One of the things about claiming your Welshness late in life is that there is so much to learn. You accept the fact. You have missed out on a whole lifetime of knowledge – about flora, fauna, history, language, social customs. You know you can never fully belong, those formative experiences are lost, forever. Yet, for some perverse reason, it still comes as a shock, to realise there are things about Wales you simply never knew. In this instance, I am talking about artists, or specifically one artist. Gwen John. You would think having lived in an artist’s residence for seven months, I’d be all over the topic. But I’m not. At least, I wasn’t, until I read Girl in Profile by Zillah Bethel.
Girl in Profile is primarily told from a shifting first person female point-of-view, but it also has some short male epistolary segments. The overall effect – quirky and humorous, with an adventurous use of metaphor and simile that gives the reader a kind of head spinning, like wow, like this is amazing type sensation.
The opening viewpoint character is Gwen John, a Welsh artist who was born in 1876. Having lost her mother at an early age, Gwen John moved from Haverfordwest to Tenby, where she was raised by her two aunts, who were strict Salvationists. In 1895, she began to study art at Slade School of Art, the only school in the U.K. that then allowed female students. She won the Melville Prize for figure composition in her fourth year. In 1903, Gwen John travelled to France and shortly afterwards began modelling for the much older sculptuor Auguste Rodin. She became his lover (as you do) her passion for him continuing unabated for ten years. Unfortunately, Rodin’s passion abated far sooner (as it often does). The novel opens with Gwen John pining for Rodin.
Gwen John’s viewpoint is juxtaposed against the modern day viewpoints of Elizabeth, an elderly woman, suffering dementia, who lives in a care home in Tenby, largely ignored by her distinguished children, and who is writing letters to an American prisoner on death row. Here is how Elizabeth describes her self.
“Constrained in every decade I’ve been. Stoned in my teens; pregnant and insecure in my twenties; husband, two children and a springer spaniel in my thirties; midlife crisis in my forties; age-defying creams and faradic machines in my fifties; and now in my sixties losing my marbles.”
The third viewpoint character is Moth, a mother of two young children Roan and Dove who was Miss Carmarthen at twenty two and devoted to her children. Though, she is considering having an affair with her son’s art teacher Adam:
“He’s wearing a white shirt and blue jeans, same as me. No visible tattoos. He’s not the kind of guy to have a tattoo. Drew’s (her husband) got “Moth” on his chest and “Roan” and “Dove” on either wrist. Looks plain dirty if you ask me, and imagine when you’re old. I drew the line, with a full stop at piercings. We’re his heart and arms, he says. Load of crap. It’s just his tribalistic, sadomasochistic, look-at-me way of displaying us. Branding. Establishing ownership rights. If you name it, you.”
Girl in Profile is a literary novel, rather than a feel good book. But that doesn’t mean is it depressing. The novel explores the complexity of women’s choices – the ones who follow their passions and the ones who subsume them for the the love of their family. The poignant letters from the man on death row give us a sense of the life cycle – you’re born, you live you die. They also illustrate Elizabeth’s sense of pointlessness as her control is taken away by her institutionalisation and the disease that is eating away at her brain.
I read each segment of the novel, unsure how the author was going to bring the story together. Then, I had this kind of ‘oh, wow’ lightbulb moment and found myself wanting to read the whole thing over. So, if you want a book to make you think, or a story to make your head spin, or a writer in whose audacious use of language makes you blink and marvel and chuckle, then head on over to Honno, the Welsh women’s press, and buy Girl in Profile by Zillah Bethel.