Symphony in White

This story is paired with “First Epoch” from The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free. 

My wife, Vesper Heath, is much better known than I. Her paintings sell for millions. She had just finished the official portrait of the President of the United States and received an unexpected spurt of publicity when a book of Christmas songs she illustrated became a best seller.

For me—well, critical articles on Victorian literature don’t get the publicity (or the money) Vesper’s art gets, but it’s what I do. Things worked out for both of us to present at a conference called Women in White. She would give a presentation on the painting by James McNeil Whistler, The White Girl, which he later renamed because several critics thought his work an illustration for the novel I would present on, Willkie Collins’ The Woman in White. My wife would also appear at the opening reception for a small exhibit of her work in London. After that, we would also be visiting a mutual friend, Cynthia Carson, to try to help her with some legal troubles.

The trip would also be a vacation. Vesper had been working without let-up for the past four months—on the President’s portrait and finishing up several paintings for the London exhibition. Like Monet, Vesper works on several paintings at a time; half-finished canvases crowd her studio. She had had eight to finish up for the exhibit but, through supreme effort, managed to get them done before our children came back from college for the Christmas holiday. After her spate of almost non-stop painting, and a tiring semester I had had teaching, both of us were ready to spend a short holiday in London and, when the weather grew warmer, head north for a couple of months in Yorkshire and Scotland. I planned to do some research; Vesper planned to relax.

“I vow I will not touch or even look at a brush all the time I’m in London,” she quipped as we settled into our seats on the flight. “Maybe I won’t pick up a brush or pen even when we’re touring the north on our vacation.” I knew her well enough to surmise she would keep the first part of her vow but not the second. She would never lay down her paintbrushes for that long a time.

After we were airborne several hours and close enough to the UK for cell phone calls to go through, she called Cynthia. I only caught one side of the conversation, but what I heard did not sound encouraging.

Cynthia Carson and my wife attended art school together, shared a flat in London for a while and, later, a room in Florence when Vesper took a year to study there. They were like sisters. Vesper had been maid of honor at Cynthia’s wedding and her friend had made her godmother of her children, a boy and a girl. Like Vesper, Cynthia had achieved considerable success as painter, though more in the UK than in America. Her marriage, much later in life than Vesper’s marriage to me, fractured after a few years. She emerged from a bitter fight over the custody of her children, over her considerable wealth, and, most vitally, over her art. Her husband had received some valuable works of hers in the settlement. And he owned her most famous and poignant work, My Sister in My Memory. After the judges finalized the divorce, Cynthia fell into severe depression from the ordeal of the break-up, and particularly due to the loss of the painting she cherished so much.

My Sister in My Memory moved everyone who saw it. It had created a sensation when it won national contest that gave it considerable visibility in the media. Cynthia had offers in the millions from museums that wanted to purchase the work but had never sold it. Some works reflect an artist’s soul. Cynthia said she could not part with the painting. She had written to her husband once, “The painting is yours, John, just as I am yours.” She could be bombastic and silly like that. She and Vesper often laughed and joked about her sentimentality. In this case, however, her sentimentality had come back to harm her in an unimaginably cruel way.

In the settlement her husband used the note to argue the painting belonged to him. The courts ruled in his favor. Though an outcry arose in the art world and among the general public (the public knew her painting), her ex-husband kept My Sister in My Memory and said he planned to sell it to an obscure gallery in Russia. Cynthia appealed, but the courts denied her petition. The whole trauma sunk her into such severe depression she had to be hospitalized for a time. Doing better now, she had asked Vesper if she could think of way to get the painting back.

Vesper put the phone away and looked out the window. Of course, you couldn’t see anything but darkness. After a while I asked what she planned to do.

“I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I’ll have to trust my instinct.”

She dozed, which pleased me, and I went over the notes for my presentation. We arrived at Heathrow after a ten-hour flight. Vesper looked relaxed and ready to enjoy her stay, though I knew the whole thing with Cynthia would cloud it to a large degree. Rain drizzled as we left the airport, but we had learned that when you visit the UK you can’t let the weather defeat you. We had brought umbrellas, overshoes, and rain coats. We checked into our rooms. Vesper immediately began calling friends from the art world who lived in London. Her delight in speaking with old friends encouraged me. I hoped we both could enjoy this trip. She needed to much more than I did.

We had lunch, returned to our room and, as I had expected, she was ready and we fell into the routine of sexual love we had enjoyed the many years of our marriage—all the more thrilling for familiarity and lack of surprises—and when by chance a surprise did come, it took on the gentle velocity of an epiphany.

We dozed, awoke, and had room service send up a bottle of red and two glasses. As we were drinking, Vesper got a call from Cynthia. We arranged to meet her at the hotel restaurant.

The two of them had a long history. They met and became friends at Chicago when both of them were studying The Art Institute. During those years, Vesper modeled for two painting Cynthia did that became world famous—both nudes, I might add, and neither leaving anything to the imagination.

The first, done in response for an assignment to personify a trait or characteristic in the style of a traditional allegorical painting, was titled “Virginity.” Cynthia had wanted to call it “Chastity,” but Vesper said that did not fit the painting as well, and Cynthia eventually agreed. At the time of its composition, Vesper was still a virgin.

My wife remained a virgin until she was thirty-two—her state of virginity ending on our wedding night. She harbored no scruples about pre-marital sex, but tended to be shy and devoted to her art. In school she saw her female friends exploited in sexual relationships. She saw them get pregnant, get abortions, go through depressive episodes, and end up dropping out of school or losing their edge as artists after break-ups. She told me she simply decided to forgo sex until she established her career. “I figured my virginity wasn’t going anywhere and would still be in the same old place when I decided to give it away—but that would be when I decided.” She remained a virgin all through her training as an artist and for the first years of her successful career.

I consider myself to be the most blessed of men because she married me and allowed me to open her “chaste treasure” (as Shakespeare put it). I think, sometimes smugly, I’ll admit, of the string of broken hearts and frustrated or angry men she left in the wake of years before we wed. Once while surfing the internet I came across a feature article with the title, “Ten Celebrities Who Remained Virgins” and saw her on the list, preceded by quarterback Tim Tebow and followed by country singer Carried Underwood. The caption read, “Vesper Heath—No ‘Art of Love’ Until Her Wedding Night.” I smiled to think she was known well enough to be included with NFL quarterbacks and country music stars.

The painting Cynthia did of her, which now hangs in the Tate Modern, is an amazing work of art. Cynthia has always been able to capture essence through the tonalities of color, the sweep of line, the balance of spaces. Somehow, she had made the essence of chastity visible and a thing one can apprehend by seeing the painting. The quality of mystery and potential that extended from Artemis and the Vestals down to modern nuns, spoke when you saw the painting. I had never been able to articulate exactly what the work of art communicated about the subject it represented but understood it at some supra-intellectual level. Other viewers expressed the same sentiment about the work.

“I’ve got the most famous cunt in modern art,” she said once when we were looking at a reproduction of the painting in a big glossy magazine.

“I wouldn’t say that. There’s The Virgin by Wyeth and a lot of his other pictures—not to mention Courbet’s The Origin of the World.”

“True. Wyeth said he was proud of how well he did the pubic hair in The Virgin. I think Cynthia did a better job painting mine.”

Virginity, done toward the end of Cynthia’s student days, catapulted her to fame and established her career. Vesper achieved success later, but almost every source that referenced her painting noted that she had modeled Virginity and also for a lesser-known work by Cynthia that hung at the Museum D’Orsay, Vestal Bathing, similar in its hide-nothing nudity and also done when Vesper still possessed her virginity.

When we saw Cynthia even I registered shock at her appearance. She had lost weight and looked haggard and weary. We had to leave the café and tell the waiter to have our order delivered to the room because Vesper could not stop crying over her friend’s sad state. In the privacy of our quarters, the women embraced. Cynthia wept as well.

We got her to drink and eat something. She explained her situation, occasionally breaking down. Vesper’s distress gripped her such as I had never seen anything seize her in all our years of marriage.

“I can’t bear the idea of his selling that painting to a little non-descript gallery in the middle of Russia,” Cynthia said, her eyes hollow with fatigue and worry. “If the sale goes though, I think I might go mad.”

I thought Vesper would reprimand her for saying this, but she didn’t.

“Is there any way to stop him?” she asked. “It seems absurd that the courts would give him that painting.”

“I did write that it was his. Of course, a birthday gift is different from legal possession—or it should be. I didn’t think we’d split up, but a year after I gave him that note, we did. Vesper, I’m at my wit’s end.”

The two of them talked a long while and then Cynthia said she had to pick up her children. They made arrangements to meet in two days. After she left, Vesper came apart, sobbing, pacing the room (a thing she did when she was completely distraught). After a while she settled down. I held her. We sat a long time in silence.

“At least she ate something,” Vesper said. “She looks anorexic.”

“Why does this upset her so much?”

“Some paintings you put your soul into. My Sister In My Memory was the one Cynthia put her soul into. And you know about her sister.”

Cynthia’s family was in an automobile accident when the girls were fourteen and fifteen. Her sister died. Cynthia was holding her when she breathed her last breath. Her love and pain showed in the remarkable painting that reflected the event.

My Sister in My Memory looked realistic and surrealistic the same time. Its depiction of Heather emerges from Cynthia—or was it the other way around? The intertwining of their bodies did not look unnatural; but I can only describe it as a non-distorted kaleidoscope of figures. Cynthia’s ability to paint realistically saved the work from being blankly strange like something by Chirico or distorted like something by Dali. One art critic had called it “phantasmagorical realism,” but the painting defied genre. Elements of cubism, expressionism, something of Cezanne, of Klimt, and of Kandinsky lurked in it. Yet mimetic tropes dominated the work. The forms and figures were easily recognizable. Despite the touches of surrealism, its surfaces and traditional representations nudged it toward a Wyeth-like realism. When the painting went on display, it caused a sensation and immediately garnered offers of purchase in the multiple millions from leading museums in the world. Cynthia said she would sell the work one day but wanted to sell it to a museum worthy of it. The Tate Modern and Museum of Modern Art in New York were rumored to be the prime candidates before the dispute with her ex-husband arose.

“I don’t know what to do,” my wife sighed.

“Maybe you’ll come up with a way to get the painting back for her.”

“I can’t even think. I’m too upset.”

“Try to get your mind off of the subject. Maybe go over the presentation you’ve got to do in the morning.”

She nodded. I got out my notes on the Willkie Collins novel. She began reviewing the PowerPoint she had constructed on James McNeil Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1, which had a small connection with the Collins novel.


Conferees packed out the hall when Vesper and I presented. I saw a lot of sweet smiles and dewy-eyed looks over this wonderful artist couple who were presenting in tandem. People liked sentimentalize. Vesper presented first.

She talked about how the work of art—one of the finest ever done, she thought, and highly influential on her own style—had been rejected in London and Paris; how true artists from visual and literary endeavor, including Courbet, Baudelaire, and Zola, praised the picture but art critics called it incompetent; how many people equated it with the novel by Wilke Collins and were disappointed the character in Whistler’s painting looked nothing like how they imagined the woman in the novel looked; how Whistler, who had not read the novel, insisted his painting had no connection with the literary work and eventually changed the title from The White Girl to Symphony in White, No. 1.

After this, she went into an analysis of the work, lauding its genius of style, balance, and technique. She told how it had influenced her; how, on seeing it in the National Gallery, she had stood and stared at it for over an hour, unable to draw away from the painting; how she had dragged her best friend and roommate, Cynthia Carson, to DC a few months later to look at it, and how Cynthia had reacted similarly.

“The painting influenced her art as well,” Vesper lectured, “as anyone who sees the disputed work My Sister in My Memory will know.” A murmur of agreement went up from the audience when she said this.

Afterwards, I presented on the Collins novel, talking about structure and the dynamic of multiple narrators. My wife sat behind me. I pointed out that the novel illustrated how the judicial system of Victorian England denied women full legal protection. I added, at the end, that the painting by Whistler could easily be connected to the novel by Collins, since the woman depicted looked young and vulnerable and the wolf skin on which she stands suggests rapacity. Of course, I added, no real connection existed.

My presentation seemed to have gone well. After applause, the Chair of the session thanked us and said everyone should be certain to visit the exhibit by Vesper Heath that opened at the convention center in two days at 8:00 p.m. The applause and cheering indicated that many there planned to.

When I turned back to Vesper, she walked up to me, gave me a hard hug and a kiss on the lips (to my surprise and to the surprise of those around us). “Let’s talk to a few people and then we can go to a pub and I’ll tell you about the revelation I’ve just received.”

The line of people wanting to meet Vesper trailed out longer than those who wanted to congratulate me. After the room emptied out, she and I left by a rear door, found a secluded pub populated with Londoners, and ordered ale. She spread her fingers on the table so they touched my hands, an old habit of hers. I had never understood the significance she attached to the gesture, but it always meant she meant to tell me something important.

“I know what he’s trying to do,” she said. “I mean Cynthia’s husband, Malcolm. He’s trying to drive her insane. I know how much she loved Heather. I know her soul, and her soul is in that painting. You remember how Cynthia and I used to sleep together?”

“I remember, yes.”

“That’s part of the reason Cynthia painted me so powerfully in Virginity and in Vestal Bathing. We weren’t in a sexual relationship, but you can’t share an intimate setting like a bed for four years and not get a sense of the spirit of the person with whom you’re sleeping. You don’t have to have sex with someone to become one with them physically. It won’t be as thorough as it would be if you shared a sexual relationship like you and I have, but you do end up sharing your souls and spirits. You end up becoming ‘one flesh,’ like the Bible describes it, even though it is in a much smaller way—but you share your spirits. I know what her soul is like. Malcolm knows too—much more than thoroughly than I do because he was her lover. He knows how much of her soul resides in My Sister in My Memory. He knows if the painting is no longer hers, she’ll lose her sanity, and then he can get everything she owns.”

I was silent a moment. “Like in The Woman in White,” I said.

“Exactly. That came to me in an epiphany—in a revelation when you were speaking, James. I don’t believe much in God anymore, but this seemed providential.”

It had been decades since Vesper had practiced the Plymouth Brethren faith in which she grew up.

“And I also know what I have to do,” she continued, running her finger down one side of her beer glass, clearing the beads of moisture. “You’ll have to help me.”

I told her I would do anything she asked.


That very night she ordered a canvas, a set of watercolor tints, and brushes. She stayed up till 2 a.m. making sketches. I told I was going to bed. “I’ll go with you,” she said. “I need you to fuck me so I’m not so damned tense.” Afterwards I fell asleep. Vesper always carried drawing pencils in her and a pad in her purse so she could set down any ideas that occurred to her in the course of a day. She got up, took the pencils out, and began sketching again.

The art materials arrived in the morning. She told me to attend the conference and routed all calls from her cell to mine so she would not be interrupted with questions or issues concerning the exhibit. I left for the conference, sitting in on three sessions. Vesper called on a hotel phone to tell me she was painting and it was going well, though she did not say anything about the substance of the project. I ate with some conferees I knew. I only got one call about the exhibit. It told me all the works for the exhibit had arrived safe and intact and were being mounted for the display.

At 5:00 I returned to our hotel suite. Vesper let me in. She wore a simple shift dress (she usually painted wearing a white smock but had neglected to procure one yesterday).

“Can I see what you’re doing?”

She led me into the living area of our suite.

On the large canvas she had blocked out a human female figure holding hands with two children. They stood at the edge of a pond or lake. I marveled at its balance, though she had only sketched the outlines in charcoal and covered the outlines with layers of wash.

“Couldn’t do it in oils,” she said. “That takes too long. I’m adding this to the exhibit.”

My eyes got big. I refrained from saying that was impossible. She read my mind.

“I know it seems impossible for me to get it done in time; but I do the impossible.”

She told me it would be better if I left her alone and apologized. I told her I would go to the conference until 10:00 and then go out and be back at around 1:00. Not wanting to wander London alone, I invited some literary friends and we went pub-crawling. I came back drunk at about 1:30.

By this time, Vesper had finished the undercoat of washes and had begun painting in the figures. I gaped. Even in my drunken state, I marveled at the photographic accuracy and beauty of the unfinished work. I looked at her.

“I’m using the techniques Dürer used when he painted Fedlhase—Young Hare. I want this to be as realistic and stunning as his painting.”

She had painted Cynthia and her two children, each holding hands with their mother. In the painting, Cynthia wore a white cambric dress identical to the one in Whistler’s Woman in White. She depicted the children in modern dress. She had not yet filled in the background.

“Amazing,” I said.

“Go on to bed. I need to sleep. I’ll join you in a little while.”

She came to bed probably around 3 a.m. We slept till seven. She wanted it again in the morning. Afterwards, we showered, dressed, and she returned to painting. I headed off to the conference. The exhibit of her work opened that night.

When I returned at 4:00, Vesper had collapsed into a chair, asleep. The living area of our suite showed disarray with art supplies scattered everywhere. But someone had removed the painting. I thought of waking her but decided she needed all the rest she could get. She would star at the exhibit tonight. I put a quilt over her and let her sleep.


I woke her at 7:00. She dressed; we caught a quick supper, and walked to the exhibit.

Vesper displayed thirty paintings that night, but everyone attending the pre-exhibit (mostly art agents who had been admitted early to assess paintings they might purchase) had gathered around the watercolor she had just finished.

I joined the circle of people looking up at the watercolor. Just like the art agents and museum scouts, I gaped in wonderment at what stood before my eyes. In the finished work, Cynthia leads her children to the edge of a pond. On the water, an image of Heather, Cynthia’s sister, reflects upward. The children don’t know what they are about to see, but their mother knows the vision that will unfold to them. There is understanding and communication between Cynthia’s figure and the figure in the water.

The figure representing Heather recalled Millais’ Ophelia, though she wears a white smock and holds no flowers in her hands. The figure of Cynthia undoubtedly echoes Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1. Vesper said she had planned to make the painting as realistic and stunning as Dürer’s Young Hare, and she succeeded. The work looked photographic in its realism and yet you immediately read it as a created work of art done with great skill. She had deliberately left the background unpainted, just as Dürer did in this work; and, just as in his work, the plain background eliminated potential distractions and centered one’s focus to the central figure on the canvas.

All of Vesper’s art sold, but a bidding war broke out over her painting of Cynthia, which she had titled Eidolon. It ended up going for $22,000,000—the highest price her art had ever fetched. Vesper allowed images of the work to go on the internet and through other media sources. As a result, public response rang out in censure of Malcolm’s actions, which was already big news in the UK. A director of stage plays, he suddenly found himself heckled when going to work. A prominent actress walked off the set of a play he was directing at Royal National Theatre. Protestors picketed the theater.

Cynthia wept when she saw the painting, hugged and kissed Vesper, and thanked her. On national television she said she hoped her ex-husband would return My Sister In My Memory. “If he doesn’t,” she said, “may this painting by my dear friend Vesper Heath testify against him.” Her statement went out through major media outlets all over the world; it went viral on the internet. Magazine and talk shows interviewed Cynthia. She told what the painting of her sister meant to her and called on her ex-husband to return it to her. Malcolm accepted two interviews, thinking perhaps to fight back, but both interviewing journalists showed hostility to him and he came off badly, which propelled the tide of public opinion against him even more.

Vesper and I counseled Cynthia to file an appeal in the British courts. Malcolm got word of her intention, called Cynthia, and told her he would return My Sister In My Memory. Having agreed on this, the two of them hired an arbitrator to settle the issue of dividing their property and assets in the aftermath of their divorce. Cynthia got to keep all her artwork. How they split the considerable fortune she had accumulated we never found out, but I got the idea she emerged the winner on this as well. They agreed to an equitable arrangement with the children. In the years following, Cynthia continued to rise as an artist; Malcolm’s career faltered due to public chagrin at his behavior toward her.

“He meant to drive you insane,” Vesper said to her as we sat at dinner in her house the last day our vacation in England. “Or he meant it to create the appearance of insanity by taking a part of your soul—the part of it you expressed in My Sister In My Memory.”

“I can see that now. How did you see it before I did?” Cynthia asked.

Vesper touched my shoulder and smiled. “I listened to a lecture on The Woman in White. You can read it for yourself sometime.”

“I’ve read it,” Cynthia said. “I just wish I had seen the connection earlier.”

I noted how much better she looked. She had gained a little weight. Her behavior (she had spent several days traveling with us during our stay in Britain) indicated she had shaken her depression. She had a boyfriend and they seemed to be getting along famously. She had begun to paint again.

On the rail trip to York, Vesper slept. It had taken quite a while for her for her to recover her strength after doing the painting of Cynthia, her children, and her late sister. “I wore myself out doing that painting,” she had commented earlier when sleep began to claim her. I did not need to say it had been worth the effort. She slept most of the way on the long train ride to one of England’s northernmost province where the second phase of our vacation would begin.


David Landrum’s speculative fiction has appeared widely—his revised fairy tales have been published in Father Grim’s Book of Stories, Arthur King of the Ages Anthology, The Fairy Tale Whisperer, Cliterature, and in Myths, Legends, and Fairy Tales. His newest novella, Mother Hudla, is a sci-fi retelling of an old story by the Brothers Grimm.