Les Très Riches Heures de Mrs. Mole: Artist Ronald Searle’s Illustrated Love Letter to His Wife Recovering from Cancer
What a tender true love story has to do with medieval illuminated manuscripts and experimental medicine.
By Maria Popova
On New Year’s Eve 1969, Monica Searle was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer. Experimental at the time, chemotherapy — the course of action Monica’s doctor recommended — was a leap of faith. After each treatment, her husband, beloved British cartoonist Ronald Searle (March 3, 1920–December 30, 2011), made Monica a Mrs. Mole drawing “to cheer every dreaded chemotherapy session and evoke the blissful future ahead.” The Mole idea came after the couple discovered a large cellar in the decrepit house they had just bought in the south of France.
Les Très Riches Heures de Mrs Mole (public library) gathers 47 of these jewel-like drawings, full of love and light and glowing colors. The title of the book plays off the 15th-century illuminated manuscript Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. Never intended for publication, these intimate visual vignettes exude contagious optimism and hope, a kind of earnestness completely and exuberantly devoid of Searle’s signature sardonic style.
Ronald reflects on his drawings for Monica:
Everything about them had to be romantic and perfect. I drew them originally for no one’s eyes except Mo’s, so she would look at them propped up against her bedside lamp and think: “When I’m better, everything will be beautiful.”
This is love.
Monica died in 2011, some forty years after her cancer diagnosis, and Ronald joined his beloved a few months later, at the age of 91.
Published January 10, 2012