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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!


BOOK REVIEW: The Silent Invasion by James Bradley

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

It's a decade from now and the human race is dying. Plants, animals and humans have been infected by spores from space and become part of a vast alien intelligence.

When 16-year-old Callie discovers her little sister Gracie has been infected, she flees with Gracie to the Zone to avoid termination by the ruthless officers of Quarantine. What Callie finds in the Zone will alter her irrevocably, and send her on a journey to the stars and beyond.


My Thoughts:

James Bradley is one of the most thoughtful, bold and unpredictable writers working in Australia right now. I loved his novel Wrack, about an archaeologist who is searching for the 400-year-old wreck of a Portuguese ship off the coast of New South Wales, but finds the body of a murdered man instead. It’s not a crime novel, though it has a mystery at its heart. It’s not a romance though it’s about love. It’s a difficult, genre-transcending book about cruelty and loss and longing. His novel The Resurrectionist was a dark and surprising exploration of grave robbers in Victorian England. His novella, Beauty's Sister, is the story of Rapunzel told from the point of her darker, wilder sister Juniper. It’s powerful, unexpected and rather sinister. Then there’s Clade (which I’ve not read yet) but which is described as a near-future novel about the effects of climate change which disrupts expected narrative structures.

The key words here are surprising, genre-transcending, unexpected, disruptive.

I really love boldness and unpredictability in a writer, because it’s a quality that requires nerves of steel and a strong sense of one’s creative vision. So many writers find themselves scurrying in a mouse-wheel of market expectations, churning out one similar book after another, second-guessing what readers want, caught up in competing for the ephemera of prizes, grants, bestseller lists, review inches. To write what inspires and excites you, to test boundaries and expectations, to stretch your creative muscles to straining point and beyond – that takes courage, and James Bradley has it in spades.

He is also a beautiful writer, elegant and restrained.

So I was drawn to reading James Bradley’s new dystopian novel for young adults, The Silent Invasion, not because I like YA dystopia (I don’t really), but because I admire his writing and I was interested to see what he’d do with the conventions of this rather over-crowded genre.

The story is told from the point-of-view of sixteen-year-old Callie. She lives in the near-future, at a time when the world has become infected with the spores of some kind of alien intelligence. The first signs are phosphorus on the skin, a strange glow in the eyes. Anyone showing signs of being infected is taken away by Quarantine officers. No-one knows where, or what happens to them. Callie’s own father – a scientist studying the spores – was taken away, and now Callie is being looked after by her step-mother and her boyfriend. She loves her little sister Gracie deeply, and when it becomes clear Gracie has been infected, Callie does her best to save her.

It’s a race against time. Callie is chasing rumours and speculations that there is a safe place, a Zone, where Gracie will be safe. They meet a boy, also running, and a clever and relentless Quarantine officer determined to stop them, and various people, some kind, some unspeakably cruel. It’s intense, fast-paced, politically aware, and heart-breaking. Callie is tough and yet vulnerable, intelligent and yet prone to impulse, loving but still afraid to surrender herself to love. And the writing is as beautiful and thoughtful as I hoped for. So many writers for teenagers sacrifice lyricism for pace. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, a perfectly turned sentence has its own unstoppable force:

‘Sometime deep in the night the moon rose, and for a time I lay staring up at it and the great girdle of the Milky Way. Its brightness stretched from horizon to horizon, and I imagined myself falling upwards, leaving all of this behind and losing myself in its light. Once we had dreamed of travelling to the stars, of becoming explorers; now we scrabbled and fought to survive. What else lay out there, I found myself wondering. Were there other worlds, other possibilities? Or was this all there was, this chaos and fear and sense we were running from something we could not outrun? At some point I realised I was crying; surprised at myself, I tried to wipe my face, but the tears kept coming.’

The Silent Invasion reminded me of some of the great science fiction books of my own adolescence. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and The Giver by Lois Lowry. I hope it strikes as strong a chord.

James Bradley's earlier book, Beauty's Sister, appears on my best books of 2013 list. You can read it here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Botanist’s Daughter by Kayte Nunn

Saturday, September 01, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Discovery. Desire. Deception. A wondrously imagined tale of two female botanists, separated by more than a century, in a race to discover a life-saving flower . . .

In Victorian England, headstrong adventuress Elizabeth takes up her late father's quest for a rare, miraculous plant. She faces a perilous sea voyage, unforeseen dangers and treachery that threatens her entire family.

In present-day Australia, Anna finds a mysterious metal box containing a sketchbook of dazzling watercolours, a photograph inscribed 'Spring 1886' and a small bag of seeds. It sets her on a path far from her safe, carefully ordered life, and on a journey that will force her to face her own demons.


My Thoughts:

One of my favourite genres of fiction are books that weave together two separate narratives, one set in contemporary times and one set in the past. I also really love books about gardens and flowers and secrets and danger. So I had high hopes for Kayte Nunn’s new book, The Botanist’s Daughter, which promised so many elements I love.

The story begins in present-day Australia, when Anna finds a mysterious old notebook and an engraved metal box hidden inside the wall of her dead grandmother’s house. The box is locked, and Anna does not have the key.

The narrative then moves back in time to Cornwall, 1886, and the story of Elizabeth, a strong-willed heiress and the daughter of a botanist who has recently died. The metal box is hers, and contains boots that she hates. Chafing against the constraints of Victorian society, as exemplified by those tight, uncomfortable boots, Elizabeth decides to set out on her father’s last planned expedition, to Argentina and Chile …

It’s a marvellous beginning, and the story gallops on from there. Elizabeth discovers her father was searching for a rare flower with miraculous powers, and that many other dangerous men are also on its trail. Anna – who is a botanist herself - discovers that the box contains a sketchbook of exquisite botanical drawings, a photograph, and a bag of seeds. She is intrigued despite herself, and begins to try and unravel the mystery. But Anna has secrets of her own, and her quest threatens to bring them out of the shadows.

The Botanist’s Daughter is an utterly riveting story of two women, divided by a century in time, but united by their quest to discover a rare and dangerous flower said to have the power to heal as well as kill. Fast-moving and full of surprises, The Botanist's Daughter brings the exotic world of 19th-century Chile thrillingly to life while delivering a poignant and heart-warming story of romance and new beginnings in its contemporary thread. A must-read for lovers of Kimberly Freeman and Mary-Rose MacColl.

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

You might also be interested in my review of Kayte Nunn's earlier book, Rose's Vintage.

Please leave a comment and let me know your thoughts.

INTERVEW: Kayte Nunn

Saturday, September 01, 2018

 

This week we welcome Kayte Nunn, author of The Botanist's Daughter and Rose's Vintage, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
Card-carrying. I feel like I’ve always lived in my own head. Being sent to boarding school at the age of eleven meant that I spent a lot of time in a world of my own, pretending I was anywhere else but there. In the dorm at night we used to tell each other stories, often a continuing saga that was told night by night for weeks on end. I still daydream, but these days it is more about my characters and who they might be, what they might be doing and saying to me.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I’ve always loved words and books and reading, and had a secret dream to be a novelist, but thought that it was something other, far cleverer people than me did. As a child I wrote stories, and even made and illustrated a couple of children’s books, one of which I still have.

I studied English and publishing at uni and worked as an editor and writer of non-fiction before finally summoning the courage to write fiction, and I’m so pleased I did – writing fiction fills me up like nothing else can.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in Singapore, as my father was in the British RAF and stationed there and then grew up mostly in England. I moved to Australia – for love – in my mid-20s and never left. My family and I recently moved from Sydney to the NSW Northern Rivers where we are about to build an eco-home on a few acres in the countryside. When I’m not writing, I love to bake – cakes, cookies, pies and tarts. I also try and run and hike to work off the effects of the baking! Oh, and I’ve always got a pile of books to read.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
A little over three years ago, I took my youngest daughter on a picnic in the Botanic Gardens in Sydney. It was to be one final mother-daughter day out before she started school. It was a hot, sultry day and we were looking for fairies – as you do with a four-and-a-half-year-old – when we found ourselves at the herb garden. At the centre is a beautiful cast bronze sundial with a relief of herbs around it. I put my hand on the warm metal and immediately saw an image of a young girl in an English walled garden, where there was a similar sundial. I walked around the rest of the day in a daze as I began to wonder what her story was.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
I do plan them, but bit by bit as they unravel. By the time I’m about 25% in, I have a clearer idea of where I’m headed. I have a white board, divided into segments (like acts of a play) where I work out what is happening and when in the story, to ensure that the underlying structure works, and that rising and falling action occurs when it should. I worked really hard on the structure of The Botanist’s Daughter, and it helped enormously when it came to the editing process.

Also, Kate, you very kindly gave me some extremely helpful advice when I first started this novel, about tackling a dual timeline, and I wrote one narrative first before starting the other. I wanted each story to be able to stand on its own, and I think this approach really helped.

For my next book, I actually had to write a blurb about it (which I love doing, as it’s something I used to do often for other books when I worked in publishing) as my publisher asked what else I was working on, and having that succinct synopsis really helped my focus.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Not so much dreams, but I love your practice of liminal thinking, the daydreamy state you have just before going to sleep or just after you’ve woken up – I find that time incredibly helpful when I’m imagining a story into life.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
When I was in the middle of writing the book I visited Kew Gardens and came upon the wonderful Marianne North Gallery. She was a 19th-century botanical artist and adventurer and I knew that that someone like Elizabeth in my book really had lived then.

I also happened to be talking about the idea for the book to my neighbour, who mentioned that Cornwall is known for its remarkable gardens. I had spent many childhood holidays there, so knew the area, and as I researched more about plant hunters in the 19th century, realised that it was the perfect place to set part of the story.

When I was researching 19th-century Chile, I came across a diary of a widowed sea captain’s wife who spent several months in Valparaiso in the 1850s. Her descriptions of the flora and fauna of the area, and everyday life there, were absolutely invaluable in helping me imagine the city and landscape at that time. Her fortitude in the face of losing her husband and being in a foreign country was also inspiring and I realised as I was finishing the book, that The Botanist’s Daughter is about courage – both large, obvious acts of courage as well as smaller, but no less remarkable ones.

Where do you write, and when?

I write in my living room, in cafés occasionally, in the car at soccer practice, by the side of swimming pools … anywhere I have a spare few hours. A large part of The Botanist’s Daughter was written in the prosaic surrounds of a shopping centre food court near where my daughter was doing gymnastics several times a week! Having worked in busy magazine offices, I can fairly effectively tune out the noise around me.

When I first started writing, I did it in addition to a busy freelance writing and editing load, but I’m lucky enough that now I write pretty much full time in school hours, with only the occasional freelance job when it arises. It’s meant a few changes for our family, and sacrifices, but it is starting to come good.

I set myself a daily word count and don’t quit until I reach it. I don’t write particularly fast – I fight for every word – but I’ve found that it results in a fairly tight first draft that doesn’t need too much jettisoned.

I’m still trying to work out how to combine writing with school holidays!

What is your favourite part of writing?

The feeling of having written!

Also, when my characters come alive and start to talk to me – I hear lines of their dialogue at random times of the day and have to scramble to get them down before they float away.
Writing the final lines of a first draft.

What do you do when you get blocked?

I go for a walk and think about my characters and what should happen next. Usually by the time I’ve been out for half an hour or so I can come back and sit down and write again. Also, when I’m feeling really inspired, I write outlines of where the story needs to go so that I know what to write next when I’m struggling.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I’ve been lucky so far that a new idea for a novel has come to me as I’ve needed it. But in the background I am reading, reading, reading, as well as watching documentaries, news stories and making notes of my ideas and thoughts.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
I find I need a calm mind, so I try to get any niggling chores and admin out of the way (though I make sure really time-consuming chores are done away from writing time), and I always hide my phone as it’s too tempting to check it when I get stuck. Other than that, it’s just me and a laptop and somewhere comfortable to sit.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Elizabeth Goudge, Daphne du Maurier, Jilly Cooper, Laurie Lee, Maria Semple, Celeste Ng, Isabelle Allende, Geraldine Brooks, Cormac McCarthy, Tim Winton… but there are so many more.

What do you consider to be good writing?
Language and stories that transport you to another world, that seem more real than the world around you and that you don’t want to leave when the book ends. I do like a book that affects me so much that it makes me cry.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
If you’re writing for publication: Do the work – learn the craft. Do short courses, read books on craft, read fiction critically – read books that you love and work out what it is about them that achieves that.

Go to writers’ festivals and listen to other writers talk about their work.

Be aware of what is currently selling well, but write what you love – the book you’d most like to read.

Be brave. Start with a few short stories if the thought of a whole novel is overwhelming.

Don’t give up, even when you doubt yourself. When I started writing, I had a small yellow post-it on my laptop that said ‘play big’. Not ‘dream big’, which felt too wishy-washy, but ‘play big’.

What are you working on now?

I’m in the middle of edits for my next novel, which is about a bundle of unsent love letters discovered in an old suitcase on a remote British island, and then I am at the start of a story set in an English boarding school that is about to admit girls for the first time.

You can read my review of The Botanist's Daughter here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny

Saturday, August 25, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Chaos is coming, old son.

With those words the peace of Three Pines is shattered. As families prepare to head back to the city and children say goodbye to summer, a stranger is found murdered in the village bistro and antiques store. Once again, Chief Inspector Gamache and his team are called in to strip back layers of lies, exposing both treasures and rancid secrets buried in the wilderness.

No one admits to knowing the murdered man, but as secrets are revealed, chaos begins to close in on the beloved bistro owner, Olivier. How did he make such a spectacular success of his business? What past did he leave behind and why has he buried himself in this tiny village? And why does every lead in the investigation find its way back to him?

As Olivier grows more frantic, a trail of clues and treasures— from first editions of Charlotte’s Web and Jane Eyre to a spider web with the word “WOE” woven in it—lead the Chief Inspector deep into the woods and across the continent in search of the truth, and finally back to Three Pines as the little village braces for the truth and the final, brutal telling.


My Thoughts:


I’ve really enjoyed all of Louise Penny’s earlier books in the Inspector Gamache crime series, but have had this one sitting on my shelf for ages, waiting for me to read. Having met Louise Penny at the Perth Writers Festival this year (she is lovely!), I decided to catch up on the series.

Her books have mostly centred on the fictional town of Three Pines in the province of Quebec in Canada, with an array of loveable and eccentric locals who appear again and again. They include a gay couple who run the local bistro, a warm-hearted second-hand bookseller, a couple of married artists, and a foul-mouthed old woman who is an award-winning poet and has a pet duck called Rosa. Describing the series in this way, the books sound like cosy murder mysteries, and there is certainly plenty of warmth and humour. However, the depth of characterisation, the lyrical writing, and the darkness of the human psyche revealed both in the murders and the inner lives of the characters lift this series out of the ordinary.

The Brutal Telling centres on the murder of an old hermit who has lived hidden away in the forest outside Three Pines for decades with no-one – or nearly no-one - aware of his existence.

To Inspector Gamache’s surprise, he discovers the old man’s wooden hut is filled with antique treasures (such as a priceless first edition copy of Jane Eyre published under the pseudonym Currer Bell, something I myself would very much like to own.) His quest to find the murderer also leads him to follow in the footsteps of Emily Carr, the first Canadian artist to embrace Fauvism and Post-Impressionism. I have been interested in Emily Carr since reading The Forest Lover, a novel by Susan Vreeland that is inspired by her life, and so was really intrigued by this section of The Brutal Telling. This combination of warmth, intelligence and psychological depth combine to make Louise Penny’s books a cut above most contemporary crime novels and so I urge you to read one if you’ve never tried her before. But start at the beginning, with Still Life, as this series has a strong character arc.

You might also be interested in my review of The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan.

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

INTERVIEW: Gabbie Stroud

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

 

This week I welcome Gabbie Stroud, author of Teacher, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?

Yes!! I am forever imagining. I am particularly curious about people. I could watch people all day and I find myself trying to imagine where they’ve just come from, or where they’re hurrying off to. I wonder what secrets they’re keeping, when they last laughed and how their face might look when they cry. Sometimes I find I’m so busy imagining I forget that I am present in the world myself!

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yup! Ever since I could reach the pen and notepad on the telephone table in our family home. My mum, who keeps everything, still finds notepads I filled with my pre-writing scribbles.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in Cooma hospital on the 4th of July in 1977. I came along ten years after my closest sister and twenty years after my eldest. Skip forward forty one years and I live 90 minutes drive from Cooma in a beautiful coastal town on the far south of New South Wales. I am a mother to two beautiful young girls named Olivia and Sophie. Together we love to read and write and dance and sing. It’s a very vocal household with lots of laughter and theatrics!

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I struggled to understand how I was going to write a book about my life without making it sound dull and linear. Beautiful Kate Forsyth listened patiently as I lamented over this problem with her and then suggested that I might try exploring the opening of the story from an unexpected place! She drew my life as a narrative arc and then touched her pen to the graph, right before the climax. “If you imagined your life at this point of the story, what would be happening here?” I thought for a moment and said – that’s probably when I had been teaching for ten years and this little boy named Grayson threw his shoe at me and I felt something snap inside me and I threw the shoe out the door. Kate smiled at me and said, “That sounds like an interesting story to begin with. Why don’t you try starting there and then take us back to your childhood?” And so I did… and it worked.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
I have discovered that I cannot plan my novels too much. The characters and the plot seem to find a life of their own. I sit at the key board panicking most of time and wishing I could control things, but I am beginning to resign myself to the fact that – for me – writing is as much about making discoveries as it is about making choices.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

I tend to use my subconscious more so than dreams. If I am struggling with something creatively I will journal the problem before sleeping and actively ask my ‘back brain’ to work on it while I am sleeping. Then, either just as I’m falling asleep or on waking, the answer or solution will come to me… often like a blinding flash of the obvious. It can be exhilarating because occasionally the response is surprising. I marvel at the ability of our brains to work for us, even while we sleep!

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
Yes – every day! ‘Teacher’ is the creative non-fiction memoir of my life, so you would think it would be fairly familiar material to me. But what I discovered was that I had great power in making choices as to how I would tell my story. I was able to choose where I would shine light and what things I would keep in shadow. I was also able to thread different episodes together and make connections between different points in my life. I discovered things about myself as a person, a teacher and a writer. But jeepers – it was a grueling process!

Where do you write, and when?
I wrote much of ‘Teacher’ at the local Library. I would arrive and set up my work space (always aiming to be there at 9:30 but never managing anything earlier than 10). I would plug in my headphones and click into my “white noise” website. Some kind of pavlovian response would kick in and the words would usually tumble onto the page.

What is your favourite part of writing?
Reading back the words I’ve put on the page at the end of the day. I am amazed that I can stir feelings within myself; I can delight myself, amuse myself and entertain myself. I am often surprised by the quality of my writing.

What do you do when you get blocked?
Wait.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I read.
I observe people and the world around me.
I exercise.
I eat well.
I talk with my children – and really listen to them!
I think a lot.
I ask questions and remain curious.
I seek beauty.
I listen to music and take note of the lyrics.
I attend galleries, museums, festivals, concerts, shows, workshops, markets… whatever I can whenever I can.
I talk to other writers and nurture my friendships with them.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
I use a white noise website to help me block out the world when I’m writing in a Library or café. I use sticky notes relentlessly once I start editing!

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Sue Townsend – who introduced me to Adrian Mole, a character who made me laugh and laugh and laugh!
Mem Fox – who has helped me keep many a Kindergarten class entertained.
Kate Forsyth – who has taught me so much through my reading of her writing.
Liane Moriarty – who examines the human condition every time she writes.
John Marsden – who wrote the books I devoured during high school and beyond.
Helen Garner – who is gritty and unflinching and yet so easy for me to relate to.
Sofie Laguna – who gently takes your hand and says ‘come look at this ugly thing I have found’.
Jesse Blackadder – who creates beauty with her words and scenes I cannot forget.
Judy Blume - who I read and read and read and now my daughter reads and reads and reads.
Marcus Zusack – who gave us all The Book Thief.

What do you consider to be good writing?
Good writing stays with me. It moves something within me. I know I’ve read a good book when I turn the final page and realise I am not the same person that I was when I started the book.

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

What are you working on now?
I am developing a contemporary fiction for adults. It’s still without a title, but it is set in a primary school. I’m hoping it will be a book about the real work that teachers do and the impact that teachers have on their students. The book explores the lives of six teachers and their shared journey through the academic year. When a tragedy befalls the school community, each of the teachers are called to question the work they do, their failings and their truth.

You can read my review of Teacher here.

BOOK REVIEW: Teacher by Gabbie Stroud

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

In 2014, Gabrielle Stroud was a very dedicated teacher with over a decade of experience. Months later, she resigned in frustration and despair when she realised that the Naplan-test education model was stopping her from doing the very thing she was best at: teaching individual children according to their needs and talents. Her ground-breaking essay 'Teaching Australia' in the Feb 2016 Griffith Review outlined her experiences and provoked a huge response from former and current teachers around the world. That essay lifted the lid on a scandal that is yet to properly break - that our education system is unfair to our children and destroying their teachers.

In a powerful memoir inspired by her original essay, Gabrielle tells the full story: how she came to teaching, what makes a great teacher, what our kids need from their teachers, and what it was that finally broke her. A brilliant and heart-breaking memoir that cuts to the heart of a vital matter of national importance.


My Thoughts:


I first met Gabbie Stroud when we were on tour together with the Byron Writers Festival. She had written a personal essay for Griffith Review about her decision to quit teaching, which had always been her life vocation. Her essay stirred up a lot of controversy, as more and more teachers began to criticise Australia’s education system. Allen & Unwin asked her if she’d be interested in extending her essay into a book-length memoir, and Teacher is the poignant and powerful result.

All Gabbie Stroud ever wanted to do was teach our children, and inspire them with her own big-hearted warmth, generosity and love of learning.

Instead she found herself broken by a system that cares more for data and demographies than young minds and spirits.

Interweaving her own personal journey towards being a teacher with anecdotes from the classroom, Teacher illuminates the enormous difficulties our teachers face today. Sometimes their students are hungry, bruised, or afraid. Sometimes they are sick, angry, or struggling. Their teacher needs to keep them and their classmates safe and calm, while still trying to instil learning. Teachers are burdened by administrative tasks, curriculum demands, difficult parents, and large numbers of students. They end up exhausted, overwhelmed, and stressed, and often completely burned-out.

Gabbie Stroud shines a penetrating light on all that is wrong with the Australian education system and how it fails both our children and our teachers. Impossible to read without choking up, this is an eloquent rallying cry for change and should be mandatory reading for all politicians and policy-makers. Luminous and heart-rending.

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


Please leave a comment!


BOOK REVIEW: The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone by Jaclyn Moriarty

Friday, August 17, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Bronte Mettlestone's parents ran away to have adventures when she was a baby, leaving her to be raised by her Aunt Isabelle and the Butler. She's had a perfectly pleasant childhood of afternoon teas and riding lessons - and no adventures, thank you very much.

But Bronte's parents have left extremely detailed (and bossy) instructions for Bronte in their will. The instructions must be followed to the letter, or disaster will befall Bronte's home. She is to travel the kingdoms and empires, perfectly alone, delivering special gifts to her ten other aunts. There is a farmer aunt who owns an orange orchard and a veterinarian aunt who specialises in dragon care, a pair of aunts who captain a cruise ship together and a former rockstar aunt who is now the reigning monarch of a small kingdom.

Now, armed with only her parents' instructions, a chest full of strange gifts and her own strong will, Bronte must journey forth to face dragons, Chief Detectives and pirates - and the gathering suspicion that there might be something more to her extremely inconvenient quest than meets the eye...

From the award-winning Jaclyn Moriarty comes a fantastic tale of high intrigue, grand adventure and an abundance of aunts.


My Thoughts:

I have always thought that Jaclyn Moriarty has one of the freshest and most original voices in Australian children’s literature and so was eager to read her latest children’s fantasy, beautifully presented as a hardback with whimsical illustrations by Kelly Canby. The book did not disappoint – it was a sparkling delight from beginning to end, with lots of unexpected discoveries, wondrous encounters and madcap adventures.

The story begins:

I was ten years old when my parents were killed by pirates. This did not bother me as much as you might think - I hardly knew my parents.

Bronte’s parents had run away to have adventures when she was just a baby, leaving her to be raised by her Aunt Isabelle and the Butler. But their last will and testament says she must set out alone, on a solitary quest, to take a farewell gift to each of her ten other aunts. Her parents’ will has been bordered by fairy cross-stitch, which means calamity will befall her home town if she disobeys. So Bronte sets out to fulfil her parents’ dying wish (although, really, it is extremely inconvenient). Before long she is grappling with dragons, Chief Detectives, spell whisperers and pirates. Luckily, Bronte is very resourceful and determined as well as kind-hearted and clever, and so she deals with one troublesome aunt after another with aplomb.

The world-building in this book is so rich and inventive it could easily support a dozen other books, and so I hope that The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone is the first in what will be a long series. This is the perfect book for a sensitive imaginative bookworm who is not yet ready for Harry Potter but wants a story filled with magic, adventure, humour and whimsy (the kind of kid I was when I was eleven!)

I was lucky enough to interview Jaclyn for the blog this weeks, you can read it here.

If you like the sound of this book, you might also be interested in my review of Nevermoor.

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



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