Caged birds accept each other but flight is what they long for.
Imagine meeting someone and feeling an instant connection.
You meet him by coincidence when he comes to visit. He's a prospective employee and a friend of a family member. While lingering in the dining room after breakfast or using the excuse of a crisp morning to go out for a walk, over the course of a week you strike up conversation after conversation.
You find you have a lot in common; you have similar perspectives on life. The conversations stretch into hours and you look forward to your talks and plan for them.
You begin to fall in love.
But you can not -- you must not -- be together.
So began an intense, anguished love affair of 30 years between Helene Kroller and a man 20 years younger.
Remember I walked in the woods of Helene's estate and the halls of her lifework: the Kroller-Mueller Museum outside of Amsterdam. I've written about Helene because she relates to the topic of the book I'm pursuing about Johanna Van Gogh. Helene was the wealthiest woman in the Netherlands when she began to collect Vincent van Gogh paintings in a frenzy in the early 1900's. Her targeted search for the painter's work generated an interest that helped pull Van Gogh from obscurity. I had thought her motive was in recognizing how Van Gogh's paintings evoked an "exalted feeling" through his technique and color.
What I had not realized is that Helene saw herself in the paintings.
She saw suffering.
Here's the background: Helene and Sam van Deventer met around 1908-09. Sam was a classmate of Helene's eldest daughter. When he sat for his final exams for school, his examiner was Helene's husband and shipping tycoon, Anton Mueller. Impressed with the young 20-year-old, Anton invited Sam to visit their home to consider working in his business.
When Sam came to visit, he met Helene. Historians believe Sam fell head over heels for Helene first.
Helene and Anton's marriage had been a business arrangement. Although Helene's father, Wilhelm Muller, had founded his own company, (Wm. H. Müller & Co.), by the time Helene was 19 it was failing. Her father implored her to marry industrialist Anton who subsequently inherited the company and drove it to extraordinary success.
I haven't yet done research on what marriage was like during this time period; yet, an arranged marriage between industrialists in order to shore up the financial health of a company doesn't seem far fetched. Helene and Anton had been married 20 years and had four children when she met Sam. She had a marriage but not a soulmate. This is what Sam became to her.
For 30 years Helene poured out her innermost feelings in letters to Sam, often writing several times a day. The letters were eight, 12-, sometimes 20-pages long. Sam saved them all -- more than 4,000 -- in a chest in his attic, later imploring servants that should there be a fire, the chest must be saved.
Helene and Sam were passionate in their letters. She wrote:
"You see, Sam, this is how I like you best. This way I love you and feel happy. Forgive me if I hurt you, but everything inside me tells me it can't be, it mustn't be. Oh, God, let me be honest, Sam...let me be silent about it."
Historians speculate that eventually Anton became aware of the intense friendship. Sam was fired from the company in 1937. Yet, he retained the positions of chairman and treasurer of the Kroller-Mueller Foundation, which held Helene's substantial art collection including her 90 Van Gogh paintings. When Helene died in 1939, and Anton in 1941, Sam stayed on, eventually sympathizing with the Nazis when they occupied the Netherlands. He was tried for war crimes after the war, including giving away three paintings from the collection, but never convicted.
Last week I wrote about how the local lore of Helene connected her to the Nazis. Perhaps its Sam's connection that got confused with her?
Secrets and inner motivations can drive external actions. What looked like a wealthy woman single-mindedly pursuing an expensive hobby last week became an unexpected and multi-dimensional view of the same individual this week. My friend, Martine, told me about a Dutch documentary, Helene - a woman between love and art, (thankfully with subtitles!) that revealed Helene's unspoken motivation - thank you, Martine!
Perhaps Helene will emerge as an important character in Johanna's story when I write it. Her story reminds me of how rich and important it is to know the internal motivations of each character before they enter the story for this inside intel drives their actions.
What secrets do you have that are driving yours?
Steps I’m taking to explore writing a book
St. Louis writer group: This blog is sharing my transition from a career in marketing for a corporation to becoming a full-time writer. One of the first things I realized a while back is that I don't know that many published writers. My network has been all business and marketing. This past weekend I visited a meeting of the Saturday Writers, a group in St. Louis, and met a bonanza of talented creative people. I am in awe, a little intimidated. And motivated to join them.
Books I'm reading: I found a wonderful biography, Van Gogh's Ear, by Bernadette Murphy, that's bringing Van Gogh and his years in Arles to life. Murphy is unraveling the truth of what actually happened the night Van Gogh famously cut off his ear. I am loving it!
My apology: Lastly, I need to apologize for my publishing blunder last week. It was embarrassing to miss some coding that enables me to personalize this letter to each subscriber. In fact, when I start this blog each week I address it to a subscriber so that I am writing to a specific name. It feels personal to me. I am sorry for giving the opposite impression last week in the salutation.
Here's a last word from Tennessee Williams whose quote fits the hidden side of Helene nicely:
I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person. But these seemingly fragile people are the strong people really.
I hope you have a great week!