Transcriptions: Writing

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'Transcriptions: Writing' is a project inviting MA Creative Writing students from Birkbeck, University of London, to write a short fiction response to a National Gallery painting.

Massys: 'An Old Woman ('The Ugly Duchess')'

Lesley Saunders

Massys, An Old Woman ('The Ugly Duchess')', about 1513
Quinten Massys: An Old Woman ('The Ugly Duchess'), about 1513

I know what you’re thinking. I know exactly what you’re thinking. Certain aspects of my face resemble a member of the ape fraternity. The Neanderthal forehead, the simian nose, the dome-like jaw. As if that were not unfortunate enough, custom requires that I wear a hat shaped like a baboon’s buttocks, and clamp my desiccated grapefruits into a vice.

You find me disgusting, don’t you? A woman like me should not be on general display. I should be confined to a life of scrubbing potatoes in a basement kitchen, along with the rest of the world’s ugly people.

But do me this kind courtesy. Lift up your hands – go ahead – cover the hat with one hand and the cleavage with another, and what do you see? Yes. You see a man. Suddenly I am not quite so grotesque. Am I?