Saturday, September 10, 2011

More Alan Bennett: His Lady in a Van

And speaking of characters and saints who stretch the boundaries of imagination (piggybacking on what I have just posted about Mychal Judge): one final (?) excerpt from Alan Bennet's diaries . . . . This 2004 diary entry (again, from Untold Stories [NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005]) has to do with Miss M. Shepherd, an eccentric (and some would say, mentally unbalanced) woman who appeared with her van in Bennet's garden in Camden Town one day, and took up residence there for some fifteen years up to her death.  She was an erstwhile postulant for more than one Catholic religious order who never quite made it to the vowed stage.  

Her madness was presumably part of the problem.

She was also a visionary who tended to sight the Virgin Mary wearing attire not normally featured in traditional Marian icons, including Queen Victoria's frocks or a sari.  And she was unswervingly devoted, to the point of total self-abnegation, to the causes that attracted her attention.  Bennett wrote about Miss Shepherd in his 1989 play "Lady in the Van," in which Maggie Smith played the lead role.

Here, he recounts Miss Shepherd's response to a disaster in which a boiler burst in his kitchen, spoiling a number of his yet-to-be published manuscripts stored in boxes in the kitchen:

11 October 2004: "I used to keep my manuscripts in boxes on the floor of the kitchen but about twenty years or so ago I had a burst boiler which flooded the kitchen and ruined half of them.  I told Miss Shepherd, then living in the van, of this disaster.  'Oh dear,' she said mustering what she could in the way of fellow-feeling.  'What a waste of water'" (p. 357).

Or was her name Shepherd?  Bennett admits that he's not certain whether Shepherd (or was it Sheppard?) was her surname, an assumed name, or even a married name, since, when he once addressed her as Mrs., for the sake of politeness, she smiled slyly and did not seek to correct him.

What we don't know about saints and their real lives would fill many books.  And hagiography that aims at being convincing needs to recognize the inconsistencies, contradictions, and unknowns in the lives of saints.

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