Literary breaks

I’m watching you

May my appearance preserve me from all sentimentality

By Joy Sorman 25 January 2018


© Elisa Haberer / OnP

La Traviata, Opéra national de Paris, 2014

I’m watching you
What do they look at, those spectators, when they come from far and wide to witness the slow mutation of a woman succumbing, body and soul, to putrefying sickness? La Traviata, that grand opera of female tragedy, based on the life of Marie Duplessis, has inspired the novelist Joy Sorman to write a short story with overtones of Alexander Dumas. Once again, bodily strangeness and otherness offer vast narrative potential.    

And yet he'd promised to marry me, sworn it even; he had said, word for word: my love, I swear it.

As if I’d asked for anything.

He knelt down solemnly, took from the breast pocket of his jacket a little domed leather box containing this ring studded with gems that sparkled on my downy finger.
He didn’t say exactly when but added that very soon, as soon as possible, in the spring certainly, we would get married in the country; he spoke of poppy fields, of barrels of well chilled Arbois wine, spit-roasted pigs, an orchestra under a pergola, and I believed him, a perfect stranger.

He wasn’t the first man to have designs on me, I was used to it by that time, I had seen perverts and sadists come and go, I thought I could spot them a mile off now, but him, why I don’t know, I trusted him, I let down my guard; perhaps I fell in love with his diffident air, fell under the charm of his awkward manner, a courteous man, delicate, with beautiful, feline eyes, wide and flecked with amber.
He came every Sunday at eleven o’clock, sometimes bringing me a flower or a bag of violet comfits which he placed at my feet without a word, merely blushing – out of pleasure? Or shame? We barely spoke – visitors pay to pass through the heavy red velvet curtain and look, that’s all – he murmured a compliment – you look radiant this morning, your rosy complexion lights up my day.

I should have been on my guard: how could the man have admired my complexion with a huge red beard devouring my face?
It started at puberty, first a light feathering over my upper lip – nothing to worry about – then a few bristly hairs on chin and cheeks – it was unattractive but it could still pass muster, we pulled them out with tweezers one by one – and towards the age of 15, the village doctor diagnosed irreversible hirsutism. Not satisfied with being a redhead, I had become a bearded lady, with a beard worthy of a Viking, thick and mossy, like a climbing plant little by little invading my face. At first, I cut it, trimmed it and shaved it each day, but seeing it grow back more luxuriant and become thick, a real bush of fire and honey-coloured hair, I gave up.

Then my father sold me to a fair. Having declared me unfit for marriage, ill-suited to having children.
This didn’t come as such a blow: I was to escape working in the fields, escape from a back-breaking life of misery and frustration on the farm as well as from my cantankerous mother and three shrewish sisters; and I hope that the bag of gold pieces my father obtained in exchange for his monstrous daughter improved the lot of my family. Above all, I was to see the big city, my owner – a paunchy man who sported a boater, venal but considerate – being the owner of thirty or so fairground stalls on the Champ de Mars in Paris, an excellent location.

I was installed in a well-appointed caravan – lace curtains, wool mattress, Afghan carpet and a small armchair -, in the section reserved for freaks, in the company of the dwarves, Hans and Frieda, Krao the monkey child and two pairs of Siamese twins from Belgium – all noble souls and pure hearts within the casket of their deformities.
I work from Thursday to Sunday, offered up to all eyes and fantasies; the rest of the week I laze around in bed or wander around Paris, my face hidden by a dark veil; the few pence I have earned throwing myself to the wolves I spend on illustrated magazines, amber to perfume my beard, kohl for my eyelids and boxes of marzipan sweets.

It took me a month or so to accustom myself to the reactions, often vehement, of the spectators: the stupefied, sometimes disgusted, cries of the children who often wriggle out of their parents’ arms to pull on my beard; women who insult me; embarrassed men who are seized with pity for me or slap their thighs on first seeing me; the condescending, scornful or sometimes kindly and tender looks, and even dogs who sniff me with interest, wagging their tails.
I realise that I am eminently exotic in their eyes, a prodigy, one of nature’s rejects that excites their imagination and their senses. Attractive and repulsive, an object of fear and delight, I have been asked by some of them for my autograph, by others to lift up my skirts, nobody remains indifferent to my sexual ambiguity, to my physical deviances.

It took me some time to become aware of the erotic charge I carried within me like a small bomb. I was desired with an inadmissible, brutal desire, by women too, who longed to bury themselves in my beard and seize my breasts.
I am the most sought after woman at the fair.
Only the celebrated Hottentot Venus overshadowed me for a while; the news of her arrival spread throughout the town and the very next day, an hour before the doors opened, a troupe of feverishly excited men had congregated. How could I compete with the woman scientists considered to be the missing link between humans and animals? My beard paled into insignificance beside her spectacular morphology: a magnificent steatopygia, hypertrophy of the hips and buttocks doubled by an extraordinary macronympha, resulting in protruberant sexual organs. The Hottentot Venus fired the imagination, aroused the impulses of even the most apathetic men, and, I who cannot bear anyone to touch my beard, I fumed as I watched people shamelessly squeezing the Venus’s buttocks; she seemed oblivious to everything, so resigned that I was seized with the desire to save her, to take her far away from here. A longing to escape I had never formulated for myself.

A month later, the black Venus had disappeared, no doubt delivered up to other ravenous eyes.

After her departure, the men turned their attention back to me. Was I expecting love? I never perceived it in the shifty-eyed, fleeting glances of the visitors queuing up like dealers at a horse-fair.
There was no lack of propositions however, some of them explicit, crude, backed up by large sums of money, others more circuitous, timid, indirect. Billets doux slipped into my beard or official requests whispered furtively into my ear; from the more churlish the smacking of lips, a wink or an obscene gesture.

I systematically refused, I rejected them, one after the other, even the wealthiest of them: I was determined to give my virginity, not to the highest bidder but to the most delicate.

For I follow in the footsteps of Saint Wilgefortis, the protector of bearded women. She had made a vow of chastity and, when her father wanted to marry her off by force, she implored God’s help and a miracle happened: the very next morning, the young woman found herself with a beard, which immediately discouraged her suitor. Saint Wilgefortis, however, paid dearly, crucified for witchcraft.

And then Rodolfo appeared on the scene, with his gracious manners, his attentions and a sudden proposal of marriage. Perhaps I was tired of that life, I timidly accepted, not really convinced, but over the days that followed, something took shape, densified; I let this new-born love flourish and within a week it had become all-important. I was going to give my maidenhead to a stranger who had not even suggested a romantic meeting outside the fairground. Of course, I ought to have found that suspicious.

The following Sunday I put on my most beautiful dress with a bodice of yellow organdie, made up my eyes, rubbed my beard with oil to make it shine then stuck it with scented rose buds – I was ready, my heart pounding, my resolve taken.
I waited for Rodolpho in vain, it was the first time in months that he had not come. Towards five o’clock in the afternoon, an old woman, gaunt and elegant, in a lilac costume, came through the curtain. She bent down towards my ear and, in an expressionless voice told me that her son Rodolpho was not coming, would never come again, ever. After which she left, without a glance, without the slightest hesitation.
Had he been toying with me or had he taken fright?
I had been very naïve; no point lamenting my plight in spite of the pain that grips my stomach, the searing iron of wounded pride, the loss of love, a miserable sentiment that makes us weep for something we barely possessed.

Was Rodolpho just another well-to-do young man, lacking in courage and audacity, drawing back at the last moment, repressing his desire for the sake of propriety, his joie de vivre to his reputation?

I will not be a victim. Sentiments should be sacrificed, not women; I did not live for love and I shall not die of it. Let my beard preserve me from all sentimentality!
Must I then marry the Elephant-man, a man with no legs, or a sword-swallower? Are freaks and fairground artists doomed to form their own little world, isolated from the properly born, from those who look at us without seeing us?

You need us, you need monsters in order to feel alive; we harlots and dwarfs, the atrophied, the amazons, we bearded women and black Venuses, we make your lives bearable, sometimes beautiful, we people your dreams, being both witch and fairy, protector and temptress.

During the nights that followed, I dreamt a lot about Rodolpho – Rodolpho in a cage, Rodolpho lashed by a whip, Rodolpho tattooed from head to toe, a Lilliputian fitting in the hollow of my hand or tucked into my long beard as if in a nest of ferns. And in the morning I combed that cursed and venerated beard with yet more care than usual, with rage even, perfuming it excessively – magnolia juice, incense sticks and blackcurrant extract, smoothing it for hours or twisting it into little plaits tied up with silken ribbons.
In the mirror I saw that russet fleece wet with tears; I would then draw myself up, assuming a haughty demeanour, a distinguished, theatrical air, before slipping through the curtain to take my place on the little platform, on my padded seat, haloed in the murky light of the oil lamp.

I am the bearded lady, from now on I’m the one watching you.
This article is also available in the folder La Traviata

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