Neolithic Orkney—Literature on Location

Ring of Brodgar

The forecast was for 11⁰C, but I doubt it rose past 5⁰. The clouds were low; the sleet piercing; the wind penetrating—a perfect day to start exploring Neolithic Orkney.

It was the first time I’d physically set foot on the Orkney island of Mainland, but the almost treeless landscape already felt familiar. My reading had taken me there on several previous occasions.

I often begin to know a place through reading, whether it’s 19th century Dorset in Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures or 14th century London in Robyn Cadwallader’s Book of Colours or 7th century Northumbria in Nicola Griffith’s Hild.

And so, before visiting the Orkneys, I had searched out books that would awaken my senses to place and landscape, climate and peoples. I wanted to reach back into Orkney history. I reached for fiction. ‘Factual’ histories are often rife with gaps and biases; historical fiction operates in time’s spaces and silences. Done well, historical fiction fills the gaps and redresses the biases; it shapes conceivable lives and probable landscapes.

Cover image courtesy of Kelpies

The first book I turned to on my Orkney discovery trail was Kathleen Fidler’s The Boy with the Bronze Axe (originally published in 1968). It introduced me to Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar and the burial mound of Maeshowe at a time when each was central to the life of Neolithic human communities.

Fidler, the author of over 80 books for children, prefaces The Boy with the Bronze Axe with some background information. ‘In the winter of 1850’, she writes, ‘a terrible storm struck the coasts of the Orkney Isles’. The storm ‘washed away part of the high sand dunes that fringed the Bay of Skaill and laid bare the ruins of some ancient dwellings’. That much is fact, detailed in historical records. Fidler bookends that 1850  storm with the possibility of another storm, thousands of years earlier, in which the dwellings might, just as suddenly, have been filled ‘by sand dunes moving like the waves of the sea’.

Fidler takes her readers back to the late Stone Age, on the cusp of the Bronze Age. Siblings Kali and Brockan, from the community at Skara Brae, are rescued from a rising tide by an unknown visitor from the south—Tenko, the boy bearing the bronze axe.

House #1, Skara Brae

Fidler uses the outsider’s viewpoint to illuminate life at Skara Brae.

Inside Kali and Brockan’s home, Tenko observes the ‘stone bed like a trough … filled with heather and bracken’, and the ‘stone dresser built of flat slabs resting on pillars of stone’. En route to the Ring of Brodgar, Kali’s father explains to Tenko that the quarry they pass at Bookan is where he ‘split off the great stone’ that will be added to the incomplete Ring.

Maeshowe

And on his first visit to Maeshowe, Tenko marvels at the ‘great green mound … shaped like a cone’, rising high above the surrounding plain’. Proceeding down Maeshowe’s low, narrow tunnel, Tenko catches his breath as he enters the ‘great square chamber’, its ‘stone slabs placed one above the other, with edges projecting to make a beehive roof’.

My reading creates pictures of life at Skara Brae in my mind. I am ready to translate Fidler’s fictional world—replete with flint scrapers, bone needles, broken beads, carved stone balls, and pottery shards—into a physical encounter. When I visit the site in person, the ancient remains are  immediately familiar (and fancifully inhabited).

Of course, I continue to learn.

Standing stone, Stenness

Back home in Australia, I read more. Now—finally—I turn to factual accounts, initially to UNESCO’s World Heritage listing for the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. The property’s inscription, dated December 1999, begins: ‘The group of Neolithic monuments on Orkney consists of a large chambered tomb (Maeshowe), two ceremonial stone circles (the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar) and a settlement (Skara Brae), together with a number of unexcavated burial, ceremonial and settlement sites … Through the combination of ceremonial, funerary and domestic sites, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney bears a unique testimony to a cultural tradition that flourished between about 3000 BC and 2000 BC.’

There are many ways of entering a landscape; of learning a place. As I get to know Neolithic Orkney, I am slowly building layers—just like the slabs that make up the walls of Maeshowe. Layers of fiction and memory and fact. Layers both real and imagined. More strata will be added but, for me, fiction provided a good starting point.

Links and Sources

Standing stones, Stenness, May 2019

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 to ponder further…

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