The life of the Surrealist painter and writer Leonora Carrington has, through time, shrunken into a myth. She was born in Lancashire, England, the daughter of a wealthy mill owner, and expelled from two Roman Catholic boarding schools as a child. In 1935, she was presented as a debutante at Buckingham Palace and, two years later, she met the Surrealist painter Max Ernst in London, and ran away with him to Paris. After the outbreak of the Second World War, Ernst was arrested by the French gendarmerie and imprisoned; Carrington fled to Spain, had a mental breakdown, and was sent to an asylum. She then escaped to America and embedded with Surrealist expats in New York, where, among other things, she took a shower fully clothed in the presence of Luis Buñuel and covered her feet with mustard in front of André Breton. She moved to Mexico City in 1942 and lived there for over half a century—dying in 2011 at the age of 94.

Plotted this way, the typical sketch of Carrington’s biography tends to service two rather emaciated themes: rebellion and mental illness. The trouble is that neither says much about her life or work.

Carrington’s paintings and short stories are set in forests and lunar dreamscapes, filled with robed animals and witches and horned creatures, and various kinds of magical soups and stews. There is a relentless love of animals and cooking, an attention to fables and mythology, a wily sense of humor. And yet people in her orbit, from teachers to friends and critics, read a kind of aggressively crafted deviance into her strangeness. When she was at boarding school as a child, Carrington told her biographer, Joanna Moorehead, she went down to breakfast one morning with mismatched shoes. “‘There you are again, Leonora Carrington,’ said one of the nuns. ‘Always desperate to be different.’ But the nun was wrong; Leonora had not worn the wrong shoes deliberately…”

Later in New York, after Carrington met Peggy Guggenheim, who supported her work (and eventually married Ernst), Guggenheim recalled: “She had enormous, mad, dark eyes with thick black brows and a tip-tilted nose. Her figure was lovely but she always dressed very badly, on purpose.” The Russian writer Victor Serge wrote in his notebook, after meeting Carrington in Mexico: “She has a fine, very long face with a square forehead, pale and symmetrical, a slightly snub nose, dark, intensely burning eyes, full of assurance and disquiet—manifestly schizophrenic.” In Guggenheim’s account, Carrington dresses poorly on purpose; in Serge’s, her eyes are evidence of psychosis. As so often would be true for Carrington, her silence was a screen onto which people projected her intentions as much as their own insecurities.

The Hearing Trumpet, Carrington’s only novel, is the story of 92-year-old Marian Leatherby, who is gifted a hearing trumpet in the book’s opening scene, “encrusted with silver and mother o’pearl motives and grandly curved like a buffalo’s horn.” Marian tells us that she’s toothless, vegetarian, and has a small gray beard, which she’s rather pleased with, and that she is self-sufficient and keeps clean. While hiding in a passageway in her house, she raises the hearing trumpet to her ear and learns that her family is planning to send her off to an institution for old senile women. “Grandmother,” says her grandson Robert, “can hardly be classified as a human being. She’s a drooling sack of decomposing flesh.” Marian’s first concern, characteristically, is not herself but her two cats, Marmeen and Tchatcha.

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