The Mermaid Saint
In The Mermaid Chair theres a sacred feminine image at the heart of the story- a mythical mermaid saint. Shes based on St. Senara, who is an actual church saint. In fact, the church in Cornwall where the real mermaid chair resides is named for St. Senara. Little is known about her, but in my research I came across a legend suggesting that before her conversion, she was a Celtic princess named Asenora , a woman who had a rather dubious reputation. I also found whimsical stories that St. Senara had been a mermaid at one point, and that even after she was converted, she continued to pine for the sea. This was too good to pass up.
In the novel, the mermaid saint, then, is a figure that is part historical and part mythical. She is St. Senara, the godly patron saint of the monastery and the one to whom The Mermaid Chair is dedicated. Ah, but she also has this completely other aspect– before she was a saint, she was Asenora, the mermaid.
I wanted the mermaid saint to be a quiet presence that hovers over the story. Along with the mermaid chair, I feel that she forms the symbolic core of the novel. She carries all the powerful, opposing tensions that I discuss in a previous journal entry. I wanted to explore what it meant for women to contain both of these natures.
I brought home book after book on female saints. One thing most of them shared in common was their selflessness, their servitude. It was pretty easy for me to imagine how a character like Jessie might embody the saint aspect. For her, like a lot of women, it came out in her goodness, in the way she had given herself for so long to her family, putting her desires aside and identifying with her roles as wife and mother. It came through in her desire to be a good daughter, a good sister, in all the ways she lived dutifully and strove to conform to an ideal of perfect womanhood she carried inside.
It was much more challenging to figure out Jessies mermaid nature. While I was writing the novel, the house slowly filled up with mermaids- pictures, sculptures, wind chimes, wind socks, soaps, chocolates, mugs, book marks and a bottle opener. My husband, Sandy, joked that it was like walking around in Kats shop, The Mermaids Tale. Surrounded as I was, it didnt take long for me to become completely beguiled by them. Their symbolism is rich and varied, but I focused on two primary ways that their symbolism functions. One, of course, is the way they remind us that we have a sensual side, an instinctive, animal nature. The other is their enormous self-possession. Clearly, mermaids belong only to themselves.
While working on the novel, I came across a picture in a book of Pauline Stiriss painting, The Mermaid. I propped it on my desk with everything else. It showed a middle-aged woman sitting on a rock at the edge of the sea. Her hair was pulled back in a bun, her face was tired like shed been taking care of children all day, and she wore an apron, an emblem of her selfless service. Yet beneath the water, hidden from view, you can see that her lower half is a huge, powerful fish tail. She is a mermaid and she is a saint.