I got to tell you, owning and reading this book is an unforgettable experience. I bought this book during my one-month trip in England from end of January to mid-February. While in Chatham wandering around in Waterstones, I found this book on the shelf and I told the lovely lady at the counter that I have been looking for this book for quite a while, and enquired if she had read it. She said she hadn’t but her other colleagues couldn’t praise it enough as some of them met the Author at a literary festival. Based on my choice she also recommended the Familiars by Stacey Halls. Wow. What a joy! While reading this book I kept recalling the conversation with the lovely lady and the kindness of strangers I met in this trip.
“She gazes at the canvas again, at the tenderness in her expression, the passivity of her unsmiling face. She feels a weight within her, a flattening. She starts to see it not as a celebration, but as a trap which has snapped around her. The woman in the painting has become her twin, like her and yet nothing like her. She has suffocated her, until Iris does not know where she ends and this image begins. She has escaped one half of herself for another.”
Indeed, this book is captivating and engrossing. Every character in this novel is trapped in his or her station, constraints and conventions, and they all somehow involuntarily conform to the public and societies’ values. Iris, the heroine and “fairer sex” of the novel, the “apprentice” of Mrs. Slater’s Doll Emporium on Regent Street, not only stigmatises and restrains herself because of her family’s inculcation but also society’s inbred values of the underpinning of gender. This is gradually empasised as she is “admitted” into the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s circle as a model of a medieval painting.
In reality, models in painting of the early Victorian period personally were not being appreciated and admired aesthetically in public but seen as unedifying and reputation being scandalised; their unique beauty were sensualised exaggeratedly and yet authentic personalities were flattened out in paintings. For instance, look at Portrait of a Young Lady by John Everett Millais, based on his wife’s younger’s sister, Sophy Gray (1843-1882). There is a whole chapter to explain her life in an excellent biography by Suzanne Fagence Cooper, Effie. When she was 14, Millais completed a portrait of her and was quickly sold to a friend of Rossetti at ￡63. Sophy Gray was very much sensationalised in the eyes of beholders of the painting. Red lips, a world-defying stare down on the beholders, an irresistible painting. But in reality she led a tragic life of self-denial and suffered from heartache and anorexia. Women, artists, readers of paintings like the ideas of grasping and transforming the ephemeral moment to eternal beauty.
If a young woman grows up being praised for her compliant attractiveness and docility, then she responds by pushing this self-denial to extremes. Looked at in this light, modelling for Everett’s paintings of idealised girlhood may have laid the foundations for Sophy’s illness….They stress the sufferer’s desire to remain childlike. Young women try to starve their bodies back into innocence, shedding the curves of adulthood. If they persist, they can interrupt their monthly cycles, making themselves infertile, unwomanly. (Effie, Suzanne Fagence Cooper, p.219)
Seeking individuality, hoping to be acknowledged and recognised by others in the extremity could be harmful, yet conforming the norm could be tragic.
In the novel, the artistic ambition in characters are also tainted and influenced by secular thoughts. Iris strives to be a painter but her passion in painting is at one point gradually given way to a passion and obsession for Louis that her talents she hopes to be recognized and acknowledged by him. Rose, her twin sister, is obsessed with her long gone beauty and regrets of a lost love. The novel also mentions the models like Lizzie Siddal as maidens and damsels being “rescued” by the artists. The concept of obsessing and relying on males’ amusement and kindness is heavily depicted in the novel in that female characters are often entrapped, disappointed by the outcomes of it.
The artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood besot and romanticise themselves with their themes of medieval paintings, when on the other hand, they despise the dishonesty in the artistic perspectives and techniques taught by the Academy. Another character is definitely illusionised himself by his idealised world and ideas. Silas Reed, the taxidermist who makes a living from selling his finishes as silent partners to painters is infatuated by Iris of her auburn hair and twisted clavicle. His imagined conversations of his courtly love to Iris without actually knowing her leads to a dangerous obsession. The distorted concept of idealisation and obsession of what they perceive of beauty could one way lead male characters to success or downfall in its extreme. To survive and not to destruct themselves, the only mean is to balance his/herself in the world of extremity and not to be fooled by it.
I must say the relationship between Louis and Iris is engrossing, and Iris’s escape and the ending is enlightening. Iris in the end is like she has found the point of equilibrium and balance to perceive the reality and reached the nirvana in the end while retaining her individuality. But the character who actually grabs my heart is Albie. The errand boy, the street kid. He is one of the most endearing child I have come across in books. He is obsessed with a new set of teeth, the idea of growing up to be resourceful to his sister. But he sacrifices to not have a new set of teeth and is the real martyr whose idea of love is not associated with any pretensions and values but enacting on what he knows on love with his heart.
Moreover, I like the idea of the author writing this historical fiction in present tense, which makes my reading so much easier and absorbing.
This is the Author’s debut novel. In the part of acknowledgements, she thanked her tutors who inspired and encouraged her in the writing journey. Her passion and gratitude to her mentors are in a way inspiring to me as well. This book is endearing to me.