Culture Magazine

Review: Beauty in Thorns and Interview with Kate Forsyth

By Kirsty Stonell Walker @boccabaciata
I have been most fortunate this month because Kate Forsyth, author of Bitter Greens, let me have a read of her new novel Beauty in Thorns.  I was very eager to read it because I have been talking to Kate for a while now about the lives and loves of Pre-Raphaelite muses and as the author of a novel about Pre-Raphaelite women I'm always delighted to find another book on the same subject. Kate has taken the familiar threads of the Pre-Raphaelite story and made a novel that spans the birth of the Brotherhood right to the end of the century, centering around the lives of the muses, wives and lovers of the artists.Review: Beauty in Thorns and Interview with Kate ForsythThis is a monumental piece of work.  Spanning fifty years and almost five hundred pages, Beauty in Thorns covers some familiar ground but in a way that will make you question everything you thought you knew about the Pre-Raphaelite women. Predominantly following the lives of Elizabeth Siddal, Jane Morris and Georgiana Burne-Jones, we trace them from childhood, through love and marriage (not necessarily with the same man), troubles, disillusionment and immortality.  

Review: Beauty in Thorns and Interview with Kate Forsyth

Elizabeth Siddal, Asleep (1850s) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

It would be hard to see how a novelist could take scenes as ingrained in Pre-Raphaelite lore as Lizzie in the bath and make it new, but throughout her prose, Kate adds layers of character to these women, making them more than just the muses of their lovers, but as people with motivation, needs, desires and dreams.

Review: Beauty in Thorns and Interview with Kate Forsyth

Jane Morris (1873) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Taking the recurring theme and image of sleeping beauty, not only in Edward Burne-Jones monumental murals but also the lives of the women, Kate reveals girls awaiting princes, women having to allow men the active role in romance, and the fortunes of women who rebel against these constraints.  Not only are the women the unwilling heart of a passive fairytale, waiting in their bower for a prince, but also there is reflection on the other roles women take in such tales, cursing their own daughters to isolation through any transgressions of the mothers.

After reading Beauty in Thorns I was desperate to ask Kate about her journey from research to story, and I was lucky enough to ask her some questions...Q. In Beauty in Thorns, both Ned Burne-Jones and Lizzie Siddal change their names on Rossetti's suggestion/demand.  Why do you think they allowed him that power and why do you think he needed it?

Review: Beauty in Thorns and Interview with Kate Forsyth

Elizabeth Siddal(l) (c.1860)

I think both Lizzie Siddal and Ned Burne-Jones admired Rossetti, and looked up to him. Rossetti was very aware of the importance of names in both shaping one’s sense of self-worth and in creating a persona for public consumption. He had changed his own name from Gabriel Charles Rossetti to Dante Gabriel Rossetti only a few years earlier.


Q. I think some readers will be shocked by how brutal Jane Morris' origins are portrayed - why did you give her such an unromantic back story?

Review: Beauty in Thorns and Interview with Kate Forsyth

Jane Morris, 1865

I think it is my job to be as truthful as possible about the lives of my characters, not to romanticise them.
Janey Burden was a slum girl. Her father worked as a groom in the stables of a busy inn in Oxford. Her mother was a laundress (when she could get work) and illiterate. Janey lived with her parents and brother and sister in a single room not much larger than one of the horses’ stalls. Her eldest sister died of tuberculosis when only a child.
It is known her father could be violent, as he was charged with assault on a neighbor. It is known they were destitute, because her father was unable to pay the parish poor rate. It is also known her mother and father’s relationship was troubled because her parents separated after Robbie Burden refused to pay for his wife’s debts.
Janey would, most probably, have gone to the local parish school till she was twelve, and then it is likely she would have worked as a laundress, seamstress, or scullery-maid. We don’t know, because she never spoke about her childhood.

Review: Beauty in Thorns and Interview with Kate Forsyth

La Belle Iseult (1858) William Morris

When John Mackail was writing his biography of her husband, William Morris, he wished to talk about Jane’s background. She refused to tell him anything or let him include a drawing of where she had once lived.

Mackail wrote angrily, ‘If Mrs. Morris feels ashamed of having lived in a little house among surroundings of extreme beauty before she married, all I can say is that such a feeling is to me unintelligible.’Of course it was. He was a man, university educated, and born in a respectable middle-class family. He had no idea what it would be like to be a girl growing up in a rookery.Victorian slums are notorious for their squalid living conditions. Janey lived in St Helen’s Passage for quite some time. In 1848, the passage was described in the following terms: ‘There are several very unwholesome dirt heaps, an exceedingly bad surface drain … a deep pit partly filled with solid matters and covered with a wooden trap door is situated close to a house, the inhabitant of which complained much of the smell arising from it.’

In the 1850s, the investigative journalist Henry Mayhew described similar slums in London as ‘wretched dens of infamy, brutality and vice’. Sexual exploitation, child labour, dirt, disease and drunkenness were all sides effects of such abject poverty, and Janey would have seen it all – and quite likely suffered it too.
One of the few things that is known about Janey’s childhood is that she gathered violets in the meadows and woods outside Oxford, most probably to sell on street corners.
Later, after she became engaged to William Morris, she was sent away to learn how to be a lady. She was taught how to enunciate properly and how to play the piano and embroider.
It is believed that Janey was the inspiration for the character of Anne Brown in Vernon Lee’s 1884 novel Miss Brown, which in its turn inspired George Bernard Shaw’s 1914 play Pygmalion, in which the flower seller Eliza Doolittle is plucked from the streets and taught how to speak and act, just as Jane Burden was by William Morris. Interestingly, Shaw was very close to the Morris family, living for some years in a ménage-a-trois with May Morris and her husband.
Rather than romanticising Jane Burden’s childhood, I felt it was important to show just what a tough and brutal life she must have had. The way that she transformed herself – teaching herself to speak Italian, reading widely, and creating beautiful pieces of textile art – is such a testament to her intelligence and strength of character.
A key source for me in imagining Janey’s childhood and adolescence was the essay, ‘Where Janey Used to Live’ by Margaret Fleming, published in The Journal of William Morris Studies (Winter 1981). Also useful was Jan Marsh’s dual biography Jane and May Morris: A Biographical Story 1839-1938 (1986), Jane Morris: The Burden of History by Wendy Parkins (2013) and London Labour and the London Poor: A Cyclopædia of the Condition and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Those That Cannot Work, and Those That Will Not Work, by Henry Mayhew (1862).
Q. Traditional narratives have Rossetti and Lizzie's relationship as sexless but that isn't the case here.  What made you interpret them that way?
Early biographers of Dante Gabriel Rossetti did indeed argue that he and Lizzie Siddal never consummated their love before marriage, despite eleven years of close association including periods when Lizzie was essentially living with Gabriel in his lodgings. One of those biographers was his brother William Rossetti who was doing whatever he could to save Rossetti’s reputation from accusations he was a seducer and a philanderer.

Review: Beauty in Thorns and Interview with Kate Forsyth

Elizabeth Siddal as Delia (c.1860-2) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

These same biographers named Lizzie ‘frigid’, ‘wan’, ‘passive, ‘sluggish’, ‘inert’, ‘a melancholy doll’, ‘depressive’, ‘manipulative’ and ‘a hypochondriac.’ The best that was said of her was said she was ‘frail and sensitive’.
I utterly refute those readings of her character. You only need to look at her behavior to see they are both untrue and unkind.
Right from the very beginning of her association with the Pre-Raphaelites, Lizzie showed her willingness to transcend rules. She agreed to model in the first place, despite the common assumption that artists’ models were all prostitutes. She posed with legs bared, in boys’ clothes, for Walter Deverell’s painting of ‘Twelfth Night’. She modelled for Rossetti in suggestive poses, her hair loose, dressed only in her chemise. She defied convention and moved out of her parents’ home, which was almost unheard of at the time. William Bell Scott caught her and Gabriel alone, reading poetry together, in the twilight, something which no good Victorian maiden would ever do. She slept at Gabriel’s apartment, and invited him into her hotel room. She wanted to be an artist herself, and drew and painted and wrote poetry in defiance of society’s strictures on such activities being unladylike.
Indeed, William Rossetti – the primary apologist of his brother - wrote: ‘He was an unconventional man, and she, if not so originally, became an unconventional woman ...’

Review: Beauty in Thorns and Interview with Kate Forsyth

Rossetti sitting for Elizabeth Siddal (1853) D G Rossetti

Most contemporary biographers of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal – including Lucinda Hawksley, Henrietta Garnett & Franny Moyle – agree with me. Hawksley (2004) says ‘I dispute that Lizzie continued to refuse him and believe they did have a sexual relationship before marriage.’ Moyle writes, in 2009, ‘he was undoubtedly her lover.’ Garnett, writing in 2012, says: ‘Most of their acquaintance took them to be lovers.’
Jan Marsh, one of the foremost Pre-Raphaelite scholars, is not so sure. She writes: ‘It has often been asserted, without evidence, that Gabriel and Lizzie were sexually intimate during the years of their ‘engagement’, or conversely, that Lizzie refused all physical relations until a wedding ring was on her finger. Neither seems to have been the case.’
She is absolutely right in that there is no concrete evidence one way or another. I would, however, point to Gabriel’s myriad drawings of Lizzie sleeping, reading, drawing and sewing, her hair loose on her shoulders, in déshabillé, to show the level of intimacy between them.
Not to mention his poetry. Gabriel’s sonnet ‘Known in Vain’ – written in the mid-1850s, soon after he met Lizzie – reads:
‘As two whose love, first foolish, widening scope, 
Knows suddenly, to music high and soft, 
The Holy of holies …’
    
Q. You offer a bravely visceral depiction of Lizzie's eating disorder.  Why was it important to show that side of her character so graphically?

Review: Beauty in Thorns and Interview with Kate Forsyth

Elizabeth Siddal (1854)

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.
The possibility that Lizzie might have had an eating disorder was first suggested by Elaine Shafer in a 1985 essay, ‘The Bird in the Cage’.
However, it has never been closely examined as a probable cause for her troubling illnesses. Lucinda Hawksley, in 2004, writes: ‘Much of Lizzie’s ill health originated in her mind, stemming from her desire to receive attention and love.’
Lucinda Hawksley acknowledges 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. They have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. Eating disorders 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 PRB. 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.
Nowadays, when we see a young woman wasting away, refusing food, or vomiting after meals, we would suspect anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. However, in the mid-19thcentury 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’.
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.
It is my job, as a novelist, to bring Lizzie’s inner world to life. I have to show what it would have felt like, smelt like. I have to show the revulsion and confusion of those who loved her, and I have to show Lizzie’s own self-loathing and shame. Those scenes were difficult to write, and yet I feel passionately that they explain so much of the difficult emotional dynamic between Gabriel and Lizzie and others who knew her.
I think it utterly fascinating that Christina Rossetti wrote, on 24 December 1856 (in the midst of Gabriel and Lizzie’s early passion):
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
    And she with true kind eyes looks back on him
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
    Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
    Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

Q. There is a distinct difference in the dynamic of Jane and Rossetti than has previously been portrayed (which I won't reveal here because of spoilers). How difficult is it getting to the truth of such a famous relationship?

Review: Beauty in Thorns and Interview with Kate Forsyth

Jane Morris (1873) D G Rossetti

Once again, I examined the psychology of the people involved and made decisions about what their background and behavior revealed about their inner lives.
Jane Burden – like Lizzie Siddal – has been judged harshly by the male biographers of her famous husband. Wendy Parkins, in her fascinating feminist re-examination of her life, Jane Morris: The Burden of History (2013), believes she ‘has been burdened by a resilient stereotype attached to her name – the unfaithful wife, the melancholy invalid, the iconic siren – a limited characterisation.’
I agree with her. I found Janey Morris one of the most interesting women in the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood – fiercely intelligent, strong-willed, and free of conventional Victorian morality thanks to her wretched upbringing in the slums of Oxford.
I also believe that Dante Gabriel Rossetti has been unfairly cast as a libertine and a philanderer. Which is not to say that I believe him to be altogether free of sexual indiscretion; I simply do not believe he acted quite as carelessly and unkindly as many believe. He was clearly racked with guilt and remorse after Lizzie’s death, and he was, in his youth at least, idealistic and romantic.
Jan Marsh writes, in her dual biography of Janey and her daughter May, that the affair between Gabriel and the wife of one of his best friends ‘is less of a puzzle if it is admitted that Jane may herself have been ‘passionate, fascinating and determined’ rather than simply the object of another’s ardour. At the very least, she was eager and willing to develop the affair.’
Wendy Parkins also argues that the traditional view of Dante Gabriel Rossetti as seducer and Janey Morris as the seduced deprives her of any emotional agency. I believe this to be an untrue reading of the relationship between the two. Janey risked everything for her love for Gabriel, and I believe she did so joyously and determinedly.
Q. I love the way that certain situations echo the paintings, so I have to ask - do you have a favorite Pre-Raphaelite painting?
Oh, so many! It was so wonderful to spend such a long time scrutinising some of the most exquisite art ever created. My favourites include ‘Prosperina’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, where he painted Janey Morris as the goddess of spring, condemned to spend half of every year in the world of the dead; John Millais Everett’s painting of Lizzie Siddal as ‘Ophelia’; Rossetti’s painting of Lizzie as ‘Francesca da Rimini’ and ‘Beata Beatrix’; Edward Burne-Jones’s multitude of angels, and ‘Love in Ruins’ and ‘Merlin and Nimue’; and Jane Morris and her daughter May’s gorgeous embroideries. And – of course! The many ‘Sleeping Beauty’ drawings and paintings that Edward Burne-Jones painted over his lifetime, which give me the key narrative thread in Beauty in Thorns.

Review: Beauty in Thorns and Interview with Kate Forsyth

The Legend of Briar Rose (1885-90) Edward Burne-Jones

Many, many thanks to Kate for allowing me read an advance copy of her book and for answering my questions.  At present, Beauty in Thorns has only been released in Australia but until it has a worldwide release, it is possible to get a copy through The Book Depository.

You Might Also Like :

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog

These articles might interest you :

Magazine