Editor's Note

Vesna Main’s story lays out two selves of a woman at the beginning – Sindy and The Artist. One sustains the other. The woman assures that the artist survives, and the artist makes the woman’s existence meaningful. This bifurcation is a ruse that the author weaves us into in the first few paragraphs only to entangle us further into the proliferating selves of the woman. While the artist is haunted by a history of violence and erasure of other female artists, the woman is being stalked by men who threaten her independence and existence. 

Needless to say, the history of female artists is also an archive of strategies of survival with myriad templates for finding freedom and creating a fulfilling life. It is this archive that the protagonist of Main’s story often turns to not only for survival but also as an existential project. As haunted as her world is with the looming threat of men who refuse to leave her alone, there is joy, play, and power in revivifying the forgotten women of past. Main’s writing effortlessly intertwines the many pasts and this one present of Sindy into a feminist critique of a world that continues to insist on pinning women down to definite selves and identities. 

— Shivani Mutneja
The Bombay Literary Magazine

There is Sindy, a stage name, an alias, a brand if you wish. And then, there is the Artist who works on portraits of the women you admire. Some of those women need to be rescued from the oblivion of history, and others from the stereotypes imposed on them.

Containing the word sin, the name Sindy appeals to you. A psychoanalyst might see some logic, an inevitability even, in the way you present yourself to the world. As a reaction to your convent upbringing, at fifteen you promised yourself a life of sin. Your teenage self was not sure what it meant, apart from having a great deal of exciting sex. Thou shalt sin, you told yourself, repudiating the edict that had dominated your education.

The fact that you did not manage to have a great deal of exciting sex, or much sex at all, no longer matters. You’ve been busy with Sindy and the Artist.

Sindy is undoubtedly a success in terms of marketing. Grandmothers, your main clients, are reminded of their favourite doll, Sindy, a precursor of Barbie, and the sentimentality of older women works in your favour. Mothers commission work less often, fathers hardly ever. Some have made you weary: one man turned up at the appointment alone, claiming that the children were ill, and he didn’t wish to fail you, and another contacted you a few times by posting messages through your letter box, suggesting dinner. When you replied you were too busy to socialise, he offered to introduce you to a friend who was the head of an adult education institution and could set you up as a part-time tutor. You replied that you didn’t teach. As with any freelancer in the arts, your finances are precarious; in other circumstances, you would have jumped at the opportunity of a few hours of tutoring. They all know that you are single. Not unattractive. You can see what those fathers see.

You keep the Artist’s work separate from the work that pays, Sindy’s photographs of neighbourhood families in historic costumes, the people who crave nostalgia. They project their dreams of good times into the past even though they know it is a fantasy. Times are hard, even in this well-off middle-class area.

Sindy can do any period, from the Renaissance onwards, but, with grandmothers, the favourite is the Roaring Twenties. As one of them explained, it was the time when their own grandmothers were young. Stories were passed down and there was something romantic about the Belle Epoque in their minds. But they couldn’t all have had grandmothers who were dancers in Montmartre. It was more likely that fantasy was based on the TV series set in the jazz age, with a heroine modelled on Daisy Buchanan. Flapper dresses, which used to be in abundance at the flea markets you frequent, have become few and far between; it’s only chance, certainly not your prescience, which led you to accumulate a wardrobe of different sizes. The 1920s clothes rack is in regular use. Sometimes you suggest that your customers step into Elizabethan gear, but people have bad memories of studying Shakespeare at school and cannot be persuaded to don ruffle collars or to pull on breeches. The World War II years and those following are even less popular.

The walls of Sindy’s studio contain nothing but period family portraits, mostly printed in black and white, some in sepia. The fact that the majority represent people who look as if they have escaped from a Great Gatsby film set, leads any undecided clients to choose the same period. Most people want to be like the rest.

While you understand the appeal of belonging, you have never fitted in. With your many selves that project like spikes on a porcupine, you have to accept a life of not belonging. The self that your clients know, Sindy, the self that the greengrocer smiles at when you pass her on the street, which is a cover, a masque that fits the environment. It’s practical, uncomplicated, and allows you a smooth ride anywhere in the area. Sindy the photographer is as much part of the neighbourhood as the shops, the churches, the parks, and the river.

You chose to move to London, imagining it as a place where a foreign woman could be whatever she wishes to be. But the trouble with living here is not only the traffic noise and pollution but also the lack of privacy. The proximity of buildings in your part of Putney means your life is exposed to everyone, including the people who have nothing better to do than poke their noses in other people’s lives. It was the same when you lived in New York but, in those days, it didn’t worry you. With age you’ve developed a need for privacy. But it’s difficult with eyes everywhere. Eyes that don’t even bother to apologise, eyes that stare. Voyeur in the disguise of neighbourhood watch. What happened to the famous British reserve?

A man knocked on your door the other evening. The knocking persisted for well over a quarter of an hour and he left only after a neighbour came out to talk to him. Couldn’t he see that there was no one in? ‘The light is on,’, the man insisted. ‘So what,’, the neighbour said. ‘Some people leave lights on when they go out.’ You didn’t recognise the man’s voice. It certainly wasn’t the one with the friend in the adult education college. That was both a relief and a concern. You recorded the thumping of his fist and his voice calling Sindy, but when you reported the incident to the police, you were told it proved nothing; they said it could have been the voice of a friend. There was nothing threatening in the tone or in what the man said. Besides, the officer pointed out, you weren’t Sindy. You should make sure to have good locks and be careful.

A day after you met the neighbour on the staircase and as you greeted each other, he stopped. You could see he was itching to refer to the man knocking on your door but you pretended you were in a hurry.

Sindy works weekends and Wednesday afternoons to accommodate the needs of her clients. Other days are reserved for the Artist. Those are the days when you become anyone you choose. Once you finish shooting, you reward yourself with time for play. Not sinning but pretending. You pop out to the baker’s, or the post office, dressed as one of the women undergoing your intervention. Never as Marilyn Monroe or Greta Garbo, no one so easily recognisable. A babushka from the Potemkin or the female protagonist from The Last Year in Marienbad; they are amusing and safe. The latter turns heads. The former remains invisible, ignored in shops. The fate, or privilege, of an older woman?

The fun you have walking around as another person intrigues you. It’s not only the pleasure of physical transformation but the way your mind changes and you find yourself taking on the values of your character. The other day, on the staircase, you ran into that busybody from the fifth floor; without meaning to, you spoke with an Irish accent, turning yourself into a native of Cork. The busybody stared, before asking whether she could help. ‘You are exceedingly kind, madam. I am on a call. Dr James Berry,’ You extended your hand. The busybody was lost for words and hurried upstairs. You suppressed a giggle and felt tempted to shout, ‘But I am really Margaret Ann Bulkley, a woman living as a man so I could study medicine and practise as a doctor’.

On one occasion, the Artist entering the mind of the character created a sticky situation. You were paying for a purchase with a credit card and by mistake signed as Elizabeth Siddal. The assistant asked whether that was your married name. ‘No, I like to create different identities.’ The assistant gave you a hard look. ‘For fun.’ You shrugged but stopped yourself from adding, ‘It’s good to be someone else. We all have multiple selves.’ The assistant called the manager, who threatened to call the police. ‘I’m prepared to overlook it on this occasion but please don’t return to our store,’ he said.

You left, shaken. Exploring different identities, resurrecting women who have been ill-treated by history, should not be a crime.

The Artist keeps her pictures separately, in the room at the end of the apartment; barring a few close friends, no one is invited to look at them. Your agent has suggested he could find you a slot at a gallery, but nothing has been confirmed and it is best not to raise your hopes. In any case, you are in no hurry. Exhibitions are for business, for those who have a commercial interest in art. With the period-costume family portraits, Sindy earns enough to support the Artist.

Unlike those family portraits, which you offer in several dimensions, although nothing bigger than a double poster, the selfies are blown up to life-size. There are nights when you wake from a dream in which you are the last person on Earth, walking along deserted streets and through country landscapes without even a cow or a goat. You seek comfort by stepping into the Artist’s room and crouching on the wooden floor, with a blanket around your shoulders, you listen to the stories of the women surrounding you. You know a great deal about most of them but there is always more to hear and, in the middle of the night, even the quietest women acquire eloquence. There are no interruptions. You are taken by the sorority of the others who listen attentively to the speaker, as if they too are researching the story of the woman. At those moments, you think how lucky you are.


The days when you are Sindy and the days when you are all those others are set in stone. Sindy requires a different frame of mind, which is why she works by prior appointment only. As they say, don’t mix work and pleasure. That is not to suggest you don’t enjoy being Sindy, playing a role by welcoming families, feigning interest in the kiddies. There is an art to it. But the bottom line is that you need to be Sindy to live, and you live to become the others, named and unnamed, historical and fictional. And if there is a real you, hidden God knows where, forever changing, that you comprises all those living in the room at the end of the corridor. And Sindy too. They are all the roles that you play. But the time demarcation is essential. Different roles, different days of the week. Not that the customers see it that way. At first, you were prepared to be flexible, knowing that you had to establish the business, Sindy’s business. Reluctantly, you would give in to their pleading, eliciting promises of word-of-mouth recommendations via the school run. A forthcoming birthday, a surprise we wanted to give to granny, but we have been too busy and had forgotten to book. Please, make an exception. Our granny is in her late eighties, feeling her age, this may be her last birthday, something along those lines. You made an exception. Exception built on exception to become the norm. Putting on the Sindy hat, encroached into the time you spent with the other women and diminished your concentration. You found it difficult to switch your thoughts back to those who waited patiently to be given another lease of life. One day you promised yourself you would stop. No more answering the phone on the days when Sindy is off. But they knew where you live. A few times you tried to pretend you weren’t in but that meant having to stop work. If they heard you, they knocked more loudly, calling out.

And then there was the persistence of that creep and his tutoring job. The notes in your post-box, saying that you were made for each other, must be from him. If you pop out to the shops, he follows you. If you go to meet a friend in a pub, he is there. Outside the vernissage too. On the way to the toilet, Sue said that she saw him trying to persuade the people at the reception desk that he had left his invitation at home. They checked the list. His name wasn’t there but he argued that it must be a mistake. You rang the police. A coincidence, they said. You couldn’t accuse someone of stalking just because you saw him a few times walking around.


You used to think that a sine qua non for the images the Artist created was that they were recognisable by the public. Otherwise, you couldn’t see the point, well, not beyond exercising your skill at reproducing the likeness. With most people, which is all they admire; infantilised adults mistaking your work for a trivial game. Innocuous fun, one gallerist told you. But your ambition goes further than that and you wish you knew how to make them aware of the serious point. Obviously, for the image to be recognisable, a woman must be known in the first place; without that, the Artist’s skill at reproducing the likeness is irrelevant and the point you try to make is lost. However, over time, you have realised that it is more important to resurrect lesser-known women. If you are lucky, and the image receives appropriate exposure, the woman is given a second lease of life. A feminist intervention. God knows there are many notable women whose names have been forgotten.

When the Artist worked on Victorine Meurent, it wasn’t so much a case of Meurent being forgotten, as misconstrued, deliberately misconstrued by patriarchal art historians. The Victorine Meurent they presented to the world was the result of wishful male thinking. A woman as a sex object, a woman to be used and despised. A woman who they assumed would have died young. When the Artist produced a tableau vivant of Le Déjeuner, it was met with all the usual smiles accompanied by ‘Oh, I’ve seen this one before’, but when she carried on and produced a series of images showing Meurent as a painter who exhibited at the Salon, or as a woman in her eighties, sharing a household with a female partner, your intervention changed the way Meurent was seen. One could say, you gave substance to her naked body, you showed her as an independent woman. But how could anyone, let alone art historians, standing in front of any of the Manet paintings for which Meurent modelled, fail to notice Meurent’s intelligence and strength of character? Anyone knows that the way the model returns the spectator’s gaze, and thereby objectifies the viewer, reminds us of how the world looks at women. No painter could have produced an image like that without a significant contribution from the model. But while all this is obvious to the Artist, once you created a series of pictures, each showing Meurent in one of her many distinct roles, you realised that critics and the public at large still looked with male eyes. Much work remains to be done. In that way, your images of Meurent represented a turning point in your career. There is something beautiful about it: a woman artist helping another woman Artist. The need for women to turn the gaze back onto the viewer has become the centre of everything you create.


One day, while working on Mary Carleton, you casually looked up and saw a middle-aged man, sitting at a desk in the old building opposite. He was staring at you. He didn’t even pretend otherwise: a steady, penetrating gaze. At one point, he smiled and waved. He couldn’t have been communicating with any neighbour of yours since all the flats around you, on the side visible to the man, are unoccupied. Then you had an idea. Sisterhood rules in this apartment: you look after each other. You chose the image closest to the door, carried it over and voilà, it perfectly fitted the doors of the Juliet balcony. ‘Let him stare now,’ Whistler’s girl, known to the world as The Woman in White, said. ‘I am ready.’ Others wait to take her place.

While, at first, Sindy was a mundane necessity, the bill-paying side of the partnership, the Artist benefited from Sindy’s work more directly. Mary was an example of this cross-fertilisation. Who knows how long it would have taken for her to surface, or even to surface at all, had it not been for the amateur local historian obsessed with the Interregnum and the sects? He happened to have a transcript of the Putney debates with him at the session and, as they were leaving, his wife mentioned a woman he had told her about, the woman who had many identities. You overheard and wanted to know more. The man said there were two autobiographies in the British Library. The next day you were at the door as the Library opened. You took notes and made photocopies.

The paradox of Mary Carleton is that she is both easier and harder to recreate than the others. Easier because there is only one surviving pictorial representation, which itself is barely known, even to those well-educated in literature. However, Carleton is all about multiple identities and the problem is how to represent that.

A few days passed, days of working in peace. And then Sindy took over for the weekend. From time to time, you lifted the corner of the Whistler girl to peep out: the man was still there. A pervert or a joker? Could he have taken a leaf out of your book? Was he real or a mannequin? A stuffed puppet?

‘Ignore him,’, the women said. ‘He is only watching. We will shield you. You have created us: we exist to be stared at.’

You couldn’t forget he was there. Was he the one knocking? Or the one slipping you messages made from words cut out of newspapers? He had no right to enter your life.

What would Mary do? Now there was a woman who could handle any man, any situation.

If you had Judith or Salome, you would offer them to him. But you dislike the idea of shooting one of them just for his sake. You couldn’t allow him to interfere with the work of the Artist.

Forget him. Focus on the company of Mary, your current project.

The Artist is amused to know that Carleton’s second marriage was to Dr Day. Your first, and only one, was to Dr Knight.

Dr Day lived in Dover. He doesn’t interest you but you would love to know what attracted Mary. Opportunism probably. Not that you would blame a poor, seventeenth-century woman for that. And when you think of Dr Knight, that was also opportunism of a kind. He offered a comfortable life to an impoverished woman, young and insecure. He gave you a role when you had no idea how to realise your ambition. Bill, Dr Knight, stopped by the bench where you were sitting in Central Park and looked at your sketchpad. He told you he admired artists because they were doing what he could never do, turning their imagination into concrete artefacts. Years later, you would have laughed at the simplicity of his chat-up but at twenty-one, you were smitten. The memory doesn’t help you to understand what happened to Mary and Dr Day. By the time she arrived in Dover, sometime in the 1660s, she had been through one marriage and the death of two children. Whatever made Mary the way she was is likely to have started in her childhood when, aware of her low birth, she taught herself to imitate the accents of rich people. Did she realise then that she could invent herself in the image of her choice? That she could improve her social standing?

For several weeks the Artist works on turning into images some of the ideas you learned from Mary’s autobiographies. But the clearest image that emerges is that of Mary, at some point between her first and second marriages, holding a Nicholas Hilliard miniature of someone she met and suddenly there is light in her eyes. As she contemplates the tiny picture and compares it to the face she used to know, she is aware of the discrepancy between what she remembers and what the miniaturist created. It must be true for everyone, she thinks. The image they have of themselves doesn’t fully correspond to what others see. The real discovery that follows, which Mary is in a hurry to put to good use, is that each of us, with some effort, is in control of our image.

And then there was her rejection, not only of family ties, but also of the country of her birth, that appealed to you, as much as her readiness to travel across Europe, and her linguistic ability – she was fluent in several languages. No homesickness for her.

Mary Carleton is a feminist heroine far ahead of her time: rootless and multilingual. Her modernity cannot be denied. And there is more: dedicated to life-long learning, she studies law and astrology. Her literacy is impressive: her way with language and her imagination stand her in good stead as she negotiates her passage between identities. She understands the way of the world: ‘to deceive the deceiver is no deceit’, she writes.

Carleton’s equanimity of disposition and indomitable spirit help her to move on after her tragedies, and to remain focused on herself and her future. Single-mindedness. The quality most women, then and now, can rarely afford to have. There is also Carleton’s unbounded optimism and self-belief. She doesn’t seem to have a long-term plan but that might be a deliberate strategy. She has to be a creature of the moment. Her intelligence and quick thinking allow her to react there and then to whatever happens, rather than spend her life lamenting lost opportunities.

As you do every day, you unpeel a corner of whichever woman’s image covers your window behind the Juliet balcony and every day the man is there. One morning, he ties a large red balloon in the shape of a heart to the rail of his balcony. As you stare, you notice an arm lifts from behind the desk and a hand waves. Mad bastard.

The next morning, there are two balloon hearts next to each other, bobbing up and down in the breeze. One has a large letter S printed on it, the other M. Mad bastard.

The Artist will make her own Mary or, rather, her own Marys. They will serve the purpose of the Artist’s project: illuminating powerful women from history. You are not ashamed to admit that your art is tendentious. The stalker has made you realise that you must empower women to stand up against patriarchy.

One day, returning from the art-material shop under the arches to the north of Putney Bridge, you stop and stare at the Thames. The weather is gloomy, the drizzle unremitting, and the tide low. Something about the river, displaying its debris on the wet riverbed, sad and stripped of its power, makes you want to walk upstream, rather than turn left towards home. A foot is sticking out of the water. As the surface of the water undulates with the wind, it reveals a calf, then a whole leg, muddy and scratched. A torso bobbing up and down. You force yourself to move towards the body. Yes. No. No. Thank God. A mannequin. Discarded or a practical joke? Further up the embankment, graffiti on one of the boat houses: M is for Mephistopheles. A school kid, in a strange mood after hours of rowing, wet and cold, scribbling in large red letters. A pair of horns is drawn on top of the M. You run away.

Once you are back in the apartment and the door is locked, you think you should have crossed out Mephistopheles and written over it that M is for Mary, or M is for Meurent.

Forget the bastard. Don’t peek out. Ignore him.

A message is slipped through your letter box. No words, only three xs and two red hearts.

You look at the portraits of Mary included in her two autobiographies. She had an instinct for how to present herself to the world. No matter how you read it or fail to read it, you must recognise the strength of the sitter’s personality. Her confidence. Independence. No wonder she paid a heavy price. Yes, M is for Mary and M is for Meurent, your heroines. How about the two of them together? But why just two of them? Other women could join them, compare notes and share advice. A council of women. You don’t have to think long about where they will meet. Rather like in the play from the eighties that you like so much. A dinner party! When women get together, there has to be food. At the women-only groups from your university days, someone always brought a cake to share. A loaf or a torte in the middle of the table was as essential as the photocopies of the articles to be discussed. A round table: your women will meet at a round table. You will sketch out the seating arrangement and then shoot each woman separately, bring them together with technology. A sequence of photos of their dinner party. A Women’s Supper, but not the Last. No Iscariot among them. Kisses yes, but kisses of support. All of them working together. And why not? They are sisters, not rivals.

But which Mary would it be? Modders, Carleton, Day? The German Princess?

It has to be all of them. Now, there is a challenge.

Carleton’s quick thinking and the ability to see through the falseness of those around her save many a sticky situation. She has luck on her side, too. But the experience of landing on her feet gives her the confidence and courage to be more and more daring and, in the end, after so much success, she becomes overconfident, too complacent to realise the gravity of her situation. Now there is a lesson for Sindy. She should stay alert. But there is another lesson too. Confident to the end of her life, Mary doesn’t spend her last days tormented by fear and anxiety at the prospect of being hanged. Likewise, Sindy should ignore the stalker.

Rosa Parks takes the place of the Woman in White. It is dark when you are swapping the images. In the morning, you lift the side and peep out. Still there. No balloons but waving. Perhaps you should take a few pictures of him. A series called ‘Neighbourhood Watch’. Would that and the two hearts messages be enough for the police?

You recall Mary’s words: ‘What harm have I done in pretending to great titles?’ What harm indeed? But society finds her multiplicity of identities transgressive. The hanging at Tyburn is inevitable.

Mary is content with her femininity. There is no record, not even a hint, of her transgressing her gender. Unlike a few women before and quite a few later, she doesn’t find being a woman constraining. That appeals to you. One must fight the corner and live one’s life. If you abandon it for an easier route, nothing will change.

Mary has no illusions about marriage: an affair of ‘intrigues and perplexities of kin and alliance, and necessary dependence’. She is ‘miserable by another’. The words chime with you.

Rosa Parks is back in the room at the end of the corridor. Gertrude Stein takes her place behind the window of the Juliet balcony. The old bugger continues his disturbing vigil.

One day you walk past the boat houses. Underneath the graffiti ‘M is for Mephistopheles’, someone has scribbled ‘N is for Old Nick’. A week later, someone writes ‘N is for Narrator’, words that would have amused you, but you no longer walk past.

A short article appears in the local newspaper:

‘Woman found dead’

A forty-five-year-old woman, known locally as a photographer specialising in historic family portraits, has been found dead in her flat. A police spokesperson said they are treating the case as murder and are appealing for information. Neighbours of the victim had been concerned about the number of visitors to the flat, weird characters, as one resident said. A lady who lives on the fifth-floor suspected drug trafficking or prostitution. However, the police reassured residents that they should not have any security concerns. A huge quantity of male and female clothes, wigs, and several bags of make-up were found in the flat. The police believe the woman used the items for disguise. She had a large collection of photographs of what appears to be herself in numerous guises. Police are considering whether she had been specifically targeted because of criminal associations.


Image credits:

Diego Velázquez.  Las Meninas (‘The Ladies-in-waiting’) (1656). Oil on canvas, 318 × 276 cm (125.2 × 108.7 in). Museo del Prado, Madrid.

The banner image grossly distorts the painting’s true scale. Actually, it is impossible to do justice to the Las Meninas on a computer screen. For one thing, the original is large, larger than a human: 10.4 feet by 9 feet and its shades of rich dark brown and off-white don’t transfer well digitally.

The painting shows a number of  people, all 17th-century royalty: Philip IV, Margaret Theresa, Diego Velázquez, Mariana of Austria, Maria Agustina Sarmiento, Mari Bárbola, Nicolasito Pertusato, Marcela de Ulloa, José Nieto Velázquez. Weird thing is, they all have the painter’s face. The people are different, but their faces are versions of Diego Velázquez. The painting is, as a Sotheby article put it, “…far more than simply a court painting: the picture plays with the notion of viewing, both viewing by the person looking at the painting and the subjects looking out.”

On the other hand, Vesna Main’s story has a narrator who is everyone except perhaps herself. Sindy: meet Diego. Diego: meet Sindy.


Vesna Main is a graduate of English and Comparative Literature. She holds a PhD in Elizabethan Drama from the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. Her book-length publications include a collection of stories, Temptation: A User’s Guide (Salt 2018),  Only A Lodger… And Hardly That (Seagull Books, 2020), a novella, ‘Bruno and Adèle’ in Shorts III (Platypus Press, 2021) and Good Day? (Salt 2019), which was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. Her latest novel, Waiting for a Party, will be published by Salt in August 2024. Born in Zagreb, Croatia, Main lives in London and in a small French village.

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