The Strings Attached

Black and white photo of hands holding a small gift box

In the town where I grew up, Newtown, Connecticut, the town hall, the library, and a school all stood as monuments to the generosity of one benefactress, Mary Elizabeth Hawley. They were named after various members of her family and built in that 1920s/30s style meant to evoke stony permanence. Mary had an unusual life for a woman of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—a rapidly dissolved marriage, several reclusive decades, a late-in-life turn to largesse—and her gifts, too, had unusual dimensions. Her dining-room and bedroom furniture were on permanent display in the library, and the town hall also housed a theater and a bowling alley; I don’t know the full legal details, but local lore had it that these had been Mary’s own stipulations. Gather here. Look.

If Mary’s story were a novel, the lighting would turn sinister even before she began to lay out terms. Literature seems to caution us about gifts, which, on the page, nearly always trail strings. When the gift-giver is a woman, her gift is often a test for the intended recipient (usually male) to pass or fail. Eve gives Adam the fruit. The drink Circe gives Odysseus is bewitched (though he resists it, thanks to the gods’ intercession); later, Calypso offers him eternal life if he’ll only stay and love her and forget about returning to Penelope. Lady Macbeth fortifies her husband with the strength and murderousness he needs to undo them both. Miss Havisham thrusts Estella, her carefully crafted heartbreaker, at Pip as part of her general scheme for revenge on mankind: “I developed her into what she is, that she might be loved. Love her!” she tells him. These women’s gifts are really an effort to gain purchase.

Not that literature’s male gift-givers come off looking any better. In Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess”, the Duke speaks to an envoy for his new betrothed about his previous wife—the woman to whom he gave “my gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name”—as they look at a painting of her.

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there…
…Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek.

The longer the Duke talks, the surer we feel about his own role in whatever mysterious, violent events befell his wife, who he says “liked whate’er/ She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.” That phrase “as if she were alive” repeats, grows more ominous. In response to the Duke’s gift in making her his Duchess, his wife did not transform herself into his idea of perfection, and so he did it for her. There’s no living woman left, only that easily managed painting, covered by a curtain that the Duke alone may move aside.

A gift, all these writers warn us, is a contract. Its terms are obligation and control. There’s perhaps some irony in that, since writing is itself the attempt to give the reader an experience the writer has mapped out ahead of time. Gather here, we say, when we write something. Look. I am putting by the curtain.

Yet I think the best writing allows the reader to be part of the setting of terms. Spaces, complications, are left for him or her to sort through, to make his or her own. Otherwise, the woman can only ever be a painting; the man might live forever, but it’s a lifeless life, without his heart. The gift of a book or a building is the gift of room. People need to be able to walk inside and make themselves at home in unanticipated ways.

Mary Hawley knew this, I’m sure. Nearing the end of her life, she found herself in an unconventional position, for her time: a woman in charge of a fortune. She decided to give gifts, and (if the stories I grew up hearing are true) she decided she had ideas—some of the ideas, not all of them—about how those gifts would be used. So she specified what should be inside a few of the rooms she gave, according to her vision for her town. She also gave many other rooms. She created spaces the rest of us wouldn’t have had without her, and left us to fill most of them with our own lives.

There’s also the nature of her vision itself, the farthest thing from sinister. When she imagined her town’s future, she saw Newtowners gathering to bowl, to visit the theater, to gaze upon and appreciate her fine furniture. That vision now seems heartbreakingly innocent to me. But then that’s true of the rest of our visions, too.