Sandra Talley, a lovely descendent of Susan’s took this picture (and several others) and kindly granted me permission to post it.
The epitaph on Susan Archer Talley Weiss’ grave monument might just be the most intriguing thing about an already fascinating woman.
“What I do ye know not now. Ye shall know hereafter.”
Secrets and the hereafter are two major themes in “Chateaux en Espagne” by Susan Archer Talley. Unlike some of her other prose works, this essay’s appearance in the December 1895 issue of Scott’s Monthly Magazine is the only mention of it I’ve found anywhere. It is a metaphysical piece directly and indirectly paying tribute to Poe’s “Introduction” (the longest version of the poem also known as “Preface” and “Romance”), “Dream Land” and “Eldorado.” One could also easily recall “Landor’s Cottage.”
Chateaux begins, to be blunt, rather rudely. While Poe masked his criticism with humor and quite obviously had great fun when butchering victims with his tomahawk, Talley doesn’t attempt in the slightest to sugar-coat her contempt for those not among the Benthamites, Arcadians, Epicureans, and Hedonists with whom she aligns herself. It’s a bit of a radical or fanatical perversion of Poe’s love for beauty and imagination. If Poe were Obi-Wan Kenobi, Talley is, here, Anakin Skywalker at his most overflowing with rage and bitterness.
After expressing how pathetic and worthless are the lives of those not poets, however, she tips her hand. Suddenly, we see that all is not perfect in her utopia. Talley quickly moves from dreams that are here, now, and beautiful to longings and memories in which we
“are lost in a dream of what, perchance, once was, or might have been, or may even yet be.”
What may even yet be … this fleeting thought with it’s tiny bit of hope and optimism is cast aside when she describes the tedious and empty lives of most people that are neither willing nor able to enter “Dream Land.” Still more grotesque are those who spend every bit of time and energy trying to attain and maintain “Dream Land” like hamsters on a wheel … no happier than those toiling in factories or cubicles. In Dream Land, dreams, love, and imagination are manifested as Chateaux d’ Espagne or “castles in the air.” These hamsters, these racing rats eventually exhaust their resources and their castles crash to the ground—even in Dream Land—burying hope and optimism under the rubble like so many miners trapped underground.
From the French Wikipedia …
“Un château en Espagne est une expression signifiant quelque chose d’impossible ou d’irréalisable. On parle le plus souvent de construire ou acheter un château en Espagne dans l’idée de créer des plans, des projets, ou des mécanismes qui n’aboutiront jamais.”
… which translates to:
“A castle in Spain is an expression meaning something impossible or impractical. It is most often referred to build or buy a house in Spain with the idea of creating plans, projects, or mechanisms that never succeed.”
She returns to those fortunate enough “to have loved and lost” as well as those unfortunates living in that past, yearning for what once was. The only thing worse, it seems, is
“that which might have been—that which was within our grasp, and torn from us, helpless, despairing—calling in vain for human aid—praying in vain for divine interposition; what is it but a yearning and an anguish forever?”
One might say Poe was her ideal in this sense. Edgar, for sure, never found a heart he desired without pursuing it no matter the cost.
This piece was published, if you didn’t notice, a few short months after the war ended. Norfolk and Richmond, including Talavera, were in ruins and her reputation wasn’t doing any better. She had a choice when it came to her toddler son … was she a slut or a traitor? Her husband, whom nobody had seen, seemed to have disappeared. Her friends and family were scattered, missing, or dead. Antebellum life existed only in ashes.
The cultural and industrial power that was Richmond burned twice. Once by the residents who loved it as they fled on Evacuation Sunday and again by the invading Union army.
This was the world in which Susan Talley Weiss would raise and attempt to provide for her young son, approximately two years old. As loathe as she may have been to admit it, she was as alone as her friend, Rosalie Poe except for one sad fact—Rosie’s family would take her in if they could but to her own family, Susan was a traitor.
Talley repeatedly yearns for and awaits the hereafter to be reunited with “those who are dead to others are not dead to me.” Before sinking again into bitterness, Talley describes locked doors and hidden sanctuaries within her castle in the air that hold secrets, memories both too holy and horrific to be seen … by herself or others. Secrets. Some a comfort, others a curse.
Many times it is tempting to believe she refers not only to Poe’s works but to the man himself. Her story, like Poe’s Eldorado, ends upon an encounter with shadows. In Eldorado, Poe’s pilgrim asks a shadow if he knows the way. The way seems distant and difficult, but “ride, boldly ride” is, indeed, one of the more inspiring lines is all of verse. Talley’s piece doesn’t end on as happy a note. She dares to hope. Her hope is in finding other wandering souls and “all things that the soul most loves and desires.”
Should some cold voice say, sneeringly, “They are shadows,” then will we answer, looking upward, strong and serene in our faith: “Yea; but shadows of the great Truths that have been, and that shall yet be in the Hereafter, whose golden haze shines afar, beyond the great unknown Sea of Death.”
Shadows of the great Truths … that shall yet be in the Hereafter …