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.