Today we are presenting a series of four letters exchanged between Peter B. Smith and Katherine McGrail. These texts were inspired by their mutual admiration and respect of the book, “Of Human Bondage” by William Somerset Maugham.
My friend recommended I read the book. It was not enough to read it and I wanted to write her something to discuss. I wrote her the below. Assuming you have any thoughts on love, your comments are welcome.
With your words “this book taught me about unrequited love” in mind, I read Of Human Bondage. In all of the introduction I assured myself that the comment would reveal itself and I was ready for the revelation. After a night of reading and a day after that, I came on the first glimpse of understanding. Two days later I was at the end.
I can readily identify five women he loved or who loved him and see how none of those loves were at any time returned. There is too much to say about Mildred and little about Sally.
Who are the other three?
In Blackstable Philip’s meet his first love, and the author states at the beginning, “Philip made up his mind to dislike her thoroughly.” His aunt maintained her age at thirty seven and Philip assumed her age was twenty six. Her age is not confirmed, and Philip’s at the time is not either. It is known that he is not more than thirty at the end of this book and he has not left for Germany yet. He is somewhere in his teens, perhaps. At any age, that means that Miss Wilkinson can be considered far from his age and has a sense of the world that he lacks. The author gives the climax of this love with the final sentence of the chapter, “It was too late now. He closed the door behind him and locked it.”
When Philip arrives in Heidelberg, Germany, he is on his own for the first time. Still dependent on his Uncle and his Aunt financially, yes, and outside their view all the same. Here in Germany he is at what I picture to be similar to a modern hostel, where men and women and boys and girls of all ages and nations come together to lodge for a short bit. Here is where he finds his second love and when he pronounces his love for the first time, by slip of tongue. In the days before he says anything he is keeping as close to her as he can. The author describes, while he is in the presence of her, that Philip gets his first sense of beauty. Fräulein Hedwig confides in Philip that she is in love with a man before Philip lets slip. So to his inadvertent first-admitted love, he says “ich liebe dich.”
Some time after Germany Philip makes his way to Paris. “You be careful, my lad…she’s in love with you.” Not coming from her own lips, from Philip’s friends, Miss Price is only said to love him. It’s never made explicit. She does what she can to show her feelings by inviting Philip to see her paintings. It seems that he is privileged in being given the opportunity. It is an opportunity that seemingly no one would accept except Philip. His friends encouraged him along with their words. He appears to be with Miss price more for them and less for her. She dies by suicide. Her final written message is to Philip and it is then that he has a moment of fear. He rushes over, summons those with the power to enter her apartment. Then he sees her. He loves her too late.
What can be said after these loves?
From Philip’s love of Miss Wilkinson it can be said that love is ageless. To him, she is not good looking, maybe it is because of the difference in age. All the same, Philip is alive and maturing and his eyes fixated on the potential matches around him. With no one else around, love found an outlet.
From Philip’s love of Fräulein Hedwig it can be said that love is accidental. How different would his life have been if she had responded, “ich liebe dich auch?” She was torn away from the man she loved and sent to the same residence as Philip. Not by anyone’s intention, she became the first beauty he ever knew. Not by his own intention, he tells her with words what he was saying with his actions for days prior. To be loved was not her choice and to love was not his.
Miss Price could not say it to Philip, nor could she show it to anyone. She was always critical of others. Her warmest expression was in critiquing novice paintings. She displays a truth adults can speak to yet seldom talk about, that children instinctively feel and cannot articulate. That truth is that no one can live with the love of only themselves. From Miss Price’s love of Philip a final statement can be made. Love is tragic.
The book shows love from all angles. More than in those three relationships. Love is constantly missing the mark, never hitting a just the right moment. It’s grasping with Mildred. It’s all-too-real with Hedwig. It’s self-contained with Miss Price. It’s premature with Miss Wilkinson. It’s second-rate with Aunt Louisa. It’s detaching and attaching. It’s constantly unsatisfactory.
From Blackstable to Germany, from London to Paris, Philip is looking for the answer to one question, “do you love me?” And the answer is never yes or no.
I love that you included me in these musings! I can’t have much to say in direct relation to the book and its characters, as I have not read it; however, a few phrases stuck out to me in what you wrote. You summarize, ” From Philip’s love of Fräulein Hedwig it can be said that love is accidental.” I argue that love is never accidental. Infatuation can be accidental, but love is always a choice. When you truly love someone, you choose every day to cultivate that affection and care for them despite all else. You may unintentionally develop some interest and feelings for someone, but to truly love them is a choice.
When you say “Love is tragic” do you mean all love is always tragic? Or are you only referring to the specific situation with Miss Price? Why would you say it is tragic in general?
It sounds like Philip has some rough luck with love! This sounds terribly depressing. I do like the statement, “the answer is never yes or no”, because that is so true for love! I think love can be a spectrum, like so many things in life. There are so many different kinds and levels of love. It is not always a simple “yes” or “no”; in fact, it rarely is.
I love writing with you.
For reference and reading pleasure, below is an excerpt of the book that includes Philip’s “ich liebe dich” comment:
She was the daughter of a merchant in Berlin and a dashing hussar had fallen in love with her, a von if you please: but his parents opposed a marriage with a person of her condition, and she had been sent to Heidelberg to forget him. She could never, never do this, and corresponded with him continually, and he was making every effort to induce an exasperating father to change his mind. She told all this to Philip with pretty sighs and becoming blushes, and showed him the photograph of the gay lieutenant. Philip liked her best of all the girls at the Frau Professor’s, and on their walks always tried to get by her side. He blushed a great deal when the others chaffed him for his obvious preference. He made the first declaration in his life to Fraulein Hedwig, but unfortunately it was an accident, and it happened in this manner. In the evenings when they did not go out, the young women sang little songs in the green velvet drawing-room, while Fraulein Anna, who always made herself useful, industriously accompanied. Fraulein Hedwig’s favourite song was called Ich liebe dich, I love you; and one evening after she had sung this, when Philip was standing with her on the balcony, looking at the stars, it occurred to him to make some remark about it. He began:
“Ich liebe dich.”
His German was halting, and he looked about for the word he wanted. The pause was infinitesimal, but before he could go on Fraulein Hedwig said:
“Ach, Herr Carey, Sie mussen mir nicht du sagen—you mustn’t talk to me in the second person singular.”
Philip felt himself grow hot all over, for he would never have dared to do anything so familiar, and he could think of nothing on earth to say. It would be ungallant to explain that he was not making an observation, but merely mentioning the title of a song.
“Entschuldigen Sie,” he said. “I beg your pardon.”
“It does not matter,” she whispered.
She smiled pleasantly, quietly took his hand and pressed it, then turned back into the drawing-room.
Next day he was so embarrassed that he could not speak to her, and in his shyness did all that was possible to avoid her. When he was asked to go for the usual walk he refused because, he said, he had work to do. But Fraulein Hedwig seized an opportunity to speak to him alone.
“Why are you behaving in this way?” she said kindly. “You know, I’m not angry with you for what you said last night. You can’t help it if you love me. I’m flattered. But although I’m not exactly engaged to Hermann I can never love anyone else, and I look upon myself as his bride.”
Philip blushed again, but he put on quite the expression of a rejected lover.
“I hope you’ll be very happy,” he said.
A boy and a girl meet. During the nights they share many evenings of intense and mutual pleasure. They are, during the days, seen and heard together wherever they go. Time goes by and to them every joyful moment together is the natural outcome of the previous moment of delight they shared with each other. Circumstance carries them along for a lifetime.
When did they choose to love? They made their choices after love compelled them to be together. I can get right behind the idea that continuing to love happens by choice. By many choices. Choices made after a happy accident.
Reasonable people would agree that no love lasts forever. Even a love that lasts after the death of a wife…it dies when a man dies. More plainly, the story ends where Philip is approximately 30, I am approximately 30 now. Yes, I am lucky with the love I have had and he was not. And Philip, unlucky as he was, would agree that it is better to be in love than not.
There is beauty in the tragedy. The tragedy of love…I am more sure that love is tragic than I am that it is accidental. I define a tragedy as an experience that leaves me exactly where I was when I started. Love is not harmful. Love is uplifting and sonorous and hot. Love brings all of the feelings that I seek in moments of desire. At the end the experience compels me to love again. The suck of it is that it is usually when it’s over that I realize I was there.
How to handle the accidents and tragedies of love? Depends who you are. I personally hold on to love for as long as it’s possible. As soon as it becomes an exhaustion it’s time for me to let go.
With all of its pitfalls love is triumphant all the same. Love makes a girl smile when she sees a boy and a boy laugh when he hears her joke. Love creates bonds of marriage and partnership that unite a couple for life. Love makes all of life an experience worth keeping.
I apologize for not having time to respond thoroughly to everything in your eloquent reply. Here are a few meager thoughts:
You define tragedy as “an experience that leaves me exactly where I was when I started.” But are you ever actually back to the exact same place? You don’t strike me as someone who would come out of a situation having learned nothing. That knowledge you gained about life, love, and yourself, has brought you to a different place than when the experience began.
“…[I]t is usually when it’s over that I realize I was there.” You don’t realize when you’re in love? I’m curious how can you be experiencing something that you describe as uplifting, sonorous, hot, bringing feelings, etc. and not realize it’s happening? You describe it like a very unique and recognizable experience.
When would you consider love to be an exhaustion? And do you believe two people can love each other for decades without coming to this feeling of exhaustion? I have never found love itself to be an exhaustion. I have unfortunately been in love with someone who deep down was not compatible with me. The habits of that person became exhausting for me. Though I still felt great love for them, I knew that my love of their best self could not overcome the way they treated me on a daily basis.
Bien, A Book of Philosophical Poetry
Bien is a book of Philosophical Poetry written by Peter B Smith. Buy it today either in paperback, audiobook, or eBook form.
Sample from Bien
A Robin’s Nest
A robin’s nest is a small tragedy. The male
and the female guard over their egg. Every
day they go out for food, taking turns so
the egg is always guarded. The chick
bursts out of its shell into life.
Within three days a robin learns to fly.
Within two days a chick attempted.
Even with care and protection, a chick can
fall all the same.
A new friendship is like a chick in a nest.
Don’t let its wings flap too early