Tuesday, September 12, 2017

A review of Beauty In Thorns by Kate Forsyth

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.


The Sleeping Beauty by Edward Burne-Jones, Date: 1870 - 1890

There is nothing basic about Beauty in Thorns. Kate Forsyth has achieved the impossible! I love her incredibly dreamlike imagination and passionate research. She has brought to life three artistic couples and one daughter: Ned Burne-Jones with his wife Georgie and their daughter Margaret (Margot) Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his wife Lizzie Siddal, William Morris and his wife Jane Burden. It is as if she has pulled them through the mists of time speaking to me with the turn of every page. I felt as if I were present to witness all the wonderful and bitter times of their lives. For instance,  romance, courtship, marriage, birth, death with a few affairs thrown in! 

Told from the female perspective and broken up into five parts, Beauty in Thorns also introduces readers to the paintings of Ned Burne-Jones (Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones) covering the theme of sleeping beauty through the real life paintings of The Briar Rose Series with Arthurian elements. 

There is so much I want to cover and because I don't want to give anything away, I must hold back. It is hard for me to do since I love these men and women so very much. I get excited and ramble on and on. 

It was nothing but a delight to read about the personal and romantic lives of the women this time first and foremost then the men and artists whom they put up with so much from.  The love triangle between William Morris his wife Jane Burden or Janey Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti is told from her perspective which has never been written in this form before. You think you know what happened but this is what I mean by the importance of research. With fresh eyes cast upon it, Kate Forsyth brings forth some surprises. 

I became completely swept away with Janey's life and desires because I saw her as a whole woman for the first time. Included in this triangle is, of course, the frail, sickly yet not so tragic Lizzie Siddal. I am so proud of Kate Forsyth for having the courage to write and present Lizzie as a flesh, blood and bone woman suffering from a  not so known then disease putting up with the grumbling love of her life, Gabriel Rossetti. Oh yes, he could be charming and brilliant but also suffered through his own demons as we all do. 
La Belle Iseult by William Morris, 1858, Jane Morris painted as Guinevere

"Janey had never really felt safe, not anywhere. She looked at Topsy. She could not speak. He knelt before her, taking one of her cold, clenched hands; I do love you most terribly. Won't you marry me? Let me look after you? She shook her head. 
I don't expect you to love me like I love you. I know that would be too hard. If you were cold or hungry or in danger...don't you see? If you married me, I could look after you. We could be comfortable together like we've been these past months. 
They had been comfortable together. She had liked it very much, embroidery, pretty flowers, listening to his poetry, drinking  a glass of golden sherry with a pot roast he had ordered in from the landlady. 
He had begun to pace, his hands clenched behind his back. 'I'd build you a house...in the country, with a garden and apple trees and roses...Maybe we could have children one day, little girls that look like you...
She thought of lying with him. They would be a strange couple. Her feet would stick out past his like her father's did over the edge of his mattress. And he was so broad and square. He'd be heavy on her. But the bed would be soft and the sheets would be crisp and clean like new snow. And he was a gentle man; for all his bearishness. He would be kind to her. And she'd be safe. 
Janey cleared her throat. 'Are ye sure? I ain't yer kind.' 
'You are my kind,' Topsy said passionately. 'Do you not love poetry and art and music and green growing things just as much as I do? Do you think it matters you are poor? I have money enough for both of us. It's the beautiful shining soul of you that I love not who your father is or where you grew up.' A lump in her throat. 
He came and took her hands 'I'd do my best to make you happy, Janey...
Tears and smiles together. 'If ye're really sure...
I have never been so sure of anything. 
He kissed her hands and then kissed her mouth. She nestled into his arms, with her head on his shoulder, thinking He's such a kind man, such a good man. I'm sure I'll come to love him in time."   ( Pages 140-142, PT. II-Ch.6, I Cannot Paint You-Winter 1857-58).

I fell in love with William Morris the man with a huge heart held within a rotund body. His creativity knew no bounds. He loved wholeheartedly and gave of himself in every manner. All he wanted was that same complete love in return. He was funny and shy at times; loved from  afar but what he could create with his hands through his poems, books, tapestries, wallpapers, etc., nobody even comes close today.  A wonderful teddy bear of a man, I would love to cuddle all night. (move over Janey if you don't want him, I will take him). 

As the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Burne-Jones progressed; two children are born through the years, grown up to marry and have children themselves. We see Ned and Georgie as grandparents. Kate Forsyth focuses on daughter, Margaret Burne-Jones whom she calls, Margot.  Now, I have always been fascinated with Margaret and not very much in letters, diaries, survives. What is archived throughout museums does not cover every aspect of a person's life. She was the daughter of one of the most prominent painters and artists of the time. We meet the infant Margot, the young girl who is the absolute light of Ned's life. Overprotective is her father and so full of emotions himself that the idea of anyone hurting his little girl makes her growing up and finding love a bit difficult at times. All daughters who love and adore their dad understand how hard it is for both to come to terms with becoming an adult. You don't want to let them go quite yet. Still, you know they must spread their wings and fly. You stand ever close by in case they start to fall.  Don't worry Ned I'm sure you survived it all just fine. Even if you didn't, or emotionally struggled, you had your brilliant paintings of which daughter Margaret is included. Thank goodness for both of them that the rock of the family was wife and mother, Georgie Burne-Jones!  What a spitfire, powerhouse of a woman. She reminded me so much of my grandmother with that same petite frame, and drive to care for home and hearth no matter what life throws at you.  
  


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