Click here to read reviewer Deborah Straw's take on Keeping the World Away.
The novel Keeping the World Away is based upon a painting by Welsh artist Gwen John (1876– 1939). John was born in Haverfordwest, Wales, but the family soon moved to Tenby in Pembrokeshire following the mother’s premature death in 1884. Gwen studied at the Slade School of Art in London then moved to Paris, where in 1906 she began modeling for the sculptor Auguste Rodin. Eventually she became his mistress.
It is here in Paris where Gwen's passions are finally unleashed, and her lust for the great Rodin becomes a volcanic force battling within her.
She feels herself bewitched, enchanted, and utterly transfigured from a lonely young woman. The affair is tempestuous and all-consuming, but when Rodin eventually tires of her, this painting truly takes on a world of its own.
Gwen's creative talents go into completing the work with "its empty chair, the parasol leaning against it, and the table bare, except for the flowers in the corner of the room." All of her feelings and emotions, all her ideas and plans, all her hopes and fears, and of course, all the turmoil within her becomes embodied in this painting, everything that represents all of the precious longing for her beloved "maitre."
When the work is finished, Gwen gifts it to her best friend, Ursula, who feels such pain for her friend. The picture, however, goes missing when Ursula mistakenly packs it in her valise, thinking that it will be quite safe.
It turns up back in Tenby in the hands of the clever and particular Charlotte, who rescues it from the lost property department of the local train station.
Charlotte desires to be married to art, and she clearly sees herself as an artist. Her hunger for the painting is passionate and tearful,
its "empty chair, the poor little table with its pitiful posy of flowers, the bare window draped with that misty net." For this impressionable young girl who aches for her father to send her to art college, the painting speaks of loneliness and despair, and an emotion that irrevocably chokes her throat.
As the twentieth century moves on, various other women – and some men - come into contact with the painting as it builds into an assemblage of romance and tragedy, its image and its atmosphere effectively casting a spell over all who come to possess it.
For reclusive Stella, safely ensconced in Cornwall, the painting fills her with a strange yearning for something unobtainable. Desperate to get away from a man who is emotionally and physically scarred from the Great War, the painting forces Stella to ready herself for a new beginning thousands of miles away.
For Lucasta, who anxiously awaits her brother's return from the War in the Pacific, the picture represents sadness and a gentle wistfulness, perhaps the reflection of an aching heart.
It forces the grieving widow Ailsa to retreat to a remote Island off the coast of Scotland so that she can begin again. Perhaps the most emotionally frail of the women, Ailsa is frantic to hold off her memories of her failed marriage; "only you spoiled our marriage, which is something I cannot, even now forgive you for."
Each woman's life choices are prompted by an emotion and instinct that seems to be connected to something buried deep within the painting. Consequently, the story is about the inexplicable bond that exists between art and life, and the fact that the spirit of the artist is always embodied in the work.
While the painting inspires certain characters to make radical changes to their lives, others, such as Charlotte's officious mother, just cannot understand its appeal.
Perhaps it is the pretty and idealistic young Gillian who most reconnects with the work. An art student who travels to Paris, ostensibly to go on holiday but also to paint, Gillian feels drawn to the picture because it was once owned by her grandmother.
Out of all the women, it is Gillian who feels there is a life outside the painting that is only just being hinted at.
As the ownership of the work comes full circle, author Margaret Forster beautfully presents this rarified world of art and artists, where art can readily bring forth the spirit of things and express beauty of every sort, including line and form and, most importantly, emotion.
With a "six degrees of separation" quality and its theme of how art can ultimately speak from the soul, Keeping the World Away elegantly shows how artistic passion and suffering can reverberate down through generations as these women yearn for love and beauty while also searching for something that is perhaps just too unobtainable.