The lady, unicorn, gorgon and manticore

During the Great Depression, a single woman in her 30’s, the sole heir of a very wealthy landowner in Kentucky inherited a palatial Victorian estate in a small town, surrounded by acres of immaculate gardens and hidden behind a high iron fence. There she lived with faithful retainers for forty years. She never married and rarely socialized with the townspeople. She kept her gardens and dogs and was driven about in gleaming black Packard. Imagine the rumors. Was she half-mad? Bitter or broken over a lost love? A miser? What dark secret did she hold? Why did she lock up her estate so tightly that it could never be sold? Why the death-grip on this brooding Victorian palace?

A portrait now appears of a woman, certainly wealthy and without romantic connections, but content and quietly busy with garden, family chronicles, dogs and discrete local charities, astonishingly well-read, a kind and generous employer. In a word, serene.

The story reminds me of the operetta The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore by Gian Carlo Menotti, which begins:

There once lived a Man in a Castle, and a strange man was he.
He shunned the Countess’ parties; he yawned at town meetings;
he would not let the doctor take his pulse; he did not go to church on Sundays.
Oh what a strange man is the Man in the Castle

Well, our man, called (hint) The Poet, is seen by the good people walking with a unicorn. At first horrified, they then one by one acquire their own unicorns. Then he is seen with a gorgon. What happened to the lovely unicorn? Presently they slay their unicorns and buy themselves gorgons. The same with the manticore. Then the Poet is seen no more. Righteously storming the castle, they find The Poet on his death bed, tended by his beloved unicorn, gorgon and manticore, representing, successively, his youth, middle and old age. How could he wish any of them harm? O foolish people. And so forth.

Impressed by this fable, my brother and sister and I acted it out in the living room. Since we were three and the principals four (plus foolish people and the beasts), considerable ingenuity was required in playing multiple roles with stand-ins. Fortunately we were indulgent critics of our own work.  I wonder if Emma, our Kentucky heiress, knew of this tale.

Pamela Schoenewaldt, historical novels of immigration and the search for self in new worlds: WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS, SWIMMING IN THE MOON, and UNDER THE SAME BLUE SKY (all HarperCollins).

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Workshop on Point of View for the Knoxville Writers Guild, Sat. Feb. 18, 2017, 10am to noon

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Recent Review
“Absorbing and layered with rich historical details, in Under the Same Blue Sky, Schoenewaldt weaves a tender and at times, heartbreaking story about German-Americans during World War I. With remarkable compassion, the author skillfully portrays conflicted loyalties, the search for belonging, the cruelty of war, and the resilience of the human spirit.”—Ann Weisgarber, author of The Promise and The Personal History of Rachel Dupree

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