Beauty in Thorns…
A spellbinding reimagining of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ set amongst the wild bohemian circle of Pre-Raphaelite artists and poets.
The Pre-Raphaelites were determined to liberate art and love from the shackles of convention.
Ned Burne-Jones had never had a painting lesson and his family wanted him to be a parson. Only young Georgie Macdonald – the daughter of a Methodist minister – understood. She put aside her own dreams to support him, only to be confronted by many years of gossip and scandal.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was smitten with his favourite model, Lizzie Siddal. She wanted to be an artist herself, but was seduced by the irresistible lure of laudanum.
William Morris fell head-over-heels for a ‘stunner’ from the slums, Janey Burden. Discovered by Ned, married to William, she embarked on a passionate affair with Gabriel that led inexorably to tragedy.
Margot Burne-Jones had become her father’s muse. He painted her as Briar Rose, the focus of his most renowned series of paintings, based on the fairy-tale that haunted him all his life. Yet Margot longed to be awakened to love.
Bringing to life the dramatic true story of love, obsession and heartbreak that lies behind the Victorian era’s most famous paintings, Beauty in Thorns is the story of awakenings of all kinds.
For well over a year now I have followed the journey of this novel, Beauty in Thorns, from its first draft, through the re-writes, and then onto the finished product. Kate Forsyth is a most generous author to follow on social media. She shares much of her writing life and where her research has taken her and I enjoy interacting with this process immensely. As well as being incredibly interesting, it allows you to become attached to a novel before it has even been finished. The anticipation peaks as the release nears, but as a bonus, when you finally do get to read the novel, the joy at relishing in its brilliance is so much more satisfying. And brilliant it is. Beauty in Thorns is its own work of art and I loved it from the very first word right up until its last. It was well worth the wait and it more than lived up to my anticipation.
Beauty in Thorns is not an easy novel to sum up or outline, however. I liken it to Bitter Greens, in the sense that the novel spans a great deal of time and involves many characters, all pivotal within the story. And while this poses a challenge for review, it is of course one of the main reasons why I loved it, and Bitter Greens before this. Beauty in Thorns simply sweeps you up into its embrace and you are carried along for decades, moving within the lives of these characters and truly never wanting to leave. And it’s not just the characters that hold you enthralled. Kate is an absolute master storyteller when it comes to re-creating worlds gone by. Her detail is rich, yet never wandering, and her words are a delight for all of the five senses. You feel as though you are there, immersed and included.
Beauty in Thorns is a story about the Pre-Raphaelites, a wild bohemian circle of artists and poets who were determined to liberate art and love from the shackles of convention. The story begins in 1852 and concludes in 1898 and is set in a variety of cities and towns throughout England, as well as extending for periods to Paris. However, the real treasure within this novel is that it is told entirely from the perspectives of the women involved with the artists; their wives and later, daughters. I absolutely loved this. It completely changed the story and added so much depth and richness. To see these artists, not from their own perspectives, but through the eyes of those who loved them. Their greatness, their failings, their true beauty, and their many flaws. This is what I meant when I mentioned above that Beauty in Thorns is its own work of art.
There were so many moments of quiet devastation within this novel. I find this with all of Kate’s work, but I think when reading about several women and their passion filled love lives, there is always going to be more than your fair share of moments, both magnificent and crushing. It was certainly balanced, but there was a darkness hanging over the lives of these women that never truly receded. At times it was mournful, how difficult life for an artist and their wives and children could be in the 19th century, relying on patrons and churning out work an artist may not wholly believe in just to make a penny to see them through so they could then get to work on what they really wanted to do. And being a woman behind the famous artist, talented themselves, yet not necessarily acknowledged for this, their place as ‘the wife’ carved out for them with pre-conceived notions they themselves had nothing to do with putting into place. Love is of course the over-riding theme throughout this novel, and it comes through with such beauty and truth.
There were so many lines that leapt out at me while reading Beauty in Thorns. So many times I had to pause and reflect on a scene I had just read. One of my favourite lines earlier in the novel is from Topsy to Janey. Topsy had written on the back of a canvas he was working on:
“I cannot paint you but I love you.”
The love Topsy had for Janey was so deep and while at times I simply couldn’t fathom Janey’s mindset, I still admired her on many other levels. Topsy was indeed a ‘top’ fellow, despite his raucous temper, and he always had the very best of intentions towards Janey and his fellow artistic friends. I was disappointed in the state of the marriage of these two, but could entirely understand its demise.
I have to make a special mention now of Lizzie Siddal. She is perhaps one of the most tragic literary characters I have ever encountered, but how I loved her! How she suffered, as much because of the era in which she lived as well as the circumstances of her own making. Life was so very different in the 19th century, understanding about mental illnesses and different compulsions so vague, the treatments archaic. I felt for Lizzie, I truly did, the real tragedy of her situation stemming from a lack of understanding on her original medical illness and a dangerous method of treatment. One of the most beautiful sections of this book, albeit, also the most tragic, is when Lizzie writes her poem, the words of which were so exquisite. It summed up Lizzie’s tragic existence so succinctly.
Georgie Burne-Jones, long-suffering wife of Ned Burne-Jones, the artist who created the Sleeping Beauty series, is definitely without a doubt by favourite woman from the novel. She journeyed so far, personally, and put up with so much being married to Ned, who quite frankly, was about as airy as they come. He truly was a bohemian at heart and entirely without a clue when it came to consequence. Georgie was one of those unfailing women who love fiercely, often to their own detriment, yet still possess a spine of steel, able to endure anything and everything with stoicism. In a nutshell, Ned was a terrible husband. He really was. She could have left him a hundred times over and he would have deserved it. Yet she didn’t.
This is probably a good point to share my thoughts on the title, and why Sleeping Beauty was, to me, so integral to the entire story, beyond the fact that Ned was painting the epic series. Georgie’s most treasured memory was of the day she had first met Ned, and heard the story of Briar Rose for the first time, in Tennyson’s poem. Almost as precious to her was the memory of the day when Ned had first drawn her, as the Sleeping Princess. Georgie believed herself to be quite ordinary to look at, so when Ned created an image of her so lovely, she could scarcely believe it was her. Ned’s later betrayal, immortalising his mistress as the Sleeping Princess before he painted the series, was all the more unforgivable to Georgie because of these precious attachments she had to the story. Their marriage, and indeed, their love, was very much bound up with the tale of Sleeping Beauty, through Georgie’s eyes; their entire marriage was truly a thing of Beauty wrapped up in Thorns. Indeed, I feel the failed marriages of Janey and Topsy, and Gabrielle and Lizzie, also followed this analogy. Was it artistic temperament? The zeal for a bohemian lifestyle? Who really knows, but all three marriages can be aligned with the title of the novel so aptly.
Before I wrap this up, I want to share a couple of moments between Georgie and Ned from towards the end of the novel that reached out to me and remained with me after I had finished reading.
“Ned pointed at his painting of King Cophetua and the Beggar-Maid. Don’t you see? The king has everything a man could want, a crown and jewels and a kingdom. But then he sees the beggar-maid…who has nothing…and he realises then that all he has is worthless without love. That is what I want the world to know.”
Georgie had to turn away, unable to speak. Whenever she thought she had armoured her heart, Ned pierced all her defences and made her love him more fiercely than ever before.
“You know, Georgie, there are only two types of women. Those who take the strength out of a man and those who put it back in.” He kissed her brow. “You’re the kind that puts the strength back in, Georgie.”
On their 38th wedding anniversary Georgie woke to find a little square of paper:
Drawn in the centre of the page was a circle, thorns and wild roses entangled two figures. A knight in dark armour bent over the forget-me-not blue bed of a sleeping princess. The shield on his back looked like wings. He had lifted one of the sweet-faced maiden’s hands to his heart. His other hand tenderly stroked her hair, the same chestnut brown as Georgie’s. In the corner of the page Ned had inscribed, in neat block letters, “Wake Dearest’.
At long last, Ned had made Georgie his sleeping beauty.
And I think now would be a good time to wrap this review up, lest its length begin to rival the actual novel! Beauty in Thorns is a wonderful, sweeping historical fiction novel; one that will immerse you into another world entirely. If you have never read a novel by Kate Forsyth before, then this is definitely a great one to begin with. If you are, like me, a long time fan, then you are in for a treat and this novel will have been worth the wait for you.
Thanks is extended to Penguin Random House Australia for providing me with a copy of Beauty in Thorns for review and for also inviting me to take part in their Beauty in Thorns publicity blog tour.
Beauty in Thorns is book 36 in my 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
I had the pleasure of featuring Kate for Sunday Spotlight on July 2nd over at the AWWC Blog. You can read the interview here: