If any confirmation was needed that Kate Forsyth is one of the finest writers working today, who not only brings history alive with her words, gives voice to those often neglected or silenced and readers pause to ponder, then surely, her latest novel, Beauty in Thorns, is it.
Set in the era when the Pre-Raphaelites, with their love of beauty, art, poetry and breaking all manner of social conventions and boundaries reigned, this book explores the lives and loves of some of the major influencers of the time – primarily Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris – only, it’s told from the point of view of the amazing women who loved, needed, and were alternately a source of inspiration for, as well as exploited and hurt by these men.
The reader is introduced to Lizzie Siddal, a young woman from an impoverished family who becomes a model for the passionate and avant-garde Rossetti, falling for not just his eccentricity and talent, but how he makes her feel – beautiful, able to break the bonds that bind her to a particular life and explore her own creativity, despite what society and the class into which she is born dictates her role should be.
Artistic in her own right, Lizzie is never quite able to soar in the way the men who love and use her do. Her story is both heart-wrenching and familiar and the way in which Forsyth delves into the psychology under-pinning Lizzie’s choices – both poor and wise – is riveting and persuasive.
Likewise, we meet tall, striking Janey Burden. Illiterate, poverty-stricken and burdened like her name with a family destined never to rise above their grim conditions, her meeting with William Morris and the rest of the group is transformative. Perceiving Janey as both beautiful and able, the Pre-Raphaelites engender in Janey a desire to rise above her birth and circumstances and embrace what they offer as well as the means to do so. Becoming literate, discovering her hidden talents, what’s also awakened in Janey is a love for who she is when she views herself through others’ eyes, only those are not always her husband’s.
Experiencing and causing heart-ache, Janey is a revelation – someone who embraces what the Pre-Raphaelites represent in terms of defying tradition and conventions, but she’s also someone who, as a woman, is also damaged by them.
The reader also comes to understand and appreciate Georgie Macdonald, the long-suffering wife of Ned Burne-Jones. Like Lizzie, Georgie makes great sacrifices to ensure her husband’s career soars, repressing her own creative desires and ensuring her husband’s needs are met, no matter the heart-wrenching cost.
When Ned finally paints his daughter as the lovely, doomed Briar Rose, a young woman who is awakened to love, the metaphor which frames the entire book reaches its epiphany.
While the title of the novel gestures to the fabulous quartet of paintings inspired by the Sleeping Beauty tale, and created by Edward Burne-Jones, as well as the fairy-tale itself, the way Forsyth imagines how the women lived and encountered the men and how these encounters changed everyone irrevocably, is anything but fairy-tale-esque or romantic.
All the women portrayed are, essentially, sleeping beauties trapped by thorns. “Asleep” to their potential because that’s what culture and the epoch demands of their sex, the thorns are sometimes the men, but mostly they’re the pain and tribulations, the strangling limitations and reductive choices that life metes out. Whether it be their class, education or lack thereof, the opportunities denied to them and how the accident of their sex and thus gender, imposes restrictions, snags them early in life, they are imprisoned in a variety of plant-bound castles from which there is no escape. Not even the “princes” of the Pre-Raphaelites, with all their wild ideas and cherished notions of a different society can (or, arguably, want to) free these women. They are all bound by rules. Admittedly, the men do enable these women a glimmer of life and hope in varying degrees, especially in allowing them to recognise their own inner and outer beauty and using them as aspirational and allegorical figures in their works, but in the end, the liberties granted to them as figures in widely appreciated poetry and art, as muses to the men, is as illusory as the Arcadian and mythic settings the poems and paintings evoke.
Sadly, no-one can really “awaken” these beauties in the manner they deserve or want.
While the characters are wonderfully realised, so too is the era. Victorian England, the social and industrial changes, the politics, the varying landscapes through which the characters move, the food they eat, clothes they wear, are all gorgeously rendered. You can see the flowers dotting gardens, smell the soot-tainted air, feel the clammy fingers of fog-bounds streets and the claustrophobic rooms of different houses. Other well-known figures that strode through history such as George Bernard Shaw and Rudyard Kipling also make an appearance, adding even more authenticity to the novel and a sense of the enormous creative contribution yet to be unleashed by this period and which we still enjoy to this day.
Beautifully, hauntingly written, often languorous and also melancholy, this book lingered in my mind and heart for months after. It still does. I think that’s why I’ve taken so long to review it. I found I cannot stop thinking about it. If that’s not indicative that a reader is in the hands of a masterful story teller, I don’t know what is.
Upon travelling to the UK in the wake of finishing, I was continuously drawn to the works of the pre-Raphaelites which live on in so many different ways. I even brought some William Morris cushion covers, based on prints he designed. But pondering this novel more, I wish it was the work of the women who also occupied spaces in my home – or maybe not. For, what I’ve realised Kate Forsyth has given these women is a space in my head and in my heart and for that, I am very grateful.