In Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, middle-aged schoolteacher Nora Eldridge chafes against gender stereotypes. It saddens her that people dismiss her as “the woman upstairs,” the type of nice, unassuming person who leads a life “of quiet desperation” and is “completely invisible” (p. 6). But her art affords her a creative outlet, and when a new friendship reawakens her artistic aspirations, she embarks on a series of dioramas that express her ideas about gender, art, and society.
Nora’s pieces are shrines, miniature versions of the rooms of four famous women artists whom she admires and emulates: Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Alice Neel, and Edie Sedgwick. They were private and reclusive; all but Dickinson had a history of mental illness. They left an important legacy but didn’t achieve recognition for their work until later in life or posthumously. Like her muses, Nora creates art for art’s sake, but she sometimes feels conflicted about the value of her work. She hopes that the dioramas are more than “primitive homages,” that “as a sequence, they have a logic” (p. 227). Below, we take a look at each of Nora’s role models and how they represent aspects of her life, personality, and creative vision.
The artistic fate of the nineteenth-century poetess powerfully resonates with Nora. Emily Dickinson composed nearly 1,800 pieces, but she wasn’t able to publish more than a dozen of them in her lifetime. Devoted to her art, Dickinson shunned the company of others and preferred to work in her room—the inspiration for Nora’s first diorama.
I was making a tiny replica of Emily Dickinson’s Amherst bedroom, about the size of a boot box, each floorboard in place, the re-creation of her furnishings exact and to scale. Once I’d made her room, and made her, as perfectly as I could, in a white linen nightie with ruffles, my aim was to set up circuitry so that my Emily Dickinson might be visited, sitting up in her bed, by floating illuminations—the angelic Muse, her beloved Death, and of course my tiny gilded mascot, Joy herself. [pp. 76–77]
My Emily Dickinson room is exactly that: Emily Dickinson’s room, constructed to replicate as precisely as possible the room as historians have determined it actually was, but in miniature. Always, I have an engagement with Death—because my art isn’t, after all, about what is or what might be, but about what was. You could call each of my boxes a shrine. [p. 152]
Nora admires American painter Alice Neel not only because she was a pioneer among women artists but also because of her refusal to bow down to popular trends. Neel developed a distinctive technique that didn’t gain critical acclaim until she was well into her sixties.
Then there was to be one [diorama] of the painter Alice Neel, in the sanatorium to which she was sent after her nervous breakdown at around the age of thirty. I wanted there to be an echo, you see, between Emily Dickinson’s spare white room and Alice Neel’s white room, the monastic and the asylum: both retreats, but of such different types. And both the province of women. I even thought about the title of my nonexistent series: A Room of One’s Own? I thought the question mark was the key.
I loved the story of Alice Neel, in part because her life was so hard and bitter but turned out all right in the end, and in part because her art, like mine, was resolutely unfashionable for almost all of her life, and because of that she had to know why she was doing it and why she kept doing it to the last. She was the AFH: the Anti-Fun-House. I was bound to love her for that. [p. 77]
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” modernist writer Virginia Woolf famously states in the feminist essay A Room of One’s Own (1929). Fascinated by the idea of private spaces where women create, Nora borrows the title of the essay for her diorama series but tacks on a question mark at the end. She’s ambivalent about Woolf’s thesis because confinement to “a room of one’s own” also means invisibility, a road to becoming a woman upstairs.
I wanted to make one [diorama] of Virginia Woolf at Rodmell, putting rocks in her pockets and writing her final note: my idea was that there would be slides of the river, raging, and sound effects, too; and an actual copy of the handwritten note that would project not onto the diorama wall but out Virginia’s bedroom window, onto our walls outside, so that instead of being small, the words would be huge. In my mind’s eye, they would flicker: the flickering was, to me, very important. [p. 77]
Nora marvels at the intensity and vitality of Edie Sedgwick’s photographs. Sedgwick was Andy Warhol’s muse, an “It Girl” who posed for him and starred in his short films. In Nora’s eyes, however, Sedgwick was also deeply misunderstood. Always in the public gaze, Sedgwick was worse than invisible—she was “annihilated” (p. 174).
Edie was essential. I’d spent a chunk of my adolescence in thrall to Edie Sedgwick, in love with the insect limbs in their black tights, and the giant eyes, and the stares, even though she was already long dead in my day. She was the cool people’s Marilyn Monroe—smaller, faster, brighter, more immediately alive, and more efficiently dead, an anorexic slip of a life, with no more known interiority than a dachshund. Yet if, when I was sixteen and on my way to college, you’d asked me whether I wanted to be Georgia O’Keeffe or Edie Sedgwick, I would definitely have hesitated. And I might have said Sedgwick. She’d defined something, we said back then. [p. 78]
For Edie, beautiful Edie, the strangeness was that the joy was already in the room, even as it was killing her. When, as a woman, you make yourself the work of art, and when you are then what everyone looks at, then whatever else, you aren’t alone. Edie was never, on the outside, alone. Emily, Virginia, Alice—the woman artist so fundamentally isolated. And then Edie: never alone. Never invisible. Arguably, also, never seen; and in that sense, more than alone: annihilated. [p. 174]