Light behind her

Light behind her

In Brief

Foretelling the uncertainties of online dating, Bloom understands that "Martha Clifford" may be no more transparent a projection of the woman with whom he is corresponding than "Henry Flower" is of himself. In Lotus Eaters he stands in the church and imagines meeting Martha in the flesh, thinking that she could "Turn up with a veil and black bag. Dusk and the light behind her." The reference is to a one-act operetta by Gilbert & Sullivan in which a young man woos a woman so unattractive that she could seem desirable only in such lighting conditions.

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Trial by Jury, first produced at London's Royalty Theatre in 1875, was the second of many great collaborations between Arthur Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert. It was a success, and went on tour throughout the British Isles in subsequent years. The operetta features a breach-of-promise lawsuit engendered by a young attorney's ambition to succeed in his profession. He lacks the money to get ahead, so he falls "in love" with a successful attorney's daughter:

When I, good friends, was call'd to the bar
I'd an appetite fresh and hearty,
But I was, as many young barristers are,
An impecunious party.
I'd a swallow-tail coat of a beautiful blue,
And a brief which I bought of a booby,
A couple of shirts, and a collar or two,
And a ring that looked like a ruby.

He'd a couple of shirts, and a collar or two,
And a ring that look'd like a ruby.

At Westminister Hall I danc'd a dance
Like a semi-despondent fury,
For I thought I never should hit on a chance
Of addressing a British jury.
But I soon got tired of third-class journeys
And dinners of bread and water,
So I fell in love with a rich attorney's
Elderly, ugly daughter.

So he fell in love with a rich attorney's
Elderly, ugly daughter.

The rich attorney, he jump'd with joy
And replied to my fond professions,
"You shall reap the reward of your pluck, my boy
At the Bailey and Middlesex Sessions.
You'll soon get used to her looks," said he,
"And a very nice girl you will find her.
She may very well pass for forty-three
In the dusk, with a light behind her."

She has often been taken for forty-three
In the dusk, with a light behind her.

The prospective father-in-law is "good as his word." He sends plenty of business to the young barrister, who becomes rich and then finds himself less enamored of the elderly, ugly daughter. The result is the breach-of-promise lawsuit.

Bloom's cautious skepticism about epistolary self-representations feels prophetic. Probably many thousands of 21st century amatory hopefuls—male, female, and otherwise—have thought something like "Dusk and the light behind her" after meeting their internet correspondents in the flesh.

JH 2019
Cover of April 1875 theater program for La Périchole (featured) and Trial by Jury, with Arthur Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert as cherubs on either side of the director. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Page 3 of the same program, giving Trial by Jury its due.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.