Digging up the bones

For Issue 6, we’re asking artists to go underground to a world filled with buried objects. Think archeaologists, 19th century grave robbers, family secrets and long-buried emotions. From the mundane to the macabre, we can’t wait to see what you dig up.

“If in this place you are detained, don’t look around you all in vain, but cast your net and you will find, that every cloud is silver lined. Still.”
Anonymous poem found in a First World War tunnel dug under the Somme

In 2011, a team of archaeologists working on First World War tunnels buried under the village of La Boisselle – a key site in the Battle of the Somme – discovered a poem. In a war that produced a wealth of extraordinary poetry, this may not seem so remarkable and yet, while doing one of the most dangerous jobs during one of the war’s bloodiest battles an anonymous soldier took a moment to make art. Hopeful art.

But what’s particularly delicious about this discovery is the fact this poem was literally buried for a century. It was inscribed on a bit of rock, the writing still pristine after all that time.

Humans have buried things for millennia. Sometimes that burial is out of necessity – as the Great Fire of London headed towards his house, the great diarist Samuel Pepys thought nothing of digging a hole and burying his wine and Parmesan cheese. Sometimes it’s ritual – how many great cultures have buried objects with their leaders to help them navigate the afterlife? Sometimes we bury things for the sheer joy of knowing that one day someone else might find it, as demonstrated by the popularity of time capsules.

As a gothic novelist, Laura Purcell has a particular interest in this idea of burial, although in her new book – The Silent Companions – what is buried tends to be memories and emotions. And like all good gothic stories, those memories and emotions soon start spilling out in the sort of messy glory that makes this genre so fun to read. “In terms of character I’m fascinated by how little we truly observe about others. There are few people in life we can say we truly know,” she explains.

06_laura-headshot.jpg

That sense of uncertainty permeates The Silent Companions. Laura’s tightly-wound plot unfolds slowly, what is buried only revealing itself in hints and flashes, leading her characters to question their own sanity time and again. “The idea of memory loss is one that has inspired storytellers for a long time,” she says. “Tales of amnesia and dementia never fail to enthral. Are we still ourselves if we no longer have our memories?”

It’s possible to take that a step farther and ask: ‘are we still ourselves if the memory of us is forgotten by others?’ Could it be that La Boiselle’s unknown soldier wrote his poem believing that perhaps it might one day be discovered – a kind of literary time capsule? Might the silver lining refer to both his circumstances and ours, still trying to comprehend the horrors of the First World War?

We’ll never know the answer because both poem and its author exist in a liminal space –underground (itself a burial) trying to survive a place that represents both life and death. This sense of in-betweeness – of being both here and not here – is another classic gothic trope and, says Laura, probably dates back to wider belief in purgatory. “Masses would be said for the departed souls in an attempt to shorten the time they spent suspended, waiting for judgement,” she says. “As a society we appear to desire definition. Indecision makes us uncomfortable. We want to be in the land of either the living or the dead, not caught in the middle.”

The great gothic novelists knew how to play with this idea. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, of course, but also the Female Gothic genre, as embodied by the Brontë sisters. In Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff has the sexton literally dig up Cathy’s dead body so he might see her again. He doesn’t fear disturbing the dead, he tells Nelly, the housekeeper, since Cathy has haunted him for the past 18 years. It is one of gothic’s finest moments.

“[The Brontës] suggest a life devoid of emotional truth is like being buried alive,” says Laura. “Women’s repressed lives are represented as those of captives. In this way a ‘living death’ is made more fearsome than the death itself.”

Emily’s sister Charlotte meanwhile spawned an entire line of literary criticism with her portrayal of Bertha in Jane Eyre. Bertha is the ‘madwoman in the attic’ – itself a liminal space, a place where we bury (albeit at height) the objects that we no longer need and yet can’t quite part with. Attics are almost always filled with the detritus of someone’s life and the best ones are stuffed with secrets. Or people.

In The Silent Companions the attic is actually a locked garret. Locked for good reason, as it turns out. Over the course of the novel, this room comes to represent everything our protagonist – Elsie – wishes to avoid and yet, like Pandora’s Box, once opened, everyone is changed.

companions

‘Dummy boards’ – the silent companions of Laura’s novel – are flat, oil-painted figures, usually life-sized made popular in the early 17th century. The figures often represented servants, soldiers, children and animals. These two can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Interestingly, what isn’t buried so much are the bodies themselves – we get to see them in all their magnificent, macabre glory. Some of this, says Laura, was out of simple necessity, but she explains, “I did want Elsie to be forced to face her grief and guilt in a very physical form. The idea of burial suggests that something has been put to rest, whereas this is not the case with most people who die at The Bridge [Elsie’s marital home].”

The gothic genre may be more than 250 years old but, it seems, confronting ourselves remains our biggest fear and from Stephen King’s Carrie to Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others, via Edvard Munch’s The Scream, art has always provided a safe-ish space in which to explore this.

What makes our soldier and his poem all the more poignant is the fact that what he was doing was so secret that family and friends rarely knew the precise nature of their war work, which was digging tunnels in search of the enemy (who were digging their own) and setting off explosions. It was a nerve-shredding job in which death – from carbon monoxide poisoning, tunnel collapse or being buried alive because of an explosion – lurked around every corner. That a man in this situation might take the time to write poetry while burying so much himself is indeed remarkable.

Three questions for Laura Purcell

When was the last time a piece of art scared you?
I recently read the new novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, I Am Behind You. It’s a strange but compelling story – and, funnily enough, most of the characters have secrets buried in their past or concealed desires. But the bit that scared me was the acid rainstorm that descended on the protagonist. I’d never given this idea much thought before. You can’t hide from acid rain, can you? Even when you get inside, it’s slowly eating through the roof. That imagery freaked me out.

If you know something is buried, is it always right to dig it up?
I’m very much opposed to disturbing buried remains. I hate seeing mummified bodies on display in museums, it feels very disrespectful to me. In terms of Richard III, that was actually a positive thing, because it was about giving him a royal funeral rather than the hasty traitor’s grave he was thrown into. But in general, I follow the horror movie rule: someone has buried that for a reason, don’t unearth it!

Do you have a favourite real-life story about buried objects?
A real life story, from Colchester where I live. When workers were expanding the department store in the High Street, they found a stash of Roman era jewellery. It had been buried for safekeeping by a rich family, when they caught wind that Boudicca was coming to raze the town. You can just imagine their panicked haste as their foes descended upon them, and this hope that they would be able to return and claim their treasures. How poignant that they never did.

***

The Silent Companions cover image and Laura’s portrait are used here with her permission. The dummy boards images have been released by The Met under a Creative Commons license.

Find out more about Laura via her website laurapurcell.com or follow her on Twitter

 

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