My dear Theo,
Having received your letter of 13 May,1 which must have crossed one from me to you, I think I should explain some things right away.
I indeed appreciate much of what I read in your letter, such as ‘One would have to be narrow-minded or have a misplaced sense of guilt to put one class absolutely above another.’2
The world, though, reasons otherwise, and never sees or respects the ‘human’ in the human being, but only the greater or smaller value in money or goods he bears this side of the grave. The world takes no account at all of the other side of the grave. This is why the world sees no further than the end of its nose.
For my part I feel sympathy or antipathy for people as people, and care little about what they have around them.
Yet to some extent I too take into consideration the points you make (and if my circumstances were such that I could do so, I would reconcile myself to more):
‘There are many who keep up a certain position to ensure that they won’t be constantly watched and that people won’t meddle in their affairs too much.’ I mean, very often I too let things pass, thinking I shan’t do or say this or that so as not to offend someone.
But in important, serious matters one shouldn’t let one’s actions be guided by public opinion or by one’s own passions.
One must stick to the A.B.C. that is the foundation of all morality, ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’.3 Act in a way that you can account for to God. Do right and act loyally.
Now I face Christien and reason like this: how would I feel if someone first helped me and then left me in the lurch? Wouldn’t I think... the person who behaves like that would have done better to leave me alone if he couldn’t go on to the end as he had begun. In fact he deceived me. The person who is the father of Christien’s4 child reasoned exactly in the spirit of your letter, Theo, and in my view utterly wrongly. He was very friendly to her but did not marry her, even when she was pregnant by him, for the sake of, so he said, his position and his family &c. Christien was young at the time and met him after her father’s death,5 didn’t know then what she knows now, and when that person died she was left alone with her child — deserted — with nothing. She had to take to the streets unwillingly, became ill, ended up in hospital in all sorts of misfortune...
The behaviour of that person was guilty before God, yet in the eyes of the world he kept his position — ‘he had paid her’. But when he faced DEATH, would there have been no regret or remorse in him then???
Now it happens that in the world, as against the characters of people like him, there are characters like mine, for example. I care as little about the world as that person cared about what is right. The semblance of right was enough for him, the opinion of the world — I couldn’t care tuppence about that. What comes first with me is this. I do not want to deceive or abandon any woman. If a woman refuses to have anything to do with me, like Kee Vos — I don’t press her, however strong my feelings may be — then I turn back with desolation in the heart as soon as my ‘she and no other’6 is opposed by her ‘certainly not him’. I do not want to coerce and i do not want to abandon. Equally, I protest if people coerce or abandon me.
If I were married to a woman and I saw that she was also carrying on with another, I wouldn’t let myself be made a fool of, but I wouldn’t leave her until I had tried my utmost to reclaim her. So you see how I think about marriage, and that I take it seriously.
I met Christien, as you know, when she was pregnant, ill, in the cold — I was alone — I had just had that experience in Amsterdam I wrote to you about.7
I began it though not immediately with marriage in mind – but when I got to know her better, it became clear to me that if I wanted to help her I would have to take a more serious approach. I then spoke candidly with her and said: this is what I think about one thing and another, this is how I see your position and mine. I’m poor – but I’m no seducer. Do you think you could get on with me or not? – otherwise that’s the end of it. Then she said, I want to stay with you, however poor you are. This is how we ended up where we are now.
And now she’s soon going to Leiden, and immediately afterwards I would like to marry her without further ado. Because otherwise there will be something false in her position and in mine, which I would most decidedly prefer to avoid.
So I’m like a workman with a craft in which she is my help. You have my drawings, and during the first year at least my living and hers depend on you and on all those prepared to help me, because you can see that I’m doing my best in my work, and that drawing, and I believe painting too, is in me and is slowly coming out.
Now, I do believe, Theo, that I’ve brought no shame on my family by what I’ve done – and I wish that my family were reconciled to it. Otherwise, we confront each other, and I say for my part: not for anyone’s sake will I abandon a woman to whom I am tied by a bond woven by mutual help and respect.
I am reconciled to her past and she is reconciled to my past. If my family were to cast me out because I had seduced a woman, I would feel like a scoundrel if I had really done such a thing, but if I should be thwarted because I remain loyal to a woman to whom I’ve promised loyalty, I should despise my family. Not everyone is suited to being a painter’s wife – she’s willing, she learns as each day goes by. I understand oddities in her character that have repelled others. But H.G.T. would most probably think of her what he thinks of me and say... she’s an unpleasant character and there’s something disagreeable about her, and leave it at that.
Needless to say, though, I have sufficient knowledge of the world and people to desire no more than that I shouldn’t be thwarted in marrying – and I hope that I shan’t want for my daily bread as long as I show that I’m doing my best in my work and hacking my way through to become a capable painter, or perhaps just a draughtsman. But I shan’t visit my family at home or anything like that, either alone or with her, but shall stay in the circles my work leads to naturally. That way no one can take offence, unless malicious people deliberately look for a stumbling block,8 which I hope won’t be the case.
You’ll find me very willing, though, in everything I can do without being disloyal to Christien. I would truly like to know what you advise, for instance, as to where to live or something similar. If there are objections to my staying in The Hague, I’m not obliged to be loyal to The Hague. And I can create a place to work, wherever you like. Either in a village or in a town. The figures and landscape I find in front of me will always be interesting enough for me to do my best with them, so you needn’t hesitate to raise the matter. Of course it mustn’t be some kind of wardship, I made my feelings about that clear enough at the time of the Geel affair:9 that sort of thing would be utterly inappropriate.
Yet the question of loyalty or disloyalty to Christien is something about which I feel ‘I must not break a promise of marriage’. If Kee Vos had been willing to listen to me this summer, she might not have fobbed me off so quickly in Amsterdam, and then matters would have taken a very different course.
Then, however, as you know, though I followed her to the end, though I went after her all the way to Amsterdam, I was unable to speak to her or to get any firm undertaking, anything I could rely on.
Now the rapid pace of life presses and pushes, work and the advent of new things that I must tackle, and I will resolutely hold my own in the fierce struggle. Giving up is a thing of bygone years; acting and being alert is what I do, now that I’ve found my work and my métier.
Thus in the main I think your letter is very wrong, but this may be because you haven’t thought it through, and I believe you’re better than that letter of yours this morning.
You speak of something that happened to you.10 I believe I remember something very vaguely, as if in a mist long ago.
If I remember rightly, you were acquainted with a girl from a lower class and you loved her and had slept with her. Now, I don’t know who she was, but I do know that you consulted Pa about it, and also discussed it with me. And that Pa made you promise something to do with marrying. I don’t know what exactly, but perhaps that you wouldn’t do such a thing without his permission while still a minor. The rest, what happened to the woman, I don’t know. As long as you were under age, Pa truly had the right to intervene, and I can understand such an action.
Now the difference between your case and mine is that you and she were considerably younger than Christien and I, that in the first place, and secondly that your future and mine are different, in that I’ll be quietly working at a craft while you’ll hold a post which requires you to keep up a certain position.
This seems clear enough to me, and if you were right to obey then as a minor, I have the liberty, being of age, to say to Pa: this is a matter in which you cannot and may not coerce me.
Now, you say that you don’t see what there is between Christien and me that makes it necessary for me to marry her. Now here’s how both Christien and I view this: we both want to have a very domestic life close together, and have need of each other every day in the work and are together daily. We don’t want to have anything false in our position, and believe that marrying is the only effective way of silencing the world and ensuring that people can’t accuse us of living together illicitly. If we did not marry, people could say this or that is in fact false – if we marry we’ll be very poor and shall give up any pretensions to a social position, but our deed will be right and honest. I believe you will understand this. If you say – Vincent, times will be hard and your cares will sometimes be terrible, then I answer, yes, brother, I know that very well, you’re right about that, but, old chap, what I would find worse than that would be the feeling inside: ‘You have treacherously abandoned the woman you met when she was pregnant and sick in the winter and pushed her back onto the cruel cobblestones’. That shall not be said of me, and you’ll see that it isn’t ‘pigheadedness’ or ‘recklessly wanting to get my own way’ on my part, but because I stand before Christien and I’ve promised her my loyalty and will remain loyal. Again, if my presence in The Hague bothers anyone, say so freely. In everything to do with a house or the like, I’m very willing to fit in. I need a studio, a house, living room, a bedroom, and whether it’s in The Hague or somewhere else isn’t a matter of indifference to me, but I’m entirely willing to fit in. However, the manner in which this is discussed must be quite different from that used by Pa, for example, on the occasion of Geel. That would be scandalous.
If it’s possible for me to have, say, 150 francs a month this year (although my work can’t yet be sold straightaway, but forms a basis on which I can build later), I can start work with great eagerness and in good spirits, because then I at least know: I won’t lack the essentials to be able to work – daily bread, a house, drawing materials – I can work. If I know in advance that you’re definitely going to withdraw your help, then I’m powerless; with the best will in the world, my hand is paralyzed – yes, it will be wretched enough, and then it is truly terrible. What good would that be to you or anyone else? – I would despair and Christien and the child would perish. You may think I’m exaggerating if I believe you could do a thing like that, but ‘such things happen’. If this awful fate must strike me, then let it strike me.
Even though it looms over me, I can only say: I promised to be loyal to Christien and she promised to be loyal to me, and so it would never occur to us to break that promise.
Yet - heavens above – what’s going on – and what kind of age are we living in? – do wake up, Theo! – don’t let yourself be overwhelmed or influenced by Jesuitisms. Do I deserve to be left in the lurch because I helped a pregnant woman and don’t want to send her back onto the streets? We’ve promised to be loyal to each other; is that not allowed? Is death the punishment for that???
Adieu, old chap, but before you strike the blow and chop off my head and Christien’s and the child’s too... sleep on it again. But again – if you must – then in God’s name ‘off with my head’. But preferably not, I need it for drawing. (And Christien and the child couldn’t pose without heads.)