Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on Keeping the World Away.
Margaret Forster chooses wonderful premises for her primarily womanly novels. I last reviewed
Lady’s Maid, about the relationship between Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her personal maid, Wilson. This novel, Keeping the World Away, is about British painter Gwen John, about one of her works, and about the relationship of that work first to John and then to a series of women who live with and cherish the small interior landscape painting.
Gwen John (1876-1939) was a British painter, not as well known as her brother, Augustus John, but whose art has become more popular since her death. Her gentle, quiet work is permanently on display at the Tate Gallery in London, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington, D.C., among other museums and art galleries.
The particular painting in the novel is one Gwen John did of her room while living in a garret in Paris. While she
lived there, she also became a model and lover of the famous sculptor Auguste Rodin. The small work has no person in it, but everyone who views it feels there is a person just on its edge, just around the corner. Although the painting is not signed and many of its several female “owners” do not know its lineage, they all feel inextricably and strongly drawn to it. It calms them, makes them want to enter the room, even makes them want to paint and/or live in an attic garret like the one in the painting.
Ursula, Gwen John’s friend, thinks of the painting, “ There was such longing there…. For the quiet pleasures of a walk in the sun and the picking of primroses. A life outside which had been brought inside? … But… it was in fact the opposite: a life inside which had been brought outside.”
During the novel’s time span, the painting falls into the hands of six women, some on purpose, others by chance: Charlotte, Stella, Lucasta, Ailsa, Mme. Verlon, and Gillian. Some of these women are connected to each other by other circumstances; they are of varying ages. Most of them paint or at least greatly admire good art. All of them are somewhat unorthodox at this period in their lives,
and all are searching for more independence and meaning in their existence.
When Ailsa has the painting, she thinks of it in this way: “She liked lying and looking at it in the morning, lit by this natural light, and at night the two lamps positioned on either side were equally kind to the painting. She had begun to see the point of their being no overt human presence in that room– people were disturbances.” When Ailsa spends time alone on a Scottish island after her husband's
death, she sees almost no people and is happy.
The painting is once stolen but returned as the thief was looking for money, not a small, unsigned painting. After it is stolen, Charlotte sadly reflects, “Perhaps, in the end, the stolen painting had taught her [Charlotte] something. That, at any rate, was how she resolved to think of it, but the memory of it floated in her mind, the images of it, the atmosphere, the spell it had cast over her.”
All the women also love their own private rooms, feel their rooms define and complete them, and this is connected to why they so love the interior painting. Reflects Lucasta, “Her [Lucasta’s] rooms pleased her all the time… she felt it [her living room] represented something of herself.”
Although I love the premise and have consequently grown fascinated by Gwen John’s work, I did find the relationships and generations somewhat confusing. What I especially loved about
Lady’s Maid was that, although it did span generations, it was primarily about the central, uneven relationship between a poet and her personal maid, an intense and complex relationship that the reader could delve into. Each of the women who live with the Gwen John painting are only introduced for 50 pages or less, and their lives/relationships are not as deeply developed as were Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s and Wilson’s. I sometimes had to go back to see who was who and if they were at all related to other women. The book might have worked more successfully if there had been one or two fewer women.
This is primarily a woman’s novel or an art lover’s novel. Writing about the relationship of an artist to her work and of the viewer to a piece of art (and the relationship of painters to models) is fascinating, not often explored in novels, in my experience. Forster continues to select unusual topics for her novels, and I hope she will continue to do so. She is a unique writer who blends fact with fiction, and her works provide excellent historical background of artistic women’s lives and challenges, primarily in England.
At the very end of the novel, the overall significance and power of the painting is quite neatly tied up: Mme. Verlon, who has the painting in London and then Paris and bequeaths it to one of the others, reflects, “She [Gwen John] had painted it to keep the world away [i.e., give artistic/creative women individual space, time to create, away from all other demands]. If it helped others to do the same, her purpose was fulfilled.”
Margaret Forster, also a biographer, has been publishing novels since 1964. She was born in l938 in Carlisle, England, and continues to live in England.