Photographs. We take photographs for so many reasons. Whether they're framed, placed in albums, displayed in museums or dog-eared photos kept in a wallet, they commemorate and capture moments in time, people, places, events. They are tangible, concrete records of our sometimes faulty, unreliable memories. Photographs tell stories, communicate, document, persuade, help us discover hidden truths about ourselves and the world around us. They are chroniclers of the passage of time, silent witnesses to who we are and were, what we've endured, how time changes us. Roland Barthes asserts in Camera Lucida that photographs do not recreate "what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but attest that what I see has indeed existed." They are proof. Perhaps even evidence, then. All of these things and more.
After finishing Simone St. James' Lost Among The Living, I kept thinking of how significant photographs, sketches, and drawings were in relating the entire narrative, specifically an agent of change for Jo Manders, how they defined her and limited her at the beginning of the book, how they helped her cope with fears of her mother's "madness" being visited on her daughter, how they related to the strange, mysterious events at Wych Elm House, how they morphed into the instrument of Jo's autonomy and liberation when all events had been resolved.
For three years I had been trapped in amber—first in my fear and uncertainty, and then in a slow, chilling exhale of eventual, inexorable grief. (6)
When Jo Manders is introduced, she is trapped. For years, Jo has been the one to untangle the twisted threads of her "mad" mother's increasingly erratic behavior - her mother's restlessness, wandering at night, petty theft, her inability to keep a job.
We’d cobbled together food and shelter, somehow, for the first eighteen years of my life. When she was lucid, it was hard, but it was manageable. When she wasn’t—which was more and more frequently as time went on—I existed in a sort of blind panic, unable to think or breathe, pulling myself from one minute to the next, one hour to the next, waiting for some inevitable, terrible outcome, yet fighting it.(10)
Behavior that forced Jo to grow up very quickly, become expert at dodging authorities and police and soothe outraged neighbors or strange men her mother followed for reasons only she knew. Bearing witness to her mother's breaks with reality in the stories of a mysterious viscount who shall rescue both mother and daughter and unable to trust anything her mother told her, Jo was very much "trapped in amber."
I never knew when she was lying to me—she’d find a photograph of a stranger and tell me it was my father, or she’d tell me of the days she’d traveled with the circus, dancing for the audiences in tights and a pretty tiara. (11)
Jo has always had to be the adult, never a child. The photograph Alex finds at Jo's flat the night they meet emphasizes just how perilous and insecure Jo's life was with her mother.
“What is this?” Alex asked. I glanced through the doorway to see him holding a framed photo, one of the few mementos I kept in the flat.
“That is me,” I replied, ducking back into the bedroom and continuing to undress. “Mother had work for a time as an artist’s model, and she convinced the studio to hire me as well. I didn’t last.” I had been unable to sit still, or still enough. I had wanted to sketch instead. He was silent for a moment. The photo showed me in nothing but a simple Greek toga, cut to midthigh, sitting chin in hand on a stool with leaves woven into my hair, the fabric of the toga falling artfully off my shoulder almost to the level of my small breast. “How old were you?” he asked.
“Thirteen.” I folded the lavender dress carefully and put it away.
I heard a click as he put down the sketch in its small frame. “Dear God, Jo.”
“We had to make a living,” I snapped, pulling the pins from my hair.(70)
All of Jo's needs and choices were circumscribed by her mother's illness, her needs. Then, as a young woman, Jo's decision to institutionalize her mother as her condition worsened was impossibly hard and left her riddled with guilt. Jo selected the best asylum for her mother's care, the best she could afford, one whose fees to provide quality care for her mother compelled Jo to "type or perish." Even if it meant fending off a sleazy lawyer who couldn't keep his hands or innuendos to himself.
She's trapped at first in "fear and uncertainty", fighting for survival and then in her "inexorable grief" after her husband, Alex Manders, is reported as "Missing In Action" having enlisting in the RAF during World War I. Trapped in amber. Because the War Office determines Jo is neither fish nor fowl, neither widow nor wife, there is no pension, and government red tape makes no allowances for a young woman struggling on her own to provide for her mother's care. She's trapped once again in a position she doesn't particularly like as the intermittently paid companion to a difficult and unkind woman, Dottie Forsyth, Alex's wealthy aunt. Once again Jo's needs, Jo's choices, possibilities are narrowed, cut off, and suspended in deference to another person's demands.
For months after the end of the war, Jo accompanies Dottie in her relentless pursuit of art not for art's sake, but as the means to increase her wealth. She blatantly takes advantage of families looking for an influx of cash after the war ends, buying low and selling high, in her apparent greed. Jo is there not as a member of Dottie's family by marriage but in the role of a servant, to fetch and carry for Dottie, to make appointments, to handle correspondence, whatever is needed. Now Dottie has decided to return home to Sussex, England, to Wych Elm House, because her son, Martin, grievously injured during the war, is finally healthy enough to return home. There's a part of Jo that's relieved to be returning to England where she won't be forced to watch "tourists blithely lead their children" around the Colosseum or the Eiffel Tower "and snap photographs as if we'd never had a war." It's easy to understand her ambivalence and her sense of overpowering loss seeing the family that she won't have. Alex is gone but these landmarks still stand. Having to bear witness to families that remain intact and whole, the promise of a future in the children are all visible reminders of everything she's lost . There's also a part of Jo that is frightened and uncertain as she realizes she can't be Dottie's companion/assistant forever. Yet another moment she's "trapped in amber."
Dottie is proud of her son, proud that he served honorably in the war, relieved that he'll be coming home. One of her favorite pastimes is to corner strangers across the Continent, at every opportunity, even on the steamer while crossing the Channel to "show off" photographs of Martin in his uniform, with an accompanying well-rehearsed narrative of what a dear boy he is and how is coming home to be married.
“Manders,” she said to me—though my name was Jo, one of her charms was the habit of calling me by my last name, as if I were the upstairs maid—“Mrs. Carter-Hayes wishes to see my photographs. Fetch my photograph book from my luggage, won’t you? And do ask the porter if they serve sherry.” (1)
Jo knows Dottie also had a daughter, Frances, a daughter who was mad, who suffered in many of the same ways Jo's mother had. Hallucinations, rages and terrors, wandering aimlessly. A daughter who fell or was pushed from the highest gable at Wych Elm House. Her death was labeled "suicide", but there are many questions and irregularities surrounding the circumstances of her death, "queer cousin Fran [who] had died in 1917" "poor thing", according to one of Alex's letters. Jo is very aware of the absence of treasured photographs of Frances in Dottie's "slender little photograph book with its yellowed pages", six or seven little slices of Dottie's life "trapped in amber." In fact, Dottie never mentions Frances's name at all. Sometimes what's missing is as significant as what is present.
What is the significance of the lack of photographs of Frances in Dottie's album and at Wych End? Is it an effort to erase her presence as if she had never lived? A way to forget all the turmoil associated with Frances, her "spells", the horror of her death, the mourning of a life unrealized? Is there an aspect of shame that a member of the Forsyth family committed suicide? Or maybe. . . Maybe they are simply the very painful reminders of a dearly loved daughter.
There is a similar lack of photographs in Alex's effects after Jo is notified of his MIA status. Before she left for the Continent with Dottie, Jo endured the painful process of discarding Alex's clothing and sorting through all his personal papers. But strangely, amidst bank records, school records, "all the milestones of his life", she found not one memento. "No letters, photographs, or journals. No postcards or souvenirs from vacations, no notebooks or letters from schoolmates. Not one. The man [she] had married was gone." It almost felt as if Alex Manders' identity had been erased. That the man she had married had never existed.
The significance and mystery of the missing photos, evidence if you will, Frances and Alex's existence are inextricably intertwined so as to feel almost one in the same. What really happened to Frances? Did she fall? Jump? Was she pushed? Who was the vagrant murdered in the woods on the same day Frances died? What happened to Alex Manders? Why is there conflicting information about his training and service? Why was his passport photograph in his war file? Why did he lie to Jo, taking authorized leave to visit Wych Elm House, talking to Frances the day before she died but not visiting Jo in London?
Pieces are missing, even the pieces present seem ill-fitting. Martin's pre-war photograph and the man Jo meets on her first day at Wych Elm House are jarringly different. In that photo, Martin had Dottie's "narrow, clean shape of a jaw", Robert's (his father) dark eyes and long lashes as well as "the charming ease of his smile", but Martin at Wych Elm House, post war, is a mere shadow of the man he was. The healthy, robust man in uniform has been replaced with "painful thinness of the long-term patient; his cheeks hollowed, his tidy shirt and jacket hanging as if from a clothes hanger in a shop", a man with "waxy pallor" giving the impression of an "oddly familiar stranger [she] could not quite place." Here, the photograph is a rather ghoulish marker of time passing, showing the ravages of ill health, a visual reminder of the horrors of war, the trials endured, a silent witness of a much changed man.
Photographs in Lost Among The Living reveal a lot about Dottie, Martin, Robert, Frances, Alex, and Jo. Whether it's chronicling a young girl facing adult choices or a proud mama's photographs of her heroic son as compared to the shell of the man who returns from that war, they are all parts of the whole. Including the missing photographs of a troubled daughter and Jo's beloved husband. These are small moments of time in both Jo and Dottie's lives. Without a doubt, the most powerful allusion is the way St. James utilizes the mysterious camera Alex purchased shortly before his disappearance. The duality of its purpose not only as the instrument for Jo's reassurance of her sanity and but also as the symbol and tool of her future independence was fascinating.
Eerie happenings begin as soon as Jo takes her first steps into Wych Elm House. She sees the ghostly apparition of Frances in the small parlor, hears spectral footsteps behind her, is troubled by terrifying dreams, watches helplessly as a menacing mist lies in wait for her at the edge of the woods, hears the low growl of Princer, Frances's imaginary companion/protector. Jo's vulnerability, the primary source of her lack of self-realization, is the persistent, nagging worry and fear that her mother's madness will be her future. It's easy, then, to understand how Jo begins to doubt her eyes, her ears, her sanity. Her sense of isolation is at times overwhelming. The camera with its heavy case, the only item she saved of Alex's and carted with her around the world, becomes her path to answers, a way to prove to herself she is not crazy, and the outlet for her long-suppressed need discover the part of herself that needs to draw, sketch, create.
I picked up the camera again, feeling the weight and heft of it. A pulse of excitement went through me. I could use this. I had never considered it before, but if I could buy film and a means of developing it, I could take my own photographs. The leaves, I thought. If I could take a picture of the leaves, I could prove they’re real. The mist that came to me in the night—I could capture it. Or possibly even Frances herself. I’m not mad. I’m not. I put Alex’s camera back in its case, snapped the latches shut, and left the room to ask if I could borrow the motorcar.(100)
A visit to the local village, Anningley, brings Jo in contact with a photographer's shop situated next door to the dressmaker's (an interesting juxtaposition of the evolving role of women in the workforce post World War I versus women functioning solely in domestic affairs pre World War I). The photographer shows her how to operate the camera, loans her a tripod, and rather condescendingly offers to show her how to develop her photographs.
"Can you teach me to do it myself? The developing?”
He gave me the sort of smile men have given women since time immemorial. “One thing at a time, my dear lady. I don’t wish to overwhelm you. Now, the case.” (102)
He also shows Jo a photograph in his portfolio of the Forsyth family a few years before Frances died. For the first time, she has proof positive the girl with the pearls in the small parlor had indeed been Frances. In the photo, Robert, Dottie's husband, was not so puffy, dissolute, "like a piece of paper that has been foxed over time." Indeed, he was slimmer, blandly handsome. Dottie, too, was "curiously softer, as if the years between had set the lines of her face in stone." Martin, a young man in the photo, shoulders back with "a confident smile on his face" was more like the photograph of Martin in uniform Jo was accustomed to. Neither image resembled the man she had met earlier.
Frances was placed beside her brother, seated on a chair in front of Dottie. She was perhaps twelve or thirteen, wearing a dress with puffed sleeves and a high lace collar. Her face stared out at me, the same face I’d seen in the small parlor—the high forehead, the clear, calm eyes. She was a few years younger than the girl I’d seen, wearing a different style of dress, her hair down around her shoulders and tied back with a ribbon, but she wore a string of pearls around her neck that I recognized. Her face wore no expression, and there were shadows under her eyes. Her gaze was serious and fathomless and somehow sad. I stared at her, captured in silver nitrate and printed on paper. I realized with a jolt that I didn’t just recognize her face—I knew her. I knew something of the fear she suffered, the isolation. I knew it because even though she was dead, she had made me see.(104-105)
For the first time, Jo sees Frances not as a terrifying specter, but as a girl "lost among the living", urgently trying to communicate her secrets to someone.
I loved that this book is an amalgam of gothic romance, historical mystery, with elements of "woo woo with a purpose." (Thank you for allowing me to borrow that phrase, Miss Bates Reads Romance.) From the sound of footsteps behind Jo but finding no one there, troubling dreams of "something falling past (her) window, the ruffle of a skirt and a sleeve, the fabric flashing" before she startles awake, a ghostly girl appearing in a small sitting room, the "big, angry beast" who howls and roams the woods since Frances's death, the tales of terror preventing the children of the village of Anningley from playing in the woods for fear of hearing a low, throaty growl are all pretty good examples of how Simone St. James conveys the sense of threatening menace from the other side. One of the eeriest scenes is as chilling as it is poignant. It's a scene in which Jo realizes Frances is definitely sending her a message. In other words, "woo woo with a purpose."
I stopped in my bedroom doorway.
I noticed the bed first: The cover had been pulled all the way down and trailed from the end of the bed like a bridal veil. On the table next to the bed, the shade of the lamp had been removed, and placed next to the bald light—which had been switched on—was a figurine I recognized from one of the glass cabinets in the morning room, depicting Salome cradling the head of John the Baptist in her lap, looking rather sorrowful; I could not think where Dottie had acquired it or why she had thought it worth money. The figure now sat under the glaring light of the lamp, John the Baptist’s unseeing eyes staring upward.
The wardrobe door stood partly open, and one of my cardigans had been pulled from it, half in and half out. The waist of the cardigan rested inside, and the neck and arms were drawn out the wardrobe door and onto the floor, the sleeves raised pitifully and eerily lifelike, as if someone inside the wardrobe drew the cardigan in against its will. The room’s only chair had been placed next to the wardrobe, and a pair of my shoes was set beneath it. A set of my stockings dangled empty from the seat to the shoes, one of my skirts lay on the seat, and one of my blouses hung unbuttoned from the chair’s back, the sleeves folded decorously on the lap of the skirt. The entire display, looking oddly like a woman sitting in a chair, was topped with the shade from my bedside lamp, balancing like a misshapen head.
Frances saw a door, David Wilde had said. The things she saw coming through that imaginary door were dead. She was showing me. She wanted me to see.
“Frances,” I whispered. I looked again at the figure in the chair. It looked withered and dead, inhuman, the head misshapen and eyeless, and yet it was a woman. Posed in a chair with her hands in her lap. Was she standing sentry over the awful doorway? Or mimicking the pose in the portrait I’d just seen? You’ve seen me, the hideous figure seemed to say. I see you. We see each other.
“I see you,” I said aloud. It was the best I could do. I could not look at the eerie chair anymore. I put the camera down and stood. I found myself staring at the lampshade as if it were a set of features looking back at me. I quickly turned and left the room, closing the door behind me. (107-109)(my emphasis)
What began as a way to reaffirm Jo's sanity morphs into something surprising and pleasurable. A creative and psychological outlet Jo had needed for years.
When I took photographs, alone in the slowly failing light, huddled inside a sweater and a coat, my feet damp and cold, my pretty dress and borrowed pearls left behind in my room, everything fell away. I did not think about Dottie’s family or my own uncertain future. I did not think about the fact that I could not spend the rest of my life as Dottie’s handmaiden. I did not think about Frances’s mysterious death and who may have pushed her from the roof. And I did not think the thoughts that threatened to consume my mind: that Alex had lied to me. That Alex had come to England without telling me. That he had been seen speaking at length with Frances the day before she died. You met a man, and you married him. But what did you know about him? He was a man, a stranger to me.
In the first days after my conversation with Dottie, the thought was like a fist in my gut. I had spent three years with the Alex I had in my mind, the husband I carried in my memories, so certain that the picture I had was accurate. Dottie’s words changed all of that. I wavered between shaky denial and cold fear, brought on by my memory of Alex’s face, his handsome features and extraordinary blue eyes those of a stranger. (121)
Jo enjoys the solitude of the early mornings, catching just the right light for her photographs, memorializing a "pretty view on a back road of the border of the neighboring property, a rustic path beneath a proscenium of thick autumn leaves." Or the peaceful almost meditative state that sets in as she walks, watches, and listens in the early mornings. Photos of the sea as it churns through a layer of early morning mist, the "ghostly outline" and sharp "right angles" of the distant Ministry of Fisheries building, "a single boat on the ocean drift[ing] into [her] vision."
The dawn light was just perfect, making the edges of everything soft, the mist diffusing the rising sun. (178-179)
It's her only chance to just breath and be, to taste freedom, before she faces Dottie's demands every morning at eight sharp.
Frances and Jo are in many ways kindred spirits, Jo's isolation due to the madness of her mother, Frances's isolation due to her tormented visions and the thing that watches her as well as their mutual creative talent. - Jo with her photographs and Frances's love of sketching. Frances, in her own mysterious and scary way, ensures Jo finds clues, like her sketchbook, leaving it under Jo's pillow one night.
It was a book. A large, flat book, the hard cover gleaming in the moonlight through the window. I touched it tentatively, found the texture of the paper rough. The pages inside were thick, some of them warped, so the top cover did not sit exactly level. I scooted over on the bed, turned on the bedside lamp, and opened it.
From the first page, I knew it was a girl’s sketchbook. The subjects were domestic: a vase of flowers, leaves on a checked tablecloth, a cat in the old stables behind the house. There was a profile of Dottie, her head bent over her work at the library desk, and another of Martin in his war uniform. All of them were detailed and clearly rendered, as if the artist had taken the time to catch every detail.
I turned the pages. There was a portrait of Wych Elm House, taken from the woods. Another of the vista that rolled down from the edge of the woods to the village, where I could see the spire of the church and smoke rising from some of the chimneys. I pictured Frances—for this was most certainly her work—sitting on the stile in the lane I’d passed only that day, perched for hours, drawing and drawing until her hands cramped and her feet lost all feeling. I could see it so clearly in that moment, it was as if I’d seen her again.
I tilted the page with the sketch of the village toward the light, looking more closely. From behind the hedgerow leading to the village she’d drawn a shadow, stretching long and dark, that did not fit with the rest of the scene. A man, perhaps? Or something else? I turned back the page to the picture of the house again and looked at it, too, under the light. There was a shadow breaking away from the main shadow of the house, difficult to see at first glance. And in an upper window, on the third floor, was the shadow of a face in the smudges of pencil, two deep-set black holes of eyes in a white oval.
She complained of a face that would appear at that very window. A man begging her to let him in.
It watches me.
Was it a man? It was impossible to tell. Was this the face Frances had seen in her nightmares, one of the many faces she claimed wouldn’t leave her alone?
Strangely excited, I leafed through all the pages of the sketchbook. Some of the pictures had shadows in them; some did not. The drawing of Wych Elm House was the only one that featured a face. Some of the book’s pages had been torn out, the jagged edges visible in the spine of the bound book. From outside my window, the dog with the low, throaty voice barked until the sound trailed off in a whining growl. (159-160)
The sketchbook is only the first of the clues Frances leaves for Jo to ponder and puzzle over. Jo also finds a small packet of photographs "tied with a faded ivory ribbon" in Frances's World Atlas for Girls. The first photo is of Frances as a baby, "staring with baffled solemnity into the camera" and on the back, in faint block letters, "Do you love her?" The second photo is again of Frances at about age three, holding Martin's hand in front of Wych Elm House and a bone-chilling message in the same blocky hand on the back: "It watches me." The third and final picture shocks and terrifies Jo for it is the photo Alex had remarked upon in her London flat, the one of Jo dressed in a chiton, of Jo posed at age thirteen. On the back? "Where is your mother?"
The photos and Frances's sketchbook reveal a truth in Frances's rantings of visions of dead people, the face at her bedroom window that begged to be allowed in, the thing that "watched" her. What is seen cannot be unseen. Once Jo "sees" Frances, one she "sees" the shadowy figure behind Martin and Frances in the second photo, she knows what Frances has been trying to communicate to her, what she intended her to see. That moment opens up a new world for Jo, gives her a new perspective. One which allows her to forgive herself a young girl's guilt, self-doubt, and resentment of her mother's illness, one which helps Jo reconcile her mother's madness with questions of a mother's love, and gives her permission to live in hope of the future instead of dread, to enjoy life's moments as they come.
My mother had loved me the best she could, as much as she could manage. Madness had never stopped that. I understood her better now. I understood what it was like to live in a haze of confusion and fear, and the courage it took to get out of bed every day to face a world that was baffling and sometimes terrifying.(307)
In the end, when Frances's mysterious death is resolved, when the questions regarding Alex's disappearance during the war and his lies, half-truths, and betrayals are laid to rest, the evidence, the proof, of all the strange events at Wych Elm House begin to disappear. Frances's sketchbook and the packet of photographs cannot be found, the figurine of Salome and John the Baptist is mysteriously returned to its cabinet, Jo's ruined wet camera is found dry and packed neatly in its heavy case once more. She realizes it was "all being erased as if it had never been." Whether she was as mad as her mother, or whether she awoke one morning to tell a tale of a viscount coming to rescue her, Jo no longer cared. She understood herself better now. She understood her mother better now. She was no longer "trapped in amber", fearing the future, wondering how she would and could continue fighting to survive. In the last paragraph or so, someone asks Jo "What do you want to do?" Six words. But encompassing a world of freedom and possibilities. No one had ever asked before, and Jo had never been free to wonder.
“I enjoyed the photography,” I said, wondering why the words felt slightly embarrassing. “I found it freeing. I’d like to take it up again.”
Not a single second of derision crossed his expression. “You’d like to be a photographer?”
“No,” I replied, surprised at how easy the answer came. “I want to learn it and get a studio, and then I want to teach it.”
[He] blinked, and his expression relaxed in that way that meant he was looking at something he liked. “You would be very good at that.” (317)