By Jessica Duchen

The mystery of Beethoven's lost love – Immortal Beloved.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020


I am trying to see "my" characters. Normally it's quite easy; and it's vital, because the better you can visualise them in your mind's eye, the more vividly they will come across (at least, this is the theory). I used to make a character chart for each person in a novel, setting down everything from their height and eye colour to their favourite objects, their preferences in food, the time they get up in the morning, and more. I gave this up, because I reckoned if I forgot what colour their eyes were, I shouldn't be writing the book at all.

You'd think it would help when a "character" is real and portraits of them exist. In Beethoven's case, it makes it more difficult, because one is locked down, so to speak, with the images that one has known all one's life. When I imagine him, though, I see something, or someone, slightly different. The picture lingers in the mind's eye: the stocky, dark figure, hat in hand, lurking at the bottom of the stairs, waiting for Therese to invite him up to visit Pepi. I know this person, although he is not the one in the portraits. He is slightly shorter, slightly bulkier, and he wears the appropriate garb - blue coat with tails, boots, pale yellow waistcoat à la Werther. He looks up the stone staircase towards me - I am Therese - and I know that dark, defiant, pained gaze, the snub nose, the wide smile that lights up the hall when I say "She's not here, but come in and have some coffee..." I know he is not here to see me, and this hurts a little bit, but she has run away from him and I don't want him to go without telling me how he is, what he's been writing, what his plans are for summer in the country. So who am I - when I am not being Therese - really seeing?

It takes me a moment to realise that this person is actually my old duo partner from university. Oops. Well, is that so wrong?  He was also a composer and I loved his music. He won an opera competition, the piece was staged in the West Road Concert Hall and I helped with proof-reading the orchestral parts. He was a wonderful violinist and we had a lot of fun together playing Mozart and Brahms and lollipops like the Fauré Berceuse, performing which used to get us into May balls for free. I haven't seen him for more than 20 years now and am far from sure where he is. Like most composers, he probably wanted to be Beethoven. He wasn't; but maybe I've just fixed that for him by mistake.

What about Josephine, or Pepi as she's called? I think she is a ballerina, one of the lead dancers from the Royal Ballet as was when I was a teenager. Perhaps she is Lynn Seymour, with her huge brown eyes and dimpled cheeks, dancing Anastasia, or Marguerite (not that Lynn Seymour ever did dance Marguerite, but that's another matter), or maybe Mary Vetsera in Mayerling. She is sensual, indomitable, complex and slightly nuts; fragile, empathetic, true hearted, controlling, trapped, determined, haughty, devoted, idealistic, destroyed. Seymour, the finest of dance actresses, could have been a glorious Josephine in the ballet of Immortal - the problem being that Beethoven's music does not suit ballet, never did and probably never will, so that might be kind of tricky. [Pictured above: a portrait of the real Josephine.]

Therese is more difficult because I am experiencing the book through her eyes. I see her figure in the distance slip through the shadows in the archways of the Minoritenkirche, or pace through the Vienna streets in her habitual you-cannot-see-me black dress, steering clear of the soldiers. Her image comes into focus by the lake at Martonvásár, watching the moonlight on the water and vowing into the night sky to consecrate herself to the service of God and Truth: her eyes - they are hazel-green, I don't know whether they really were or not, but I see them this way - are full of tears for her dead father. She knows she is the old maid to be, the least attractive among her sisters because of an affliction of the spine that looks and sounds in the 21st century like scoliosis; but she knows, too, that she has other and better things to do with her life. When I think of Therese I imagine the portrait of her with her hair wound into Grecian-Priestess ribbons, the one that found its way into Beethoven's possession and is still in the Beethovenhaus now; but chiefly I see her either from within her own head, or in the distance, the shadowy woman who sees more than she is seen.

Weirdly, of the three Brunsvik sisters the one I visualise most clearly is "Lotti": Charlotte, real name Caroline, the youngest and in fact the least prominent in the story. Perhaps because I have never seen an actual portrait of Lotti, my mental image is unfettered. She is nobody but herself. She is dark with huge eyes and a wonderful wide smile; she is short and relatively curvy beside her garden-rake elder sisters, and her beloved, Emerich Teleki, loses his heart to her in moments. But by the time Therese visits Lotti in Transylvania near the end of the book, Lotti's jet-black hair has turned snow white. We need Lotti for several reasons. Notably, her eldest daughter, Blanka Teleki, was Therese's pupil and became the first person in Hungary to petition for equal rights for women; she participated in the 1848 revolution and was thrown in jail for ten years together with her female partner, Klara. Also, we know that after Christoph von Stackelberg died in Estonia, Minona went to live with Lotti and Emerich in Transylvania and stayed there as her uncle's housekeeper and librarian after her aunt died. 

Sometimes one senses more than one knows. I had a scene in Ghost Variations where Jelly, at a party turning on the charm and chatting happily to an admirer, kicks off her shoes. It seemed simply something she might do, though I had no reason to believe that she had or would. Last summer, coincidentally, I was at a party in Italy with her one living relative; we were in a beautiful Tuscan garden, talking to people before a concert, and she sat down on a bench and kicked off her shoes. I nearly dropped my prosecco.

Back to the edits - at least this task is keeping me out of mischief during lockdown. Thank you all for your support for Immortal! I hope you are keeping well and cheerful. Please stay safe and if you're stuck at home, as you probably are, read a good book or several. (If you have not already placed a pledge for the book, you can still do so - the majority of the levels are still very much up for grabs.)

Love and best wishes,

Jessica x

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