Snow in the Maze (book #175)

Barbara C Freeman, 1979.

cover of Snow in the Maze. Snow scene, statue of Hecate, Rosa in red coat, dog, vase or cup, wreath

I remembered this book as one I used to get from the library as a child, and have been looking for it for some time but without the benefit of remembering the title or the author’s name. Found it in the Oxfam shop in Winchester last summer. My copy has travelled, as it was sold by a bookseller in Auckland and in the school library at Massey High School.

I hadn’t realised that Freeman (1906 to 1999) was the author of another book I enjoyed, the earlier A Book by Georgina. Wikipedia says that Freeman was originally an illustrator, and worked as such for about thirty years before starting to write herself – she was 73 when Snow in the Maze was published. She had studied at the Kingston School of Art. There is more information about her life at the illustration art gallery blog, which says she was the daughter of William and Lucy Freeman; William is decribed as a writer and secondhand bookseller. The site gives a quote from Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers calling her “a gentle writer [who] makes no great demands of her readers”. I’m not sure I would agree with that from what I have read of her. Snow in the Maze is quite a dark book.

The illustrations in this post are from the book. I find them generally more sentimental than the writing (Rosa’s uncertain pose on the cover, Hebe’s lips).

The book begins with Rosa looking at a fan in the Long Gallery. The fan belonged to Cytherea Briarcourt (born in 1766) and shows a painting of Cytherea herself in the Maze belonging to the house. Cytherea is standing by a sundial and a statue of a goddess, thought to be Hecate. There are three men in the maze. There are several other paintings of Cytherea and her brother Vialis. There is also a portrait of her orphaned cousin Hebe, who was ten years younger than Cytherea. Hebe and Cytherea are said to have gone abroad in 1785, and it’s not known what happened to them after that. Vialis became a recluse, sold the house and then went abroad himself, and is believed to have been killed by bandits in Italy.

Some of Hebe’s clothes are on display, and her doll. In the portrait, she is

sallow and plain, and looked out at the world with round, unhappy eyes. Her brown hair straggled from under her cap and her pose was awkward and strangely defiant. With both hands she clutched a small, folded fan to her chest as though she feared her treasure might at any moment be snatched away from her. Rosa noticed that her fingernails were dirty.

drawing of Hebe, with fan and doll

Rosa is visiting the house with a school party, but lingers and is approached by one of the guides, who tells her off. Rosa tells him that she is interested in fans and that her father, Hubert, made her one when she was little, after she found a fan-maker’s trade card in his studio; he later died suddenly. She goes on to tell him that she is “‘kind of a public character, you see, and I only want to be a private one'”. She goes into the gardens of the house:

The bedraggled chrysanthemums seemed to lean together for support, and there was a hint of darkness in their bright air. Rosa remembered how she had once seen the Spring Garden, with her father, in the pale February sunlight. The grassy slopes had been white with snowdrops, and there were crowding pink buds on the almond trees. Intricate tree shadows lay over the winding paths and miniature hills; and she had been entirely happy. For Rosa that single visit had, now, the mysterious quality of a dream, and on nights when she could not sleep she returned, in imagination, to those same narrow paths where she and Hubert could only walk abreast if she clutched tightly at his hand. Frances, her mother, had not been with them.

It starts to rain and Rosa takes shelter in the summerhouse. She is full of grief for her father, and thinks about how hard it has been for her mother, Frances. “Hubert was gone; the Spring Garden was a dark wilderness and there were times when she and Frances had nothing to say to each other.”

The guide appears with an umbrella. She randoms about her feelings at him a bit more, and he tells her his name is Jackman and he is “‘caretaker, librarian, archivist, gardener and Jack-of-all-trades here. In short, I’m responsible for Briarcourt House while the owner is away – and he usually is'”. Jackman has a formal manner of speech. He takes her into his office to get dry. He gives her a postcard of the portrait of Hebe, and tells her a bit more about the family. “‘I have lived so long in this house, with the Briarcourt portraits and the Briarcourt books, that Cytherea and Vialis and their cousin, Hebe, are more real to me than my colleagues'”. He and Rosa talk about whether it is possible to escape the past.

At home, Frances, “thin and fair-haired, with dark, anxious eyes”, has just finished a unsuccessful portrait-sitting with the Abominable Andrew. Her earlier sitting with Sally had also been unsuccessful after the child hid under the table. She and Rosa have a scratchy conversation. Rosa asks Frances if Hubert ever mentioned the fan-maker’s card to her.

“He didn’t,” said Frances. “There were a quite a number of things he didn’t mention to me – like electricity bills, and Income Tax demands. He used to tuck them into books and forget them.”

“I know,” said Rosa. “I may be able to find the card if Hubert put it back into the book.”

“I sold most of his expensive reference books,” said Frances. “We needed the money. But, of course, you wouldn’t remember that.”

“I don’t remember it, but I’m never allowed to forget it,” said Rosa. “Sorry – I didn’t mean to say that.” …

“I suppose you realise that you’re exactly like your father?” said Frances. “Hubert would talk to me about painting, but he never told me anything”.

Frances isn’t coming out well from this conversation. She then tells Rosa that they have had an invitation to go to Baltimore. We learn that Frances is known for her portraits of Rosa. Several of these have been bought by her patron, Mrs Mac: “‘she’s longing for her friends to meet the original of all her Rosas‘”. She reminds Rosa that they owe Mrs Mac a lot. Rosa doesn’t want to go but Frances says she can’t go without her. She tells Rosa that after Hubert died, “‘my grief was mixed with panic, sheer dreadful panic, because there was hardly any money and there were dozens of bills. … When one has lived with panic for months on end, it can never be all over'”.

The next day, Rosa goes back to Briarcourt to return Jackman’s umbrella. She is stopped by a couple of local women on the way who ask her when there will be a new Rosa. When she gets to the house, she falls off her bicycle and damages it, and her knee. She finds Jackman in the gardens and tells him she needs unbiased advice. He refuses, and she starts to leave, upset. He sees that she is limping and follows her, and she tells him that “‘I thought, suddenly, that you might be able to help me. Of course, it was a ridiculous, night-time idea, but I was too tired this morning to look at it reasonably and scrap it. I suppose the real problem is that I’ve no-one to talk to.'” He asks her to come in so he can sort out her knee. She cries in the bathroom, then falls asleep in his office.

Topiary in the garden of Briarcourt House

When Rosa wakes up, she tells him about Rosas, of which there are now seven, starting when Rosa was a small child. She describes the painting of the first one, with her mother telling her to “‘hold it'”, and goes on to talk about the invitation to America. She says “‘I hate hate the Rosas … I’ve tried not to, but I do. It’s not because they’re bad paintings – they’re not, they’re rather good – but because they’re me. I don’t want to be the Rosa girls; I simply want to be R. Clark. And I don’t want to be away from school. … I don’t know how to tell her that I can’t endure the idea of being the Rosa girl any longer. I’ve begun to feel that my life isn’t my own any more, and that I must, somehow, take it back into my own hands.'” She says that, because of her looks, “‘strangers smile at me in bus queues, and boys whistle after me in the street, and I’ve even been embraced by people I’ve never met before, because they recognised me as the Rosa girl'”. Lots of reproductions have been sold, and she is harassed by telephone calls and presents. Someone sends her a skirt and knitted jumper every Christmas, but they are too small.

Jackman doesn’t reply. Rosa changes the subject to Cytherea, for whom she has sympathy because of Cytherea’s beauty and they way it would have trapped her. “‘Cytherea was enslaved by her own beauty, just as others were enslaved by it,’ Jackman said harshly.” He gives Rosa a book on mythology and leaves the room. She feels a presence and hears whispering. “Someone was in the room with her, someone was trying to tell her something, was trying to force her to listen.” She hears the word Perdu. Jackson returns and gives her a lift home, but won’t talk to her about ghosts.

That night, Rosa can’t sleep. Frances hears her walking about and comes in, and tells her

“If it hadn’t been for you, I should have walked into the river when Hubert died.”

“Oh no you wouldn’t,” said Rosa. “You’d never have been able to say, ‘This is the last time I draw a wrist,’ or ‘This is the last time I mix yellow ochre and vermillion.'”

There is a lot of emotion swilling around in this small family. They get up and have cocoa and fried bread and tomatoes. In the morning, Rosa tells Frances about the book on mythology Jackman has given her. Vialis turns out to be another name for Mercury, and Cytherea for Venus. She tells Frances that Jackman makes her uneasy, that she thinks he is hiding something, and about the whispering voice.

We jump forward to December. Rosa finds the fan-maker’s card in one of Hubert’s books. It advertises Henri Leclerc, and has written on it “I have just heard a report that La Petite has gone abroad. It is but a rumour and I do not credit it, but am gone to B.H. to make enquiries”. She rings her grandmother to ask her if she knows anything about the card. She remembers it but doesn’t have any useful information. She pressures Rosa to come to stay with her, and says that Frances is not generous about sharing Rosa. Rosa asks Frances if she can go to stay there after Christmas, but Frances says she “‘couldn’t endure this house even for a few days, if I were alone here'”.

Rosa receives a letter from Jackman saying that he will be leaving Briarcourt in February, and inviting her and Frances to come and look at the things in the Long Gallery that she hadn’t had a chance to do so before. She writes to refuse this, as she was frightened by the whispering. He ignores this and comes to pick her up. Frances says “‘The man’s desperate … I know that tight, controlled expression, and the careful, over-polite manner. For God’s sake go and say something to him – and don’t wish him a happy Christmas'”. As I say, too many feelings, inappropriately shared with children. Jackman tells Rosa that “‘I have been alone at Briarcourt House since the end of October, and there are times when I can no longer endure – ‘”. She goes back with him to the house.

In the Long Gallery, she looks at the portraits of Cytherea, Hebe and Vialis. She realises that Vialis could be a younger Jackman. She hears the whispering again, Perdu. Jackman tells her that he is a member of the Briarcourt family. He starts to read her The Confession of Vialis. He tells her that Vialis

would not see what he did not wish to see, or hear what he did not wish to hear. He would not recognise hate, because it was inconvenient to recognise it, nor would he permit pain or terror or grief to touch more than the surface of his life. He was loved, more than he deserved to be loved, and lost a treasure without realising its worth. He became a solitary wanderer, and wrote his Confessions in the vain hope of exorcising his guilt.

Vialis’s account starts with Hebe coming to the house as a four-year-old. She cried for three days and nights and he eventually comforted her. Cytherea will not acknowledge her at first, but a few years later starts to mock her. Cytherea is angry that Vialis cares about Hebe. Vialis leaves to go on the Grand Tour. He buys the statue of Hecate in Rome. On his return he gives Hebe a puppy and Cytherea a fan, but she doesn’t like it and stamps on it. He commissions a London fan-maker to make Cytherea a fan she will like. On his return from London, he finds Cytherea dragging Hebe into the Maze to trap her there.

Cytherea as a child in cart, being pulled by Vialis

At home, Frances invites Jackman for Christmas, and when he comes he continues Vialis’s Confessions, from memory. The narrative says that the fan-maker, Monsieur Leclerc, visits Briarcourt and Cytherea asks him to paint a fan showing her in the Maze with the statue of Hecate behind her. He is very reluctant as he says he can see darkness and death in Hecate. He does agree in the end. Frances says that Vialis seems very amiable. Jackman says that he was “‘too amiable … He shut his eyes to [Cytherea’s] malice and cruelty … When, at the last, he fully understood that his easy amiability had led to – to terror – and tragedy, he strove, in the only way that seemed possible, to – to make amends'”.

Jackman continues with the story. Vialis’s friend Louis comes to stay at Briarcourt, and they plan a ball. Louis is attracted to Cytherea. For the ball, Cytherea makes Hebe wear an old dress, looking like “‘some mountebank’s monkey'”. At the ball, Cytherea runs into the Maze and says she has “‘presented [her] rose to Hecate'”. Afterwards, Vialis finds that she has run away with Louis. He is horrified, becomes feverish and wants to die. When he recovers, he is told that Hebe has disappeared and that Cytherea must have taken her with him. Hebe’s dog goes into the Maze and is not seen again. Several days after Cytherea has left, Vialis finally reads the end of the note she left him, which says that Hebe is in the Maze and “‘you had best take a lantern and fetch her as soon as you have read this. And you had best order her bed to be warmed'”.

At this point Frances tells him to stop the story, but Jackman can’t. He describes Vialis falling into a fit and waking with amnesia and a horror of the Maze. He has a dream about looking for Hebe in the Maze and having a conversation with Hecate. He offers his life for Hebe’s. Hecate talks cryptically about time stopping for him until “the exchange is completed”. The Maze is allowed to overgrow. The fan painter, Henri Leclerc, comes to look for Hebe, without success.

Years later Louis and Cytherea are killed in the French Revolution. Jackman leaves at this point in the narrative. Rosa says “‘I’m glad there’s a lot of washing-up. It’s a nice calm occupation'”.

dog

We go forward to February. Frances is still agitating about going to America, and she and Rosa cannot resolve this. Jackman rings late one night to say he has been cutting an entrance into the Maze, and can Rosa come the next day, as he thinks he will get to the centre. He has been working solidly for three days and nights. (I cannot believe that it is efficient to work in February dark.) He has dreamt of Hecate telling him “‘The exchange is completed. You have won back the child’s sunlight'”. Then the call is taken over by Henri Leclerc, who tells Rosa that he is her ancestor – the name was changed to Clark. He says she must come to the house now as Jackman has collapsed and he thinks it may be too late for La Petite if Rosa waits until the morning. He says Jackman has always chosen the easiest way and it is possible he will funk going into the Maze. He tells her – and I think this is an off-note – that “‘Your father – and I – are not strangers now'”.

Rosa cycles to Briarcourt and finds Jackman unconscious. She picks up the copy of the Confessions and finds that they are blank. “Jackman-Vialis had told his story in the only way that had seemed possible, by quoting from his unwritten confessions.”

Rosa falls asleep and wakes in the early morning, but cannot get Vialis to wake. She hears a dog barking and rushes into the Maze. ” … she was afraid. The Maze was a trap, cold, secret and dangerous – haunted by Hebe’s desperate terror”. She comes to the final blocked section and hears the dog whining. She hacks her way through the last section and finds the dog, realising he is Hebe’s dog. He leads her to the centre of the Maze, where time has stopped. Rosa doesn’t think she can go in, but the dog goes in and howls and she makes the effort. She finds Hebe half-buried in snow by Hecate’s pedestal, but cannot wake her up. Eventually she reminds the sleeping Hebe of the time when Vialis comforted her by making shadow pictures, when she first came to Briarcourt. “‘And now the shadow man is waiting again, and only you can fly the dove home to him.'” She mkes the dove with Hebe’s hands, and Hebe wakes up.

Rosa twists part of the statue of Hecate to open Hecate’s basket, finding Hebe’s fan, which has a plan of the Maze on it. They thank Hecate (I’m not sure why – not sure she has been a force for good) and leave the Maze. There is a reunion between Hebe and Vialis. Hebe is surprised to see a grey squirrel.

drawing of the maze

Frances rings, and is unsurprised to hear that Hebe has appeared. Rosa asks her “‘When – when did you guess?'” “‘At Christmas,’ said Frances. ‘You look at things Rosa, and I look at faces.'” (Super-recogniser.) They give Hebe the jumper and skirt sent to Rosa. Vialis says he and Hebe will go abroad for a while, but Hebe is very sad to hear they cannot take the dog. Frances points out that, as the wreath Hebe was wearing were drooping but have revived, Vialis and Hebe “‘are back in time – not – not stranded outside it. So there is no further need for you to hide abroad, and return, and then hide again'”. Frances says that she is going to go to America and Rosa to her grandmother’s, and that Vialis, Hebe and the dog can stay at their house. Vialis agrees, and he and Hebe return to Briarcourt for the moment.

Frances tells Rosa that she has realised that Rosa hates the Rosas. When she found Rosa had gone out in the night, she thought Rosa had run away. She says there will be no more Rosas. Then Rosa reads a letter from Mrs Mac, who has just bought Briarcourt House. (Possibly too neat a tie-up?) “‘She’s been dreaming about the house for years.'” Rosa suggests that Frances paint one last Rosa, “‘just for Mrs Mac? Not a Rosa to be reproduced and go into the shops, but a completely private Rosa – just for her'”. Frances decided to paint Rosa as she is at that moment. “‘There’s the light on your hair, and on the letter, and with the plates on the rack behind your head and the glimmer of the taps – hold it, for heaven’s sake, hold it!'” And the book ends, circling back to the first Rosa.

So really Gothic, part of that tradition of children’s time-slip novels, but focussing also on the complex relationship between Rosa and her mother. There’s a lot elided – Rosa’s time at school, for instance, which she implies she enjoys, but we only get the glimpse of her with the other schoolgirls at the start. It’s written very intensely, mostly avoiding the mundane (though I like the cocoa with fried tomatoes and fried bread). Rosa and her mother speak very directly, which is set against the often cryptic speech of Jackman-Vialis.

drawing of leaves, berries and flower

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: