Beauty in Thorns by Kate Forsyth

In brief: The Pre-Raphaelites artists wanted to change the world with their ideas of beauty and love. Their real lives were not quite as beautiful.

The good: Learned a lot of history and a good story.

The not-so-good: Some pretty convoluted relationships here (thanks history).

Why I chose it: Thank you to Penguin Australia for the copy, I always enjoy Kate’s books.

Year: 2017

Pages: 465

Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House)

Setting: Primarily England

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

I love the attention to detail and history in Kate Forsyth’s novels. It’s like reading history come to life. With the addition of a fairy tale (in this case, Sleeping Beauty), her stories really sparkle. I love how she combines the fairy tale with an unlikely setting – who would have thought that the Pre-Raphaelite painters could have this story within their lives? It’s masterful and intricate.

Now I must admit that I’m not terribly big on paintings and drawings (in fact, the last time I went to an art gallery it was for a book launch) so I wasn’t familiar with most of the real life characters. Lizzie Siddal and Dante Gabriel Rossetti I had read about in other fiction, but I’d never heard of the other painters in ‘the Firm’ and their wives. I ended up being quite fascinated with what they looked like because they all painted pictures of each other (plus Lizzie and Janey were originally artists’ models). I tried to keep away from Googling their lives because I wanted to be surprised by the story. Boy, was I! The six main characters are all so entwined with friendships and romantic relationships, hidden or open. The plot follows their lives from jubilant youth to old age. Initially, it focuses on Lizzie Siddal, a young girl who dreams of being an artist. She acts as an artists’ model in her spare time to try and fund a painting course. It’s there that she meets Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who will be her great love and also her downfall. Lizzie is the most complex character in the book and one of the most interesting. She has a weakness for laudanum, is hurt by criticism and has a burning love for Gabriel. He doesn’t quite feel the same way, being more of a ladies’ man than the love of one lady. Lizzie and Gabriel have an odd relationship, portrayed as desperate, argumentative and passionate. Lizzie hangs on his every word, but Gabriel is more casual. It can only be a recipe for disaster…

While Gabriel is the initial one of the group the women all swoon over, it’s Ned Morris who provided the money initially for the Pre-Raphaelites to fund their quest for love and beauty. Topsy, as he’s known, is more stable and less volatile than Gabriel. He’s caring, particularly to their young model Janey in Oxford. He knows Janey will never love him the way she longs after Gabriel, but he tells himself he’s happy to marry her anyway. Janey is glad of a release from poverty and misery, and determined to make Topsy proud by educating herself.

Ned Burne-Jones makes up the third artist of the trio. He’s shy, quiet and riddled with doubt. He loves to paint, but procrastinates at every possible step to keep the people he loves close. His wife Georgie has loved him since she was a child and first told her the story of Briar Rose. Will Ned keep their own Sleeping Beauty, daughter Margot, asleep? Or will he let her be awakened by her Prince?

It’s a testament to Kate Forsyth’s strength as a writer that I can remember all these details of character traits and places after finishing the book. Her work is so intricate and carefully researched that it shines through on every page. I didn’t feel the Briar Rose story stuck out in the narrative; it only became clear to me as Margot was sitting as the model for her father’s Briar Rose paintings. That’s probably a good thing – I was so swept up in the relationships between the characters! I did get a bit sick of Lizzie and Gabriel’s tumultuous relationship but I felt the portrayal of Lizzie was very sensitively done as she battles anorexia/bulimia. I really felt for Lizzie and I wanted to give Gabriel a good smack for being so callous! It’s easy to see from my ramblings how much the characters come to life at Kate Forsyth’s hand. Please don’t miss this book if you’re a lover of historical fiction or just wanting some history through a wonderful story.

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