Keeping the World Away, by Margaret Forster

This is one of those books that follows an object through time, in this case a painting by Gwen John. The first section of the book is about Gwen herself and her attempts to establish herself as a painter, struggling not just with the poverty and dearth of recognition that most artists experience, but also with the shadow of her more-famous brother Augustus and, of course, with the role restrictions for women in the late 19th and early 20th century. She early recognises the conflict between the demands of her art and those imposed by marriage and children. Her response is to shutter her passionate nature and keep to herself, hence the book’s title which is from a quote from John’s own writings.

These conflicts—between home and work/art, between solitude and society—have dominated my life, as well. I am constantly trying out new ways to balance my time and energy. In order to write, more so than for other kinds of work that I do, I need fairly large blocks of time alone. By “alone” in this context, I mean not interacting with others. I actually write best in a public space, such as a pub or coffeehouse, where there are people around me, but no one distracting my attention from the work. In order to have sufficient alone-time, I have, after much experimentation, developed a routine that consists of substantial periods of solitude interspersed with short, but intense social times.

Of course, when I had small children at home, such a routine was impossible. In those days, I dreamt constantly of a white room. An empty, white room with a plain wooden table and chair under a window hung with sheer white curtains that lifted and belled in the breeze. Perhaps a cot, but nothing else. Plain as a nun’s cell. I longed for that room.

So I was captivated by the particular painting in this book: a still life of a corner of John’s attic room in Paris, a chair with a parasol, a table under a window, a glass of yellow primroses. We follow the painting as it changes hands, going from one woman to another. It means different things to different women, but also changes its meaning for each woman over time.

I was a little disappointed every time the story moved away from a particular woman, as I wanted to know more about her and how the insights she gained from the painting changed her life. Also, I found the idea that all the women who owned the painting wanted to live solitary lives a bit surprising, as I know few people of either gender who would choose to “keep the world away” to that extent. I suppose it could be said that the painting’s owners were self-selected, by their attraction to the painting.

What I liked best about this book were the descriptions of how the painting affected different people, how it echoed their lives and emotions, how it shifted its meaning for each viewer. I once read a mystery by Jane Langton, one of my favorite authors, where one of the characters was an eccentric old woman who wrote letters to God, crushed them into a ball, and threw them up into the air. That illustrates how I feel as a writer, laboring over a story or a poem, tossing it out into the air, never knowing what it will mean to a reader, often surprised by the comments that do come back to me. Here, the section written from the point of view of the artist, Gwen John, is fascinating, but the sections from the point of view of the recipients, those who look at the painting, are brilliant.

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