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Beauty in Thorns
By Kate Forsyth
Talks / Lecture
By Kate Forsyth
20 July 2017
Kate Forsyth's new novel Beauty in Thorns tells the story of love, obsession and tradegy that underlies Edward Burne-Jones' famous painted depiction of Sleeping Beauty.
Discover the drama that surrounded Pre-Raphaelite Burne-Jones and the many influential women he loved.
In association with Penguin Random House
Speakers: Kathryn Favelle (K), Kate Forsyth (F)
Location: National Library of Australia
Date: Thursday 20 July 2017
K: Good evening. Thank you all for coming out on what I think is possibly the coldest day of the year so far. Maybe not the coldest morning, though, I felt quite tricked this morning. For those of you who don’t know me I’m Kathryn Favelle and I am the Director of Community Outreach here at the Library and it’s lovely to see new faces and old friends here with us this evening.
As we begin I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land and I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land that we are calling home. But tonight I think we’re about to go on a journey far, far away from our little part of the world as we travel with Kate Forsyth and hear about her new novel, Beauty in Thorns.
Now I don’t think you really need me to tell you how wonderful Kate is as a writer. I fell in love with Kate through Bitter Greens and I’ve been travelling along with her ever since and I’m sure you have similar stories of your first encounter with Kate and her work so I think we should just leap into the evening and please join me in welcoming the wonderful Kate Forsyth. Thank you.
F: Hello everyone. Thank you so much for coming out tonight. I know that you would much rather be at home in your tracky dacks and your Ugg boots, maybe having a glass of wine but you’ve chosen to come out and spend some time with me and so thank you very much for that. Now I have always wanted to be a writer – was that my sound that made that? There we go. Technology, I was pressing the wrong button. I have always wanted to be a writer, I have never wanted to do anything else. My mother says that I was writing stories and poems from the time that I could first hold a pencil, actually wrote my first novel when I was only seven years old. I wrote it longhand in a school exercise book, it was called Runaway and you can’t see it up there because it’s written in pencil on the title page but actually says published London, New York and Sydney so I knew when I was only seven years old that I wanted to be an internationally published author.
I wrote my next novel when I was only nine years old, it was called Far, Far Away. Looking up at that you can tell why no-one ever asked me to illustrate my own works but it was – and the cover was actually drawn by big sister, Binnie, ‘cause mine wasn’t good enough. I wrote this novel which is called Daughters of the Mountain when I was in Year 6 at Gordon Public School and I actually wrote it as a school project. Everyone else in the year did picture books with about 20 words in them, I wrote a whole novel. And again you can’t see it, this is actually down the bottom here, is the note that my teacher wrote at the back of the book but because it was written in pencil sometimes you can see it, sometimes you can’t but lucky I know it off by heart. It says excellent work, you write particularly well for your age. Keep on writing and maybe I’ll be buying your books one day. I hope so.
So such a lovely thing for a teacher to write in the book of an 11-year-old wannabe writer. Now I also began to write a diary when I was 11 years old and I have written it nearly every single day since which means I’ve been writing a diary for 40 years. I have more than 60 volumes – that’s the kind of picture down the bottom. I’m only going to read one of them. The examples I’ve chosen have all – is all me going I want to be a writer, I want to be a writer but my particular favourite is this one which I wrote when I was about 17 or 18 in my final year at school. Oh how much I long to be free, all I want to do is write. Why am I shackled by these obligations to my mother, to my family, to my life? If I could just write I would keep myself. I hate this, people say and what are you going to do, Kate? And all I want to say is write.
Now I first tried to get published when I was 16 years old. Now I like to think that the reason that I was not accepted was because I sent them a handwritten manuscript, hand-illustrated in an old school exercise book in my very childish handwriting and not because the book was absolute rubbish. But they sent me the nicest rejection letter ever, I still have it. I kept all of these things. It says Dear Kathryn, thank you so much for sending us your manuscript. I’m afraid that we are unable to publish it at present however keep on writing, you clearly have talent and I'm sure you’ll be published one day.
So once I stopped weeping and once I stopped moping I took those three words as my life mantra, keep on writing. I went back to school, I – after I finished school I went on to university, I did a Bachelor of Arts in literature and creative writing. I kept on writing, I kept on trying to be published. After I finished my first degree I worked as a journalist for the Fairfax Corporation. Every afternoon, every evening as I was spat out of the machinery of Fairfax journalism I’d crawl home, I’d keep on writing and I’d keep on trying to be published.
Now I began to get small things published, free-lance articles, poems, stories but I wanted to be a novelist and the novel that I’d been working on all through my 20s I came so close sometimes, so close. One year I got long-listed for the Vocal Award. Didn’t make the shortlist, didn’t win. The person who won went on to win the Miles Franklin Award and the National Book Award, her name was Helen Demidenko. Anyone who knows anything about Australian literary history will know how I was robbed. Clearly.
Now when I was 25 years old I have – I had what I like to call a quarter life crisis. It kind of involved lying face down with the kind of slow seepage of tears down my face and my boyfriend of the time said I don’t know, Kate, this writing thing of yours, you seem pretty serious about it. Greg, I know, it’s the most important thing in the world. Oh after you, darling. And he said to me well it’s not like you earn that much as a journalist anyway. I tell you what, why don’t you quit fulltime work? Why don’t you give it a really good shot? I’ll kind of help out, help pay the bills, look after you but you got to have a deadline. If you can’t get a novel published by the time you are 30 you’ve got to go and get a real job.
So I got up and dashed all the tears off my face. Five years seemed like such a long time, I was sure that I would be able to get a book published in that time. Five years was quarter of the life that I had then lived. But can I tell you the five years just went past like that? I ended up going back to uni, I did a master’s of arts in creative writing ‘cause I wanted to learn what I was doing wrong that I kept on being rejected. And I was working as a freelance journalist and I ended up actually you know getting a job as a – editor of a magazine so had a fairly full-on part-time job as well. Now halfway through my master’s degree university broke up for the summer holidays. Anyone who’s done a degree in Australia knows that the summer holidays are very long. You get like two months, two-and-a-half months. Now all my friends were sleeping in, going to the beach, going dance partying, going to Bali but I thought no, no, I’m now in a really good work writing kind of place, I’m going to approach my writing as if it was a job. And so all of that long hot summer holiday I got up early, I was showered and dressed and by my you know at my computer by 9am and I began to work on a new novel, a novel that was inspired by a dream that I’d had when I was 16 years old. By the time I had to go back to uni I had a feeling this was the best thing that I had ever written so I packaged up every single word and I sent it off to a literary agent.
Now every publishing seminar you go to says that you need to be patient, you need to wait. I am not very patient and I am not good at waiting but I set myself to try. But I heard back from that agent the very next day. She said that my manuscript had come over her desk in a flood of others. Something about it had just caught her attention, she’d ended up reading it all afternoon and she loved it, she was sure that she could publish it. Well once I stopped hyperventilating I had to confess to her that I actually didn’t have anything else, I’d sent her all that I had written, I didn’t have a complete final draft and so she said to me well when can you get me one? Well I thought well I’m a fulltime university student, practically a fulltime journalist – oh and I’m getting married later this year. I’ve got nothing on. And so I just poured all my energies into writing and finishing that manuscript and by the end of April I had a first draft. She took it out and we ended up having a bidding war for it and first of all in Australia and then internationally as well so on the 1st of June 1996 I signed a three-book contract, Australia, New Zealand, US, Canada, UK, Russia and Germany. Two days later on the 3rd of June I turned 30 so I made that deadline by two days, by the hair of my chinny chin chin.
Now I know the question that’s burning in all of your hearts, you all are dying to know whether the man that I was marrying that year is the same kind man that gave me five years. Reader, I married him. We are still married, he’s at home right now with our three children quite possibly cooking them dinner.
So the book that was published was this one, it was called Dragon Claw in Australia and Witches of Eileanan in the US. It changed my life, I went from being an impoverished university student that could barely manage to scrape enough money for a bus fare into being an internationally best-selling author. The life of this book continues to astonish me, it still sells strongly now. This year is actually the 20th anniversary of its publication. You can tell – this is all fan art that you’ve got up on the screen behind me now – you can tell that my heroine had long red hair which is a bit of an obsession of mine. The little quotation is actually a quotation from the book that has now been made into jewellery, into spoons, into wall decals, I see it on my Twitter feed about a dozen times a day. The original quote was, may your heart be kind, your mind fierce and your spirit brave. It is actually nearly always used now by personal trainers trying to make people exercise. I find this deeply ironic.
Since then I’ve had 40 books published in 17 languages around the world and I make my living from my writing and have done so now for 20 years.
Now I come from a family of writers. Many of you will know this, some of you will know the work of my sister whose name is Belinda Murrell. Quite often when I go and talk at schools, particularly to younger girls and I mention my sister’s name and I say yeah, she’s the author of the Lulu Bell books and there’s this oh kind of you know gasp of excitement from the little girls. She’s one of Australia’s top-selling children’s authors. The cute little ragamuffin next to her is my brother, Nick. Now my brother, Nick, is also an internationally published author. My brother, Nick, writes books about tax, property, law you know his books sell extremely well. In fact many of you might – if you’ve ever bought a home he’s the first Australian – no, the Australian First Homebuyer’s Guide is his bestselling title.
It is interesting that all three of us are authors but I do come from a family of authors. My – well first of all James Atkinson, my great-great-great-great-grandfather wrote the first book ever written about life in the colonies. It’s called An Account of the State of Agriculture and Grazing in New South Wales, unbelievably boring. My sister and I say that my brother, Nick, must take after him. His wife was Charlotte Atkinson and she actually wrote the first children’s book published in Australia. It’s called A Mother’s Offering to Her Children by a Lady Long Resident in New South Wales. Now the story of how my great-great-great-great-grandmother wrote this book is a story of love and loss and grief and the overcoming of almost insurmountable odds. It’s the story that I love to tell ‘cause I’m an old storyteller as well as a novelist and I’m not going to tell it to you tonight ‘cause I have got other stories that I want to share with you but I hope that one day I will have a chance to tell you more about this amazing woman and her amazing story. Of course the National Library of Australia has the largest, in fact probably the only true resource of her writing including one of the first editions of her book which I believe is worth about 70 or $80,000 now.
When the Children’s Book Council of Australia named an award after her they wanted to have a first edition copy and they applied to the Library to see if they could borrow one but they couldn’t afford the cost of the security guards. Anyway it’s an absolutely fascinating part of Australian literary history but the other part that’s really, really interesting is that their youngest daughter so James’ and Charlotte’s younger daughter was Louisa Atkinson who was the first Australian-born female novelist, my great-great-great-aunt.
But I think there’s another reason why I you know writing was so incredibly important to me and that’s because books were so incredibly important to me. When I was a little girl I was savaged by a dog. I was only two years and two months old and the attack happened in the back garden of my father’s vet hospital. I was very, very badly hurt, I lost my ear and nearly lost this eye. I was in surgery for hours and hours and had more than 200 stitches putting my head back together again. Now I never woke up after the surgery, I actually lay in a coma for more than seven weeks. I ended up with meningitis and then encephalitis, both of which are life-threatening conditions, particularly 1968 when this happened.
Now the doctors wanted to drill a hole into my skull and insert a tube to try and drain out the fluids. This would be called a stent but my mother refused to give them permission to do the surgery. My mother was a trained nurse, she was actually the matron of a hospital. She has an incredible knowledge of medicine and she knew that this surgery had never been successful, ever. The doctors went away to try and convince you know to find a doctor who could convince her. They told her if you don’t do this surgery your daughter will die. As it is she’s likely to be a vegetable for the rest of her life so my mother sat beside me, I was kept on a little bed of ice because my temperature was so high I was having febrile fits, I had fans blowing cold air onto me and I was only quite little, only two years old. My mother sat beside me and she held my hand and she said Katie, come back, Katie, please come back and she bent and she kissed me on the forehead and I opened my eyes, I woke up and according to my mother my first words were, I hungry.
Now I was like the little miracle baby, no-one had ever thought that I would survive this catastrophic dog attack but as it turned out I was not out of the woods yet. The doctors discovered that the dog’s fangs had destroyed the tear duct in the corner of my eye and without a tear duct – I mean I’m sure you’ve never given that small pink triangle of flesh a moment’s thought but like so many little parts of our body it has a very important function, it washes away dirt and germs away from our brain. Without a tear duct I was unable to control my tears. I wept all the time. I was like that painting of Picasso’s of a weeping woman, a tear continually flowing down my face and my eye was continually inflamed, sore and infected so I spent my childhood in and out and in and out of hospital.
Now when I was seven years old I had – I was being rushed to hospital again. It was very late at night, probably about 1:00 in the morning, 2:00 in the morning and my eye was so badly swollen that it was like a huge contusion, you couldn’t even see the eyelashes, the eye was so swollen around it and I was again having febrile fits ‘cause my temperature was so high. I was being raced – I remember this distinctly – I was being raced along the corridor on a kind of a trolley and the fluorescent light was flashing over my head like bars of light and my mother was running beside me and all the doctors were you know checking my pulse and my temperature and shouting things. They got me into the hospital ward. The hospital I was in was actually the Sydney Eye Hospital in Woolloomooloo and they lifted me from the trolley onto the bed and within seconds those nurses had me tucked in so tight, sheets are like iron with those hospital corners and then up come the bars on either side and there you are imprisoned within this little white cot and the doctors are trying to find your veins to put the needles in and you’re being attached to all the machines and everything’s beeping around you and everyone – it’s unbelievably frightening experience is all that I can say to you. And my mother, she pressed a book into my hands.
Now my mother kept a box of books hidden so that whenever we had an emergency dash to the hospital she could grab something because books were – as I had said in an article I’d written about it books were my only source of sunshine, my only solace. This particular occasion the book I tucked into my hands was this one, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, a beautiful hardback red leather version of it. Now I read that book all night. The nurses kept coming in and going come on, sweetie, you got to get some rest but as the drugs did their work and my fever began to calm I just wanted to read this book ‘cause it was the last thing my mother had left for me.
Now the stories in this book are the ones that have haunted my imagination more than anything - any other fairy tale. I’m talking about Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel and Six Swans and Hansel and Gretel you know the – probably the world’s most favourite fairy tales too.
Now you can probably understand that Sleeping Beauty had a certain resonance for me because I was the miracle child, the girl that woke up when I’d been told – when everyone had thought I would never wake up but Rapunzel is another story that had an enormous kind of pull on my imagination. I don’t know how well you remember the story of Rapunzel but it’s a story about a girl who’s locked away from the world against her will just as I had been locked away from the world against her will and it’s about a girl or a young woman who has the power to heal. If you remember, after Rapunzel has had her plait cut off and she’s been cast out into the wilderness to bear her twins alone – you might not remember that detail but it’s there – the prince climbs up the plait, he climbs up the plait all the way to top but when he gets there he doesn’t find Rapunzel he finds the witch and she says to him you thought to find your pretty bird but she has flown and now I shall scratch out your eyes and she flings him down from the tower height. He falls amongst thorns and he’s blinded. In darkness, wounded, bleeding, he stumbles into the wilderness and there Rapunzel finds him and she weeps and as her tears fall upon his eyes he is healed.
Now I was a girl whose own tears made me sick, in fact my own tears threatened my very life and so to read a story about a young woman whose tears healed, well now I understand that Rapunzel gave me hope that maybe one day I too would escape my tower and maybe one day I too would be healed. And obviously that day came for me ‘cause I’m here with you now. When I was 11 years old I became the youngest Australian to ever have an artificial tear duct inserted. It’s still in there, it’s not entirely perfect but it does a much better job than the alternative and so from the age of 11 I had a much more normal childhood, could play, pat dogs, climb trees, I was allowed outside when the wind was blowing.
But Rapunzel haunted my imagination – I was 12 when I first tried to do a Rapunzel retelling. I wrote a page and a half – I still have it – but many years later I returned to the story. I’d actually been wanting to write it for a very long, long time but I knew it was going to be a big and difficult book for me and so I waited ‘til all three of my children were at school. I called it my golden year. All three children at my local primary school and so I began to work on my Rapunzel story. I ended up doing it as part of a doctorate of creative arts primarily because I knew that I was going – I was doing a whole lot of research that no-one had ever done before and I thought I might as well get a scholarship from the government while I was doing it.
So Bitter Greens is my top-selling book, it sold more than a quarter of a million copies, it won the American Library Association award for Best Historical Fiction and it was one of those books that really helped change my life as well. It was the creative component of my doctorate and this is the theoretical component so I wrote a mythic biography of Rapunzel.
Now while I was writing this book I actually did a chapter on all of the major – so I followed the story all the way through from the earliest kind of Neolithic evidence, through Greek myths, Jewish fairy tales, all the way through to the Grimm brothers and then all the way through to Tangled but the first person to rewrite or to respond in a creative manner to the fairy tale of Rapunzel was actually a man called William Morris and he was part of the Pre-Raphaelite circle. And while I was writing my chapter on William Morris I got all interested in the Pre-Raphaelites again and I’m going to tell you a little bit about that later because before I wrote my chapter on William Morris I wrote my chapter on the Grimm brothers and that of course was the inspiration for my novel, The Wild Girl, which is a story of the young woman who told the Grimm brothers, in particular Wilhelm Grimm, more than a quarter of all the tales that they collected in their first edition of Fairy Tales in 1812.
And so The Wild Girl rose out of my research, my doctorate into fairy tales and then it – it then in turn inspired another book which is Beauty – I’m sorry, The Beast’s Garden where I retell one of [Dauchin Viele’s] 27:58 stories, my actual favourite of hers. The story’s called The Singing Springing Lark and again it’s one of my favourite stories to tell as an oral or performance storyteller but all you really need to know about it is it’s the very beautiful version of Beauty and the Beast in which the heroine actually saves the prince and she doesn’t do so by weeping and promising to marry him, she actually sets out after him and fights for him and defeats the enchantress that cast a curse upon him. It’s a much better version of Beauty and the Beast than the French version.
But this brings me to the reason why we are here tonight, my most recent book – it’s been out oh gosh, not even two weeks yet and yet it’s been such a whirlwind for me. Now I told you that when I was doing my doctorate and I was writing my mythic biography of Rapunzel, it got me all interested in the Pre-Raphaelites again but I thought I’d tell you the story about how I first got interested in them. So when I was doing my first degree, Bachelor of Arts, I was actually studying a lot of different topics including one called Culture, Myth and Symbolism where I was studying myth and fairy tales for the very first time.
Now one day I was walking along a street and I passed one of those kind of art framing and poster shops and they had this painting hanging in the window and it had a bit of cardboard in the shape of a star stuck on it, for sale, $12. Now $12 was coincidentally all the money that I had in my wallet. It had to pay all my food and my rent and all my bus trips and all my costs for the whole week but I had to have it. Now it’s partly because something about it just drew me in. Straight away I recognised it, it’s a painting of Persephone which is called Persepina in Italian. And Persephone is my favourite Greek myth.
Now I don’t know if you know the story, Persephone was the daughter of the goddess of the harvest, Demeter, and one day she was out in the meadow playing and laughing with her maids of honour and she was ravished away and taken by Hades, the god of the underworld, taken away from the world of life and sunlight and beauty and taken down to the underworld and there was trapped. And Demeter, her mother, searched for her everywhere and could not find her and in her bitter grief and fear for her daughter the whole world became frozen, all the leaves fell from the trees, all the birds began to drop dead ‘cause there was nothing for them to eat, the land was locked in frost and ice and snow.
She could not find her daughter. At last Demeter went to Zeus, the king of the gods and she said to him, please, help me find my daughter. You see everything and so Zeus looked and then he saw Persephone, he saw that she was held captive in the underworld by Hades, the god of the dead. But he also saw that she had eaten six seeds of a pomegranate plant – fruit, sorry. He can see her holding it and because she had eaten the fruit of the dead, six seeds of the pomegranate, Zeus condemned her to spend six months of every year in Hades. And whenever she’s forced to go back down into that world of the dead Demeter grieves once more and winter comes to the world.
So that’s the story of Persephone, my favourite Greek myth. Up in the corner is a poem and I stood there with my nose pressed against that dirty glass trying to read that poem but it was in Italian. My Italian’s not very good but I was able to actually decipher a few words in it. And down the bottom on a scroll was written a name, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. What a fantastic name, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, I had to have this painting. So I went in and I paid the man every cent I had. And as he rolled up the poster and stuck it in one of those cardboard things he said to me oh yeah, it’s a really sad story, that one. You know the bloke that painted her, that bird? Well you know he was in love with her but she was married to his best friend and he couldn’t have her. Drove him mad. He ended up dying, really sad story. And I'm there clutching my little cardboard thing going art, poetry, myth, love, betrayal, madness, death, this story’s got everything.
And so I took it home and I stuck it up on my wall with blue tack. Now I was living in a horrible little kind of student squat ‘cause I was very poor, I had a mattress on the floor, I had a suitcase where I kept my clothes, that was about it. But every morning when I woke up the first thing that I was saw was this painting and it was the last thing that I saw every night before I went to bed. It was the most beautiful thing that I owned.
Now about two weeks later I was at a church fete and I’m rummaging around looking for cheap books to buy and I came across a hardback biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It cost me $17. Oh my gosh, that was like two weeks of my money but I bought it and I read it and that was the first time that I heard this story, the beautiful, tragic story of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the women who loved him and who he loved. It was the first time that I ever heard about Christina Rossetti, his sister, the poet and I ended up buying a lot of her poetry and she’s now one of my favourite poets. It’s the first time that I read about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Now there’s not much – I don’t want to – I could talk to you for two hours and still not come to the end of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but all you really need to know, it was a secret society formed by these seven young men. It was actually conceived by the top three, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt but Rossetti thought if we’re going to have a secret society we got to have seven people so he brought in his brother, William, and he brought in his sister’s fiancé who was James Collinson. Didn’t last. And a couple of other friends as well. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood only lasted a few years but it was astonishingly influential. What they wanted to do is they wanted to shake up the art world. The Victorian art world, it was just full of enormous, dark, brown muddy photographs of rich famous men pretty much and they wanted to do something quite, quite different, they wanted to return art to a kind of purity and simplicity and luminosity that had been lost. And so they were called the Pre-Raphaelites ‘cause they wanted to return to what art was like before Raphael.
Now they drew around them an astonishing sisterhood of models and muses and mistresses and wives and sisters and daughters and three of those women are the key characters in my book, Beauty in Thorns. This is the first one, Lizzie Siddal. This is her first ever painting. Lizzie Siddal was discovered in a milliner’s shop by the painter, Walter Deverell and he wanted to paint her because she was not pretty. She looked like a boy and he was painting Twelfth Night. The heroine of Twelfth Night is a girl called Viola who spends the whole play dressed as a boy and gets away with it. Everyone thinks she’s a boy and so Lizzie Siddal was not at all what you would expect a beauty to look like but the Pre-Raphaelites loved her uncommon beauty and she ended up becoming the first face of the Pre-Raphaelites. This is her here, dressed as a boy. You can see her red hair. The man dressed in the jester’s outfit is Dante Gabriel Rossetti and they met as a consequence of this painting and they fell ever more deeply in love.
Now Lizzie actually modelled for most of the Pre-Raphaelites, this is her most famous painting. This is Johnny Millais’ painting of Ophelia. Now Johnny, when he painted this he was only 20 and Lizzie was only 20. He painted the banks and the flowers and everything in the countryside all summer and autumn but by the time it came time to paint the figure of Ophelia at the point of drowning it was winter and it was a bitterly cold winter, January 1852. And Lizzie had to dress herself in this antique silver embroidered wedding dress that Johnny had bought for a few bob at a rag and bone shop. And then he dragged up an old bathtub and set it up in his studio and then he filled it up with buckets drawn from the river Thames, cold and dirty, very, very dirty. Lizzie had to lie in that bath in this position for hours.
Now Johnny didn’t want her to get cold so he’d actually set a few like lanterns and candles underneath the bath but it was January, it was snowing outside and the studio was very draughty and one by one those little flames blew out, the studio got darker and darker and colder and colder and Lizzie lay there in that freezing cold filthy water for five hours. Now Lizzie could not afford to complain, she couldn’t afford to lose this job. Lizzie was earning more in that one afternoon, five hours’ modelling, than she would earn as – in a year as a milliner’s apprentice and her family was very, very poor. Her elder brother, Charlie, had died two weeks earlier of tuberculosis and so the family were in a really hard place because he’d been a key earner for the family. Lizzie could not complain so she lay there ‘til Johnny finally noticed that she was blue and shuddering with cold. But it was too late, Lizzie was very sick. She ended up most probably with pneumonia.
Now her family called a doctor. Now anyone who knows anything about Victorian times knows that extremely poor people did not call doctors. Johnny Millais did agree to pay the doctor’s bills but the doctor prescribed Lizzie laudanum which is a tincture of opium in alcohol, highly addictive and readily available in every chemist store. Now this painting is probably the most famous painting of John Everett Millais, it now worth $50m and one of the things that seems so eerie about this painting is how it foreshadows what was going to happen to Lizzie. The first thing that people notice is that there is a red poppy floating right by her hand. Opium of course is distilled from the poppy plant. And the poppy is a symbol of death. But even more strange, eerie, is that Johnny Everett Millais painted into the foliage on the bank the shape or shadow of a skull, long known as a symbol of death and mortality. When you to go to Tate Britain and look at this painting you’ll find people peering at it, starting at the skull in absolute fascination. It’s up there on the bank. That’s what it looks like.
Now this painting was enormously successful, it made Millais’ reputation, it earnt him a huge amount of money and set him on his path to become one of the greatest painters of the Victorian age but it broke Lizzie’s life. A couple of things happened. First of all she was – never truly recovered her health, secondly she was addicted to laudanum and most of her earnings went on getting it and thirdly Dante Gabriel Rossetti, her lover, was jealous of the attention that she got and attention of this painting and he said he didn’t want her modelling for anyone else again and so she lost her primary form of income. Gabriel, as he was called by his friends, drew her and painted her obsessively but his paintings were not selling like Johnny Millais’ and so they were both very, very poor.
Now these are just some of the many drawings about her. You can see from this quotation by Ford Madox Brown, one of the outer circle of the pre-Raphaelites, I saw Miss Siddal looking thinner and more death-like and more ragged than ever. This painting up the top is one of the first drawings that Gabriel ever did of Lizzie. This one down here, you can see she’s considerably thinner. Lizzie developed an eating disorder either caused by or exacerbated by her laudanum addiction. Laudanum is a – appetite suppressant among other things. And she got thinner and thinner and thinner. She was wasting away before everyone’s eyes.
Now in those – in our day when we see a young woman who refuses to eat who gets thinner and thinner, who hides food or refuses food, won’t eat with other people, tells you that she’s already eaten, she’s not hungry, we would all without hesitation suspect anorexia nervosa but anorexia is a psychological disorder that was not named or defined until 11 years after Lizzie’s death, no-one knew what anorexia nervosa was. They all thought she had tuberculosis but she went to dozens of doctors who all said well she doesn’t have tuberculosis because the tubercle which is the little disease that causes that is not present in her body. No-one could understand it and yet everyone around her had to watch her getting thinner and thinner and thinner. This is a painting that Gabriel did of her in 1854 and that’s a painting that she did of herself in 1855. You can see how thin and haunted she looks, how shadowed her eyes, how she is dwindling away before our very eyes.
Now Lizzie wanted to be an artist herself. She actually became a model because she wanted to learn how to draw and paint. She wrote poetry, the most delicate and melancholy poetry as well, that’s just one of her poems. Lizzie Siddal was the only woman to be included in the first ever exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art which was in 1857 but by that time it was getting a bit late for Lizzie because Dante Gabriel Rossetti was obsessed with painting beautiful women with golden red hair and these are just some of his other models. These are his main models, Fanny Cornforth, Ruth Herbert was an actress. Annie Miller was actually the mistress of William Holman Hunt. When he went away to Jerusalem to paint he said Annie can model for anyone but Gabriel but she did anyway and they had it is suspected a fling, it may only have been a flirtation. Alexa Wilding, Marie Ford and then Annie Cornforth again. We know that Fanny Cornforth was his mistress for quite some time ‘though a little bit later on.
Now this painting here, there’s two paintings by Gabriel, both of them of St George and the Princess Sabra who was a princess he rescues from the dragon. In this one you can see that they are so closely entwined that you cannot tell one body from the other. It is a scene of incredible intimacy and tenderness. It’s almost claustrophobic in the way that the two bodies are entwined around each other. That’s 1857 and this one, 1863, six years later, the Princess Sabra kneels at St George’s feet, she clutches at him with both her hands. She looks ill, she’s pale and her eyes are shadowed. The only thing that seems alive about her is that river of brilliantly red hair and St George stares over her shoulder out the window as if wishing that he could be away from her. I think these two paintings show the change in Gabriel’s feelings towards Lizzie quite clearly.
Now around this time we have the entry into the Pre-Raphaelite circle of two fascinating young men and these are the other two major male characters in Beauty in Thorns. The first one is Edward Burne-Jones and the second one is William Morris. They met on their first day when they had to sit the examinations to enter Oxford, they sat side by side and from that moment of meeting it was like friendship at first sight and they were best friends until their deaths. William Morris was a very privileged young man, his father was a cofounder of the richest copper mine in the UK, indeed in Europe. He was one of a very large family, staunchly middleclass. He was extremely loved and looked after. He was obsessed with medieval times. When he was seven years old his father bought him a pony and had him made a suit of armour and a lance so he could go out and play and pretend to be a knight.
Edward Burne-Jones however came from a very poor family, his father framed art for a living but his mother died when Ned was only six days old and his father was so stricken with grief that he never recovered. He paid no attention at all to his son. Once a week he took the little boy through the streets of Birmingham to the graveyard and they knelt on his mother’s grave and they prayed and his father wept. And that was the only contact that he had with his father for most of his life. He was desperately poor. They were both at Oxford to learn how to be ministers but about halfway through their degrees they decided to rebel and run away and become artists.
Now Ned Burne-Jones had never seen a painter work, he’d never been inside an artist’s studio, he’d never had an art lesson but ever since he was a little boy he had drawn as his primary occupation, it was a thing that gave him joy and comfort in his sad, cold and lonely life. William Morris couldn’t draw but he wanted to be an architect or a designer or a poet, he couldn’t quite decide what he wanted to be but he knew he didn’t want to be a minister and so they rebelled and they quit university. William Morris’ family made him go back so he ended up getting his degree but Ned ran away and he went to London. He wanted to seek out the man he admired above all other men, the man he wanted to teach him, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Now by this time the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had you know Thomas Wilner had actually come here to Australia and the others had all separated. James Colliner had broken off his engagement to Christina Rossetti you know they’d all gone their separate ways. John Everett Millais was having his own romantic adventures. But Dante Gabriel Rossetti loved to be loved, he loved the worship of these younger men and he said I know, let’s set up a new Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood so they gathered together seven young men and they went to Oxford to paint murals on the walls of the Oxford Debating Hall. None of them had painted murals before but that didn’t stop them and in Oxford two of the men met their fate. Janie Burden. She was 17 years old. She was six foot tall. She was a slum girl. Her father was an osler or groom in the stable yard of an inn, her mother was literate, could not read or write and was a laundress. She’d been brought up in the worst slum of Oxford, St Helen’s Passage, now known as being one of the filthiest and most crime-ridden and dirt-ridden places in Oxford of the time.
She was discovered in a theatre. She went to the theatre with her sister on her birthday. It wasn’t a theatre for the proper play, it was a musical hall number and each ticket only cost half a penny. It was actually held – not even in a theatre, it was in a gymnasium. But Dante Gabriel Rossetti saw Jane Burden and at once he knew he had to paint her and so he approached her and asked her to be his model.
Now this is the first painting of Janie Burden up there in that corner, that’s her posing as Queen Guinevere and – but she was drawn and painted by most of the Pre-Raphaelites. This is a drawing of her by Rossetti and that’s a drawing of her by William Morris.
Now Lizzie at his point was very, very ill and she was at a health spa at Matlock in Derbyshire but she heard on the grapevine that Gabriel was smitten with this uncommonly striking young woman and she wrote to him and she summoned him to her side and so Gabriel left. He never finished his murals, that’s what they still look like. Now it’s believed that Janie and Gabriel had an affair. She was only 17, he was almost 30 but she was left completely bereft when he left her and it meant that she had to go back to her life in the slums.
Now for three months she’d been considered and praised and painted and adored and then she’s dropped back into the gutter, it’s heartbreaking for her except that William Morris had fallen in love with her and he stayed, he didn’t go back to London like all the other painters, he stayed and painted her as Isolte.
Now after a couple of months he wrote on the back of that canvas I cannot paint you but I love you and he asked her to marry him and Janie agreed. They were married 26th of April 1859 which you will notice is a couple of years after the proposal and this is because Janie had only gone to school ‘til she was 12, she could only just read and write, she spoke like a slum girl, she walked and acted like a slum girl and William Morris was one of the richest young men in Great Britain. So he sent her off to learn to be a lady.
Now it might interest you to know that their daughter, May Morris, had a passionate menage a trois with her husband the playwright, George Bernard Shaw, who wrote a very famous play called Pygmalion and Pygmalion of course was turned into a – extremely popular musical, My Fair Lady and so yes, Janie Burden is the original Eliza Doolittle. She actually did sell flowers on street corners when she was a girl.
So she became a lady and married William Morris and one year later Gabriel married Lizzie. They had been together for 11 years. She’d almost died numerous times. She was actually on her deathbed just before their wedding and Gabriel went to her and he said please, if you can just eat, if you can just get better I promise you this time I really will marry you – they’d been engaged three times before. And so she ate, she got better. When she was strong enough to walk to the church they were married, 23rd of May 1860 and within weeks Ned Burne-Jones married his childhood sweetheart, Georgie Burne-Jones who is actually the key character in Beauty in Thorns, my most important character. She was the daughter of a Methodist minister, she was very small and she was very determined, she was determined to have Ned because she’d been in love with him since she was 12 years old.
Now for a while oh they were so happy, those three couples, they spent all their time together, they holidayed and spent their weekends at Red House which William Morris built in the countryside, they used to play hide and seek and they had great feasts and they used to play bowls in the garden. Janie had never played hide and seek before, a telling thing for a young woman, isn’t it? And they painted each other onto the walls. This mural here is Gabriel and Lizzie – oops and this one up here is William Morris as King Arthur and his wife, Janie Morris as Guinevere. But of course if you know the story of King Arthur and Guinevere there’s always a Lancelot, isn’t there? Yes.
Anyway as time went on both Janie and Lizzie fell pregnant and soon after George was pregnant too and then the babies began to come. So you see here up on the left-hand side, that’s Janie Morris with her two daughters, Jenny and May. In the middle we have George Burne-Jones with her son, Phil and Ned Burne-Jones with an older Phil. And the gorgeous photograph in the trees which is one of my favourite pictures of the Pre-Raphaelite children was that they were brought up free, without corsets, without petticoats. They were allowed to climb trees and row on the river and play in the garden, they were brought up not like normal Victorian children. You have here May Morris, Margot Burne-Jones, Phil Burne-Jones and Jenny Morris. And in the middle you have the photograph of the two family, the Morris family and the Burne-Jones family with Janie Morris looking very unhappy.
Now those of you who’ve been paying attention will all think but what about Lizzie? Wasn’t she meant to have a baby too? Wasn’t she pregnant too? Now less than a month after Jenny Morris was born Lizzie was delivered of a stillborn daughter and she was heartbroken and mind-broken. Three days after the baby was born dead Ned and Georgie Burne-Jones visited her and found her rocking an empty cradle and singing a lullaby to it. And she found this unbearable. She kept running away, she kept being sent to stay in the country with the Morris’ but Janie was pregnant with another child and had a little girl and so she would run away to the Browns, Ford Madox Brown but his wife, Cathy, was having her third child so she ran away from there as well. No-one knew what to do with her. And almost exactly a year after the birth of her dead daughter Lizzie died herself of a laudanum overdose.
Now the inquest found it death by accidental overdose but within hours of her body being discovered the rumours were swirling. Had Lizzie committed suicide? Had Gabriel murdered her? Because he wanted to be rid of her so he could be with his mistress, Fanny Cornforth. Nobody knew the truth and we still don’t know the truth. This poem that she wrote which is desperately sad is one of her last poems, possibly the last poem, was written in a very shaky hand either when she was very ill or when she was under the influence of laudanum.
Now Gabriel was absolutely horrified at her death, he was haunted by her, he saw her ghost every night at the end of his bed. He began to go to seances, he tried to raise her ghost. He tried to ask her that she was now happy, that he was now free and he painted this painting. This is a picture of Lizzie Siddal at the moment of death. The red dove is delivering the white poppy of death into her hands. The sun dial is set at 9pm, the time it is believed that she died.
Now when she was buried in Highgate Cemetery Gabriel buried the only copy of his poems with her, handwritten notebook, every poem he’d ever written was buried in her grave, with Lizzie. And for a long time Gabriel was a recluse, he was very ill, he became addicted to chloralhydrate. He could not sleep because he kept seeing Lizzie’s ghost everywhere and so he began taking this – a chloralhydrate in alcohol is called a Mickey Finn and this is what he was taking all day and every night to try and help him sleep. He was painting his dead wife obsessively, he was seeing her ghost everywhere that he went. On one occasion a bird flew down and landed on a fence post near to him and he believed that was Lizzie’s spirit come to reproach him.
Now seven years after Lizzie’s death Gabriel had her body exhumed so he could get back his poems and when you imagine Highgate’s Cemetery, it was dark, it was done at night, fires had been lit but the smoke from the fires mingled with the mist. I want you to hear the thudding of the undertaker’s shovels as they hit the coffin and the groan of the chains as the coffin is brought up out of that cold earth and then the lid being prized off and a manuscript of poetry being retrieved. There are only three pages of the manuscript left, they’re all in the British Library and yes, those are wormholes.
Gabriel transcribed the poems out of his manuscript and then burnt the manuscript, all but a few pages but the smell of it lingered in his skin and in his hair and he sank deeper and deeper into depression and into addiction. Now Janie Morris, his best friend’s wife had always loved him and she could not bear to see him so and she tried to save him with her love. Their affair began in 1865 about three years after the death of Lizzie and for a long time it was kept secret but Gabriel was as obsessed with Janie as he’d ever been with Lizzie, he drew her and drew her and painted her and painted her and as you can see the drawings are astonishingly intimate and even provocative. This painting here, one of his most famous paintings, along the curtain rail he inscribed famous for her husband and poet and most famous for her face so let this picture of mine add to her fame.
So unsurprisingly rumours began about the relationship between Gabriel and Mrs William Morris. This is a painting of William Morris and Janie Morris on a cabinet at Red House and the face of Janie has been hacked away, most probably by William Morris himself when he discovered the affair. He sold Red House in 1865 and they moved to London and they lived above the workshop of Morris and Co where they were making stained glass and tiles and cushions and furnishings and furniture and the affair continued. In 1871 so quite a considerable amount of time after their affair began William Morris decided to let them be together. He travelled to Iceland but he hired a house on the river Thames in Kent. It’s called Kelmscott Manor and I want it, it’s the best house, you should see it, the gardens, it’s absolutely beautiful, it’s an old Elizabethan manor. And this is one of the paintings he did of Janie while he was there and you can see Kelmscott Manor in the background. They had a – enchanted summer of love and while they were there together with Janie’s two daughters, Gabriel and Janie together and her husband off in Iceland he painted her and he wrote the most - series, the most astonishing love poetry to her. He gave it to her at the end of the summer.
Now that manuscript of handwritten poetry is now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and I’ve read it, had it brought up out of the Special Collections – not allowed to take photographs, not allowed to have a pen or scissors, the only thing you’re allowed to take into the room with you is a pencil, not sharp, and some paper. So I transcribed the poems by hand to use them in the book and to share them with you today. And as I was transcribing them I got this great lump in my throat and then I began to cry and I actually had tears sliding down my cheek ‘cause the poems are so full of desire and longing and heartbreak. And I had to be really careful ‘cause if one tear had plopped onto the page they’d never let me back into the Special Collections Room at the Bodleian Library so I’m like this and then transcribing the poems and trying not to destroy the paper that they’re written on, they’re beautiful.
But when they got back to London after this enchanted summer of love well the rumours about their relationship were heating up but worse than that, the story of how Gabriel had dug up his dead wife’s body to get out his poems and publish those poems and was now romping around with the wife of another man? Victorian London was not happy and the scandal was extreme. He – it actually was reported in all of the papers, not the affair, that was just hinted at ‘cause Victorians wouldn’t actually come out and say it but they accused Gabriel of what they called loathsome sensuality and it just sent him over the edge. He had a psychotic break, he went quite mad, he had to be confined. They wanted to send him to an asylum, his mother but his brother and his friends and the old Pre-Raphaelites came to Gabriel’s rescue and they paid for him to be kept in a house with a guard of doctors. He tried to commit suicide with laudanum but was brought back from the brink of death but he suffered a stroke and one half of his body never recovered.
Now he painted Janie as Persephone at the end of that summer. He saw Janie as being like Persephone, condemned to a life – a loveless marriage, condemned to live in a half-life in the world for the dead and he painted her again and again, he actually painted her eight times as Persephone in many different forms. This one, the last version, he painted just before he died, three weeks before he died and he painted Janie with Lizzie’s red hair. Quite eerie, isn’t it?
Now that’s the story behind one painting, painting of Persephone, the one that first got me interested but Beauty in Thorns is actually really about the story behind Edward Burne-Jones’ obsession and fascination with the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, a fairy tale that has always spoken very powerfully to me as well ‘cause it’s a story about a girl who is awakened and when she’s asleep the whole world sleeps with her, the whole world is cursed. And when she is awakened then the whole world awakes and sings with her. I don’t want to tell you this story ‘cause I want you to read the book but I'm going to tell you one small detail before we finish tonight. Right from the very beginning when I first discovered the extraordinary story of love and betrayal and art and beauty that lies behind these paintings of sleeping beauty I knew that I wanted to structure my story along the same pattern, what I would call the pattern of action of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale.
Now Sleeping Beauty begins, once upon a time there was a queen who longed for a child and then at last the child is born to her, a daughter and the – in the celebrations of that daughter’s birth the King invites all the fairies of the realm to a christening feast but he only has 12 golden plates and so he doesn’t invite the 13th fairy, usually called the slighted fairy and in her rage she curses that girl to prick her finger on her 15th birthday and die. You know how the story goes on but in my mind Georgie Burne-Jones was always going to be the Queen and her daughter, Margot Burne-Jones – Margot Burnes is the model of the sleeping princess in Edward Burne-Jones’ penultimate painting of Sleeping Beauty. He began to draw her obsessively when she was just 15. That’s her on the side there, age 15. And he worked on his Sleeping Beauty paintings for the next half a dozen years. His daughter was his muse, his only muse and she was kept frozen in that moment of time, sleeping princess who was cursed.
Now you’ve got to realise that Edward Burne-Jones was terrified of death, his mother had died when he was only six years, his childhood was spent on his knees praying on his mother’s grave. Anyone he loved he lost and so he had what is called thanatrophobia, a phobia of death, fear of death. Now my daughter is 13 years old, she is galloping towards womanhood as fast as her long lithe legs will carry her and my husband and I, we keep going oh but she’s so beautiful right now, if only we could just stop time, if only we’d just enjoy her before she really becomes a teenager. And so I perfectly understand Edward Burne-Jones’ desire to immobilise his daughter at this sweet instance of innocence. But you can’t, time must go on.
So for me Margot was my sleeping princess, her mother, Georgie, was my Queen. Now there’s so much written about the Pre-Raphaelites, the second generation very little at all. I had to look really long and hard and dig deep to find out Margot’s story and one of the things that I could never find out was when was her birthday? When was she born? So last year when I went to UK on my research trip, I knew she’d been born in Kensington and – but the Kensington Parish records are not digitised, damn it. I had to go there and the parish clerk was helping me, we dug them up. Margaret Burne-Jones was born on the 3rd of June 19 – 1866 and if you’d been paying attention tonight you would know that I was born on the 3rd of June 1966, exactly 100 years after my sleeping princess who in the story is put to sleep for a hundred years. And that is the end of my story tonight. Thank you.
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