Tea with Ancestors

Submitted by Alain Champlain on Sun, 10/20/2019 - 19:22

I mentioned recently, in my post "A FEW BRIEF NOTES ON SPACETIME IN PALE FIRE," that "twice removed" might in part be a joke about John and Sybil Shade being related. Two pertinent lines:

"[...] and you would be
In your own study, twice removed from me,”
(Lines 365-366)

“John Shade’s wife [...] was a few months his senior. I understand she came of Canadian stock, as did Shade’s maternal grandmother (a first cousin of Sybil’s grandfather, if I am not greatly mistaken).”
(From note to line 247)


Re-reading, and keeping in mind that Shade falls in love with Sybil during the class outing where she offers him a "thimbleful of bright metallic tea," I think these lines continue the joke:

“[...] A Chinese
Discanted on the etiquette at teas
With ancestors, and how far up to go.
I tore apart the fantasies of Poe,”
(Lines 629-632)

We can read "how far up to go" as a question of how distantly related two individuals must be before they may become romantically involved. The mention of Poe, who married his cousin, might help confirm this train of thought. (A quick search for other famous "coupled cousins", as I write this, also brings up Boswell's marriage to his cousin Peggie Montgomerie.)


Alain, that all makes sense to me, especially connecting to Poe. Otherwise what would be the reason for John and Sybil to be related, as he clearly has them. It seems that VN does everything with a reason, and often with several others piled on. To this end, I believe I see an additional meaning in Lines 365-66:

The word "you" is in "your." And, if "you" would be "b", then line 366 would read "In brown study, twice removed from me."  "Brown study" means in deeply absorbed thought, as in shutting out the rest of the world. Therefore "twice removed" not only physically, but mentally. I believe this kind of word-play, where the solution is contained within the sentence is called a Cryptic Crossword (?) 

Also, for what it's worth, since I tend to see alchemy everywhere in PF, the alchemic coniunctio (sacred marriage of the King and Queen), the royal pair was sometimes referred to as "brother and sister."  Not quite the same as cousins, though.



Thanks for your comment, I appreciate the suggestion of another meaning to "twice removed," only I'm highly skeptical of the seemingly arbitrary "you > b" substitution.

I would not stake anything on it; it's interesting and it occurred to me as I read the passage. The "you>b" is the sort of thing one does see in that sort of cryptic puzzle. It would be arbitrary if it did not prove to relate to anything else within the novel, and I am not sure if it does, although I could make a case for it demonstrating the hidden dysfunction within the Shade marriage, or perhaps Shade's own propensity of self-removal into trance.