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BOOK REVIEW: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

Saturday, September 22, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingale continues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.

Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop.


My Thoughts:

I really loved Katherine Arden’s debut novel, The Bear and the Nightingale, an historical fantasy set in medieval Russia, and was keen to see Vasya’s adventures continue. This is my favourite kind of fantasy –a proud, courageous, and sympathetic heroine, a setting rich in sensuous detail, drenched in the magic of its time, and a storyline that is both suspenseful and yet believable.

In the first book, we saw Vasya grow from a child to a young woman, and face accusations of witchcraft because of her uncanny ability to see magical creatures hidden to most human eyes. One of those creatures is the frost demon Morozko, and Vasya has an ambivalent and troubling relationship with him.

In this sequel, this relationship – which is not quite a romance – takes centre stage, as Vasya struggles to find a place for herself in the world. Offered two choices – marriage or a convent – she disguises herself as a boy and sets out to find adventure instead. The depiction of medieval Russia – vast, snowbound, and dangerous – is marvellously done. Vasya and her horse struggle to survive, and yet she spurns the help of Morozko, afraid of its hidden cost.

"You are immortal, and perhaps I seem small to you," she said at last fiercely. "But my life is not your game.”

It is not easy maintaining her boyish disguise, as Vasya battles with outlaws who are burning villages and stealing children, and deals with family tensions and the unwanted attentions of a mysterious stranger. A compulsively readable and beautifully written mix of Russian history and folklore.

You can read my review of Katherine Arden's earlier book, The Bear and the Nightingale, here.

Please leave a comment, I love to hear your thoughts.




BOOK REVIEW: Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic

Wednesday, September 19, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Caleb Zelic, profoundly deaf since early childhood, has always lived on the outside - watching, picking up telltale signs people hide in a smile, a cough, a kiss. When a childhood friend is murdered, a sense of guilt and a determination to prove his own innocence sends Caleb on a hunt for the killer. But he can’t do it alone. Caleb and his troubled friend Frankie, an ex-cop, start with one clue: Scott, the last word the murder victim texted to Caleb. But Scott is always one step ahead.

This gripping, original and fast-paced crime thriller is set between a big city and a small coastal town, Resurrection Bay, where Caleb is forced to confront painful memories. Caleb is a memorable protagonist who refuses to let his deafness limit his opportunities, or his participation in the investigation. But does his persistence border on stubbornness? And at what cost? As he delves deeper into the investigation Caleb uncovers unwelcome truths about his murdered friend – and himself.

My Thoughts:


Caleb Zelic has discovered his best friend lying in a pool of blood, his throat cut. Gary was a policeman with a young family. Caleb is a private investigator who had asked for his help on a case. Caleb is also profoundly deaf.

This is a high-octane thriller, thrumming with pace and tension. The style is curt and intense: ‘It had been an hour before he’d read the message, another two in the car, stuck behind every double-B and ageing Volvo. He should have run the red lights. Broken the speed limits. The law of physics.’

Characters are drawn in swift, deft strokes. ‘Tedesco was watching him: a face hewn from stone, with all the warmth to match.’ ‘Frankie … was wearing her usual jeans and battered leather jacket; her short, grey hair purple-tipped and scarecrow-wild.’

Yet there is poetry in the writing too. Caleb’s deafness makes his voice arresting and unpredictable. The word ‘executed’ is described as ‘a happy-looking word: a little smile for the first syllable, a soft pucker for the third.’ Scott is ‘a soft name, just sibilance and air.’ I loved the freshness of this voice for a hard-boiled detective; it’s bold and confident writing. I also loved the vulnerability of a man in search of a murderer who cannot hear his enemy coming.

Caleb has a love interest – his ex-wife, Kat, a blue-eyed Koori who draws and sculpts. She became one of my favourite characters, being feisty and yet kind and loving. The tension between Caleb and Kat added another element to the story, and helped the story hurtle on towards its surprising ending.

Resurrection Bay is razor-sharp contemporary crime, ramped up with witty dialogue, wry humour, and a dark, deftly handled plot that had the pages whizzing past.

You can read my recent interview with Emma Viskic here, and my review of And Fire Came Down here.

Please leave a comment and share your thoughts!

BOOK REVIEW: The Desert Nurse by Pamela Hart

Friday, September 14, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Amid the Australian Army hospitals of World War I Egypt, two deeply determined individuals find the resilience of their love tested to its limits

It's 1911, and 21-year-old Evelyn Northey desperately wants to become a doctor. Her father forbids it, withholding the inheritance that would allow her to attend university. At the outbreak of World War I, Evelyn disobeys her father, enlisting as an army nurse bound for Egypt and the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.

Under the blazing desert sun, Evelyn develops feelings for polio survivor Dr William Brent, who believes his disability makes him unfit to marry. For Evelyn, still pursuing her goal of studying medicine, a man has no place in her future. For two such self-reliant people, relying on someone else for happiness may be the hardest challenge of all.


My Thoughts:

I’m a big fan of Pamela Hart’s vivid and intelligent historical romances. They give me everything I want in a book – drama, heartache, struggle, triumph, and an enthralling glimpse into the past that teaches me sometSuhing I did not know. The Desert Nurse is set mainly in Egypt during the First World War, and tells the story of a young woman named Evelyn Northey who is determined to become a doctor, despite all the obstacles in her way. Her father is a doctor himself, but does not believe that women should be anything but wives and mothers. He refuses to allow Evelyn the money to go to university to study medicine, and withholds her mother’s inheritance until she turns thirty or is married.

When war breaks out, Evelyn disobeys her father and enlists as a nurse bound for Egypt. She makes friends with the other nurses and doctors, and works herself to exhaustion caring for the wounded soldiers of the disastrous Gallipoli conflict.

The romantic hero of this story is Dr William Brent, who survived polio but was left with a weak leg. Unable to fight, he too works tirelessly to save lives and mend shattered bodies. He and Evelyn are strongly drawn to each other, sharing high ideals of compassion, sympathy and determination. Evelyn has sworn never to marry, however, knowing that a husband and children would prevent her from achieving her dream of becoming a doctor. William, meanwhile, fears being a burden. Besides, there is no time for love. Men are fighting and dying in horrible numbers, and at times it seems as if the war would never end.

Evelyn and William’s love story is engaging and heart-warming, as they struggle to find a way to be together, but for me the real strength of this novel is how it illuminates the lives of the nurses and doctors during the Anzac campaign. It is clear that Pamela Hart has done massive amounts of research, but it is woven so lightly and deftly all though the book that the cracking pace is never compromised. I truly felt as if I was hearing the story of a young nurse in the Egyptian war zone, struggling to help in any way she could, and trying to find a way to make her dreams come true. It’s the kind of book that leaves you with a big lump in the throat, helped by having one of the best last lines I’ve ever read.

I was lucky enough to interview Pamela Hart for the blog this week, you can read it here.

You might also be interested in my review of Pamela Hart's earlier book, A Letter From Italy. 

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

INTERVIEW: Pamela Hart

Friday, September 14, 2018

  

Today I welcome Pamela Hart, author of The Desert Nurse, among other books, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
Not so much since I became a mum! Mostly, I’m a night-dreamer… the time just before I fall asleep is when my imagination takes off. Which makes getting to sleep a bit tricky, some nights.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I guess I figured out when I was about 12 that being a writer was a far-off possibility, but I thought at the time that only people who’d lead ‘interesting’ lives could be writers, and my life seemed far too boring to allow me that privilege - so when I was 15 I decided to work in television. Apart from being fun in itself, that seemed to me to be ‘interesting’ enough to qualify me as a writer-in-potential. And, of course, that was what happened - I was working at ABC Kids when I began to write children’s stories (as Pamela Freeman).

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in Sydney - in Parramatta, in the Western Suburbs. Now I live in the inner west, quite close to the city. As for what I like to do: well, read, mostly. And wander up to the café on the corner to have a nice bacon and egg roll for brunch. I also love theatre, live music, opera, jazz… we make a lot of music in our house, and I do spend some time practicing the drums and playing my guitar. Also cooking. I like to make things from scratch - today I made cumquat marmalade!

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
The inspiration for The Desert Nurse came quite a few years ago, when I was writing The Soldier’s Wife. That book was based in part on my grandfather’s experience of being wounded at Gallipoli and coming home having to cope with the consequences of the injury. The focus of the book was on the relationship between that soldier and his wife, and was based in Sydney. But I knew that my grandfather’s life had been saved by good nursing, since he developed a very dangerous fever after he was operated on in Cairo. Without anti-biotics, it was only dedicated nursing that saved him and thousands like him. So as I was writing The Soldier’s Wife, I knew one day I wanted to write a story honouring those extraordinary women.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
That varies enormously from book to book. In some, I know exactly what’s going to happen. In others, I have no idea at all! I’ve found it’s best not to get too attached to any one way of working. Each book has its own challenge.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Only once - and it turned into a not-very-good story, so… but I am not much of a dreamer. I very rarely remember my dreams (I’m assured I have them by science, but sometimes I have my doubts!)

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
No… I think a lot of my discoveries were made during the research for The Soldier’s Wife, which I’ve written about here.


Where do you write, and when?
At the moment, since we’ve just renovated, I am setting up my office. In the meantime, I’m writing as I have done for some time, sitting crosslegged in an armchair in the living room! As for when - I write best in the afternoons.

What is your favourite part of writing?
The playing with ideas at the start. So many possibilities - it’s like trying on clothes in a fabulous store, where everything fits but some things just feel better than others. I try on lots of ideas about my characters and story before I begin to write, and it’s the best game ever!

What do you do when you get blocked?
I write something else. As Pamela Freeman, I write children’s books, and I usually have some work I need to do on one of those, so I switch across - and vice versa. It’s a great way of getting some perspective on the current problem. During the writing of The Desert Nurse, my kids’ book was Amazing Australian Women, and that gave me lots of impetus to write about wonderful women.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

Research! Writing historical fiction is fantastic because, every time I do the research for one book, I find half a dozen stories I might like to tell. There are so many great, true stories out there, I doubt I’ll ever run out.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

Nope. I began to write seriously while I was a consultant in organisational communication, and I ran the writing parallel to the consulting work. I had very little time to devote to writing, and I learnt to ‘flip th switch’ in my head whenever I had the time to spare. ‘Flipping the switch’ for me means changing the way my mind works, from the very logical and presciptive way it had to for my consulting work, to the imaginative way I needed for fiction. That’s my only ritual, I guess. It took some time to develop, but it became quite reliable. Of course, it doesn’t work if you haven’t been thinking about the story in your downtime moments, getting ready for the moment when you have time at the keyboard.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Well, you, Katie, of course! (And you know that’s true!)

I have very wide tastes. I started as a Shakespeare girl, and he’s still right up there. I also read a lot of poetry. For fiction, though, Jane Austen, JRR Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart - and, recently, George Saunders, Ben Aaronovitch, Sue Whiting, Anita Heiss.

What do you consider to be good writing?

I guess I look for three things. Any one of these will keep me reading, but a great book has all three:

A story to keep me interested,
Characters I can and do care about
A style which reinforces the theme and feeling of the book.

So that might be Austen at one end of the literary spectrum, and Matthew Reilly at the other. They are both very good at what they do, and in the right mood, I can like either one. John Banville’s detective fiction, for example, is basically a series of tone poems. I love it - but I’m just as keen on Val McDermid’s darker and grittier style, because it fits her stories. I try not to be a snob about writing - in the end, if a story keeps the reader’s interest and engages her emotions, that’s what counts.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

Just do it.

Seriously. Just start. It doesn’t matter what you start with - the main thing is that you need practice in creating characters and stories, so start practicing! I teach writing, and it’s so satisfying to take absolute beginners, who’ve never written anything before, all the way through to publication. It’s possible. It’s very possible - but it won’t happen if you don’t write, and rewrite, and write again.

What are you working on now?
My current book is Dancing with the Prince of Wales. It takes two minor characters from The War Bride, Jane and Jonesy, and follows them to London where they go on to be stars on the English stage in the 1920s. It’s inspired by two Australian actors who did just that - Cyril Ritchard and Marge Eliot. I’m having to do a HUGE amount of research for this, because so many real people are characters - Noel Coward and Fred Astaire, Gertie Lawrence and Ivor Novello - and of course the Prince of Wales (the one who later abdicated). It’s a lot of fun, but rather nerve-wracking. The only one I feel really comfortable writing is Fred Astaire, because I’ve been an Astaire tragic my whole life! It will be out in 2020.

You can read my review of Pamela Hart's latest book, The Desert Nurse, here.



BOOK REVIEW: The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

The Orchid Thief is Susan Orlean’s tale of an amazing obsession. Determined to clone an endangered flower—the rare ghost orchid Polyrrhiza lindenii—a deeply eccentric and oddly attractive man named John Laroche leads Orlean on an unforgettable tour of America’s strange flower-selling subculture, through Florida’s swamps and beyond, along with the Seminoles who help him and the forces of justice who fight him. In the end, Orlean—and the reader—will have more respect for underdog determination and a powerful new definition of passion.


My Thoughts:


I remember when The Orchid Thief came out in 1998, it caused a real buzz. It was a New York Times bestseller, a Barnes and Noble Discover book, a Borders New Voices selection, and an honoree in the American Library Association book-of-the-year selection. It also eventually inspired a movie called Adaption, starring Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean, which must have been a weird and wonderful feeling for the author. It is also credited with beginning – or at least propelling into wide popularity – the genre of narrative non-fiction, in which memoir, biography, travel writing and/or literary journalism is spun together into an engaging and fascinating read.

I love narrative non-fiction, particularly when it has to do with nature, but it is only now that I managed to move The Orchid Thief to the top of my reading pile, perhaps because I am writing a novel about an obsession with Chinese roses.

The Orchid Thief
is the story of a man named John Laroche who is determined to clone an endangered flower - the rare ghost orchid Polyrrhiza lindenii – but is caught stealing one from a swamp in South Florida, along with three Seminole Indians who claim they are the rightful owners because the swamp once belonged to their tribe. John Laroche is highly intelligent and unsettlingly odd. He leads Susan Orlean into a two-year exploration of the world of orchid enthusiasts, and the result is a series of inter-connected essays all focused on some aspect of this delicate and difficult flower.

Susan Orlean’s style is warm, intimate, and humorous. She goes to great lengths to get her stories, trekking deep into the swamps, visiting orchid fairs, and meeting a wide range of funny, eccentric or half-mad characters. Sometimes the essays digress far away from John Laroche and his orchid mania, but they are always interesting and insightful. One of my favourite quotes from the book reads: ‘The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it. There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility.’

I too believe it is important to care passionately about something. As the sub-title says, this book is as much about beauty and obsession as it is about the orchid thief, and that makes it a fascinating glimpse into human desire.

For another great book about flowers, you might be interested in the novel The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland.

BEAUTY IN THORNS: celebrating the Pre-Raphaelites!

Monday, September 10, 2018

THE PRE-RAPHAELITES: THEIR LIVES & LOVES

‘We cannot censure at present as amply or as strongly as we desire to do, that strange disorder of the mind or the eyes, which continues to rage with unabated absurdity among a class of juvenile artists who style themselves PRB.’ 
The Times, 1851

What were the Pre-Raphaelites?
In 1848 in England, a group of young painters rebelled against the Royal Academy, which rigidly adhered to rules laid down by the eighteenth century painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds. They wanted to paint in a more natural style, drawing from myth and fairytales and poetry, and trying to make their paintings more true to nature. In a spirit of fun and defiance, they formed a secret society called The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB).

Who were these young daring painters?
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (age 20) founded the group along with Sir John Everett Millais (19), and William Holman Hunt (21).  Later, many artists followed the style set by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, Ford Madox Brown, and John William Waterhouse.  Although the Brotherhood was meant to be a secret, four others were later invited to join.  


Self-portrait by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

What were they trying to do?
The Pre-Raphaelites felt stifled by the rigidity of the Royal Academy's idea of what art should be. The PRB believed the only true great art came from before the 16th century Italian painter, Raphael (hence the society's name). The PRB wanted to produce works based on real landscapes and real models, and paid intense attention to accuracy of detail and colour.

What is so special about their art?
Instead of painting the typical landscapes and seascapes, the PRB drew their subject matters from medieval tales, fairy stories, and classical mythology.


'Ophelia' by John Everett Millais, modelled by Lizzie Siddal


Scandals of the Pre-Raphaelites

John Ruskin, one of the major critical supporters of the Pre-Raphaelites, never consummated his marriage to Effie Gray, with many believing he was shocked by the sight of her pubic hair. She annulled the marriage amidst a storm of scandal, and married his protégés, John Everett Millais. 

After Millais painted Lizzie Siddal as Ophelia, she caught pneumonia after being made to lie in freezing water for hours and almost died. 

Lizzie Siddall then became the muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and eventually – after many affairs and problems including her addiction to laudanum – they married. She only lived two more years, however, and some believed she committed suicide. Rossetti buried his poems in her grave, but seven years later had her exhumed so he could retrieve the manuscript. 

William Morris fell in love with Rossetti’s favourite model, Jane Burden, and married her. But Jane and Rossetti began a passionate affair after the death of Lizzie Siddall, and eventually the three managed a strange and painful ménage-a-trois.  


Jane Morris, painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with Kelmscott Manor (the house Rossetti shared with the Morrises) in the background 


William Holman Hunt fell in love with his wife’s sister. After his wife died, he fled England with his sister-in-law so they could marry.

Edward Burne-Jones had an affair with his model, Mary Zambaco, who was a talented sculptor in her own right. When he refused to leave his wife and children, she tried to drown herself in Regent’s Canal. 

He painted his mistress over & over again, including this provocative image of her as Summer. He then painted his wife as Winter.

 

The love triangle between Edward Burne-Jones, his wife Georgie & his mistress Maria Zambaco, echoing that of his best friend William Morris with his wife Jane Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, are the subject of my new novel Beauty in Thorns - out now!

SPOTLIGHT: The PreRaphaelite Sisterhood

Saturday, September 08, 2018

As many of you will know, I have spent the past few years researching and writing about the fascinating lives of some of the women in the Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood for my novel Beauty in Thorns




BEAUTY IN THORNS is an historical novel for adults which tells the story of the tangled desires behind the famous painting ‘The Legend of Briar Rose’ by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. 

Four very different women tell the story: the wives, mistresses, and muses of the Pre-Raphaelites, Georgie Macdonald, Lizzie Siddal, Jane Burden, and Margaret Burne-Jones, the artist’s beloved daughter. 

The Pre-Raphaelites were a collection of daring young artists who outraged Victorian society with their avant-garde paintings, their passionate affairs, and their scandalous behaviour. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848.  His work and ideals inspired Edward Burne-Jones and his friend William Morris to create their own art, and with it, to try to change the world. 

The ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fairy tale haunted Burne-Jones’s imagination, and he painted it many times over the course of thirty years, culminating in an extraordinary quartet of paintings that were greeted by the public with ‘enthusiasm amounting to ecstasy’ in 1890. It was bought for 15,000 guineas, the largest amount ever paid for an artwork in Britain, and Burne-Jones was consequently knighted in 1893.



Burne-Jones and his friends drew together an extraordinary group of young women who all struggled in their different ways to live and love and create as freely. 

In chronological order of birth:




Lizzie Siddal (b. 1829)
Discovered working in a milliner’s shop, Lizzie became one of the most famous faces of the early Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, modelling for paintings by Rossetti and Millais (she is his famous Ophelia). She and Rossetti began a passionate and turbulent affair. Heart-broken by his infidelities, Lizzie took refuge in laudanum. As she lay dying, Rossetti promised to marry her if she would only recover. They were married in 1860, but the birth of a dead child caused Lizzie to sink further into depression and addiction.  She died of an overdose in 1862. Rossetti famously buried his poems with her but later had her exhumed to retrieve the manuscript.






Jane Burden (b. 1839)
Jane was discovered by Rossetti and Burne-Jones in Oxford, and became one of their most striking and famous models. She married William Morris, but began a scandalous affair with Rossetti after the death of Lizzie Siddal. She had two daughters, Jenny and May. Her eldest suffered from epilepsy, then thought a most shameful disease.
                                                



Georgie Macdonald (b. 1840)
The daughter of a God-fearing Methodist minister, Georgie met Ned Burne-Jones when she was ten. He awoke her to a new world of art and poetry and beauty, and she shared with him her favourite fairy tale “Briar Rose”, which inspire him to create some of his most beautiful paintings. Georgie married Burne-Jones at the age of nineteen, after a four-year engagement. 

The early years of their marriage was idyllic, but in 1864 Georgie contracted scarlet fever, which brought on the premature birth of her second child, who consequently died. Her third child – a daughter named Margaret – was born in 1866, the same year as Burne-Jones began a passionate and ultimately calamitous affair with his model, the beautiful and fiery Maria Zambaco.





Margaret Burne-Jones (b. 1866)

The third child born to Edward and Georgie Burne-Jones, after the tragic death of their second son. She was a shy and reserved child remarkable for her beauty. As she grew, she found herself in demand as a model for the Pre-Raphaelites, but struggled with the unwanted attention. In 1888, she fell in love with the Scottish writer, John William Mackail, but her father refused to countenance their marriage. He was obsessively working on his painting of her as the sleeping princess in "The Legend of Briar Rose" series, and was afraid of losing his muse. Margaret had to find the strength to defy her father and marry the man she loved. 

The Pre-Raphaelite circle also included Effie Millais, Fanny Cornforth, Christina Rossetti, May Morris, Mary de Morgan, and many others who I wish I could have included in my novel. maybe one day I'll write something about them too ....  

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

BEAUTY IN THORNS: Edward Burne-Jones's Sleeping Beauty paintings

Saturday, September 08, 2018

The National Gallery of Australia has just announced a major exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art, 'Love & Desire', will open in mid-December. It's bringing out many of the Tate's masterpieces for the very first time. This is a chance for Australians to discover the extraordinary luminous art of this circle of passionate rebellious mid-Victorian artists, which I have loved all my love and which inspired my novel, Beauty in Thorns.   




Beauty in Thorns is an historical novel for adults which tells the astonishing true story behind the famous 'Sleeping Beauty' painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. Told in the voices of four very different women, Beauty in Thorns is a story of love, desire, art, and awakenings of all kinds. 

Burne-Jones painted the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale many times over the forty-odd years of his career: 




In May 1856, Burne-Jones drew a pencil sketch of his betrothed, Georgie Macdonald, as the Sleeping Beauty to amuse her little sister Louie on her birthday. He was 23 years old and Georgie was sixteen. I believe this is the sketch, though it has not been officially confirmed. 





In 1862, Burne-Jones designed a series of 'Sleeping Beauty' tiles for a client of the Morris & Co decorating firm, of which he was a partner. The princess looks very much like Lizzie Siddal, who had died a few months earlier of a laudanum overdose, and the prince kneeling to kiss her awake looks very much like her grieving widower Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The peacock (featured on the wall of the boudoir) is a symbol of immortality and rebirth.  This tile is one of nine in a sequence that begins with the baby in her cradle and ends with the marriage of the prince and princess. The tiles can be seen at the V&A Museum in Kensington.




In the 1870s, Burne-Jones had a tempestuous affair with one of his models, the sculptor Maria Zambaco, and he painted a very sensual version of Sleeping Beauty with his mistress modelling as the princess. The affair ended badly, with Maria attempting to drown herself in Regent's Canal.  At one point, Ned planned to run away with Maria but he ended returning to his wife and family so they would not be besmirched by the scandal. 

This painting - now in Puerto Rico - was the final in a sequence of three paintings that showed the prince in the briar wood, the king and his councillors asleep in the council chamber, and the princess asleep with her maids.




This beautiful drawing is a chalk study of his daughter Margaret that Burne-Jones made in 1881, when he was planning another sequence of painting inspired by the fairytale. Margaret was then fifteen, the age of the princess in the story.





And this exquisite painting of his daughter Margaret as Sleeping Beauty was created by Burne-Jones in 1884-1887,  as the final in a sequence of four enormous painting which now hang in Buscot Park, in Oxfordshire. Margaret was aged in her late teens and early twenties, and had fallen in love with a young poet and scholar named John William Mackail, much to her father's distress. 

The four paintings - called 'The Legend of Briar Rose' - caused an absolute sensation when they were first exhibited in 1890, with queues of carriages along Bond Street and crowds of people returning again and again to view them. Burne-Jones sold the quartet of painting for fifteen thousand guineas, the most money a British artist had ever been paid, and he was subsequently knighted by the Queen. 





His final painting is a small circle, entitled 'Wake Dearest' which he painted for his ever-loving and faithful wife Georgie in the final year of his life (1898). I believe she was the model for the princess. This tiny masterpiece - along with 37 other tiny glowing circles - were left to Georgie in his will, and later published as 'The Flower Book'. 

My novel Beauty in Thorns tells the story behind the creation of these exquisite drawings and paintings - a story of love, betrayal, heartbreak, death, and awakening of all kinds.  


LIZZIE SIDDAL: Her Life & legacy

Friday, September 07, 2018

The National Gallery of Australia has just announced a major exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art will open in mid-December, and so - being the world's most passionate lover of Pre-Raphaelite art - I thought I would share with you some of the incredible stories I discovered while researching my novel, Beauty in Thorns, which tells the story of the women of the Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood.    




Lizzie Siddal Rossetti (b. 1829 – d. 1862) 

is one of the key characters in my novel 

Beauty in Thorns

which reimagines the Sleeping Beauty fairy-tale 

set amongst the passions, tragedies and scandals of the Pre-Raphaelite circle 

of poets and artists in Victorian Britain




'Paolo and Francesca da Rimini', Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1855 


Known best for her work as a model for Pre-Raphaelite artists such as William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lizzie Siddal  was an artist in her own right, writing delicate melancholy poetry and painting small jewel-like oils. She was the only woman to have her work included in the first-ever exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art in 1857. 



'Clerk Saunders', Lizzie Siddal (1857)


One of the difficulties of writing biographical fiction is that the author cannot sit on the sidelines, and say, ‘it is believed that …’ or ‘it is possible …’ A novelist needs to try and find the explanation that seems most likely, and then bring it to life on the page. This was most difficult in the case of Lizzie Siddal, someone whose real life is much obscured by myth and rumour.

The story persists that Lizzie was discovered by Walter Deverell, an artist friend of the Pre-Raphaelites, while working in a milliner’s shop. However, as the renowned Pre-Raphaelite scholar Jan Marsh has found, Lizzie did not passively wait to be discovered but rather went out to meet her future by taking her drawings to Mrs Deverell, the wife of the secretary of the London School of Design, in the hope of pursuing her dreams of becoming an artist. Mrs Deverell’s son Walter then went to visit Lizzie at her workplace and, after seeing her, asked her to model for him. 

That, at least, is the story that Lizzie herself told. It may not be true, but it seems more likely than a busy young man accompanying his mother to her milliner’s. There is as much evidence for one as for the other, (i.e. none), and this novel was inspired by the desire to give the women of the Pre-Raphaelite circle a chance to tell their own stories, in their own voices. So it is Lizzie’s version of events I have drawn upon in Beauty in Thorns.


'Twelfth Night', Walter Deverell (1850)

Walter Deverell wanted a girl who looked like a boy, to pose as Viola in Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night'. Lizzie sits on the left, her slim legs exposed as she pretends to be a pageboy. The jester was modelled by Walter Deverell's friend, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who would soon become Lizzie's mentor and - most probably - her lover. 

Rossetti (called Gabriel by his friends) drew Lizzie obsessively.


        
 

Drawings of Lizzie Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1850-1852) 


In 1852, Lizzie modelled as 'Ophelia' for John Everett Millais. It was January 1852, and bitterly cold. Wearing an antique silver-embroidered wedding dress, she lay in a bathtub filled with water drawn from the filthy River Thames.  Millais had put candles and lamps underneath to try and keep the water warm, but one by one they blew out. Lizzie lay in the bath for five hours. In that one afternoon she would earn more for modelling than she did in a whole year as a milliner's apprentice. He brother had just died of tuberculosis, and her family were poor. She could not afford to lose her modelling job.


'Ophelia', John Everett Millais (1852) - Lizzie Siddal was the model


At last Millais saw that she was shivering with cold and fever, and helped her out of the bath. The damage was done, however. Lizzie was ill, most probably with pneumonia. Her family called for a doctor (a most unusual act by such a poor family). It is most likely that he prescribed her laudanum, a tincture of opium in alcohol. Lizzie became dependant on the drug, and began a slow slide down into addiction and physical and mental ill-health. 

Lizzie Siddal has not been treated well by the key biographers of the Pre-Raphaelites. She has been called 'sickly', 'wan', 'morbid', 'passive', 'obstinate', 'primitive', 'stupid', 'prim', 'neurotic', 'hysterical', 'feeble', and 'frigid', along with many other similar emotionally loaded words. Many of these biographers were apologists for Rossetti (including his brother and his niece), and so were not unbiased.  

Her addiction to laudanum is widely known. What is not so well-known is that Lizzie may have suffered from an eating disorder. Nowadays, when we see a young woman wasting away to a virtual skeleton, refusing food, or vomiting after meals, we would suspect anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. However, in the mid-19th century such pronounced emaciation was normally attributed to tuberculosis, commonly called ‘consumption’ because it seemed to consume the sufferer.  

The first medical identification of eating disorders was made in 1868 (six years after Lizzie’s death), when Sir William Gull, the Queen’s physician, delivered a paper describing a digestive disorder with no known cause, which he called ‘hysteric apepsia’ (apepsia means ‘without digestion’). In 1873 (eleven years after Lizzie’s death), Ernest-Charles Lasègue, a French physician, published a paper entitled 'De l’Anorexie Histerique' which was the first real examination of the idea that the wasting away of these young women could be caused by self-starvation. It was not understood as a mental illness, however, but as a ‘maladie imaginaire’. Sir William Gull consequently undertook further investigation and coined the term ‘anorexia nervosa’.

Dr Gull's illustrations of anorexia in the 1870s

If Lizzie was an anorectic, she and her family and friends would have had absolutely no idea what was wrong with her. Any ‘curious perversions of appetite’, as Lasègue named them, such as binge eating, secret eating, hoarding of food, purging, refusal of food, or food-related rituals, would have seemed, at best, a hysterical demand for attention. 

The possibility that Lizzie might have had an eating disorder was first suggested by Elaine Shafer in a 1985 essay, ‘Deverell, Rossetti, Siddal and "The Bird in the Cage".'  

However, it has never been closely examined as a probable cause for her troubling illnesses. Even the most recent biography, by Lucinda Hawksley in 2004, says: ‘Much of Lizzie’s ill health originated in her mind, stemming from her desire to receive attention and love.’ Lucinda Hawksley does acknowledge that Lizzie may have had some kind of eating disorder, but then says that ‘it became common for her to emotionally blackmail (Gabriel) by refusing to eat.’

Anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders are mental illnesses with devastating physical consequences, having the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. They cannot, and must not, be dismissed as a form of emotional blackmail (even though they are commonly misunderstood in such a way).

The more I researched Lizzie’s life, the more convinced I became that she did have an eating disorder. Descriptions of her thinness and her inability to eat are constant in the letters and diaries of the Pre-Raphaelites. A few examples:

In 1854, Ford Madox Brown writes in his diary that Lizzie was ‘thinner and more deathlike and more beautiful and more ragged than ever’.
 
In 1857, Gabriel wrote that she is ‘not better in health or eating anything to speak of’; This was the same year in which Lizzie refused to touch food for two weeks, resulting in her admission to the health spa in Matlock. 

In 1861, he refers to her ‘unfortunate lack of appetite which keeps her mostly fasting and prevents her from gaining much strength.’ 

Then, at the inquest into her death in 1862, he told the court ‘she could not sleep at times nor take food’ (insomnia is a common side effect of anorexia).

Most striking is the visual evidence of Gabriel’s drawings and paintings which show her physically dwindling away. 

    

                  Drawings of Lizzie Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (late 1850s)

Lizzie’s death is another matter which needed to be investigated carefully. It is widely believed that Lizzie committed suicide, even though the inquest into her death found that she died ‘accidentally and casually and by misfortune’ of an overdose of laudanum.

Laudanum was widely available in the 19th century, and was even given to newborn babies to help them sleep, sometimes resulting in the child dying of starvation. Laudanum acts to suppress appetite, among other effects. It is common for people with an eating disorder to also suffer from substance abuse problems, and certainly the opium would have been the cause of, or exacerbated, many of Lizzie’s problems.

But did Lizzie take an overdose of laudanum by accident, or on purpose?

The possibility of suicide was first given life by Sir Thomas Hall Caine, who had worked as Rossetti’s secretary during the last year of his life. In 1928, he published a new edition of his book Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in which he claimed Rossetti had told him of finding ‘a letter or message addressed to him lying on the table by her side.’ 

The rumour was fanned by Violet Hunt in her 1932 biography, Rossetti’s Wife, in which she declares that Lizzie left a note saying ‘My life is so miserable I wish for no more of it.’ Violet Hunt was born the same year that Lizzie died, and is no relation to William Holman Hunt, though her father Alfred Hunt was a landscape painter who knew the Pre-Raphaelites. She had a long affair with Ford Madox Brown’s grandson, Ford Madox Ford, and claims to have heard all the inside gossip from him. Her biography is considered unreliable, at the very best. At its worse, it is malicious and deliberately misleading.

William Rossetti’s daughter, Helen Rossetti Angeli, published an article in rebuttal of Violet Hunt’s book, which said ‘Lizzie’s last message, as reported, is touching and romantic, but she did not write it.’ 

Seventeen years later she published her own biography of her uncle, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Friend and Enemies, in which she said that Lizzie was found with a note pinned to her nightgown, saying ‘Take care of Harry’, who was Lizzie's feeble-minded brother. 

The note did not survive, and so it is impossible to know if Helen Rossetti Angeli’s account is any truer than Violet Hunt’s. It has been argued that Angeli may have been trying to refute a consistent rumour that Gabriel had murdered Lizzie; or, at the very least, driven her to suicide by his cruel behaviour (Oscar Wilde told everyone that Gabriel had pushed the bottle into her hands and told her to ‘drink the lot’ before storming out of the house).

Then we have Lizzie’s last poem, ‘O Lord, May I Come?’, written in ‘a shaky and straggling hand’ which William Rossetti thought must have been ‘written under the influence of laudanum.’ It is possible that Gabriel was referring to this poem when he told Hall Caine of a message to him left by Lizzie’s bed.

Life and night are falling from me,
Death and day are opening on me,
Wherever my footsteps come and go,
Life is a stony way of woe.
Lord, have I long to go?

Hallow hearts are ever near me,
Soulless eyes have ceased to cheer me:
Lord, may I come to thee?

Life and youth and summer weather
To my heart no joy can gather.
Lord, lift me from life's stony way!
Loved eyes long closed in death watch for me:
Holy death is waiting for me -- 
Lord, may I come to-day?

My outward life feels sad and still
Like lilies in a frozen rill;
I am gazing upwards to the sun,
Lord, Lord, remembering my lost one.
O Lord, remember me!

How is it in the unknown land?
Do the dead wander hand in hand?
God, give me trust in thee.

Do we clasp dead hands and quiver
With an endless joy for ever?
Do tall white angels gaze and wend
Along the banks where lilies bend?
Lord, we know not how this may be:
Good Lord we put our faith in thee -- 
O God, remember me.


When I began writing Beauty in Thorns, I believed that Lizzie had committed suicide. As I researched more deeply, I changed my mind. The day before her death, Lizzie had told her friend, the poet Bessie Rayner Parkes, that she was pregnant. Lizzie had been devastated by the stillbirth of her daughter a year earlier, and it is known she and Gabriel were trying for another baby. I do not think she would have willingly killed her unborn child. Bessie Rayner Parkes was always adamant that Lizzie’s death was an accident, for that very reason, and I came to agree with her. 

'Beata Beatrix', the portrait of Lizzie that Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted after her death

In regards to Gabriel, it has been alleged that he was a compulsive womaniser and sexually betrayed Lizzie on many occasions. Yet his foremost biographer, Jan Marsh, does not believe this to be true. The evidence seems to show he was not unfaithful to her until after their relationship breakdown in 1856-57, which occurred around the time of his meetings with Fanny Cox (later called Fanny Cornforth) and Jane Morris. 

Famously, Gabriel buried his only manuscript of poems with Lizzie in her coffin. Seven years later, he had her body secretly exhumed so he could retrieve the notebook. He transcribed the stinking, tattered manuscript - that had worm holes through some of his best lines - but never fully recovered from his sense of guilt and shame.

 
One of the pages from the buried manuscript, showing the damage to the paper 

If you would like to read more about Lizzie, the best books are 

Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel by Lucinda Hawksley (2004)
The Legend of Lizzie Siddal by Jan Marsh (1989) 
Elizabeth Siddal: Pre-Raphaelite Artist by Jan Marsh (1991), which is wonderful if you want to see Lizzie’s paintings and read her poems. Jan Marsh has also written a magisterial biography, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Poet and Painter (1999). The biography of Gabriel that I read when I was a university student was: 
Dante Gabriel Rossetti: An Alien Victorian by Brian and Judy Dobbs (1977). 


The key texts for my research into eating disorders included 
Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa by Joan Jacobs Brumberg. 

I also read many memoirs of anorectics, including:

Small Acts of Disappearance by Fiona Wright 
Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by Marya Hornbacher 
Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain by Portia Rossi
 Elena Vanishing: A Memoir by Elena Dunkle.

Want to read more about Lizzie? Check out a much earlier blog, written when I was speculating about what may have been the cause of Lizzie's mysterious illness

Or read more about the Pre-Raphaelites & Beauty in Thorns here!


BEAUTY IN THORNS: Love Triangles of the Pre-Raphaelites

Thursday, September 06, 2018

The National Gallery of Australia has just announced a major exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art will open in mid-December, and so - being the world's most passionate lover of Pre-Raphaelite art - I thought I would share with you some of the incredible stories I discovered while researching my novel, Beauty in Thorns, which tells the story of the women of the Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood.    

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a secret society of young and idealistic artists and writers which formed in 1848, in the hope of revitalising British art. It was a time of great social unrest, with bloody revolutions sweeping across Europe and uprisings protesting the impact of the Industrial evolution on the lives of ordinary people.

Self-portrait, drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 


At the heart of the Brotherhood were three artists who were all students at the Royal Academy of Art. Named John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, they wished to discard the heavy brown tones and rough brushwork of most Victorian paintings and return to the luminous colour palette and lapidary detail of late medieval and early Renaissance art.


Lizzie Siddal painted as Ophelia by John Everett Millais

Millais, Hunt and Rossetti were inspired by myths, legends, fairy-tales, history and poetry, and – in the beginning, at least – had high moral ambitions, striving to paint with seriousness, sincerity and truth to nature.

The other members of the brotherhood were Rossetti’s younger brother William, who kept a diary of their meetings; the painter and art critic Frederic George Stephens; the sculptor Thomas Woolner; and the painter James Collinson, who resigned after breaking off his engagement to Rossetti’s sister, Christina. 

Although the Brotherhood dissolved in the early 1850s, it was to prove highly influential on a younger generation of artists, including Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris — two divinity students at Exeter College, Oxford— who gave up their studies to pursue careers in art. They hero-worshipped Dante Gabriel Rossetti and forged a close friendship with him that led to a new flowering of creativity.


An angel painted by Edward Burne-Jones

They painted, wrote poetry, and designed wallpaper, soft furnishings and stained-glass windows and furniture for the company they set up together, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (which was later called Morris & Co.). 

These three men of the later Pre-Raphaelite circle were also joined together in complex romantic triangles. After Rossetti’s first wife Lizzie died, he embarked on a passionate affair with Morris’s wife Janey. Morris turned to Burne-Jones’s wife Georgie for comfort. Burne-Jones, meanwhile, dallied with one of his favourite models, the sculptor Maria Zambaco. Their liaisons scandalised Victorian society as much as their radically different art.



Jane Morris painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti  

My novel Beauty in Thorns tells the fascinating story of these three couples – Gabriel and Lizzie Rossetti, William and Janey Morris, and Edward and Georgie Burne-Jones – who lived and loved freely and ardently whilst creating some of the most sublime art the world has ever seen. 

Want to see more of Pre-Raphaelite art? Check out my Beauty in Thorns Pinterest page!



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