Women, Beauty and Art in Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns

Beauty in Thorns_Cover image

Beauty in Thorns cover image. Courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns begins with an exchange between two of the novel’s major characters – Georgiana (Georgie) Macdonald and the man she will later marry, Edward (Ned) Burne-Jones. Their conversation centres on the tale of Sleeping Beauty.

The fairy story is key to Forsyth’s narrative. As the novel unfolds, Ned paints the beautiful princess over and over again. First, it is Georgie who poses as the sleeping beauty; then, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal. Later still, Ned’s mistress Maria Zambaco plays the part; and, finally, his daughter Margot poses for Ned’s Briar Rose series.

Women. Beauty. Art. Motifs that repeat in the novel like a William Morris wallpaper.

The Women – Georgie, Lizzie and Janey

Let’s begin with the early years of the women. Throughout their youth, three of the four main female characters in Beauty in Thorns are surrounded by privation and ugliness – in one form or another.

Georgie Macdonald is raised in an austere Methodist parsonage in Birmingham with ‘pyramids of slag on every corner’, where ‘even the snow felt dirty’; Lizzie Siddal comes from ‘the crowded slums of Southwark, breathing in the stench of the tanning yards every day’; Jane (Janey) Burden is a product of Oxford’s Holywell Street and St Helen’s Passage, a place that ‘oozed foul-smelling slime … so awful it was hard to walk past without gagging’.

The physical environment is bad enough, but the women lack comfort in other ways.

Georgiana Burne-Jones, c. 1860. Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In Georgie’s home, Shakespeare – a corrupting influence – is banned, and Georgie and her sisters rarely leave the house unless it is to attend chapel or a temperance meeting or bible class. The Methodist policy of moving ministers every three years virtually assures Georgie’s social isolation. Her reverend father is wont to demand: ‘Is it too much to ask that we sacrifice our own comfort in the godly harvest of souls?’

Elizabeth Siddal, c. 1854. Dante Gabriel Rossetti

For Lizzie, providing money for her family’s survival comes at the price of working 12 hours a day, six days a week. Lizzie’s mother thinks her daughter’s notions of writing poetry and drawing pictures a waste of time and that she would be better occupied working on the state of her soul.

Jane Burden, 1857. Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Janey’s family support is practically non-existent. She has been a beggar on the streets from childhood, and her drunken mother is physically and verbally abusive. Janey’s prospects in adult life seem confined to earning ‘twopence for a quick screw in the alley’.


But despite these unpromising beginnings, the three women come to the attention of the artists and designers involved with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Why? Because, particularly in the case of Lizzie and Janey, they are physically beautiful. In the parlance of the day, they are ‘stunners’. The men want models for their paintings. They crave beauty.

For Georgie, her ‘beauty’ in Ned’s eyes is also bound up with her youth – the pair are engaged when Georgie is 15 and Ned is in his early 20s. In Forsyth’s novel, Ned resists women growing to maturity. He is saddened when Georgie’s younger sisters pass through girlhood, and he will come to resent signs of womanhood in his daughter Margot (the fourth member of Beauty in Thorns’ female quartet).

The beauty of the women translates itself into the art of the men. And, perhaps because the men saw no distinction between art and life, the women become wives. In close succession, Janey marries textile designer William Morris (26 April 1859), Lizzie weds a reluctant Dante Gabriel Rossetti (23 May 1860), and Georgie pledges her troth to Ned Burne-Jones (9 June 1860) – a promise not faithfully reciprocated.

The Burne-Jones and Morris Families, 1874. Photographer: Frederick Hollyer. National Portrait Gallery, London

Beauty lies at the philosophical heart of these three husbands. In the latter years of her life, Georgie Burne-Jones reflected on the trio: ‘Their love of beauty did not seem to me unbalanced, but as if it included the whole world and raised the point from which they regarded everything.’ (Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, vol. 1, p. 169)

Art and Artists

My sense, formed from reading Forsyth’s richly researched work of fiction, is that Gabriel’s love of beauty is based in the physicality and sensuousness of the female form. He is captive to it. When he first meets Janey in Oxford, he says: ‘You are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. I must paint you.’ And he tells Lizzie: ‘I almost afraid of trying to paint you … How can I catch all this beauty?’ His series of affairs with his models suggests he was not so afraid as to stop trying.

Ned’s love affair with beauty is more altruistic. ‘Beauty is not frivolous’, Ned tells a frugal Georgie when she baulks at buying a new bonnet. He continues:

I intend to spend the rest of my life loving beauty with all my heart … I like beauty … I want to make things beautiful. I have no politics, and no party, and no particular hope. I only know that beauty is very beautiful, and softens and comforts and inspires and rouses and lifts up and never fails.

For William Morris, known to his friends as Topsy, life is about creating beauty, not only appreciating and replicating it. Topsy commissions his architect friend Philip Webb to work with him on the design of the Red House, home to the Morris family in the early years of Topsy and Janey’s marriage. When Topsy shows Janey around the house for the first time, she is overcome by its beauty. ‘It’s like a church’, she says. Topsy casts her ‘a quick look of approval. “That’s it! That’s what we wanted. Houses for people can be just as beautiful as houses for God.”’

Original design for ‘Trellis’ wallpaper, 1862. William Morris. ‘Trellis’ was Morris’s first wallpaper design. It was inspired by the garden at the Red House.

On Reflection

As I read Beauty in Thorns, I began to wonder whether the male artists were seeking to transfer beauty into a static form, while the women – seeking beauty in equal measure – wanted to be awakened to it. It’s the difference between fixing and releasing. Did the painterly princes merely want to awaken beauty in order to claim it for themselves? Did their princesses, instead, want to cease being an object in another’s life and become the subject of their own?

Those are questions I intend to consider in a future post.


Except for the extract from Georgie Burne-Jones’s Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, all quotes in this post are from Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns. The words attributed to the Reverend George Browne Macdonald, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ned Burne-Jones and William Morris are Forsyth’s creation. I have based my own opinions of the men’s characters and perspectives on her interpretations.

Details of names, marriages, and the construction of the Red House are factual.

Links and Sources

  • Forsyth, Kate. Beauty in Thorns. North Sydney, NSW: Penguin Random House. Australia, 2017. Penguin Random House’s website has several resources relating to Beauty in Thorns including an extract and book club notes.
    Kate Forsyth’s website and blog provide ample further reading for those wanting to explore the stories behind the novel. On YouTube and Pinterest, you can see Forsyth’s creative process for the novel unfold.
  • Burne-Jones, Georgiana. Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones. London: Macmillan, 1904.
  • William Morris’s Red House in Bexleyheath is now a National Trust property. Details here.
  • To discover more about the women mentioned in this post, visit The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood website.
  • A useful source of information for Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti is Art UK, and for William Morris, visit the Victoria and Albert Museum website.
    There are wonderful examples of Burne-Jones’sRossetti’sMorris’s art on the Tate website. You will see Janey Burden, as in Prosperpine (below), re-created in the work of each artist.

Proserpine, 1874. Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Photo © Tate. CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05064

Hermits and the Hermitage at Warkworth

My thoughtful friend Jane commented recently: ‘There aren’t many jobs left for people who do better at life when left on their own’.

Jane and I had been talking about the men who lived at the Warkworth Hermitage. Carved into a stone rock face, the hermitage sits on a small island in the River Coquet, just upstream from Warkworth Castle in Northumberland. These days it is reached via the good offices of a friendly boatman who obligingly ferries visitors back and forth across the river.

The River Coquet, crossing place for Warkworth Hermitage

Warkworth’s hermitage is thought to have been founded in the 14th or early 15th century, probably during the time of Henry Percy (1341‒1408), the 1st Earl of Northumberland. The Percys’ forebears had been supporters of William the Conqueror and lived in Britain from the 11th century onwards, gradually accruing vast swathes of land in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Northumberland and elsewhere. For a time, Warkworth was their favoured base.

Why build a hermitage?

A hermitage can be home to a hermit or, more simply, any secluded habitation. Strictly speaking, the hermitage at Warkworth falls into the latter category. As English Heritage puts it: ‘Rather than a secluded dwelling for a religious recluse (hermit), it was in fact probably a chantry, or private chapel, where a priest performed services in return for a stipend.’

Warkworth Hermitage

During medieval times, wealthy patrons endowed chantry chapels, often in memory of a particular family member, and then paid a Christian priest to say prayers for the soul of the departed.

Whose soul was Henry Percy concerned about? Perhaps it was that of his son, the crazy-brave Harry ‘Hotspur’ Percy, who was killed in battle in 1403 or perhaps it was a presentiment regarding his own demise five years later. After switching his support for English monarchs a number of times, the earl was killed at the Battle of Bramham Moor during one his several royal rebellions. His body was decapitated and quartered, and his head ignominiously displayed to the public on London Bridge.

The hermit tells his tale to Harry ‘Hotspur’ and Harry’s young love, illustration from The Hermit of Warkworth

Another theory on the origins of the hermitage is offered in the ballad The Hermit of Warkworth, first published in 1771. The hermit-narrator of the long poem recounts a story to two young lovers, one of whom is the son of Harry ‘Hotspur’. The story concerns a knight named Sir Bertram: a close friend of the first earl, a gallant fighter, and a man in the throes of love. Late in the story, Bertram finds himself on a mission to rescue his true love. The mission goes badly awry when Bertram (spoiler alert!) mistakenly slays both his brother and the maiden fair. Mortified by his actions, Bertram seeks to end his life, but ‘time and thought and holy men’ send him on another path. ‘No more the slave of human pride’, he decides to spend his life ‘in penitence and prayer’.

According to the ballad, Earl Percy gives his friend a refuge on the tiny island in the River Coquet and there Bertram, now named Benedict, carves out some rooms. In one of these, he sculpts the ‘beauteous form’ of his lost love. Fifty years on, Warkworth’s hermit-narrator identifies himself to his listeners as that self-same knight, now turned recluse.

Bertram becomes Benedict, extract from The Hermit of Warkworth

The Truth?

Figure to the left of one of Warkworth Hermitage’s window. Possibly Joseph.

Did the hermitage really have its beginnings in a tale of murder and lost love? It’s unlikely, but nobody is sure. Certainly, there are figures, now worn by the weather, carved into the hermitage’s stonework. There is a tomb with an effigy that appears to depict a woman’s image with a warrior (or hermit?) kneeling at her feet. And surrounding one of the chapel’s windows, are more figures. The generally accepted view, disputed by some, is that they represent the nativity—Mary with the baby Jesus on one side of the window, Joseph on the other.

Whatever happened to hermits?

Whatever the truth might be, prayer-making priests had ceased living at Warkworth Hermitage by the mid-16th century, the site’s demise probably coinciding with Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

Where did hermits and like-minded, solitary souls go in the centuries that followed? A populist theory is suggested in a novel by 19th century English author, Sir Walter Besant. In the closing stages of The Fourth Generation, Besant writes:

The Hermit, or the Recluse, has long disappeared from the roadside, from the bridge end, from the river bank. His Hermitage sometimes remains, as at Warkworth, but the ancient occupant is gone. He was succeeded by the Eccentric, who flourished mightily in the last century … For reasons which the writer of social manners may discover, the Eccentric has mostly followed the Recluse; there are none left.

And so, my friend Jane’s observation remains.

In the 21st century, where is the place for people who prefer the peace and quiet of solitude and isolation?

Links and Sources

Percy, Thomas. The Hermit of Warkworth: A Northumberland Ballad: In Three Fits or Cantos. 2nd ed. London: Printed for T. Davies and S. Leacroft, 1771.

Besant, Walter. The Fourth Generation. New York F. A. Stokes 1900.

There are various descriptions of Warkworth Castle and Hermitage available online, some are brief and factual, others more meandering and impressionistic. They include:

Warkworth Hermitage. Image published in the Penny Magazine.

For more on the Percy family, begin with the Alnwick Castle website. See also:

  • Bean, J. M. W. ‘Percy, Henry, First Earl of Northumberland (1341–1408).’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Oxford: OUP, 2004.
  • The first earl Percy and his son Harry ‘Hotspur’ are mentioned in William Shakespeare’s Henry IV. More details via the Shakespeare and History website.

View towards Warkworth Castle from Warkworth Hermitage