Posted in Personal Purchase

The Flames by Sophie Haydock

I knew this book would be one I enjoyed, after all it encompasses some of my favourite things: History between the World Wars; the Vienna Secession and Gustav Klimt; Art Nouveau; a feminist narrative. However, I didn’t expect it would grab hold of me in the way it did! I sat down with it in the garden one Sunday afternoon and read two thirds straight away. When duty and blog tours called that week I had to set it aside, but I kept glancing over at it like a lost lover all week. Despite recognising the featured portraits, I didn’t know much about Egon Schiele, other than he was a protégée of Klimt. I have only seen one of the paintings, Portrait of a Woman modelled for by his sister Gertrude Schiele because it was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. Schiele is described as a figurative painter and as an artist under the banner of the Vienna Secession he was pushing the boundaries, trying to create something completely new or ‘art nouveau’. This was the time of a rebirth in painting, writing and all other art forms towards a new way of describing the world – the birth of Modernism. The unusual shapes and colours in his work is reminiscent of writers like Virginia Woolf who were throwing out the rule book and wrote novels with unusual timelines, streams of consciousness and complex characters whose inner world was often more important than events outside it. Haydock’s book uses some of these devices and a way of ‘writing back’ to art history and challenging Schiele’s representation of these women. Schiele’s portraits are not life-like reproductions of his model and while they might shed light on aspects of their characters, they can only ever be the artist’s view of that woman with all the prejudices and biases of his time. Here we get to hear the women’s stories as they see themselves and their relationship with Schiele.

We start with Adèle, one of a pair of sisters living opposite Schiele in an upmarket district of Vienna. Adele is transfixed on Schiele as soon as he arrives on moving day and is glued to the window seat every day in the hope of catching his eye. However, both Adèle and her sister Edith are from a very well respected family and there isn’t a chance that their father would accept Schiele as a choice for his daughter. Adèle is persistent though and soon the sisters meet Schiele on the street outside, alongside the woman they see coming and going from the flat, Wally. Although there is a part of her who knows the relationship between Wally and Schiele must be a complex one, she tucks it to the back of her mind, and begins to feel she might be making headway with him. Surely Wally is a maid, someone who cleans and models for him? Using Edith as her foil they do have a cinema outing, a very awkward foursome, and Adèle is so glad to have a sister that’s quiet, in the background, and goes unnoticed. She’s the perfect chaperone for this relationship she’s building in her head. She’s in love with Schiele and he must be in love with her, in fact she never has a moment’s doubt. Haydock writes a brilliant opening section here, with a perspective that we’re never fully sure of and a course of action that could be leading to disaster. It’s almost painful to be inside the mind of this highly strung young woman, whose class and status keeps her in a constant waiting position. There’s so much she’s dreamed of doing, but can only do them when she is a married woman. Women of Edith and Adèle’s class can’t make decisions for themselves, don’t get up and go travelling, or go to university or even go to the theatre alone. There are times, imprisoned behind her window when she envies Wally’s freedom to come and go as she pleases. Adèle is bored and I feared some of her reality was little more than the daydreams of an under stimulated mind. There’s a sense that an emotional storm is brewing.

The second section of the book is focused on Gertrude Schiele, Egon’s younger sister who started posing for his sketches when they still lived at home. Through Gertrude we experience Schiele’s early years, with her perspective as the filter. Born to a man who worked on the government railways, the family were respected, although the shadow of mental health does fall here too. We see the germination of an unusual relationship between brother and sister, with hints of impropriety on both sides where her modelling for him is concerned. It’s clear to see Schiele’s incredible artistic drive, thriving in limited circumstances and with a father who wishes his son wanted to follow him into a respectable job on the railways. Art is no way to make money, but there is a sense it’s more than that driving his father, possibly the praise that would come his way for having such a loyal son who wants to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, when his father’s behaviour becomes erratic what will happen to them all? As for Gertrude we see a strange dynamic when Schiele uses other models or is in a relationship? There is jealousy there which is interesting to watch as we move through the next few years. In the third section we meet Wally, artist’s model for some of Schiele’s best work and a partner to him in every way. I loved this section, because I found Wally inspiring in her choice to live in the way she wants despite the consequences. Wally is probably his most professional model, with an energy and intensity that leaps off the canvas. She openly lives with Schiele, travelling with him to a couple of country houses before settling in Vienna near her family. Wally knows where the line is and in the years she is with Schiele his behaviour gets them noticed in all the wrong ways, including with the authorities who label him a pornographer. She does not leave his side. There’s a core of steel in this woman, who will not hear him talk of love – possibly because she knows what verbal declarations are worth – and will never ask him to stay. However, I wanted him to stay with this woman, who I felt understood what he needed better than anyone, but didn’t ask for the usual protections her gender would be afforded, like marriage. I wondered whether, as she watched Wally from the window of her gilded cage, Adèle truly understood the responsibilities and the cost of being as ‘free’ as Wally seems?

Finally we come full circle, back to Schiele’s arrival in Venice and moving in opposite Adèle and her sister, but this time from Edith’s perspective. It was fascinating to see the same events play out through a different pair of eyes and we soon realise that despite her quiet demeanour and acquiescence to the rules her parents lay down, Edith is not as passive as she has appeared up to now. In fact she has the determination and deceptive skills her sister does, but the difference is that it’s not expected of Edith. As a result she has more freedoms than her sister and doesn’t get caught. She too is mesmerised by Schiele, but by the man rather than what he represents. Adèle wants freedom, to challenge boundaries, to scandalise society. Whereas Edith just wants the man, but does she truly know him and will she risk losing her sister to get him? We do get a sense of Schiele through these women, particularly Gertie because she’s there for the formative years. I often found him infuriating, because I felt he wanted to be a modern man, unrestricted by society’s rules and expectations on one hand, but then showed a total disregard for the women who were willing to break rules with him. There was a slight Madonna/Whore complex at work here, where women were compartmentalised into those to have fun with and those acceptable for marriage. Some of his choices felt like betrayals to those women who risked everything by literally laying themselves bare before him and the world, for his sake and for the sake of art. I thought Haydock beautifully captured this sacrifice and it’s consequences, something picked up beautifully in the short interludes from the 1960’s where an elderly woman searches for a painting she’s glimpsed of someone she loved. Desperate to give an apology she never heard in life. Haydock beautifully captures a rapidly changing Vienna between two World Wars where barriers of class and gender are breaking down. She also captures the complexities of the barriers for women and those who have the pioneering spirit to break them. She gives a voice to their silent gaze. This is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year and I read it greedily in two sessions, but I’m already looking forward to entering Haydock’s world and savouring these wonderful women again.

Meet The Author

Sophie Haydock is an award-winning author living in east London. Her debut novel, The Flames, is about the four muses who posed for the artist Egon Schiele in Vienna more than 100 years ago. She is the winner of the Impress Prize for New Writers.Sophie trained as a journalist at City University, London, and has worked at the Sunday Times Magazine, Tatler and BBC Three, as well as freelancing for publications including the Financial Times, Guardian Weekend magazine, Arts Council, Royal Academy and Sotheby’s. She has interviewed leading authors, including Hilary Mantel, Maggie O’Farrell, Bernardine Evaristo, Sally Rooney and Amy Tan. Passionate about short stories, Sophie also works as a digital editor for the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award and is associate director of the Word Factory literary organisation. She judges writing competitions and hosts her own short story club.Her Instagram account @egonschieleswomen – dedicated to the women who posed for Egon Schiele – has a community of over 100,000 followers. For more information, visit: sophie-haydock.com

Published 17th March 2022 by Doubleday

Posted in Personal Purchase

Throwback Thursday! The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Armin.

This is such an apt novel for the time of year, but I’ve found myself thinking about it recently for two other reasons. Of course spring is on it’s way, but this year is something of a personal renaissance. I’ve been shielding since the second lockdown, because I have multiple sclerosis and it means I have a few issues with swallowing and breathing. This was a personal choice, but thank goodness I did, because I did receive a government letter four weeks ago telling me I should have been shielding. A brilliant bit of irony. So now I can have friends come and join me for a dog walk or sit in my garden for a cuppa together. I can’t explain how joyful this makes me feel. I will feel connected to the world again – well, as much as I ever want to be. I can also have my hair coloured silver blonde with lilac dip-dye! Hairdressers here I come.

The other reason is that four weeks ago I moved to my new home. It’s an 18th Century cottage in a really happy village, and I feel like the real me is re-emerging. We’d been living in the city, on a relatively new estate and I had no idea how much of an effect this as having on my mental health. I was sitting on my reading couch at the weekend with the sun coming in, next door have an apple tree and the branches hang over the fence, so I can smell the blossom when I have the window open. On Sunday afternoon we had a pot of tea and our Easter cake outside in the garden, where an enormous jasmine hangs heavily on the wall wafting a heady scent over the whole garden. I started planning what I’d like in the garden across the seasons and that always feels like a corner has been turned. It’s as if we went into hibernation in winter 2019 and we’re only just coming out and that feeling reminded me of the characters in this novel.

The premise of the book is that a discreet advertisement appears in The Times, addressed ‘To Those who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine’. On offer is a small medieval castle for rent, above a bay on the Italian Riviera. Four very different women – the dishevelled and downtrodden Mrs Wilkins, the sad, sweet-faced Mrs Arbuthnot, the formidable widow Mrs Fisher and the ravishing socialite Lady Caroline Dester – are drawn to the shores of the Mediterranean that April. As each, in turn, blossoms in the warmth of the Italian spring and finds their spirits stirring, quite unexpected changes occur. These characters drive the novel, as it is their responses to each other and to Italy that take centre stage. Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot are the first to respond, both ladies living resignedly, but quietly, in unhappy marriages. They are joined by Lady Caroline, a younger, beautiful woman who has found that her looks can be more of a burden than a blessing. Finally, there’s Mrs Fisher. A formidable woman who has a very strong will, which she tries to impose on the other women. The author is so perceptive when it comes to human foibles and how personalities rub against each other when living side by side. Tiny little acts of pettiness and selfishness can take on huge importance in these situations. However, what the author also shows is that one person’s character failing can have a transformative effect on someone else. One woman’s need to be in charge, inspires assertiveness in a quieter, more timid member of the party. The early chapters are a comedy of errors and miscommunication as the women try and often fail to understand each other.

The author deliberately creates an opening that feels like being under a rain cloud. The weather is miserable and cold, each woman feels unhappy or have lost themselves in some way. Then as they’re thrown together for this month in the castle we wonder if they’ll ever get along and if Italy will work its magic on them. The second half of the book feels like entering spring, the sun is shining and the surroundings start to work on each woman, even Mrs Fisher. The characters and the surroundings come into bloom. There are vivid descriptions of the castle and its gardens so the reader can really visualise the setting. It feels like a literary painting. Slowly, each woman begins their transformation. In the case of the married ladies, they invite their husbands to join them in Italy. Could this special place transform their marriages, relight a spark or remind them of the deeper love they once shared?

The movie version of the novel.

The novel is charming and light, without falling into whimsy or sentimentality, showing extraordinary skill in the writer. Despite barely having a plot, the book can be read as a satire on class and society post WW1. It could be read as a travel novel or just a study in how a different culture, characters and nature can soften and change us for the better. There isn’t a single character here who isn’t changed by the magic of Italy, and that’s the final reason I love this book. I was meant to get married last spring and go to Venice for my honeymoon. I picked the perfect hotel room with a double aspect and a balcony over one of the smaller canals. It would have been my third trip to Venice, but I don’t think I’ll ever tire of it. The first time I visited we arrived at night and took a water taxi in the dark across the lagoon. We arrived at a small jetty and it was so quiet, just the sound of water lapping against the buildings. The lamplight was reflected in the ripples on the surface, as well as tiny lanterns as we stepped up into a small garden. We walked through a courtyard with pots, pergolas with hanging plants and the tiny points of light hanging within. It was such a surprise because gardens are rare in Venice, but there it was. I did feel changed by my visit. I felt amazed that such a beautiful place actually existed and that I could go there whenever I wanted. It improved my confidence, my creativity and taught me to go a bit slower. If I never go abroad again in my life, I’ll be happy because I went to Venice. This book captures some of that transformative feeling; its a witty and delightful depiction of what it is like to rediscover joy.

Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941) was an Australian-born British novelist who was married to a Prussian aristocrat. Her most famous works include Elizabeth and Her German Garden and The Enchanted April