Margaret Forster died last year leaving a legacy of her work including 25 novels and 14 biographies. As I write this I am astonished that I have read so few of them because each of the few novels I have read by Margaret Forster I have thoroughly enjoyed. ‘Keeping The World Away’ is no exception.
This novel is based on the fictionalised life of the real life artist Gwen John. John was a 19th century painter known for her quiet portraits of mournful or thoughtful women. Forster uses a picture painted by Gwen to trace the lives of the various women into whose hands it fell. The novel begins with Gwen John herself where we see her embarking on a relationship with Rodin. She goes on to become his mistress and and in her attempts to impress her lover and the gradual dissolution of the relationship comes the painting, of small corner of her attic room. She paints this at a time when she is troubled. It represents a place of tranquility and freedom that goes on to capture the imagination of 5 other women. Charlotte, Stella, Lucasta, Ailsa and Gillian each in their own ways yearn for a similar space of their own.
Throughout the course of the story, the painting travels from Paris to London to Cornwall to a remote Scottish island, back to London and finally back to Paris. I loved the idea of using a painting to connect these women in different places through the course of the 20th Century. Each woman has her own reasons for falling under the spell of this understated painting. The book examines the struggle of women seeking independence and a creative life. This is not a story full of dramatic incident, it is in fact rather understated, and probably all the better for it. The intrigue comes from the carefully drawn characters, the attention to detail and the care with which the story is told.
This was a joy to read and one of the most satisfying books I have read this year.
Since reading ‘Keeping The World Away’ I have read a little about the life of Gwen John who I confess to knowing nothing of prior to this novel. Some of her work is on display at Tate Britain in London, which I plan to visit in the next couple of weeks when I shall certainly seek out her paintings.