previous fiction, such as The Broken Bridge.

Then there’s Tom Duxbury’s atmospheric engravings which grace almost every page and capture the essential M R James vibe Pullman’s after, just as was evident in the earlier Serpentine. And it’s noteworthy that one of Duxbury’s illustrations demonstrably portrays Exeter College’s Front Quadrangle, though the college is never identified by name.

But it is the malign if indirect influence of the mesmerising Marisa Coulter and her dæmon that dominates this chilling narrative, clearly meant to be an indication of her charisma operating over distances in time and between worlds. With a dedication and acknowledgement to singer Kate Bush for “telling the original” many years before, that makes two powerful women who will have made their mark in The Collectors.

Vintage poster of Oxford

14 thoughts on “Mighty pleased with herself

  1. Such an interesting post, Chris. I confess I’ve not read any Pullman, though I think the offspring have at some points in their lives. But you do make a compelling case for investigating, particularly if in this one he captures the James vibe. And as an aside, that vintage image of Oxford is wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Intriguing tale. It takes me to Wilkie Collins and Oscar Wild’s Dorian Gray. What does the Kate Bush dedication mean? Or you can’t tell without spoilers? I Google it and I only know her for the Wuthering Heights song and it said the book has two versions, which I had no idea it was the case.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is intriguing, I agree! The story originally appeared as an audiobook in 2014, then as an ebook in 2015. As far as I can see this is its first official appearance in print. Yes, the tale of the Dorian Gray portrait first occurred to me too, Silvia, but it was the several literary variations on the theme of malign contagious magic that mostly struck me!

      As for Kate Bush, it’s clear that she and Pullman have been acquaintances for a while, though she rarely makes public appearances or pronouncements. Her song, ‘Running Up That Hill’ has been revived in the past year or so due to it featuring in the show Stranger Things.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds like a really interesting story. I think I am most captivated by the idea of a fog-bound college – fog somehow makes the college feel like an island where what happens inside seems enlarged simply because the outside is rendered unreal or transient by fog. I remember that feeling when returning to college after a long lab on a foggy night.

    Liked by 1 person

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