Title: Beauty in Thorns
Author: Kate Forsyth
Published: July 3rd 2017
Publisher: Vintage Australia via Penguin Random House Australia
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Rating: 5 stars
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 fascinating bohemian world of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, headed by well known artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais, come to life through the penmanship of revered storyteller Kate Forsyth. Beauty in Thorns is Forsyth’s latest piece of work, inspired by the fairytale Sleeping Beauty. It is also a reimagining of many key historical figures and events that occurred in the art world in late Victorian England.
In 1848, the art world in Britain received the biggest shake up in had ever seen. It was challenged by a group of revolutionary artists, poets and critics, known as the Pre-Raphaelites. The Pre-Raphaelites were on a mission, determined to transform the conventional art world into a visionary spectacle. They were hoping their art would be freed from the constraints placed on them and above all, they hoped that the art world would no longer be subjected to boundaries. Behind this group of powerful and inspiring men were the wives, partners, mistresses, models, muses and daughters. These are the women that selflessly loved, cared and attended to every whim these men required to produce their celebrated masterpieces. Forsyth’s story gives a voice to these women and examines how each played a role in their respective artist’s life. Interestingly, we also discover how many of these women were aspiring artists themselves. With the undercurrent of the well known fairytale Sleeping Beauty guiding the narrative, Beauty in Thorns exposes the intricate world inhabited by these artists.
Beauty in Thorns offers a rousing narrative, focussed on the alluring world of the arts in nineteenth century Britain. The Pre-Raphaelites, a secret society of artists who were opposed to conventional art, come before the reader’s eyes, through the guiding light of accomplished storyteller Kate Forsyth. My knowledge of the Brotherhood only extends as far as observing some of their beautiful paintings in the Tate London and my viewing of the television miniseries, The Desperate Romantics, which recreated the Brotherhood on the silver screen. Forsyth filled the gap in my knowledge in this area and extended my understanding further, by providing me with a unique female centered perspective on the Pre-Raphaelites.
This focus on the female stories behind the Brotherhood brings me to the characters featured in Beauty in Thorns. Forsyth is skilled in the manner by which she is able to bring historical figures back to life. Lizzie Siddal, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s renowned model and lover, is the most vivid character in the novel. Her story was bittersweet, heartbreaking and deeply compelling. Forsyth also uses Lizzie’s story to remind us of the oppression women in this era faced, despite their aspirations. For Lizzie in particular, her gender, as well as her class, determined her social standing and acceptance within circles such as the art world. Not quite as telling, but nevertheless engaging, were the other female voices featured in this novel. These include the loyal and long suffering Georgie, wife of Ned Burne-Jones, through to their dreamy daughter Margot. These unique female perspectives, coming from a male dominated world, are offset by the inclusion of various known influential figures of the time. I really did enjoy the insertion of icons such as art patron John Ruskin, writer Rudyard Kipling and playwright George Bernard Shaw. All of these characters added to the authenticity of the story at hand.
The depth and commitment Forsyth has demonstrated in bringing her ideas to the page for the reader is admirable. Any fan or follower of Forsyth’s work will know that she is open and committed to sharing the depth of the research she undertakes in each of her projects. By reading the author’s note at the close of the novel, I was immediately struck by the sheer amount of resources that were used to form the creation of this lengthy narrative. Forsyth is skilled in her approach to delivering her exclusive style of narrative, she manages to offer intimate period detail, especially historical information within a full bodied narrative. Forsyth takes great care in ensuring that this detail does not bog the reader down, making it accessible, as well as highly appealing to the reader. In a discussion of Forsyth’s writing I must also take the opportunity to highlight the language Forsyth employs within Beauty in Thorns, it is firmly grounded in the societal expectations of the era in which it is set. However, what it also serves to do is showcase Forsyth’s special way with words, there are some simply stunning and lyrical passages for the reader to devour in Beauty in Thorns. It is clear Forsyth has an aptitude for reeling the reader into the world she recreates, so you feel not only a complete part of this story, but also an overwhelming desire to remain with the story until the bitter end.
Beauty in Thorns is another unforgettable and original tale from a writer I hold in deep regard. Forsyth’s ability to provide the reader with a story seeped deep in the alluring art society, deftly merges themes of love, loss, obsession and ambition. Beauty in Thorns, is the perfect combination of fairytale and history. Forsyth works hard to provide a voice to an influential collection of women to have lived and loved in her latest novel. Beauty in Thorns is definitely one for those who love historical fiction, appreciate art history or love the magic of fairytales.
I received a copy of this book via the publisher, Penguin Random House Australia, in exchange for an honest review as part of publicity blog tour.
Beauty in Thorns, by Kate Forsyth was published in Australia on the 3rd July 2017 by Vintage Australia via Penguin Random House Australia. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of Beauty in Thorns, Kate Forsyth, visit here.