When The Swiveller introduces The Marchioness to the cards in Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop he places two sixpences in the saucer before the game of ‘chance’ can begin:
‘If you win, you get ’em all. If I win, I get ’em. To make it seem more real and pleasant – I shall call you the Marchioness do you hear?
The small servant nodded.
‘Then, Marchioness,’ said the Swiveller,’fire away!’
This game of chance seems curiously kind. The generosity of the Swiveller whose capacity to reshape reality engenders reciprocity and tenderness, reveals both his ‘risk’ and his ‘value’. He respects alterity. This is a baptism of care. Such an act of compassionate imagination offers both him and his companion a refuge from the materialistic and abusive horrors beyond their card playing sanctuary, Subsequently intimacy is safe, protective- even fertile!
By contrast the game of cards in Pushkin’s Queen of Spades is a place of fear, sexual excitement and death. The short story explores the near mystical possibility that ‘three’ cards, played at specific moments, can win an individual untold wealth. The story’s pace mimics the ‘urgency’ of the burgeoning desire for the consummation of the card-game and Hermann the protagonist and anti-hero. sends himself mad for a set of three cards:
‘..I am commanded to grant you your request. the three, the seven and the ace will win for you if you play them in succession…’
This ‘trinity ‘of cards proves an unholy premonition, for in playing the cards as commanded Hermann loses everything on the final ace; an ace that is not an ace at all, but a Queen, a Queen of Spades.How very dangerous are our projections?
‘Ace wins!’ …
‘Your Queen has lost,’…
…Instead of an ace there lay before him the Queen of Spades…at that moment it seemed that the Queen of Spades opened and closed her eye, and mocked him with a smile..‘
Little wonder then that the epigraph to Pushkin’s tale describes the Queen of Spades as an unlucky card. Hermann has gambled all on the word of a revenant and lost. And Hermann has not only lost his fortune, he has also lost his mind.
Winterson’s imaginative revisitation of Pushkin in The Passion is brilliantly subversive. Her Queen of Spades is a masked Catherine Deneuve ‘straight’ out of ‘The Hunger,’ all ennui, low voiced suggestion and predation. Hermann has become transformed ‘intertextually’ into Henri and spends his final days on an island of madness: the asylum San Servolo…ironically like his original passion Napoleon himself!
‘I left him his shirt and boots and took the rest.’
The act of borrowing another uniform in The Passion mirrors Winterson’s own predilection for literary ‘borrowings’ or ventriloquism . It is a trope for intertextuality. We hear echoes of other texts, we hear echoes of the text’s own narrative which circles like an obsession over and around itself. The narrative ebbs and flows as it plays with the idea of passion: proximity, distance and betrayal.
And what of Pushkin’s tale recognised and ‘misrecognised’ in Winterson’s magical narrative? For the Queen of Spades is initially desribed as a lucky card by Villanelle. Is this her initial mistake?
‘Queen of Spades, you win.Ace of clubs you lose. Play again. What will you risk? ‘
The apparent recuperation of the Queen of Spades under Winterson’s gaze proves problematic. Can Villanelle cheat the ‘fate’ of the card against its infamous history? And if the Queen of Spades is the symbol of Venice then what is being symbolised via such an ambivalent card? Duplicity? Sex?
Unmasked the Queen of Spades delivers the fateful touch and passion becomes translated as destiny:
‘I can’t make love to you…’
Relief and despair.
.But I can kiss you..’
And so, from the first, we separated our pleasure…’
The Queen of Spades collects Villanelle as she would collect a valuable artefact: ‘Passion out of passion’s obstacles.’ She has literally ‘collected’ Villanelle from a world seemingly governed by chance; the casino. And Villanelle believing herself immune to fortune’s gamble, has no protection from such subtle and deadly seduction.
‘ I thought of myself as a civilised woman and found I was a savage.‘
And the ultimate prize?
The secret fabulous thing?
The Woman in Black
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