Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin

Thanks to everyone who commented on my post earlier this month asking for recommendations of novels about artists; I now have a whole list of titles and authors to investigate – and as promised, here are my thoughts on one of my recent reads, Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin. The Whistler the title refers to is, of course, the American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and ‘Mrs Whistler’ is his model, muse and mistress, Maud Franklin. Although I was familiar with a few of his most famous paintings, such as Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (known as Whistler’s Mother), I knew nothing about his personal life or what sort of man he was, and I’m sorry to say that I hadn’t even heard of Maud.

The story of Maud’s relationship with Whistler is played out against a backdrop of some of the significant events that occurred in their lives between 1876 and 1880. The first part of the novel concentrates on the controversial Peacock Room, a decorative interior Whistler creates in the dining room of Frederick Richards Leyland’s London townhouse. Leyland is not at all happy when he sees what Whistler has done and a bitter feud follows. Later, the novel explores Whistler’s decision to sue the art critic John Ruskin for libel after he describes Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold as ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’.

These two incidents form the basis of the plot and as I had no prior knowledge of any of this, I found that I was learning a lot about Whistler, his paintings and his life. But this is not so much a book about Whistler as a book about what it was like to know Whistler, to be near him and to share both his triumphs and his troubles. Maud Franklin must have known him as well as anyone – she was with him for around fifteen years and they had two children together (whom she had to see raised by foster parents), which makes her a logical choice of character to focus on. However, according to Plampin’s author’s note the real Maud had refused to talk to Whistler’s biographers who complained that ‘Maud could tell the whole story, but she will not’. This means Plampin has had to use his imagination to decide how Maud felt about Whistler and the other people in his life and how she may have thought, spoken and reacted.

Whistler, at least as seen through the fictional Maud’s eyes, does not come across as a very pleasant man. He’s self-absorbed, he treats Maud badly at times and often lacks awareness and judgement, which is particularly illustrated by his relationship with his friend Charles Augustus Howell, known as Owl. It is obvious to the reader that Owl cannot be trusted, but Whistler remains irritatingly loyal to him, not able to see what we and (eventually) Maud can see. I did have sympathy for Maud and wouldn’t have blamed her if she had left Whistler, but she stayed with him, I suppose, through a combination of love and a need for security. It’s a sad and often frustrating story, but told in a way that I found believable and convincing.

This is the first book I have read by Matthew Plampin, but I know he has written four others. If you’ve read any of them, maybe you can help me decide which one I should read next.

A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry

I usually love Sebastian Barry’s books, but his last one – Days Without End – was the first one I’ve read that I haven’t particularly enjoyed. Ironically, it also seems to be one of his most popular and successful books! When I saw that he had written a sequel, I wasn’t sure whether to read it, but as it promised to tell the story of Winona, the one character from Days Without End who did interest me, I thought I would try it – and I’m pleased to say that I was able to connect with this book in a way that I didn’t with the previous one.

Those of you who have read Days Without End will probably remember that Winona was the Lakota orphan rescued by Thomas McNulty and John Cole. In A Thousand Moons, set in the 1870s, we discover that Winona, now a young woman, is still living with Thomas and John on Lige Magan’s tobacco farm in Tennessee. Despite the love and support she receives from the men who have adopted her and the opportunities she has been given – including a job in a lawyer’s office – Winona is aware that she has still not been fully accepted by the wider community and that most people see her as ‘nothing but an Injun’ whose life is worth less than that of a white person.

Near the beginning of the novel we learn that Winona has been raped and the blame has fallen on Jas Jonski, a young Polish immigrant who swears he loves Winona and wants to marry her. Winona herself has no memory of the incident, something which distresses her as she has no idea whether Jonski is being wrongly accused or not. At around the same time, Tennyson Bouguereau, a former slave living on the farm, is also attacked and violently beaten – and again, it is not clear who the culprits are. The rest of the book, narrated by Winona herself, describes how she slowly uncovers the truth of her own assault and Tennyson’s.

I’m not sure why I liked this book so much more than Days Without End. Both books are beautifully written, as I have come to expect from Sebastian Barry, and obviously they feature some of the same characters and have a similar setting. I think the difference is that the first book, which was narrated by Thomas McNulty, was more of a ‘western’ with a focus on things like life in the army, shooting buffalo and fighting the Sioux. This book, in contrast, is more domestic, concerned with how the characters are getting on with their daily lives in the aftermath of the recent Civil War and how they are coping with the racial tensions left unresolved within their society. That, and the fact that I felt a stronger emotional connection with Winona than I did with Thomas, are the only reasons I can think of for my very different reactions to the two novels.

I also loved all the little insights Winona gives us into her early childhood with the Lakota tribe and what she remembers of their culture, traditions and stories, including her mother’s belief that ‘If you walked far enough, you could find the people still living who had lived in the long ago. A thousand moons all at once.’

Although, unlike many of Sebastian Barry’s books, this one is not set in Ireland, he is an Irish author and I am counting A Thousand Moons towards Cathy at 746 Books’ Reading Ireland Month. I still have three of Barry’s earlier novels to read: A Long Long Way, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and Annie Dunne. If you’ve read any of them, which one do you think I should read next?

Thanks to Faber & Faber for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Becoming Belle by Nuala O’Connor

In Becoming Belle, Nuala O’Connor (a pseudonym of the Irish author Nuala Ní Chonchúir) brings to life a young woman whose picture hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London but whose name is probably unfamiliar to most of us today. She is Belle Bilton, a star of the Victorian music hall who later became the Countess of Clancarty. O’Connor’s novel tells, in fictional form, the story of Belle’s rise to fame, her marriage and the scandalous court case that follows.

Born Isabel Maud Penrice Bilton, the eldest daughter of an artillery sergeant, Belle grows up in an army garrison watching her mother, an entertainer, perform for the troops. It is while taking her mother’s place on stage one night that Belle decides she also wants a career in entertainment, so at the age of nineteen she leaves the military life behind and heads for London to make her dream come true. Belle’s singing and dancing quickly causes a sensation and when she is joined by one of her younger sisters, Flo, the two form a double act that becomes the star attraction of the London theatres.

Following a performance one day in 1889, Belle meets and falls in love with William, the young Viscount Dunlo, son and heir to the Earl of Clancarty. It’s not long before she and William are standing in the Registrar’s Office in Hampstead taking their marriage vows and looking forward to spending the rest of their lives together. At twenty years old, however, William is still firmly under the thumb of his father, the Earl, who is furious when he hears of the secret wedding and makes it clear that he will do whatever it takes to separate his son from Belle.

Some books grab you from the first page, while others take much longer to settle into – and for me, Becoming Belle was one of the latter rather than the former. The account of Belle’s early life and first days on the stage didn’t interest me much and I came close to abandoning the book after a few chapters. Belle herself seemed as though she would be difficult to like – an ambitious social climber like Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair, but with little depth or substance to her character – and the focus on her sexual encounters also put me off. I’m glad I continued, though, because I thought the second half of the book, after Belle meets William, was much more compelling than the first.

I don’t want to say too much about how the story of Belle’s marriage plays out, but it involves a court case which draws in most of the characters we have met in the novel and which was widely reported in the media of the time. I managed to resist looking up the facts about the real Belle Bilton, so I didn’t know what the outcome of the court case would be, but by that stage of the book I was fully invested in Belle’s story and hoped there would be a happy ending for her. I still didn’t like her very much, but I had more sympathy for her than I’d had earlier in the novel because she’d had so much to contend with during her short time in London. However, I couldn’t really see her as a feminist heroine ‘ahead of her time’ as she is described in the book’s blurb; although I admired her for trying to get what she wanted out of life, for working hard at her chosen career and securing financial independence, she seemed too willing to give it all up to become Countess of Clancarty and too ready to forgive William for the appalling way he treats her at times.

I have no idea what the real William, Viscount Dunlo was supposed to be like, but based on the way he is portrayed in this book, I found him immature and pathetic, declaring his love for Belle while at the same time allowing his father to tear them apart. Luckily, there were plenty of other, stronger characters in the novel whom I found more appealing to read about: for example, Belle’s close friend Isidor Wertheimer, the antiques dealer, and her sister, Flo, both of whom support her through her various ordeals.

Despite struggling with the first half of this book, I ended up really enjoying Becoming Belle – although I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see more of her time at Garbally Court, the Clancarty estate in Ireland. Anyway, I went from thinking Nuala O’Connor was not an author for me to wanting to read more of her books. Miss Emily, her novel about the poet Emily Dickinson sounds like an interesting one.

Although I read this book in February, I have waited until now to post my review because this month Cathy at 746 Books is hosting her annual Reading Ireland event. I hope to have time to write about another book by an Irish author before the end of March.

The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd

Two years ago I read Guinevere Glasfurd’s first novel, The Words in My Hand, about a young Dutch woman and her relationship with the philosopher René Descartes. I loved that book so was hoping for a similar experience with her new one, The Year Without Summer. However, although I loved parts of this book too, I found it entirely different from The Words in My Hand and less enjoyable as a whole.

The title refers to the year 1816, which was the year following the eruption of Mount Tambora, an Indonesian volcano. It was known as ‘the year without a summer’ due to the effects of the volcanic activity on the weather. These effects were felt all over the world, far away from Asia: in Europe, low temperatures and heavy rain caused flooding, failed harvests and famine, while crops were also destroyed in North America by droughts and by frost and snow in June. In The Year Without Summer, Glasfurd explores, in fictional form, the stories of six different people whose lives were affected by the extreme weather.

The first character we meet is Henry Hogg, ship’s surgeon aboard the Benares, who sets sail in April 1815 for the island of Sumbawa to investigate reports of explosions and is shocked by what he finds: ash falling from the sky, the sea turning to stone and what had once been a green island now ‘a hellish scene’. Henry’s story is the only one in the book that takes us directly to the scene of the eruption – the others only mention the volcano briefly, if at all – yet, surprisingly, his is the one given the least time and attention.

The following spring, the English landscape painter, John Constable, is returning home to Suffolk from an unsuccessful visit to London in an attempt to gain recognition for his art and be admitted to the Royal Academy. Without that recognition and the money it would bring, John’s future looks bleak: how can he expect his beloved Maria to marry a struggling artist with no prospects?

The future of our third protagonist, Sarah Hobbs, looks even more uncertain. She and her friend Tessie are walking across the Fens from farm to farm looking for work, only to be told that there is no work to be had – and even if there was, the wages would only be half of what they were the year before. Meanwhile, Hope Peter, a soldier back from Waterloo, is having problems of his own. In his absence, his mother has died and his family home has been demolished; the life to which he’d thought he was returning no longer exists.

In the May of that year, Mary Godwin travels to Switzerland with her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley, their baby son Willmouse, and her half-sister Claire Clairmont. They are planning to spend the summer at Lake Geneva with Lord Byron and his doctor, John Polidori, but the gloomy weather keeps them indoors where they entertain themselves by writing horror stories. Finally, we meet Charles Whitlock, a preacher from Vermont, who gives us an American perspective on the summer of 1816. Charles is trying to gain the trust of his flock who are growing increasingly worried about the lack of rain and planning to abandon their farms to head west to Ohio.

These six very different storylines alternate throughout the book, never meeting or intersecting in any way, the only link between them being the unusual weather of 1816. They cover a range of issues including the social unrest which led to the Littleport Riots, the enclosure of land in the English countryside, the writing of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the influence of the weather on John Constable’s paintings, and I found something to interest me in all of the stories – although most of them are very bleak and it would have been nice to have had a few more happy endings!

My problem with the book was that the way it was structured, with a chapter from one story, then a chapter from another, made it feel disjointed and made it difficult to stay engaged with each set of characters. As the six threads never came together at all, I think I would have preferred just a straightforward collection of six complete short stories – or maybe even just four, as the ones following the ship’s surgeon and the Vermont preacher felt very slight and undeveloped in comparison to the others.

As a whole, I don’t think this book was entirely successful, but still with more positives than negatives. It’s impossible not to draw parallels between the weather of 1816 and some of the extreme weather the world has been experiencing recently, which we can only expect to see more of in the future due to climate change, so this was a relevant read as well as an interesting one.

Thanks to Two Roads for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Conviction of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby

The question of nature versus nurture lies at the heart of Carolyn Kirby’s dark and fascinating debut novel, The Conviction of Cora Burns. Are people born good or bad or is it their upbringing that determines their behaviour? Is it inevitable that some people will commit acts of evil or does this depend on their early influences and the way they have experienced the world? These ideas are explored through the fictional story of Cora Burns.

Born in a prison cell, Cora is raised in Birmingham’s Union Workhouse before going on to work as a laundry maid in the Borough Lunatic Asylum. It’s not the best of starts in life and by the time Cora is twenty she has served a prison sentence herself. At the beginning of the novel, in 1885, she has just been released and is about to take up a new position as ‘between maid’ in the household of the scientist Thomas Jerwood – not her ideal job, but she quickly finds that other opportunities for women in her circumstances are very limited.

A fragment of a bronze medal engraved with the words ‘Imaginem Salt’ – a reminder of her childhood friend, Alice Salt – and vague memories of a crime so terrible she has blotted out the details from her mind are all she has left of her earlier life and she is determined to make a fresh start. As she settles into her new home, Cora begins to befriend Violet, a young girl who appears to be the subject of Mr Jerwood’s experiments. But is Cora being experimented on herself – and if so, what will be discovered? Meanwhile, she decides to track down Alice Salt, the friend she hasn’t seen for years but who she believes holds the key to that terrible incident in her past.

As well as the nature or nuture debate that I’ve already mentioned, the novel incorporates many other interesting issues and themes, such as the effects of poverty, the treatment of prisoners and the mentally ill in Victorian Britain, and advances in science, psychology and technology (particularly photography). All of these things have an impact on Cora’s story, which is told in non-linear form, moving backwards and forwards between her present situation in Thomas Jerwood’s household and her childhood in the workhouse. Interspersed with these narratives are Jerwood’s reports to a scientific journal describing his latest research and theories and occasional updates from another doctor whose work may also shed some light on Cora’s past.

This is not an ‘easy’ read – you do need to concentrate to keep the various strands of the plot straight and you also need some patience as it takes a while for the different pieces of the story to fall into place, but it’s definitely worth it in the end. I should also warn you that the crime in which Cora was involved is a particularly chilling one and is described in detail, but I think this was necessary in order to illustrate the worst of Cora’s nature. Despite this, though, I could also see that Cora had plenty of good qualities and I hoped that she would eventually be able to move on from her past and find some happiness. Whether this does happen or not I will leave you to find out for yourself.

Finally, I loved the decision to set the story in Victorian Birmingham! It made a nice change from the many books set in Victorian London. This was an impressive first novel and I will be looking out for more from Carolyn Kirby.

Thanks to No Exit Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Boy with Blue Trousers by Carol Jones

I love learning about the histories and cultures of different countries, so I was pleased to find that Australian author Carol Jones’ new novel, The Boy with Blue Trousers, is set in not one location but two – the mulberry groves of China and the goldfields of Australia – and introduces us to two women leading very different lives.

In 1850s China, seventeen-year-old Little Cat is growing up in a small village on the Pearl River Delta. Like the other girls in her community, she spends her days picking mulberry leaves and teasing out the threads from silkworm cocoons to produce reels of silk. It’s hard work, but it is the only life Little Cat has known and, now that she is approaching adulthood, she is growing nervous about what the future may hold. What sort of marriage will the matchmaker arrange for her? Will her husband and his family be kind? Will she have to go and live in another village far away from her own?

In the end, though, none of these things matter to Little Cat, because a disastrous encounter with the village headman, Big Wu, forces her to flee the country in fear of her life. Disguised as a boy, she embarks on a ship bound for Australia where she will join the hundreds of men heading there from China who are hoping to make their fortune in the goldfields.

Meanwhile, another young woman, Violet Hartley, has recently arrived in Australia. Violet, a governess, is trying to escape from her own past in England, and Australia seems like a place full of opportunities. When her first job, looking after two small children, proves to be not quite what she’d hoped for, she decides to accompany the Chinese immigrants on their journey – a decision that leads to her path crossing with Little Cat’s and tying the two separate threads of the story together.

The Boy with Blue Trousers is written in the form of two alternating narratives, so that we spend one or two chapters with Little Cat before switching to Violet for a while and then back again. This allows us to get to know both characters equally well and to see how, although they are living in very different environments, they face similar struggles as unconventional, independent women who don’t conform to the expectations of their respective societies. I have to admit, I didn’t like Violet at all; while I did have sympathy for her situation and the loss of her reputation following an affair with a married man in England – unfair when the man involved didn’t suffer in the same way – I just didn’t find her a very appealing character, especially in comparison to Little Cat, whom I loved.

I had a few problems with this book – apart from not liking Violet, I thought the way in which her story came together with Little Cat’s and the reaction they had to each other felt odd and unconvincing – but I was impressed by the sense of place Carol Jones creates. I particularly liked the descriptions of the mulberry trees, river banks, alleys and courtyards of Sandy Bottom Village, Little Cat’s home in the Pearl River Delta, but the coastal landscape of Robetown in South Australia is also beautifully portrayed.

Carol Jones is not an author I’ve come across until now, but I see she has written another novel, The Concubine’s Child, set in Malaysia, which also sounds interesting. If any of you have read that one, let me know what you thought.

Thanks to Head of Zeus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Bone China by Laura Purcell

Hester Why, the narrator of Laura Purcell’s latest gothic novel Bone China, is a woman with secrets. We know that Hester Why is not her real name, but what is the reason for her new identity? Why is she fleeing to Cornwall from London, who is she hiding from and how did she come to be addicted to gin and laudanum? These are questions we ask ourselves in the very first chapter and they are answered eventually, but first we must follow Hester to Morvoren House, perched high on the Cornish cliffs, where she is taking up a new position as nurse to Miss Louise Pinecroft.

Hester quickly discovers that her job is not going to be easy and soon she is asking questions of her own. What is wrong with Miss Pinecroft, who barely moves, never speaks and spends her days sitting in a cold room surrounded by china cups and plates? Who is Rosewyn, the strange, child-like young woman described as Miss Pinecroft’s ward? Is there any truth behind the claims of the superstitious servant Creeda that Rosewyn needs to be protected from fairies who are trying to steal her away and replace her with a changeling?

Bone China moves between three different timelines; as well as following Hester at Morvoren House, we also go back to an earlier time in her life, when she was known as Esther Stevens, and learn what went wrong in her previous employment, leading to her decision to run away and start again. Finally, in a third narrative we meet Louise Pinecroft as she was forty years earlier, when she and her father first arrived at Morvoren House after losing the rest of their family to consumption.

Laura Purcell has become known for writing dark, creepy Victorian novels and Bone China does have a lot of classic Gothic elements, including a gloomy, imposing clifftop house, family secrets and hints of madness. Despite this, I didn’t think this was a particularly scary or chilling story and although the exploration of Cornish folklore added atmosphere, I never doubted that the fairies and changelings existed only in legends and in Creeda’s stories. How much more spine-tingling it would have been if I had found myself feeling convinced that they could be real after all!

What I did find very disturbing and unsettling was the storyline set in Louise Pinecroft’s younger days, describing the work of her father, a doctor, who is looking for a cure for consumption (tuberculosis), the disease which took the lives of his wife and his other children. With Louise’s help, Dr Pinecroft carries out a revolutionary experiment, taking a group of prisoners who are suffering from the illness and lodging them in a cave beneath the cliffs where he claims the salty sea air will be good for their health. This part of the book was based on historical fact – cave air really was suggested as a possible cure for consumption at one time – and it was horrifying to read about the barbaric treatment of sick people due not to cruelty but to ignorance of modern medical procedures and a lack of understanding.

There are lots of interesting ideas incorporated into Bone China, then, but in the end I felt that the three threads of the story didn’t come together as neatly as they should have done. I also found the pacing uneven; in the second half of the book, the sense of mystery and carefully building tension of the earlier chapters was replaced by a sudden race to reach the conclusion. I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’d hoped to, but I’m planning to read Laura Purcell’s first novel, The Silent Companions, soon and will see if I get on better with that one.