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’.

Beauty

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.

Note

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

G. A. Henty and Australia—Part III: A Final Reckoning

English novelist G. A. Henty (1832-1902) prided himself on the accuracy of his novels, so how did a man who never set foot on Australia’s shores write a believable book (A Final Reckoning: A Tale of Bush Life in Australia) about colonial New South Wales, a book peppered with stories of bushrangers, border police, white settlers and Indigenous Australians?

 ‘His method was simplicity itself’

The answer? ‘His method was simplicity itself. When he had decided upon a subject he sent to the London Library for a batch of books dealing with the period, and read it up’ (‘Anglo-Australian Notes’, The Express and Telegraph [Adelaide], 26 December 1902: 4).

The London Library: © Copyright Bill Johnson. Licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.

Henty was one of a sizeable cohort of literary figures (including George Eliot, Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry James) who were all members of The London Library. The library opened at 49 Pall Mall in 1841 and moved to its present location in St James’s Square four years later.

The library’s borrowing records for the 19th century are scant and there remains no information on the specific books Henty borrowed, but a glance through the library’s printed catalogue from 1888—a year or so after Henty’s Australian novel was published—provides some clues about the books he may have had sent to his address at 103 Upper Richmond, Putney.

Catalogue of the London Library / Robert Harrison. The Library: St James’s Square, London, 1888

Henty probably consulted William Westgarth’s Australia Felix (1848) and William Howitt’s A Boy’s Adventures in the Wilds of Australia (1855). He may also have drawn inspiration and information from Rosamond and Florence Hill’s travel journal What We Saw in Australia (1875) and G. W. Rusden’s detailed, three volume History of Australia (1883).

Henty’s Modis Operandi—‘I get a man to do them for me’

Having borrowed his batch of books for preliminary reading, Henty would write his story ‘with the most useful of these open in front of him’, sometimes quoting from them verbatim (Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature. 1984 edn, p. 245).

‘Writing’ in Henty’s case did not entail putting his own pen to paper. When once quizzed by a staff member from the boys’ magazine Chums, Henty explained: ‘I do not write any of my books myself. I get a man to do them for me—an amanuensis … it all comes out of my head, but he does all the actual writing’. In this manner, Henty could achieve an output of 6,500 words a day, never seeing the work ‘until it comes to me from the printers in the shape of proof-sheets. My amanuensis sits at the table, and I sit near him, or lie on the sofa, and dictate the stories which I publish’ (George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life by George Manville Fenn, p. 316).

Ah, the life of a 19th century English gentleman novelist!

Henty Transported to Australia

First instalment. Weekly Times, 11 April 1891: 5.

A Final Reckoning was the 29th of Henty’s nearly 100 books. Advertisements for the novel began appearing in Australian newspapers in the lead-up to Christmas 1886; five years later, many of those same newspapers began a serialisation of Henty’s Australian tale.

What was this Antipodean adventure about? A Final Reckoning is the story of Reuben Whitney, son of a deceased miller and shopkeeping mother. Reuben is a bright lad, hampered by his family’s reduced circumstances, but keen to learn. Just as his prospects are improving, he is accused of stealing from the home of the local squire (although the squire’s daughter, Kate Ellison, trusts steadfastly in Reuben’s plea of innocence throughout his trial). Justice prevails and Reuben is acquitted. Nevertheless, he determines to make his way to Australia for a fresh start.

Reuben gains passage on a Sydney-bound ship carrying convicts, wardens, marines, and a handful of paying passengers. An act of bravery on his part, while the ship is docked in Cape Town, leads to an offer employment at journey’s end. Reuben joins the New South Wales police and is tasked with protecting white settlers from the dangers of ‘natives’ and bushrangers.

Among those he ultimately protects is the English squire’s daughter (now resident in New South Wales with her married sister).

Reuben saves Kate, suffering ‘a flesh wound’ in the process. (1887 edn, p. 335)

Reuben wins Kate’s hand in marriage, settles in Sydney, and becomes one of fledgling city’s leading citizens. After 20 years, he sells up, returns to England, and buys an estate near Lewes, a short distance from his childhood home.

Henty’s Picture of Australia

A cover image showing Jim and Reuben

What sort of colonial scene does Henty paint in A Final Reckoning? There is evidence in the novel that he has ‘done his homework’ (minor contradictions and errors aside). The book was dictated to Henty’s amanuensis in 1886, but the novel is set some 40 years earlier. Henty uses localised colonial terms such as ‘squatter’, ‘ticket-of-leave’, ‘bushranger’, ‘native tracker’ and ‘black gin’. There is even a variation of the classic children’s ‘lost in the bush’ tale.

Reading the book for the first time from a 21st-century vantage—as I was—it is Henty’s depiction of Indigenous Australians that is most discomforting. Some examples from the text will point to what I mean.

Before leaving for Australia, Reuben tries to persuade his mother to accompany him.  She refuses outright: ‘I am not going to tramp all over the world’, she says, ‘and settle down among black people in outlandish parts’ (94). The local schoolmaster attempts to soften her view: it is ‘not so bad a place as you fancy … Besides, every year the white population is increasing and the black diminishing’ (95).

On his arrival in New South Wales, Reuben’s ‘education’ is furthered by the colonists. He is told that ‘the natives are nearly all thieves’ (118) and that they ‘seldom stand up in a fair fight’ (175). They ‘kill from pure mischief and love of slaughter’ (198), they are cannibals (225), and have little or no regard for life’, except for those to whom they are attached (299). Native trackers, Reuben learns, ‘have the instinct of dogs’ (176) but, if treated well, ‘they get attached to you [and] are faithful to death’ (178).  One tracker, called ‘Jim’, works clandestinely among the bushrangers on Reuben’s behalf. Jim’s presence within the group is dismissed by the outlaws: ‘he minds us no more than if he had been a black monkey’ (304).

Jim (at left) with the bushrangers in their hideout

Henty’s books were read widely across the British Empire, well into the 20th century. Apparently they even reached the bookshelves of Adolf Hitler (‘Hitler’s Taste in Books.’ Morning Bulletin, 30 Jan 1943: 2). If he read them, I suspect the Fuhrer would have found nothing in Henty’s novels to disabuse him of his belief in racial superiority.

Links and Sources

The latter part of Henty’s life was spent at 33 Lavender Gardens, Battersea. A London County Council Blue Plaque acknowledges his residence there.

‘Commemorating a man who wrote great adventure stories: the plaque erected recently by the London County Council’ – Illustrated London News, 11 April 1953: 560