on the needles

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Summer Reading Challenge: May and Amy

My first two books for the Summer Reading Challenge were about the Pre-Raphaelites.

In this post I will review the first book I read, which was May and Amy by Joceline Dimbleby. Here's the publisher's summary:

A chance encounter at a summer party sent writer Josceline Dimbleby on a quest to uncover a mystery in her family's past. After talking with Andrew Lloyd Webber about a beautiful, dark portrait in his art collection, she decided to find out more about the subject of the painting: her great-aunt Amy Gaskell. Dimbleby had always known her great-aunt's face from this haunted portrait by the well-known Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones, but beyond that and a family rumor that Amy had died young "of a broken heart," Dimbleby knew little of her female forebears." "At the start of her search, Josceline came across a cache of unpublished letters from Burne-Jones to her great-grandmother May Gaskell, Amy's mother. These letters turned out to be part of a passionate correspondence - adoring, intimate, sometimes up to five letters a day - which continued throughout the last six years of the painter's life. As she read, more and more questions arose: Why did Burne-Jones feel he had to protect May from an overwhelming sadness? What was the deep secret she had confided to him? And what was the tragic truth behind Amy's wayward, wandering life, her strange marriage, and her unexplained early death?" In piecing together the eventful life of her grandmother, Dimbleby takes us through a turbulent period in history that includes the Boer War, the Great War, and the Second World War and visits the most far-flung corners of the British Empire. The Souls - William Morris, Rudyard Kipling, and William Gladstone - all play a part in this sweeping, often funny, and sometimes tragic story.

In May and Amy the Pre-Raphaelite connection was May's "affair" with Edward Burne-Jones, seen here at work in his studio.



Though it is an open question as to how far their affair went physically it still must have been extremely distressing to Burne-Jones' wife Georgie - seen here in a portrait painted by her husband. Their children, Phil and Margaret are in the background.



The author tells of an incident in which May came to visit Burne-Jones at his studio and was given one of Georgie's shawls by him. He later reported that Georgie thought his action was "nice". This was probably willful blindness on Burne-Jones' part - however, it's just possible I suppose, that Georgie had lived with his hurtful behavior for so long that she no longer really cared. By this point, near the end of his life, Burne-Jones' "affairs" were notorious and continuous. He always had some beautiful woman or other, usually married and always much younger than himself, to whom he wrote obsessively - sometimes five times a day.

His first - and most disastrous affair - was with Maria Zambaco - seen here in this Burne-Jones portrait.



Their affair lasted for several years and very nearly destroyed Burne-Jones' marriage. He was extremely public about his love for Maria, whom he used as a model in many of his most famous paintings. Here she is as the sorceress Nimue in "The Beguiling of Merlin".



Burne-Jones finally ended the affair when Maria attempted suicide - driven crazy supposedly because Burne-Jones felt too guilty to actually leave Georgie for Maria. Here she is in "The Tree of Forgiveness" which Burne-Jones painted towards the end of their affair.



The dynamics between the men and women in these two paintings just about says it all doesn't it? Despite the "official" end of their affair, there are hints that it never was truly over. Burne-Jones continued to use Maria as a model for many years.

There isn't much about the Zambaco affair in May and Amy, I just include it here to illustrate the fact that for Burne-Jones to have an affair was nothing unusual. And really, despite the perhaps different moral structure of the time, conducting affairs while both partners are married to others isn't exactly an exercise in glory is it? I sympathized with May - who seems to have had a very hard time with a difficult and perhaps abusive husband. But Burne-Jones' treatment of Georgie was incredibly selfish. At times, even he admits this to himself and in his letters to May - however there is always the under current of the excuse that he is an artist and therefore somehow this excuses him from being held accountable for his bad behavior.

I actually found the story of the Gaskell family itself to be much more interesting than the actual affair between May and Burne-Jones. They were a typical upperclass Victorian family in that they all had wide ranging interests, were intelligent and cultured and had that inexhaustible energy and drive for exploration which seems to personify the best of the Victorian era.

Of particular interest is May's gorgeous and mysterious daughter Amy. Burne-Jones was fascinated by her and painted this extremely unusual portrait.



It captures her so perfectly. She is an ideal of beauty - yet somehow unreachable and surrounded by an aura of inevitable sadness and doom. She seems both radiant and ghostly at the same time. Indeed - despite the fact that the author does justice to her subject - the reader still comes away from the book wondering what exactly was it about Amy - why was she such a difficult mysterious and yet compelling personality? And what exactly was the fate she met in the end?

This was a really good book - a great read. Anyone with an interest in the Pre-Raphaelites, the Victorian era or women's lives in general will probably enjoy this book.