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By Laura Moncur in The Dowager Moncur's Spectacles

American Notes: In which Isabella Davenforth brings forth two volumes of stories to the Dowager Moncur.

Dowager Moncur's Spectacles by LauraMoncur from Flickr“Would you like to hear about what happened in America today?” After many months, winter melted into spring and spring warmed to summer. Isabella Davenforth and the Dowager Moncur had fallen into a routine of simplicity with a tinge of madness. Each morning, the old woman would nap in her room. After a late tea time, Isabella would read tales of adventure and science to the old woman. Afterward, Lady Moncur would ask the same question and Isabella would always answer, “Of course, my Lady.”

Today, however, Isabella had a surprise for her companion. After listening to the ongoing story of Artemus, Little David and Flying Arrow, she produced two volumes that she had ordered from London. “I have brought you two books that I believe you will enjoy very much. They are written by Charles Dickens.”

The old woman shook her head. “I don’t like serials, I told you. I prefer to wait until they are finished to start reading them.” Isabella smiled to herself. “Then you will be happy to know that this story is complete. It is called ‘American Notes’ and it is about his travels to America. I thought you would like to hear it.” The old woman looked at Isabella through the blue lenses of her spectacles. Her eyes blinked in a huge movement and Isabella was reminded of a butterfly, fluttering its wings. “It isn’t a serial?” Isabella smiled and replied, “I has been in print for over ten years.” The old woman repositioned herself on the bed and motioned for Isabella to read.

American Notes entertained them for many evenings. Many times the dowager would nod in agreement with Dickens’ words, mumbling, “Yes, it is just like that.” When Isabella came to Chapter III, however, both of them were surprised to read his account of a young girl named Laura Bridgman. She was a deaf and blind girl, who was able to conquer both handicaps to communicate with her family. When Isabella finished reading her story, she spoke to the dowager. “Lady Moncur, you love America so much, you should travel there. If a girl who is both deaf and blind can grow and achieve so much, then a woman of middling age such as yourself should be able to thrive as well, despite blindness.”

The old woman held up the blue lenses to her eyes and smiled. “I’ve contemplated the journey endlessly. My Lord Moncur traveled to the Americas many times, but I was never able to accompany him. There are dangers in that land that can snap up a soul within a moment, though. I am tempted to leave here for the Americas almost every day, but it is fear that keeps me a prisoner in this castle.”

Isabella raised the book to continue reading, but noticed that the next passage was Dickens’ visit to the State Hospital for the insane. There were dangers for the Dowager Moncur in the Americas, indeed. Here in the homeland, a mad woman of consequence was merely considered a burden to be managed discretely. In the Americas, they were locking them up in hospitals. No, a visit to the Americas was not something she was ever going to recommend to the Lady Dowager ever again.

Several evenings later, Isabella read the account of Dickens’ visit to the prairie. This seemed to be immensely interesting to the dowager. At one passage, she became increasingly agitated. Isabella read,

“Looking towards the setting sun, there lay, stretched out before my view, a vast expanse of level ground; unbroken, save by one thin line of trees, which scarcely amounted to a scratch upon the great blank; until it met the glowing sky, wherein it seemed to dip: mingling with its rich colours, and mellowing in its distant blue. There it lay, a tranquil sea or lake without water, if such a simile be admissible, with the day going down upon it: a few birds wheeling here and there: and solitude and silence reigning paramount around. But the grass was not yet high; there were bare black patches on the ground; and the few wild flowers that the eye could see, were poor and scanty.”
“Great as the picture was, its very flatness and extent, which left nothing to the imagination, tamed it down and cramped its interest. I felt little of that sense of freedom and exhilaration which a Scottish heath inspires, or even our English downs awaken. It was lonely and wild, but oppressive in its barren monotony. I felt that in traversing the Prairies, I could never abandon myself to the scene, forgetful of all else; as I should do instinctively, were the heather underneath my feet, or an iron-bound coast beyond; but should often glance towards the distant and frequently-receding line of the horizon, and wish it gained and passed. It is not a scene to be forgotten, but it is scarcely one, I think (at all events, as I saw it), to remember with much pleasure, or to covet the looking-on again, in after-life.”

The dowager was openly weeping and Isabella stopped reading. The old lady responded with invective anger, “Ungrateful and conceited man! How could he talk of the prairie that way?!” The Lady Dowager refused to allow Isabella read one more word. “How could he see what he has seen and not be filled with awe and inspiration?! I’ve never seen a sunset more beautiful than the ones on the prairie after a long day’s work.”

Isabella closed the second volume of American Notes and never opened its cover for the dowager again. It seemed to agitate her madness far more than ease it. In an attempt to appease the old woman, she asked, “Do you wish to tell me what happened in America today, my Lady?” Her companion wiped her eyes and replaced her blue lenses. “It is almost harvest time. Artemus has brought a new thresher from his journey back East and they are going to try it tomorrow, but Flying Arrow believes it will cause more work than save.”

Isabella breathed a sigh of relief at the dowager’s account of Artemus and Flying Arrow. She was uncomfortable to realize that the old woman’s insanity was getting worse as she more willingly shared her stories of these spectres. The stories were harmless enough, but the former reticence of talking about them was gone. It took more effort on Isabella’s part to hide the extent of her lady’s madness from Mrs. Danvers, and she feared what would become of the old woman if the full truth became known.