Belinda Jack’s poignantly erudite discourse on the life and myth surrounding Beatrice Cenci who was executed in 1599 for the murder of her father, Francesco Cenci, a man portrayed by history as sadistically brutal to all he encountered whose sexual perversions extended to his own family is a work that doesn’t quite end up delivering the richness of artistic and literary impact to the discussed artists/writers that is implied in the introduction.
Drawing first, in the introduction, on the similarities to enduring incest myths, then to Corrado Ricci’s attempt to truly define the face behind the painting commonly held to be that of Beatrice Jack’s states her intention to examine the reality behind the accusations and the subsequent literary impact Beatrice had on personages such as Shelley, Hawthorne and Artaud.
The first two chapters deal with, firstly, the trial and execution of Beatrice, her mother Lucrezia and brother Giacomo, going into particular detail on the nature of the `day’ and her younger brother Bernardo’s prison sentence. Secondly, with the crime itself, the half-hearted attempts to cover it up and the subsequent trial plus a brief history of the Cenci family, stressing the nature of the personality of Beatrice’s father and his repeated jailing over his life for various personal crimes against people.
Come chapter Three, Jack moves to deal with Shelley. Immediately opening with Shelley’s own words on seeing the Guido Reni portrait (which I confess confused me as the jacket of the hardback version is that same portrait yet I can’t quite see some of the things Shelley does. For instance he speaks of her golden hair. I can only see dark hair based on the book jacket. Still…) Jack then goes to briefly outline the concept that Shelley was a poet looking for an audience and his fascination with Beatrice can be seen in the posthumously published `Julian and Maddalo’. After a history of Shelley’s short life over 27 or so pages, the link to Cenci finally comes with Shelley’s only completed play, `The Cenci’ and Jack draws the conclusion that “his discovery of Francesco Cenci, whose character vindicated Shelley’s deep suspicions about the motivation of fathers in relation to their daughters.”
Chapter Four moves to Herman Melville. Jack again just gives us an account of his life and personality, draws attention to `Pierre’, his last novel and its reference to the Cenci portrait and concludes by moving to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Again, we are subjected to a biography of a man who was affected by firstly the antinomist, Ann Hutchinson and later the events surrounding Salem before he eventually came across Beatrice and produced, his final novel directly about the Cenci portrait and two differing reactions to it in the novel `The Marble Faun’. The chapter on Hosmer gives us a markedly different character to the previous writers. Harriet was a woman fighting against the artistic male prejudice of the Victorian world yet retained her sense of liveliness, sculpting her Beatrice Cenci out of pure interest. The following chapter on the Voyeurs best explains the concentrated artistic interest in Cenci with Jack’s opening: “The Cenci fever that took hold of the Florence set affected Robert Browning too, but somewhat indirectly”. This is probably the best chapter of the novel as it dispenses with the somewhat over lengthy biographies that dominate the chapters about individuals and concentrates solely on Cenci impact on Browning, Dickens, Stendahl, Dumas, and Cameron. Finally we come to Antonin Artaud, a somewhat Shelley-esque character whose personal drug compounded problems mixed with theatrical genius led to a play called Cenci.
This is a slender text and I came away feeling that Jack’s exploration of her opening gambit is quickly exhausted and there is a good deal of biographical information against the five main artists/writers she has explored, which, though interesting seems more to be `fill’. Jack’s opening sentence is:
“I am setting out to explore a disturbing subject: the response of writers and artists over the centuries to a young woman’s life of extraordinary suffering, and the revenge which led to her own violent death”.
Whilst Jack has identified those writers and artists, all we really have is a mini-biography and -psychoanalysis of them. The analysis of artistic response tends to give way to biography for each and I would have preferred to see more detail on the natures of the responses to Cenci’s tragedy rather than their lives before encountering her. The saving grace is that we do get this in Chapter Seven and, for this reader, it saved the book as I confess I found myself skipping large tracts of the biographical sections to find where Jack has dealt with the “the response of writers and artists over the centuries to a young woman’s life of extraordinary suffering, and the revenge which led to her own violent death”.
As a result I came impressed with the discussion on the collection of personalities for whom the story of Cenci had interested their artistic personalities but feeling that I had to search amongst a lot of `fill’ for those erudite analyses. Jack’s book has also stirred (for this reader, at least) interest in the historical story behind Beatrice Cenci and it is to that that I will turn for more information rather than the artists/writers that Jack has detailed.
Categories: Belinda Jack