Sentimental Cartography

Sentimental Cartography by Laura O'Gorman Schwartz

Although Madeleine de Scudéry mapped Tenderness in the 17th century, it wasn’t until the 1840s that explorers seriously attempted to map a woman’s heart. 

Atlases were being updated monthly in those days. There were redrawn maps of the earth. The sea. Stars. Bones. The lungs of the nation expanded, ribs cracking, Mexico elbowed aside. Texas shed its republic and was slotted into the role of state. Florida, Iowa and Wisconsin were also christened. California glimmered in the far west, Antarctica in the south, dreamlands of gold or snow. The King of Hawai’i and the electrical telegraph both found God. But most startling was Neptune’s leap from a star to a planet. 

Perhaps it was that – a light thought to be fixed in place revealed as mobile, unreliable, migrant – that spurred men to reexamine their mothers and mistresses, wives and daughters, these frequently observed yet unmapped territories. One’s garden was always the last to be considered explorable, the steps too familiar, the paths too trodden. But sudden mud could grip one’s ankles. Beloved perennials could evaporate. One’s own memory could stumble. With trains and telegraphy rushing to knit the world together, it was becoming clear that ostensibly known spheres, Womanhood in particular, could not remain unclassified. 

De Scudéry’s Carte de Tendre, with its winding, amorous French routes, was denounced as an inadequate guide, primarily because it was nestled in a novel that spanned ten volumes and no one had time for that now that words flew on electricity. The official reason for the censure, however, was that de Scudéry’s extensive education would have weighed down her expeditions, and as she was female, she would have been biased in favor of the locals. Besides, she never married. Another attempt at surveying the heart came seventy-six years after de Scudéry’s death. Johann Gottlob Immanuel Breitkopf detailed a map of The Empire of Love, but as this Reich included the Land of Lust, Swamp of Profanity and Bachelor Country, it was presumed to chart only a man’s heart.

Breitkopf’s bold efficiency and musical typeface made him the personal hero of Joseph Husson, a clerk in the typography department of a Bostonian printing press profiting nicely off the constant updates of the 1840s. A snail of a man who flinched into retreat under a steady gaze, he dabbled in drawing maps, though would remain an amateur for his entire life. The smell of linseed oil clung to his nearly-fashionable clothes. When the word cartographie crossed the Atlantic, dropping the original ending, as immigrants do, Husson remodeled every conversation into an opportunity to deploy this new word. Predictably, he became a plague on social events. If he became the first to successfully map a woman’s heart, he bet they wouldn’t be so quick to snicker. 

Husson prepared the necessary supplies at the office, but the only woman he is reported to have kept regular company with was his elder sister, Marcy, who had a habit of resting her cheek into her left fingertips whenever she gazed into a novel. This always gave the impression that she was reading something shocking. It was an old-fashioned gesture and didn’t suit her at all, but that was the picture that appeared in the papers. She’d made the evening post because of her spectacular separation from a recently bankrupted railroad tycoon, who was also a well-known crossdresser. The crossdressing wasn’t the reason she left him, though she had to claim it was, since the divorce wouldn’t have been granted if they uncovered her collusion. Unmoored, she commandeered a bed in her flustered brother’s apartment around the time he embarked on his quest to chart a woman’s heart. Historians have debated the extent of her influence on his expedition. A percentage of his firsthand observations may actually be hers. 

The length of Husson’s mission remains vague, but the result was mapped in oil and pigment and gum and salt and acid wash. Terrain was etched into soft stone and wet lithographs were birthed. The heart was affixed squirming onto thick paper, painted by hand and sold in batches.

His map placed an ocean at the center. The Ocean of Love, the source and depository of all those tears. Ideal Isle and the Isle of Man lay unconnected, though currents hooked round the Isle of Man’s Cape Faith to become the warm waters of the Strait of Happiness, a body that swept by the states of Extravagance, Energy, Flattery, a corner of Generosity’s coast, and just before ending at the rim of this flat continent, passed Tardiness and Hilarity. There the strait ended, or rather, where it disappeared. 

The capital of Flirtation was Deceit. Of Deception, Shame. The capital of Passion – which shared its name with a peak in the plains of Vanity – was Sorrow. From Sorrow, it was a day’s walk until you crossed the crinkled border into the peach pink country of Marriage, the capital of which was Divorce, a city historians doubt Husson would have discovered without Marcy’s guidance. The Bridge of Sighs was southwest. From there, you would come out near the city of Temper, Hatred’s largest metropolis, which perched on cliffs overlooking the Ocean of Love. Affection, Charity, Coquetry and Jealousy were also coastal nations. 

The swampy Slough of Despond had sucked the eastern edge of Jealousy into its mass. It crept over borders and snaked into the soil of Generosity. It darkened the northern ridge of Perseverance, looming near but yet to invade its tiny capital of Ambition. It is here that Marcy’s influence is most discernible, as she translated between her brother and the people who inhabited Ambition. They offered frail smiles on faces etched with lately undisturbed laugh lines. Gazing off south-facing balconies, they looked out over the edge of the known world, into an opaque whiteness broken only by spots of ink, mistaken and lonely stars in the abyss. The Slough had swallowed many of their daughters, their bones preserved in the dark mud. Some migrated to the blue fields of Gayety or became refugees in Generosity, where their hometown faded, half-remembered. But many chose to stay, stare out at the blankness, and contemplate.

As interpreter for Husson, it was Marcy who conveyed the battles, invasions, boundaries redrawn, capitals emptied, nations abandoned, alliances formed and dissolved – a breathless amount of conflict for such finite land. The heart’s inhabitants couldn’t agree on whether the Ocean was shrinking or rising, whether they would drown in love or starve on earth parched of it. But there was a brief peace, when all the nations were united, shocked at the arrow that plunged into and erased a village in Devotion. Thankfully Devotion’s capital, the city of Faith, the core of the entire heart’s financial system, was unaffected. Blood burbled up from the punctured earth, great lakes larger than towns, which stained Affection’s beaches and mingled into the seawater. The governments of Pride and Forgiveness and Constancy formed a special coalition to fell the arrow, break the trunk at the wound and extract resources. 

But the people of Innocence shook their heads and murmured in the markets. Some things couldn’t be undone. Within a few months, the arrow had become a familiar landmark. It drew a line from the soil to the pale sky. Its feathers caught the breeze. As the day moved through its hours, the narrow shadow swept a slow circumference over the heart, a perfect sundial. It reached even the farthest curves of the world, the feathered shadow of the arrow’s end brushing across the emptied boulevards and abandoned houses of Ambition.


Daniel Kellogg, who only answered to D.W., spoke for himself and his brothers when he condemned Joseph Husson’s map, declared it riddled with foolish inaccuracies – two countries bore the name Coquetry, a claim Husson stuttered over but stood by. As D.W. Kellogg & Co. issued the second largest number of prints for the American public (and they’d be first if it wasn’t for those bastards in New York), Kellogg was compelled to counter Husson’s shoddy research with his own fieldwork. He denounced Husson as an upstart stepping outside his division and mocked his gullible reliance on the heart’s local myths. Kellogg had also heard the story of the great arrow, the heart’s first and deepest injury, but had found no evidence to elevate this fable to fact. It was a story that residents frightened children with, teaching them to form hard shells. That was all.

The ocean in a woman’s heart was indeed believed to be rising, he would grant Husson that. The Sea of Wealth had burst its banks, flooded the fields in Love of Display. The frothing waters overfilled the Jewelry Inlet that fissured the region, worsening the cracks and widening the canyons that scarred the earth. Kellogg dismissed the notion that the heart was a regional empire; instead, reckoned it open country, lawless and unprofitable. A woman’s heart was undeveloped land until a husband ploughed it. (Husson had no wife and few prospects, so Kellogg supposed he couldn’t be too harsh on a man with a faulty compass.) 

But Husson was explicitly wrong about Susceptibility. It wasn’t a state with marked edges; it was an arid plain that nibbled the borders of surrounding nations. And Ambition, if such a city even existed, would gaze out at the Land of Oblivion. That blank expanse was, if not part of the heart, then inseparable from it. Lastly, Kellogg declared that Husson could not possibly have traversed the entirety of a woman’s heart since at the center lay not an ocean, but a city. The grand but struggling City (and District) of Love, which presided over the county of Sentiment. Its domain had been eroded over the years. Residents of the western Lands of Coquetry and Selfishness scaled the Ego Mountains and slipped ideas into the river, which became known as the River of Lasciviousness. Not as developed as its neighbors, the City of Love had no steamboats or railroads with which to communicate its traditions and its wisdom. (For example, nourishment enough could be found hunting in the forest of Platonic Affection and fishing in the Canal of Patience from the sandy banks of Hope and Good Sense.) The simple inhabitants of these countries listened with repulsion and curiosity to the tales of what awaited those who traversed the Ego range. 

Around the grassy crest of Flirting Corner, they would be able to glimpse the distant Country of Eligibleness from the railroad, which boasted Distance Performed with Incredible Speed as it cut through the marshes of Love of Admiration, pierced the heartlands of Coquetry, flew beyond the High Grounds of Matrimony, and finally passed Fickleness before reaching the town of Lady’s Privilege. Halfway through the journey, they would also pass the Tenting Ground of Uncertainty, but at that time everyone gazed out the other side of the train, squinting in the desert glare, straining to catch sight of the land of Love of Dress. Fanning themselves with magazines, passengers traded place names in the crowded cars: Feather Hill, the Pyramids of Fashion, the Satin Plains bordered by the dried-up riverbed of Willful Waste. 

It must be noted that, like Husson, Kellogg was not fluent in the language of the heart and his communication with its inhabitants was minimal. The reliefs raised for the lithographs were based on observation, with speculation plugging the holes. Kellogg’s map sold far more copies, mostly to men glad for a guide they understood. Though clusters of women perused and paused in the print shop, none could find themselves in either of the colorful maps. Most simply commented on the remarkably different interpretations a single territory could produce, then purchased pictures for their children’s bedrooms or the updated charts of the southwest. 

The endeavor was doomed from the start. Freshly divorced Marcy Husson told her brother that. An immoveable atlas of borders and landmarks were veins with no pulse. From the window, she watched women huddle together as they exited the store – bonnets pinching, mouths smoky, shoes sodden. Lacy flakes of snow leeched color from the afternoon. Marcy sweated in the stale apartment, a pleasant suffocation, and flopped into a shabby armchair. The table jostled the pile of observations and notes she’d provided her brother, shrugging them to the floor, the gravity as casual as the circumstances that took her husband from her. She opened her bruised book and thumbed through the aching pages, rereading the business and marriage plans that hadn’t survived the winter. 

Of course, it was a book that lay at the center of a woman’s heart. The center of everyone’s heart, really. Sometimes it took millions of words and hundreds of volumes, towers and alleys of books – this was what Marcy assumed Kellogg had mistaken for a city. Some hearts were strapped into lines of non-fiction, but they bled into fiction at some point, generally at the beginning or the end. Everyone had a handful of illustrations in there, those moments when words fell short. Most people had a few chapters written by mothers, fathers, siblings, lovers, teachers – these were the well-worn ones, the pages that grew warm when they were flicked through. Some people didn’t appear in their own hearts, allowed others to scratch out paragraphs or to pen the entire thing. Some slipped letters into the sheaf. 

Some stories floated, emotions collected but unsolidified, experiences that added up to nothing. Some began with reams of silence and then exploded into bold, all caps, the words growing bigger and bigger until only one letter could fit per page, the paper wrinkling and smoking and forced to grow. A few novels became planet sized. Some began as fixed points and transformed into something mobile, unreliable, migrant. And then, some stories started strong but tapered into wordlessness. Some were sheets of music, medical texts, hanging scrolls, neat stacks of telegraphs, manifestos, drenched in paint, histories of lost countries, or mathematical equations. Some were even maps. 

Books could be as small as a stitch. They could be soft to the touch, falling open with the stroke of a finger. They could be locked, the location of the key known or unknown. They could be rigid, wrapped in a handkerchief or in extreme cases, ice. They could be broken-spined. They could be bookmarked with ribbon. They could be empty covers, toothless mouths. Pages could be torn out. Sometimes whole chapters. Whole people. Whole marriages.

Marcy reminisced about the satiny buttons she’d closed up her ex-husband’s back. The smell of him. The cartridge pleats and bone corset that imposed curves on his willowy frame. The mass of petticoats the maid had to starch. How liberally he had emptied Marcy’s jars of beeswax and rice powder, helped himself to her tools. She packed dresses from her younger, larger days into his trunks, labeled with a name they had invented together. The next day, he boarded a train on the railroad that Vanderbilt had pried from their hands.

In the sighing light of the sitting room, Marcy withdrew one of her brother’s crude maps, an attempt at the United States, from a stuffed shelf and unrolled it. Its corners were bent. Grease pencil smudged the edges. Her fingertip traced the kinked lines laid across the country, following the vein that would take her former husband west. Despite the ballooning atlases and the details that blemished them, there was still a wide cushion of anonymity out there. With hopeful steps, with her heartbroken blessing, he would emerge, shaded by a bonnet and clutching a silk purse, into unexplored sunshine.

Madeleine de Scudéry, who mapped Tenderness in the 17th century, spent the last forty years of her life deaf, yet she wrote a novel of 13,000 pages, bound in thirty volumes, the longest ever. Her heart must have been a library, Marcy thought, with texts bound in red leather and bluestocking cloth and her own hair, with sentences that waltzed through English and French to Greek and Latin, with optimism – the resounding love that was optimism – overflowing in the silence.

Released, the map of America rerolled itself. Thick snow mutely conquered the street. Marcy gazed out the window into an evening that resembled a blank page, the whiteness only broken by flickers of pedestrians trudging along, trying to follow the path home before it vanished beneath their feet.



Born in Ireland, Laura O'Gorman Schwartz grew up in Tokyo, Singapore and New Jersey, before returning to live in Singapore in 2012. She graduated from Bard College with a B.A. in Japanese Studies. Currently a columnist for Living in Singapore magazine, her fiction and non-fiction writing has appeared in: The Wall Street Journal, Wraparound South, The Shanghai Literary Review, Singapore American Newspaper, Thoughtful Dog and Ruminate Magazine.