Margaret Forster died in 2016 leaving a legacy of her work that included 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 that I have read by Margaret Forster I have thoroughly enjoyed. Keeping The World Away is no exception.
This novel is based on the fictionalized 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. In her attempts to impress her lover — and improve the gradual dissolution of the relationship — she paints in a small corner of her attic room. She paints this at a time when she is troubled as it becomes to represent a place of tranquility and freedom that later 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, even to a remote Scottish island before returning to London, and finally to Paris.
I loved the idea of using a painting to connect these women in different places throughout the course of the 20th Century. Each woman has her own reasons for falling under the spell of this understated painting since 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 certainly will seek out her paintings.
About The Author
Margaret Forster (May 25, 1938 – February 8, 2016) was an English novelist, biographer, memoirist, historian and literary critic. She is best known for her 1965 novel Georgy Girl, which was made into a successful film of the same name and inspired a hit song by The Seekers, as well as her 2003 novel Diary of an Ordinary Woman; her biographies of Daphne du Maurier and Elizabeth Barrett Browning; and her memoirs Hidden Lives and Precious Lives. // Buy Keeping The World Away