Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: fairy tales

A review of Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns

I love a novel based on fairy tales. In fact, I may just have written one. My nineteenth century Aussie immigration tale having been hijacked by its Welsh storyteller. For surely the archetypes found in age-old tales have stood the test of time, many of them having been told in various guises around the world. The fairytale is storytelling in its most primeval form.

I wrote an article on this topic after reading Kate Forsyth’s novel Bitter Greens. Since then, my pleasure in her work has not diminished. I devoured The Beast’s Tale, set in Nazi Germany, and am I even now rubbing my satisfied belly after feasting on her latest work: Beauty in Thorns.

Here is what the Penguin website has to say about the novel:

A spellbinding reimagining of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ set amongst the wild bohemian circle of Pre-Raphaelite artists and poets.

The Pre-Raphaelites were determined to liberate art and love from the shackles of convention.

Ned Burne-Jones had never had a painting lesson and his family wanted him to be a parson. Only young Georgie Macdonald – the daughter of a Methodist minister – understood. She put aside her own dreams to support him, only to be confronted by many years of gossip and scandal.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was smitten with his favourite model, Lizzie Siddal. She wanted to be an artist herself, but was seduced by the irresistible lure of laudanum.

William Morris fell head-over-heels for a ‘stunner’ from the slums, Janey Burden. Discovered by Ned, married to William, she embarked on a passionate affair with Gabriel that led inexorably to tragedy.

Margot Burne-Jones had become her father’s muse. He painted her as Briar Rose, the focus of his most renowned series of paintings, based on the fairy-tale that haunted him all his life. Yet Margot longed to be awakened to love.

Bringing to life the dramatic true story of love, obsession and heartbreak that lies behind the Victorian era’s most famous paintings, Beauty in Thorns is the story of awakenings of all kinds.

Beauty in Thorns is written five parts – each starting with an excerpt from the Memorials of Edward Borne-Jones, which were written by the artist’s wife, Georgiana. Initially, this lead me to believe the novel would essentially be Georgie’s story (though in keeping with Forsyth’s other work there would be interconnecting story lines, which had their own arcs). However, after an opening chapter from the point-of-view of the youthful Georgie, we switch to the viewpoint of Lizzie Siddal, Gabriel Dante Rosetti’s tormented muse, mistress and eventual wife. We have a few intermittent chapters from Georgie’s viewpoint, sketching the growth of her relationship with Edward Burne-Jones from her childhood, to their eventual betrothal and inclusion in the pre-Raphaelite circle. Forsyth then sets up the historic competition for Rossetti’s affections by introducing Jane Burden. As we move through the various viewpoints – Lizzie, Jane, Georgie and eventually Burne-Jones’ daughter Margot, we begin to get a sense that although Georgiana’s life is the over arching beam of novel, Edward Burne-Jones’ celebrated Sleeping Beauty paintings, could not have occurred in isolation. They emerged from a complex web of relationships.

Forsyth takes us deep into the heart of Lizzie’s tragic relationship with Rosetti, Jane Burden’s unfulfilling marriage to William Morris and the resulting jealous insanities, Georgiana’s helpless misery as her own relationship is caught up in the passions of the pre-Raphaelite world and the confusion and disillusionment of a child born to such a world. Forsyth does not shy away from the fact that Lizzie and Jane were poor working class women plucked out obscurity by the artists’ obsessions. Spurned by polite society, they lived at the mercy of their patrons’. Siddal, who gained Ruskin’s patronage, had a chance to make her own way. But her tumultuous relationship Rossetti, ruined her health. Georgie, as a spurned wife, had no recourse in a court of law, no hope of keeping her children, no means of living independently. The subject matter of this novel is not for the faint hearted. At its heart of hearts, it is a deeply feminist novel.

Despite its subject matter Beauty in Thorns never quite becomes bleak – passionate, charged with emotion, insanity, jealousy, and heart break – but never bleak. For this is above all a novel about beauty. Forsyth’s prose gives as a tactile sense of that beauty:

It seemed to Janey that happiness was not a gift she had been given. Everything seemed to weigh on her more heavily than it did the others. Each evening, as she kissed her daughters goodnight, she feared she might not see them again. As if death’s sickle might cut their delicate thread.

As do her descriptions of the artworks themselves:

He was working on a design inspired by the Sleeping Beauty fairytale. A girl in a white night-gown lay on the bed, swirls of roses behind her. A peacock spread its gaudy tail on the far wall. The girl’s golden-red hair rippled out across the pillow On his knees beside her was a knight with long, dark curls, bending to kiss her.

Beneath the drawing were pasted the words in a flowing scroll, written in Tospy’s elegant scrawl. Of a certain prince who delivered a king’s daughter from a sleep of a hundred years, wherein she and all hers had been cast by enchantment.’

The next sketch showed the knight and the awakening maiden hurrying through the castle on their way to the wedding. The knight looked like a young Gabriel, while the glowing haired princess was the image of Lizzie before she grew so sick and sad.

With its magnificent descriptions and turbulent passions, Beauty in Thorns makes a magnificent read – sumptuous, well structured, captivating – the story behind  an iconic set of paintings. It takes the ordinary mire of women’s lives and illuminates them, giving us a sense of the bigger picture in all its tragedy and triumph, which must surely be the purpose of all good art  – and indeed fairy tales.

***

Elizabeth Jane Corbett’s debut novel, The Tides Between, will be published by Odyssey Books in October 2017. Set in the steerage compartment of a nineteenth century emigrant vessel it is an historical coming-of-age tale about fairy tales and facing the truth.

Blog twenty four o Gymru – a word on Welsh fairy tales

I haven’t blogged for a while. The reason – I’m desperate to get this pre-submission draft of my manuscript finished before heading back to Melbourne. If you know anything about my novel, you will know it is a historical novel set in 1841 on board an emigrant vessel bound for colonial Australia. It has two English viewpoint characters and a Welsh one. My Welsh viewpoint character is a storyteller. His traditional Welsh fairy tales both mirror and affect the other character’s journeys. A tall order for a first novel, perhaps? Or outright ridiculous? In polite literary circles, you may hear it called an ‘ambitious project.’

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As a consequence of this ‘ambitious project,’ I’ve read countless Welsh myths, legends, and fairy tales, primarily in the English language. One of my aims for this time in Wales was to increase my Welsh language understanding of these stories. You can therefore imagine my delight when Gwin Dylanwad advertised a series of Welsh language talks on the Mabinogi. The series wasn’t an event for Welsh language learners. I was definitely the least fluent speaker in the room. But I spent four pleasurable evenings listening to Dr Gwilym Morus-Baird discuss the amazing body of medieval Welsh literature that is known to the English speaking world as the Mabinogion.

The Medd a Mabinogi series was followed by a session on the Tylwyth Teg ( fair family), by Gwyn Edwards. Half way through the evening, Gwyn started talking about Llyn y Fan Fach, the story of a mysterious lake woman who married a mortal. Her father’s only condition being that his daughter mustn’t be struck causelessly, for on the third blow she and all of her dowry would return to the lake (at this point, the feminist in me is compelled to add that it should have been the first blow, causeless, or otherwise).

I recognised the story immediately (yes! a significant comprehension milestone). It is one of the stories I’ve used in my novel. I have walked the rocky mountain path to Llyn y Fan Fach (lake of the small place) a tiny mountain top lake at the northern end of the Black Mountain. I’ve read multiple versions of the story, know it like the back of my hand. At least…I thought I did. Except, the fairy father’s condition in Gwyn Evans’ version of the tale was different. Three causeless blows had been replaced  by three blows with a piece of iron.

The change wasn’t inconceivable. Welsh fairies don’t like iron. They don’t have wings either. They often dress in green. But that’s irrelevant. I glanced about the room, wondering what my class mates thought about this iron addition to the tale. They didn’t seem too perturbed (savages). Then again, they mightn’t have had so much riding on the situation. I on the other hand, sat in a heart pounding, cold sweat, thinking, OMG, the Welsh language version of the story is different. I’m going to re-work whole segments of my novel, just when I thought I was close to finishing.

Half way through his explanation of the tale, Gwyn Evans stopped, smiled, shook his head. ‘O mae’n ddrwg gen iDw i wedi gwneud camgymeriad – Oh, I’m sorry. I have made a mistake.

Mistake! I held my breath.

‘Nid oedd haern un o’r amodau – iron wasn’t one of the conditions. Dim ond tri trawiad heb achos – only three causeless blows.’

No iron! I found myself melting in a warm puddle of relief.

After they had finished wiping me off the floor, the remainder of the evening passed without further trauma. Here are some of the things I have learned about Welsh fairies:

  • They don’t have wings (as mentioned)
  • Neither do they like iron
  • Some people think they are human sized
  • Others that they are diminutive
  • They live beneath the earth
  • Time in fairy land is different to human time
  • If you get caught in a fairy circle it is hard to escape
  • Though their are methods
  • This by the way is a serious topic – and not hypothetical
  • Some believe fairy tales are the remnant of a folk memory harking back to a previous time – when trees, and stones and cairns had spirits
  • Others that they are simply the way to explain the inexplicable
  • Others still, that they are inherently evil
  • You must never try to steal from the fairies, or double cross them
  • They have been known to steal children
  • Reward people’s virtue
  • But whatever the case, you must always be careful
  • And even if you don’t believe in fairies, the tales are worth listening to

 

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