Keeping the world away

Lost, found, stolen, strayed, sold, fought over… This engrossing, beautifully crafted novel follows the fictional adventures, over a hundred years, of an early 20th-century painting and the women whose lives it touches. …
Quintessential Forster, this is a novel about women’s lives, about what it means and what it costs to be both a woman and an artist, and an unusual, compelling look at a beautiful painting and its imagined after life.

I’m going to start by saying that I just loved this book. So much. It’s wonderful, just wonderful.

Forster tells the story of a fictional painting by Gwen John ((a real artist, but being quite a philistine I’d never heard of her before)) and the various people who own this painting. How they feel about it, what it represents to them, and how it speaks to them.

Many don’t appreciate the painting at first, finding it small, dull, quiet. But the longer they have it the more the painting speaks to them. It reveals themselves to them, and their desires for a room, a space, “of their own” where they can keep the world away, as the title says. The women who come to own this painting over the years are all struggling to find their own space in the world. And this painting, this little “insipid” thing seems to grow and turn into an inspiration and an echo of their own sense of self.

Many of the characters are artists, or wish to be. Forster writes wonderfully about art and painting, the quality of light, the struggle of putting on paper what they see in their minds. It is enough to make you want to pick up a brush and start painting.

But it is also a book about what it is to be a woman in a world designed for men. And especially what it is to wish to be an artist when one is also a woman in a world designed for men. How can you create that space and passion and energy that is needed to be an artist if you must arrange your life around men? If you must devote your time to children and keeping house? How can you let love distract you from your art?

The novel also asks a lot of questions about relationships and what love is. Most of the relationships portrayed in the book are not very successful ones. And the most successful one seems to be such a success because over time the two people involved have drifted apart. Content to share a space but also to live quite separate lives.

I think this is a book I could reread again and again. And I would love to have a work of art mean as much to me as the characters in this book.

I get the feeling that if this was a book by a man, about male artists, it would have received a huge amount of literary success and renown. But the lives of women are only of interest to women, it sometimes seems, and unlike male struggles, they are not regarded as universal.

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