Kate Forsyth is one of Australia’s leading voices in historical fiction. Her latest novel Beauty in Thorns unveils the story of the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly focussing on the sisterhood of the group and their pivotal role in the art/literature that came from it.
The Pre-Raphaelites lived an enthralling and fascinating lifestyle. There was enough drama between them to rival the gripping and scandelous plot of your favourite tv soap opera.
A prevalent theme of the novel is love and its various manifestations. Forsyth captures many forms of love — including romance, passion, obsession, family and friendship. The one that caused the most drama in the book was passion. Though passion can be perceived as an exciting emotion, it can also be a source of heartbreak and hurt, as evident in the book. A stand out was Forsyth’s portrayal of Edward “Ned” Burne-Jones’ love affair with Maria Zambaco, and the hurt it caused his wife Georgiana “Georgie” Burne-Jones. Ned and Maria stirred up quite a few emotions for me and I felt heartbroken for Georgie. I wanted to shake him out of it, however, I also understood that it was his prerogative to follow what he desired. Another extramarital affair that was overflowing with passion was the relationship between Jane “Janey” Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Though the two were entangled in an addictive love affair, Janey’s husband William “Topsy” Morris knew he could never make Janey lust for him. However, he loved her so much that he let her indulge in a physical relationship with Rossetti as it made her happy. The relationships between all the characters felt like an intricate web, and Forsyth was successful in representing the good and ugly sides of love.
The book also touches on sensitive subjects like mental illness. Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal’s character endures a long battle with mental illness, addiction and an eating disorder. As the reader, you feel helpless as Lizzie spirals out of control with her illness taking control of her entirely. You want to dive into the story and help her, but instead, you watch on powerless and as a talented young artist is overcome with misery and anguish. In a way, it feels like you’re watching a close friend — one of the best things about the book is how Forsyth allows the reader to feel invited into the story. You truly feel like you’re living in their world and you want to help them when they’re overcome with pain.
As I mentioned earlier, many associate a ‘brotherhood’ when discussing the Pre-Raphaelites, but, the women of the group were key to their success. Their determination to pave their own path and to follow their dreams was inspiring, especially considering that they had many obstacles standing in their way. Whereas a man’s artistic dreams were encouraged and nurtured, women of this period didn’t have the same opportunities to attend classes and master their craft. Forsyth’s depiction of the setbacks the sisterhood had to combat felt authentic.
Beauty in Thorns was truly enchanting and well written. I felt captivated by Forsyth’s words and found myself easily lost in the beauty of her writing — this is historical fiction at its finest.
Release date: July 3rd 2017 by Vintage Australia/Penguin Random House
I received this book from Penguin Random House Australia in exchange for an honest review