The story of four women who shared the lives of the Pre-Raphaelites
Kate Forsyth’s novel, Beauty in Thorns, is set in the Victorian era where, as its central theme, it explores The Sleeping Beauty fairytale.
This fairytale has long-inspired aspects of Forsyth's written work, and here the idea is reprised within the artwork of Burne-Jones, the exquisite creation of which is strongly woven through the novel’s plot.
Spanning fifty years and almost 500 pages, the story explores the Pre-Raphaelites, concentrating most specifically on four women the artists knew and loved, revealing how those women sought to find their own autonomy, or else submitted to the passive female roles expected then.
Lizzie Sidall, by Rosetti
Kate Forsyth gives an honest, sometimes brutally exposing view of the life of Lizzie Siddal, the tragic muse and lover of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who longed to be an artist too, who was brave and bold and passionate, despite the demons gnawing through the beauty of her fragile soul ~ as illustrated in this poem by Rosetti’s sister, Christina ...
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.
Jane Morris, by Rosetti
We meet the stunning Jane, an Oxford slum girl of fierce intelligence who married William Morris, the man who paid to have her tutored in acceptable speech and manners, in music, and embroidery, so as to elevate her in his world with the least embarrassment. What pain his wife's infidelity with a fellow artist must have caused, although she never left him, eventually forced to chose between Rosetti (who as time went by was tortured by insanity, due to his enduring guilt over poor Lizzie Siddal’s fate), and devotion to her children.
Margaret Burne-Jones, as painted by her father.
Kate Forsyth also brings to life the complex life of Georgie, the long-suffering wife of ‘Ned’ Burne-Jones, along with that of Margaret, their daughter, and the muse who posed as the subject of his greatest works: a monumental series inspired by The Sleeping Beauty tale ~ though rather than becoming enslaved for a hundred years or more, Margaret did eventually escape Edward's obsessive hold, defying her father to marry and live with the man she truly loved.
In this satisfying novel Kate Forsyth does not shy away from the culture of drink and opiates that pervaded this artistic group. She shows the heartbreak of the women who are now enshrined in works of art but, who, within constrictions of their time were often deemed as unconventional, or ‘fallen’ in a morally rigid society where anything the least bit free or decadent was frowned upon.
Meticulously written and researched this novel is a gripping read. Compelling, also heartbreaking. A must for every fan of the Pre-Raphaelites, and those they loved.
For more about Kate and Beauty in Thorns, you can find her author website here.