Girl in White

Girl in White

by Sue Hubbard

Paperback(2nd ed.)

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Girl in White, is the extraordinary and moving story of Paula Mendershohn-Becker told from the fictionalised perspective of her daughter Mathilde. Denounced as degenerate by the Nazis, after her death, Sue Hubbard has drawn on Becker's diaries and paintings to bring to life the artist's intense relationship with the poet Rilke and her struggle to find a balance between being a painter, wife and mother. Beautifully observed and evocative the novel is as satisfying as it is compelling.
"Imagine a chest of drawers - unopened for a hundred years. A woman today opens the drawers, unfolds what she finds and, as she does so, the garments become stories... the secrets of some exceptional, very lonely paintings, which had a considerable influence on "modern" German art.I recommend this haunting book."
John Berger

Beautifully written and wholly knowledgeable - Girl in White is a triumph of literary and artistic understanding, a tour du force: masterly, moving. 'Hubbard goes where few dare go, and succeeds. You are the less for not reading it.
Fay Weldon

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781907090684
Publisher: Cinnamon Press
Publication date: 11/06/2015
Edition description: 2nd ed.
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.06(w) x 7.81(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt



... and then it begins to snow. As I step from the bus large white flakes land on the rim of my felt hat, soak my lisle stockings, and seep into the leather soles of my new T-bar shoes. It's the first fall of the year and has come too early. I should have dressed more sensibly, but hadn't expected this turn; nothing is normal these days. That's why I had to come now. Soon it might not be possible. I've heard the hectoring tones over the airwaves, seen the crowds gathering in the streets, the banners, the torchbearers and the flags.

I can smell it in the air, another war.

It terrifies me, but I can't think about it now, about what it might mean for the future; mine and this country's. Today's my birthday. November 2nd, 1933.

And what else should I do to celebrate the day of my birth other than come back here to visit my mother? Who else should I turn to with my broken heart? On the bus from Bremen I got out my little diary with the black calf cover to count the weeks again, just to be sure. But there's no mistake.

I thought feeling sick was simply a symptom of grief. It never occurred to me, naïve as it sounds, that there might be some other reason. I'm not even sure when it happened. But this simple fact changes everything. It gives me a reason to go on. After you left there was nothing to live for. I wish more than ever that my mother, that Paula, was around. I'm sure that she'd have understood. Maybe coming here I'll feel a little closer to her, be able to make some sense of everything that has happened.

As I hurry from the bus turning up the rabbit-fur collar of my coat against the flurries of damp sleet and pull down my felt hat, I pause by a clump of tall birches, uncertain where to go. I've pictured the village so often that now I'm actually here I feel disorientated. From where I'm standing I can look out over the open landscape at the paths and canals that criss-cross the dark moors. The sky is the colour of dishwater and low clouds lie in a heavy blanket over the horizon. I make my way along the cobbled pavement past the cottages with their high thatched roofs and whitewashed facades latticed with black crossbeams. A few lights glow in the afternoon dusk and I stop outside the gate of Heinrich Vogeler's Barkenhoff, basically a farmhouse like the others, though it's more isolated in its large garden. I know it, of course, from his painting; the green gate and high windows half hidden by pink rambling roses. I've always known it. My father, Otto, bought the painting when we moved away the year after my mother died. I grew up with it, knew the names of all those sitting on the terrace that summer evening talking and playing music. On the left is my mother, with my father Otto, and Clara Westhoff-Rilke. Vogeler's wife, Martha, is standing on the steps in the middle of the picture flanked by two bay trees. She's wearing a green satin dress with a white lace collar and leaning against the balustrade, holding a large wolfhound on a leash. On the other side of the terrace are Heinrich Vogeler and his brother Franz, playing a flute. Someone else is playing the fiddle. A group of young friends in a garden on a summer evening seated among roses and potted pink geraniums, reciting poetry, making music, and dreaming dreams.

But when I reach the actual house it looks nothing like the painting. It's rather run down and a group of whey-faced boys with cropped hair and chapped knees is planting potatoes in the garden. I make my way in the flurrying snow through the village, up the sandy path to the church with the white wooden clock tower. It was here that my mother Paula and her friend Clara climbed the belfry one balmy August evening and rang the bells out over the sandy mound of the Weyerberg. Thinking there was a fire the frightened villagers ran from the houses clutching their pots, pans and brooms, still dressed in their nightshirts and petticoats. I want to find the little carved cherub and painted orange sunflowers that the pastor demanded from Paula and Clara by way of a penance.

Inside a group of women is decorating the church for a wedding. They look up as I come in, smile, and then turn back to their work. They are tying small bouquets onto the ends of the grey-painted pews; lilies, white roses and ivy. Aluminium buckets and vases half-filled with water stand among the aisles. All the women seem to know each other and chat while they work. The walls are whitewashed, as if the snow has blown in under the door and through the cracks, filling up the little church. The scent of lilies is overpowering. Cut stalks lie scattered on the stone floor in the zinc light. At one end of the knave is a simple carved altar; at the other an organ; its gleaming pipes graded like a set of shinning steel teeth.

I wonder what it would be like to be a bride. What it would have been like if things had been different. And for a moment I can't think of anything other than that last kiss on the crowded station, snatched amid the stream of embarking and disembarking passengers, the warmth of your mouth, your smell mingling with mine before you pulled away and walked out of my life forever; a slim figure in a long tweed coat and felt hat, carrying your violin.

I watched as long as I could, as you made your way past the kiosk with its hoarding for Manoli cigarettes, past the elderly businessman waiting on the corner in a black coat with an astrakhan collar, past the young soldiers and porters, watched as you walked towards the train that would take you back to your American wife; out of my arms forever, to safety across the sea. So many leavings and partings; brothers, husbands, lovers, sons, and then the whistle, the high-pitched wail of the train, like a knife in my heart.

I return to that image over and over, rummaging in my brain like someone searching for an old photograph at the back of a drawer. But I'm afraid of spoiling it with overuse, so that it becomes as faded as an over washed dress. Memories are all I have now. It was a risk to say goodbye, let alone snatch that last kiss. But how could I have asked you to stay? I imagine you, now, on that ship, half way across the Atlantic, half way across the world, dancing with your wife in her ivory chenille dress that shows off her thin white shoulders and slender neck with its string of milky pearls. I can see the band in the ballroom. Their white tuxedos and black bow ties, the trombonist's cheeks puffed out like two balloons: I can't give you anything but love, baby ... and I remember that afternoon when I came for a lesson and you put that record on the phonograph, lowered the needle and took me in your arms, humming those words in my ear, as we danced round your study, watched by the plaster busts of Beethoven, Handel and Chopin.

I came here because I need to make sense of the past. My childhood was spent with my father Otto and with Louise who, to all intents and purposes, acted as my mother, and with Elsbeth and my young half-brothers Ulrich and Christian. Then there were the years of music study in Munich. It was a well regulated, ordered life. How hurt Father would be if he knew that I'd come to Worpswede. I think he'd feel betrayed, as though he hadn't done enough. Of course he did his best, but what did he know about bringing up a small child? This place belongs to Paula and he never talked of her. That part of his life is a closed chapter. As far as the world's concerned he's Otto Modersohn, the famous artist. No one remembers her. No one remembers Paula Modersohn Becker.

My parents married in May. It was a simple enough wedding. Paula in a white muslin dress, my father, Otto, ten years older and a widower looking, from the photograph I still have, stern and professorial in his dark suit, with his wire glasses and newly trimmed beard. Paula is much shorter; her hair looped simply at the nape of her neck. I'm told by those who knew her, by my aunt Milly and my grandmother, that I look a little like her. It feels strange to think of these family events that preceded my birth. I try to imagine them, but I can't. In the wedding picture my half-sister, Elsbeth, is holding a small nosegay. She looks very serious and seems to be embracing her role as handmaiden. She spent seven years with my mother; I only had days.

Was Paula happy on her wedding day? I think she must have loved my father then, or at least believed that she did. But how can I possibly know? Perhaps, in the end, all relationships are a compromise. Who knows why anyone else makes the decisions they make; why the squat little man with a receding hairline is the focus of one woman's passion, or what the blond boy sees in his older married lover? And I'll never know for sure how much Paula really wanted me; really wanted a child or if, given the choice, she would have stayed on in Paris working in the thick of things and not have come back to Worpswede. In the end, despite me, father, and even Rilke, painting was the most important thing in her life. I treasure these photographs and carry them everywhere. For me my mother will always be defined by the one taken by the photographer who came from Dresden days after I was born, where she stares dark-eyed directly into the camera from her bed, as I, Mathilde, lie in her arms testing out my week old lungs.

The snow is falling faster now, scattering over the well-tended graves like a coating of icing sugar. As I walk through the church porch into the cemetery I hear a crunch on the gravel and look up to see an old man clearing the paths. He has a shaven, bullet-shaped head and wears a coarse potato-coloured jacket. He nods as I pass, then looks down again and goes back to sweeping the falling snow.

It's very silent, as though the world is slowly being buried. Spruce and small fir trees line the paths. I'm not sure where my mother is as I search among the moss covered tombstones carved with angels and fat-faced cherubs. Many of the headstones are inscribed in old Gothic script. I brush off the falling flakes with my bare hands, but still can't decipher them and continue making my way up and down the rows, stopping at a pale upright slab and a simple rough-hewn granite stone. Then, as I turn a corner and walk down a path I've not walked before, I see it on the far side of the churchyard by the hedge.

How could I have missed it, the carving of a woman with bare breasts draped in Grecian robes, reclining on a mausoleum? A small child sits in her lap. As I go up closer I can see the woman isn't touching the child, but staring at the dark sky. It's Paula — my mother — with me, carved in white marble. The mason's made me look older than I was when she actually died. It feels odd to be part of a memorial to the dead whilst I'm still alive. I don't know who paid for it, but I doubt it was my father. I stand staring at the statue thinking about the cells dividing within me, cells half-made up of your DNA, and realise that whoever we are, whatever we've done we'll all end up in a place like this. Then I unwrap the white roses I brought from Bremen and lay them in my stone mother's arms. Soon the fragile petals are covered in snow.

Is that why I came? To fill the space left by you, Daniel, with some memory of her? I want to go back to that yellow house with the red roof where I spent my first weeks. For me it'll always be more than just a house with a sloped attic, flowered wallpaper and a vase of freshly picked sweet peas on the sill. For me, it'll always be home.

It's getting very cold now. I try to retrace my footsteps to the gate, but they've disappeared beneath the falling snow. I have to find somewhere to stay before it gets really dark. Tonight, while I sleep in some strange bed, I'll dream, as I always do, of you.

And tomorrow? Well, tomorrow, I shall begin my search for Paula.



The Elbe was clogged with ice and floodwater streamed off the mountains. Torrents of rain alternated with flurries of snow, piling in drifts along the roads, hedgerows and railway lines. Though a conscientious man, Wodlemar Becker couldn't worry about his wife. He'd have to leave that to the midwife. The new railroad embankments along the river were giving way and not only were millions of Deutschmarks at stake, but his reputation as an engineer. Men were battling up to their knees in the icy slush, shoring up the banks with wooden stakes and iron girders, trying to prevent collapse.

After the old nurse had cleared away the afterbirth, wrapped up the bloodied sheets, swaddled the baby and placed her in her mother's arms she changed her stained apron, heated some coffee and overfilled the paraffin stove so the flames shot up in an inferno towards the velvet curtains. Screaming, she ran to the young mother's bedside, where, despite her recent long labour, the young woman had the presence of mind to extinguish the blaze. Though with the commotion, bad weather and the worry that her husband would be buried beneath an avalanche of snow and mud, Mathilde Becker developed an infected breast, which had to be wrapped in hot poultices and then lanced. Yet even though it took her six months to recover from her confinement, she didn't love her third child less than any of her others.

Inside the freezing church the pastor held the lace bundle in the crock of his arm, dipped a big beetroot hand into the stone font and marked the child's forehead, just beneath her frilled silk bonnet, with the sign of the cross. The icy water made her scream, but Woldemar Becker looked on indulgently, for he'd never been one of those men who only wanted sons.

'Look my dear,' he said, turning to his wife, 'at her snub nose. And those lungs! Our little daughter has quite an opinion already. See how she grips my finger and reaches for her old Papi's beard.'

As Paula knelt on the Turkish rug among the swirls of dark acanthus leaves she could feel the scratchy wool even through her thick winter stockings. She had rushed through her sums and music practice and was laying out her pencils and sticks of charcoal next to a large sheet of paper on the floor. On the far side of the room was her mother's bureau with the little drawers stuffed with letters tied in red ribbon and the Venetian glass paperweight with green florets that went on and on forever when she held it up to the light. And by the door there was the mahogany cabinet of Dresden china that had belonged to her grandmother, and the silver samovar her father had brought from Odessa, which sat next to the tawny owl in a glass case, which stared down at her with its beady yellow glass eyes from its high shelf. Above the fireplace was the portrait of Mutti in a dove-grey dress, her long hair tied with a blue bow, painted before she married Papi. She must have been about eighteen; only seven years older than Paula was now.

The coals in the grate glimmered making shadows in the room's cold corners and, despite the heavy velvet curtains, there was still a draught. As Paula pulled the stick of charcoal over the paper the carriage clock on the mantle ticked into the silence. Chiaroscuro; recently she'd learnt that this was the word for the effects of contrasted light and shade. The great artist, Leonardo, Papi had told her, when'd he got down the big leather book in his study to show her the engraved plates, had been the pioneer. Other artists such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt had also experimented with it. It was one of the great discoveries of the Renaissance and, if she wanted to be serious about her art, then she'd need to master this difference between light and dark.

Chia-ro-scuro: she rolled the Italian word round her mouth like a lump of barley sugar. Then, sitting back to admire her handiwork, wiped her fingers on her pinafore leaving black smears on the clean white cotton. Why weren't the marks on the paper she made more like the thing she actually saw? She tried to make the charcoal lines look like the cat, but they remained flat and inert. With the ball of her thumb she smudged the edges to soften the contours but as she did so the cat got up, stretched and walked off with its tail in the air.

She laid her left hand on the paper and traced round the square nails and ragged cuticles that Mutti was always scolding her for biting. So what if the cat left? She didn't care; she would be her own model. She got up and went to the mirror by the door and examined the tawny eyes and slightly bulbous lips staring back at her. She wished that she had Mutti's mouth. But that was just vanity. She had nice chestnut hair and rosy cheeks and should be satisfied with what God had given her. She may not be as pretty as her big sister Milly; but it wasn't a bad face, at least one she could draw whenever she wanted.

Outside in the snow filled streets she could hear the muffled shouts of the errand boys dropping off pumpernickel and pickled herrings to Frau Linderman, and the clatter of the iron rings on the beer kegs as they rolled over the cobbles into the cellars. It was even too cold for the dogs to bark. They'd slunk back into the warmth of their kennels.


Excerpted from "Girl in White"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Sue Hubbard.
Excerpted by permission of Cinnamon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 - Mathilde,
2 - Paula,
3 - Mathilde,
4 - Paula,
5 - Mathilde,
6 - Paula,
7 - Mathilde,
8 - Paula,
9 - Mathilde,
10 - Paula,
11 - Mathilde,
12 - Paula,
13 - Mathilde,
14 - Paula,
15 - Mathilde,
16 - Paula,
17 - Mathilde,

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