Title: Beauty in Thorns
Author: Kate Forsyth
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Random House/Vintage
Published: 3rd of July 2017
Synopsis: A spellbinding reimagining of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ set amongst the wild bohemian circle of Pre-Raphaelite artists and poets.
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.
Kate Forsyth’s fortieth novel, Beauty in Thorns reimagines the Sleeping Beauty fairy tail, using the well-known version of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and the world of the Pre-Raphaelite artists and poets working to free art from the conventional prison that the Victorian world tried to isolate and suffocate it in. The stories of Ned Burne-Jones and his wife, Georgie, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and his many affairs and obsession with model Lizzie Siddal, William Morris, and Ned Burne-Jones’s daughter were all caught up in this life of perfecting art and the paintings of Briar Rose, and the betrayal of lovers and husbands, rushing into the arms of muses who wished to tear them away from their families. The lives are tragic and romantic, hopeful and realistic, showing the depths and flaws of these characters.
Sweeping across the latter half of the nineteenth century, we meet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, and New Burne-Jones as they enter the art world and find models for their paintings, and they fall in love and out of love. Rossetti’s favourite model, Lizzie Siddal, falls ill during a sitting and following her illness, becomes addicted to laudanum and uses her addiction to the drug and obsession to pull Rossetti towards her, and their tragic relationship faces many ups and downs, the final tragedy striking suddenly and harshly amongst the group of friends and lovers.
Whilst the men painted and had their works exhbited and commissioned, the women wrote poetry and painted too, with Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sister, Christina, author of poems such as Goblin Market, making a few appearances, and other authors, such as Rudyard Kipling, appearing as infants, part of one of the families, and eventually, as adults in the world of art and poetry their parents raised them in. Lizzie, Georgie, Janey and the other models share in their jealousy of each other, and desire to have the men they love to themselves, but they are more than that – they wish to be recognised in their own right as artists and poets, not just wives and mothers, or lovers and models. Beauty in Thorns is a novel full of complex characters whose desires in all aspects of their lives drive them, and influence the decisions they make. I found Georgie and Ned’s story to be the most hopeful – they stayed together through thick and thin, and Georgie didn’t sacrifice her sense of self to become a wife and mother. It is a story of women who fit into their time period, but at the same time, step out of the conventions they were born into and forge their own paths, sometimes separate from the men in their lives, sometimes alongside them, and at times, they do both, creating intrigue within the plot, pulling the reader along towards the conclusion of a story filled with tragedy at times, but hope at others.
Each peripheral character impacted dynamics too, and the group was shaken at times of death and tragedy, but pulled through, showing the strength of family and friendship, not just romantic love in the Pre-Raphaelite community. Even the well-known authors mentioned by name or who make brief appearances such as Rudyard Kipling bring an interest to the story, and cement the setting with mention of their works and inspirations, perhaps hinting at other possible stories to be told. I was unaware of Rudyard Kipling’s familial link to the Pre-Raphaelites prior to reading this, and I hope to be able to look further into it, and read his works, and Christina Rossetti’s works, in a new light.
Beauty in Thorns is a book of beauty, from the cover to the story and characters within. It weaves a magic spell around the reader, and using the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, there are hints as to who the Sleeping Beauty of the Pre-Raphaelites was: Was it Lizzie Siddal, perfect even in death? Or Margot Burne-Jones, her father’s muse, and the child he desired to keep at home, young and innocent, free from the heartbreak of love that he and his friends had experienced? Or is it both, Lizzie sleeping, Margot awake, yet feeling as though she isn’t, and longing for love to awaken her? Having read the novel, I think both are Sleeping Beauty in a way, and Kate Forsyth has conveyed this through beautiful language and imagery that flows delightfully across the page and envelops the reader as though in a warm, comforting blanket.
In each of her books, Kate Forsyth works magic with her words, weaving a spell around characters – whether inspired by real people, imagined or a fictional yet believable image of a historical figure, artist or poet – and creating a world to escape into. Her historical fiction is exceptionally well researched, and Beauty in Thorns is no exception. Using history and fairy tales as inspiration, Kate Forsyth has created a world that I didn’t want to leave, and a book that I wanted to savour yet devour at the same time. I ended up devouring it in two days, as I often do with her books. This is usually the sign of a good book for me, and an intriguing story that combined many themes of family, love, friendship and tragedy, much like The Beast’s Garden, which I am hoping to read again this year.
Another exceptional novel from one of Australia’s favourite storytellers, a true master of the story, Kate Forsyth, Beauty in Thorns is sure to appeal to lovers of historical fiction, fairy tales and Kate’s other works. I look forward to her future novels as well.