Keeping The World Away By Margaret Forster
It is such a pleasure to read a book that I know nothing about beforehand and to discover that it turns out to be a terrific novel. I have enjoyed earlier books by Margaret Forster, especially Lady's Maid, set in Venice, about the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning - and her maid. Her new novel Keeping the World Away looked interesting and I was so pleased to find that this novel captured my attention completely. And, I discovered the work of an artist, Gwen John, on whose life the story is based. Gwen John was the sister of well known British painter Augustus John. I hate to admit that I did not realize until I was well into the story that the children, Gwen and Gus, turn out to be Augustus John and Gwen John. Gwen was only fifteen when her mother died, leaving a large family to raise themselves.
At the age of seventeen Gwen went off to The Slade to study painting, along with her brother, Gus. Here they were taught by the famous Henry Tonks - the same Henry Tonks who was featured in Pat Barker's Life Class.
A literary coincidence that sometimes happens when two authors choose to use the same time period and the same historical figures in novels published about the same time. I can imagine both Pat Barker and Margaret Forster doing much the same research without knowing it until their most recent novels are published.
After her time at The Slade, Gwen goes off to Paris to study and to paint. She lives in poverty, works as an artist's model, and paints. She is cutting herself off from the world and losing herself in her art, "it was people, people who were alive, who caused disturbance in her." In her small attic room Gwen paints - and it is the small painting of this room, A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris ,that becomes the main character in this novel.
As we span the century, we travel with this little painting through the lives of several women whose lives are all affected by the thoughts provoked by the image reflected in the painting. Gwen herself sometimes re-surfaces in the story, as these lives are loosely linked over the years.
Each person's response to the painting is different - as they bring to it the perspective of their own life experience. The stories of some of the characters absorbed my attention more than others, but all bring something new to the story as the painting brings something new to each of their lives.
The novel examines the artist's life - especially the lives of female artists. There are many women who paint and study art when they are young and do not continue to practice their art once they have a family - some come back to it when the children are grown but many do not, and we question what this does to a woman's identity and self-worth.
We are also made to think about the lives of artists - does the artist need a calm and ordered life in order to work? Is it a myth that strife and anguish contribute to artistic brilliance? I expect it is as different for each person as their work is different.
Each of the owners - the custodians - of the little painting question themselves. They question how to manage their lives. As one lies in bed looking at her picture in the morning light, she thinks "It was only possible to be tranquil if there were no people around…but if so, was not existence rendered barren, loveless?"
Each of the women we meet in this novel ask similar questions, the painting appears to some to say "let life be simple", that one could "keep the world away" but that we also need people, to love and be loved. That "the world could not be kept away, not entirely, if one wished to be happy." As one young painter expresses the need to do "more than just put paint on canvas" each of the characters in this novel want to do more with their own lives than just live.
Gwen John was relatively unknown as an artist until an exhibit of her work in the late 1980s. I am glad that she has been re-discovered and that Margaret Forster was influenced enough by the work and life of Gwen John to use this as the basis for this very satisfying novel - and an introduction to the real life and work of Gwen John.