“Just one look at her this morning and despair flew into my heart. She had the look I dread, her eyes over bright, shining with that queer mix of euphoria and terror. And she talked incessantly, a very bad sign.”
The Velveteen Rabbit was a beautifully tender children’s story, and after reading this gorgeous novel about the author Margery Williams and her gifted daughter Pamela the children’s tale has come to mean much more. Being real hurts terribly. Laurel Davis Huber has taken the true story of mother and daughter and fictionalized it but with precision, following facts so much that she seems to be channeling the entire family. From the beginning pages I was already hooked and feeling heart sore.
Pamela is an unusual child, a wunderkind artist but her state of mind is a fragile one. The struggle her mother Margery has is one to keep her safe from the world, but this puts her at odds with her husband Francesco and his exciting plans for their daughter’s success. Margery knows her daughter’s talent could leave her vulnerable to the attention, her child’s delicate mind may not withstand it but Francesco cannot be stopped. Francesco’s wild aspirations will change their entire lives and one later wonders, had she kept her daughter’s talent hidden until she came of age would things have turned out differently? Pamela adores her father, as they are so very much alike and will do anything to please him. As with true artists, Pamela’s natural talent is a thing she is driven to do, not for attention, simply because it is like breathing for her. It’s not about the masses, it’s always been about the undivided attention her father gives her. With her mother, she can let her guard down and reveal her broken insides. As she says “Mam’s eyes are vast almond-shaped seas, liquid navy, flowing with an endless depth of understanding and compassion. When she listens to you, she takes you in and you can’t help it, you simply give yourself over to her…” It is this very knowing that induces fear for her daughter.
Periods of melancholia consume Pamela as she comes of age and can no longer contain it. What pushes her more, the attentions of the world or her father’s driving force? Life takes a toxic turn, if her father’s obsession is sharing her talent with the world, then her own obsession isn’t for art but a man. When love enters in the form of family friend Diccon (a poet) and becomes her infatuation, longings blossom in her tender heart like a poisonous flower her family fails to see. It is an all consuming desire that begins at the age of 13, she feels Diccon (20 years old) is her destiny and her reality blurs. Back and forth Margery and Pamela spill their hearts to the reader, each coping with Pamela’s illness in different ways. A mother is always real, and with snippets of The Velveteen Rabbit weaving it’s way into the novel, my heart became a wound. Pamela knows there is something wrong with her, and she is beset by periods of deep affliction that require hospitalization and therapy. A mother is as close to God as children can get, but we are all too human and Margery, despite her wisdom and heart, isn’t any different than the rest of us. Each time her daughter breaks against the harshness of the world, Margery too loses heart.
Years pass, in a moment of compulsion Pamela makes a decision that ends with a child, Lorezno. She has her own secrets to keep from her boy, and the novel is written with flashes from past to present. The cloud of melancholia never leaves Pamela entirely, interfering with her art there are times when she cannot paint. She needs her mother to help raise her boy, but her son may well be the one blessing in life that keeps her anchored to the world. I am simplifying the novel, it is a gorgeous historical literary fiction that reads more like a memoir of both mother and daughter. We are privy to the constant invading thoughts in Pamela’s mind, her desires, her attempts at trying to soothe and calm herself and how she fails. Margery’s thoughts are the bleeding of a mother’s heart that readers feel as their own.
Today we are far more aware of the states of mental health, and I’d like to think more understanding, but times were different then. So much remains unknown still today, and back then mental illness was far less defined. One cannot dismiss the crippling effects, not just on the patient but on the parents too. Margery watches her daughter, for mothers are detectors of the slightest nuance in their child’s being. Those with children who have any sort of illness can relate to the knot that lives inside said mother. One can never be ‘at ease’, one is always waiting for the bottom to drop. It’s a constant state of fear for your child, and as Margery wrote in The Velveteen Rabbit, “When you are Real, you don’t mind being hurt.” Margery hurts daily for her beloved, gifted, tormented daughter. Francesco is blinded as he only sees Pamela’s talent and his wild ambitions for her future, but Margery recognizes something that surfaces from the depths of her daughter’s being from early on. Francesco is a force that can’t be stopped, just as is Pamela’s illness, but without her father’s pushing her means of living may never have been reached. It’s cruel to be punishing to either parent, and later we learn Francesco and Pamela may be more alike than different. This constant watching never goes away in adulthood either, as mental stability is a fragile state. There are ups and downs, storms that pass and those that come to stay and incapacitate. There are no quick fixes, no miracle cures in real life.
Love in this family is a sour heart and a gift. What happens with Diccon is dangerous, but it’s the self-delusions that are most damaging to Pamela. Her mother’s staunch support and love is her salvation, as is Pamela’s son, Lorenzo. What makes this particular historical fiction deeply touching is the love between mother and daughter, is there anything more pure? Laurel Davis Huber based the novel on more truth than fiction. There are no sad endings nor happy ones in life, we encounter both always. The Velveteen Rabbit is one of the most tender, beautiful children’s stories I have ever read but after knowing about the author and her daughter, I will never read it without this heaviness. If ever my heart overflowed with compassion, it is with this novel. We follow the family to the end of Margery and Francesco’s lives, and keep close to Pamela into her later years. What a beautiful, crushing story about a gifted and REAL mother and child! Add this to your summer reading list!
Publication Date: July 11, 2017
She Writes Press