(In which another scandalous artist takes the limelight.)
“Poor Jane!” he said when she had finished, but he said it merrily, not pityingly. “All that is needed is three wicked stepsisters and a pumpkin coach.” – p. . 46It is almost a Cinderella story. That typical poor, abused girl whose fate started to take a better course after attending a party where she meets her Prince Charming. But Jane Burden’s tale somehow breaks away from this fairy tale convention in the sense that she isn’t only a poor, abused girl. She is the ugliest girl in a slum in Oxford, England and she lives in a house near the public privy. She has a brother and a sister who are not as wicked as the cinder girl’s siblings but are equally annoying. She isn’t taken by a pumpkin coach to a party; she walks her way to the theater where she meets her Prince Charming who happens to be a rather charismatic artist with an Italian surname. He doesn’t make her wear the other pair of a glass slipper, but a beautiful moss green velvet gown for his painting of Guinevere. And that luxurious gown was designed and delivered by her other Prince Charming. Yes, this Cinderella is quite lucky at that part. But, this is where the fairy tale stops – the ending isn’t as happy as fairy tales should be.
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t expecting a fairy tale. I was just struck by the interesting comparison. Of course, Hickey’s second novel is about art. And remarkably, she was able to connect the lives of the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founded by Daniel Gabriel Rossetti. Hickey laid out the foundation of an initially romantic future between Jane and Gabriel, until the latter is spirited away from her life by an emergency. Then she was rescued by William Morris, also an artist, from both her parents’ decision that she marries a neighbor’s son and from the pain Rossetti has caused her when he left. Everything goes on reasonably well. Jane ceases to live a life full of hardships and starvation. She is introduced to the grand and scandalous society of artists and poets and writers and receives praises for her beauty which both humiliated and humbled her. She has a grand mansion, a workaholic husband and two beautiful daughters when Rossetti comes back. And then the passion between them also returns with a vengeance.
Reading Elizabeth Hickey’s The Wayward Muse is a concoction of varying emotions and opinions. However, this time, the experience is not entirely about sentimentalism due to a poignant narration. It rather sounded as if I overheard friends chatting over coffee one afternoon. The narration was awkwardly hasty. And it took me 84 pages before I came across a time indicator, a rarity in historical fiction. But of course, the writer is not supposed to start the tale with a mentioning in what circa the story took place. But due to the quick story-telling, I barely had time to relish the setting that the story could have happened in a more contemporary time. The idea was promising, though. Having a protagonist who defies popular esthetic standards as a model for paintings verifies the truth that beauty cannot be measured by general criteria. And though the novel didn’t really focus on the artists at work but the scandal that ruined them, they were presented well as real humans with real flaws and vulnerability. It was pretty much the same pattern Hickey used in The Painted Kiss, which I, by the way, will surely remember more fondly.
Oh wait, that made me think: What’s with Hickey and hedonistic and irresponsible, albeit talented male artists who were reduced to invalids until their death? And luckily for them, one has a faithful woman who remained unmarried and the other a loyal mistress but an unfaithful wife who never left!
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Half of a Yellow Sun