My Story (pieces of it, anyway)

I first read Hawthorne’s haunting story, “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” during my freshman year of college, in a high-ceilinged, open-windowed classroom in an ivy-covered, red-brick building, looking out over thick trees, a rivulet, a little bridge. I instantly recognized Rappaccini’s lush, poisonous garden: it was the place I’d been searching for my entire life. It was the place for me.

I’d had glimpses of it as a very young child. I grew up in the western corner of Tennessee, Memphis an hour away and Nashville two if you drove fast. Somewhere along a secondary road leading in one of those two directions was a grey stone mansion, set deep in the woods, at the end of a long drive. Its gardens—lush, profuse, overgrown—were open to the public one Sunday a month, spring, summer and fall. There were flowers everywhere—white, yellow, orange, red. Every possible shade of purple and fuchsia; low stone walls, ivy and moss creeping over them. All that was missing was Hawthorne’s statue: Vertumnus, Roman god of the seasons, of plant growth and fruit trees. A shape-shifter, he could change form at will.

There was a pond. There were peacocks; one was white—maybe he was Vertumnus. Once I heard one scream.

My mother loved that house, its gardens. We dressed up to go there, and took my grandmother, who had enormous blue hydrangeas in her own front yard to which nothing the stone mansion had to offer could hold a candle. My grandmother always wore a hat.

One day we just stopped going.

I’ve scoured the internet, since its earliest days, looking for evidence of that house, those gardens. I haven’t found any—maybe they never existed.

*

Though I don’t recall a specific occasion on which we did this, we must have taken my aunt with us, too. She had a shady garden, under the eaves of her big front porch, though she didn’t make comparisons, she just enjoyed herself. My aunt was divorced, and beautiful. She dyed her hair black and she was a librarian. She gave me my first book—Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, which I chewed on, drooled on, and hugged close while I slept, visiting Tasha Tudor’s gardens in my dreams.

My aunt took me with her to the library every Saturday until I was five, planting books deep into me. The year I was five was the year my aunt died; a bullet to the head—my cousin, cleaning his gun.

*

The professor who introduced me to “Rappaccini’s Daughter”—and to Rappaccini’s garden—in the ivy-covered building told me that I absolutely had to become a writer.
Instead, I became an art historian. I have never been one to listen to good advice.

*

I liked Rappaccini’s garden because it was old. I became a medievalist so that I could study old things. Also key in this decision: a summer spent living in an abandoned house beside the Loire while we excavated a tiny graveyard in Tours whose stratigraphy went from the War of the Roses straight down to the Merovingians (medieval people reused sarcophagi). And a slightly older friend with flawless French who knew about opera. I was in love with Europe, and infatuated with my sophisticated friend. Europe was medieval; my sophisticated friend was going to be a medievalist. Voilà. (My French eventually became decent—red wine helped—and now I know about opera too).

*

Rappaccini’s garden pursued me throughout graduate school and research in Spain. It followed me into libraries and archives and bars and discotecas. It lived in the Parque del Retiro, which I crossed, often, at dawn, heading home after a night of debauchery (I showed up at the library around two; it was open till nine). Rappaccini’s garden accompanied me through a string of badly chosen and badly behaving loves (some were fun, though). It materialized spectacularly in the shady, fountain-strewn paths of Felipe II’s Granja de San Ildefonso, near Segovia, where I went on weekends with friends who were flight attendants back when flight attendants were well-paid (we flew a lot, for free; I was everyone’s cousin). Their pockets were always full of money, rolling papers and hashish.

Rappaccini’s garden followed me from Spain back to the States (with a badly chosen husband), from New York to New Mexico and back to New York again (this time with a different husband, also badly chosen). It dogged me into academe, all the way to tenure and beyond.
The professor stayed in the open-windowed classroom in the ivy-covered building, until he retired. Or something. The stories he’d wanted me to write stayed quiet, waiting their turn.

*

Arabic, and Medieval Arabic poetry found me in Philadelphia, being a medievalist. Who was going to work on Spain and who, therefore—said my dissertation advisor—should be learning Arabic. A (brilliant) modernist-who-was-also-a-medievalist in the Near Eastern Studies department oversaw my initiation. Arabic poetry pulled me so far down the rabbit hole that my advisor worried I might go over to the other side—words instead of images. She was not entirely wrong: I was (and am) smitten. The impossible loves, the androgynous cupbearers, the ambiguity concerning the gender of the beloved (inherent in the fluid use of supposedly gendered pronouns and suffixes). And the endless series of gardens—flowers, trees, breezes, perfumes—just as impossible as the loves and the beloveds, whose bodies are interchangeable, in verse, with the elements that make up the gardens—daisy petals are white teeth are pearls are daisy petals. Cheeks bloom and the flower-studded grass is a carpet. Trees are the beloved who speaks in verse and whose waist is slender like the bān tree, a process of continual metamorphosis worthy of Vertumnus himself.

This mise-en-abîme of intertextual references was opened like a treasure chest with a glittery little key that hung from the belts of medieval literary theoreticians: metaphor. In medieval Arabic poetics, metaphor is transformative. It can take you high, all the way to mystical ecstasy, or low, into the regions of the lewd, or the mujūn, and in colloquial lyric it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between the two. This resonated with my (indistinct) memories of nights in discotecas in Madrid—illumination coming in flashes.

*

Writing found me in Granada. Sitting at my desk, in the Albaicín, in my rented chunk of a 16th-century carmen that had been turned into studio apartments. Looking out over a patio, walls draped with climbing jasmine, smoke from my neighbors’ hash cigarettes floating in a haze over everything (they were forbidden to knock on my door before five p.m.; after that, they were encouraged to do so). Writing found me translating medieval Arabic poetry about uncannily beautiful cupbearers who were also roses and daisies, climbing vines and bān trees.

Writing said put down your Arabic dictionaries and write about your aunt. Write about why she was shot. Of course you don’t know why, your family never talked about it. So you make it up.

*

That novel is lost. As perhaps it should be (all first novels should probably be lost). Maybe I’ll write it again someday.

*

Writing and Rappaccini’s garden are learning to live together. I’m hoping they’ll eventually mate and produce offspring. I am able to be both a medievalist and a writer largely because I have no children (of which I am glad: I would have forced myself to be a good mother, and that would likely have killed me).

And because I no longer have husbands (at least not of my own). I tried marriage, twice. I was terrible at it both times. I prefer men in compartments (preferably overseas compartments), not at my breakfast table (which often looks more like a lunch table and I like it that way). I have found that the best way to achieve this husbandless nirvana is to take up with married men. If they start talking about divorce, I cut and run.

Rappaccini’s daughter would have been better off if she’d just stayed in that gorgeous garden all by herself, being poisonous.

*

The nymph Pomona was tricked into inviting Vertumnus, who had disguised himself in the form of an old woman, into her garden. She must have greatly regretted her decision. And Rappaccini’s daughter would have done better to stay in her father’s garden all by herself, being poisonous: Giovanni Guasconti was the death of her, literally.

Similarly to Ovid’s version of the Pomona-and-Vertumnus tale, a crafty old woman was involved in getting the foolish young Giovanni into Rappaccini’s hortus conclusus. Ancient and medieval narratives—-along with their descendants, of which Hawthorne’s story clearly is one—tend to heap all the opprobrium onto the crafty old women, but there’s plenty of blame to go around (as the years pass, the old women get more and more of my sympathy). There are even a few Arabic versions of this sort of tale, probably the fun-est translating project I ever undertook, ever. But I digress; where I was going with that thread is that I rarely invite anyone into my garden.

*

Certain animals and select insects, however, are welcome.

A dark-eyed junco builds her nest, every year, in my hanging basket of begonias. She scolds me when I go out every afternoon to water. Sometimes she shits in the solar fountain and I have to change the water. There’s a daddy junco too (maybe he’s the one shitting in the fountain, it’s hard to tell). Daddy junco helps build the nest and feed the baby birds. Female juncos have multiple sexual partners among their social group; they eventually settle down with one, who might or might not be the baby-junco daddy, though he puts on his man pants and acts like he is. There are also hummingbird wars around the feeder overhead (the males are particularly vicious), which I have to ignore if I want to hear my characters whispering to me from beneath the hydrangea leaves (always in my back pocket: a pen and five or six notecards). My two rescued rabbits and I spend a lot of time in the garden (if you think you see a rabbit theme here, all the way back to Beatrix Potter and Tasha Tudor and my librarian aunt, you are not wrong). I bring the bunnies dandelions so they won’t eat the clematis, or at least not too much of it (I would have been an overindulgent mother, I would have ruined my children). Then I sit down to write.

For more on my scholarship, click here or you can visit my Cornell University page.

Cynthia Robinson is a writer and art historian based in Ithaca, New York. Her short fiction has been published by The Arkansas Review, Epoch, The Missouri Review, Slice, and others. She is Mary Donlon Alger Professor of Medieval and Islamic Art at Cornell University.

Scholarly Work