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• Saturday, April 26th, 2008

Margaret Forster was born in Carlisle (England) in 1938. She was educated at the Carlisle and County High School for Girls. She won a scholarship to Sommerville College, Oxford where she was awarded an honors degree in History.

Margaret Forster married the writer and broadcaster Hunter Davies in 1960. Today they live between London and the lake district in England. They have three children, two daughters and a son. Their eldest daughter Caitlin also became a novelist.

Margaret Forster worked as a teacher in Islington, North London from 1961 to 1963. Starting from 1963 she worked as a novelist, a biographer, a contributor to newspapers and journals, and as a regular broadcaster for the BBC. She was also on the Arts Council literary panel for three years, and a chief non-fiction reviewer for the London Evening Standard.

Since 1964 Margaret Forster has been very prolific. She has written biographies, criticism, fiction and non-fiction. She has won many prizes and awards for her fiction and non-fiction works. Her bibliography is quite long, amongst her novels is the very successful 1965 Georgie Girl, which was made into a film in 1966, and a short lived Broadway musical in 1970.

Keeping the World Away is the story of a painting, the women who owned it, and the message it bestowed on them. In the prologue, the young school girl Gillian, introduces the original theme of the novel; how about if a painting had a real life of its own, according to who owned it, and what it conveyed to the people who looked at it.

Gillian says to her teacher after staring and staring at one painting in The Tate Gallery for a while and noticing that “something was there which she couldn’t quite grasp… The lives of the actual paintings, especially one of hers. I was wondering where it had been, who had owned it, who had looked at it. And other things – I mean,what effect did it have on the people who have looked at it ? What has it meant to them, how have they looked at it, did they feel the same as I did, did they see what I saw.”

Keeping The World Away portrays the struggle of female artists in finding their way, their independence and freedom. Margaret Forster who is a feminist, like her predecessor Virginia Wolf in A Room Of One’s Own, describes how women from the early days of the twentieth century aspired to gain recognition from a society monopolised by men. They wanted their financial freedom as well as their mental freedom. Virginia Wolf said : “There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of the mind.”

The novel is divided into six sections. The first section is a semi-fictionalised story based on a real painting, the corner of Gwen’s room in Paris, produced by Gwen John at the beginning of the twentieth century, and of the genuine Welsh artists Gwen John and her brother Augustus who where born two years apart in Haverfordwest, South Wales, Gwen in 1876 and Augustus in 1878 and both became artists. Gwen went to live in Paris and fell madly in love with the famous sixty four year-old French sculptor Rodin. Her passion was short lived by her lover who distanced himself from her young, “vigorous” and “voracious” needs.

Feeling lonely and forlorn, but at the same time serene, Gwen painted the quiet, and what she perceived as a peaceful corner of her Parisian attic room, yearning while waiting for her inattentive lover, Rodin to come and visit her, like in the past. She worked with a great deal of concentration and minutiae, putting her feeling and strong emotions into the painting, in order for her lover to understand her state of mind, and her longing for him: “she had wanted it to prove her own triumph. She had wanted to show Rodin that this was evidence of her transformation. She had imagined him walking into her room and being transfixed, overcome with admiration for what she had achieved.” Didn’t he tell her that “she must be composed and calm and let his own tranquillity enter her soul. Only then, he told her, would she do good work.”

Gwen waited patiently for Rodin who never went back to her. She offered the painting to her dear friend Ursula, who lost it during the journey back to England. From then on the saga of Gwen’s room corner painting begins.

The following five parts of the novel follow the journey of Gwen’s painting: The different women who owned it, loved it and shared the same aspiration felt by it, despite the different message the painting bestowed on each one of them, and how it had affected their lives, and that true art can have a life of its own.Charlotte, the dreamy, intellectual and art appreciator. Stella, the ex nurse and amateur artist. Lucasta, The artist specialised in portraits. Ailsa, Paul Mortimer’s oppressed wife. Then the novel ends as it started with Gillian who is now studying art in Paris and will be inheriting the Gwen’s painting after Mme Verlon’s death.

The painting of Gwen John’s room in Paris is today hanging in the Sheffield city art gallery in England.

The title of the book is taken from Gwen John’s own note book. She wrote : “Rules to keep the world away: Do not listen to people (more than is necessary); do not look at people (more than is necessary); have as little intercourse with people as possible.”

Gwen John (1876-1939) and her brother Augustus John (1878-1961) studied at the Slade school of Art in London. During their life time, Augustus became famous at an early age, while his introverted, solitary sister Gwen, who was obsessively in love with Rodin, remained in the limelight. Her paintings mainly depicting interiors, still-lifes and portraits were less appreciated than her brother’s bold style of painting. He was considered a great artist of his time. Recently,Gwen’s art became internationally renown while by contrast her brother’s paintings seem to have fallen into the shadow.

Margaret Forster’s combination of fact and fiction is done in a masterly way, with an easy-to-follow plot and a clear and limpid writing.

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One Response

  1. 1
    Tanja Sarenac 

    “Keeping the world away” is simply beautiful.

    It was a great pleasure to read it and I would like to thank you for having it recommended. For me it was a haunting story that has stayed with me after I finished reading it.

    The main protagonist of the novel is a small panting of an attic corner, made at the beginning of 20th century by Gwen whose love related sufferings made her keeping the world away and by doing so to produce something that a century later would be considered as having a great value.

    The adventurous journey of the small painting started in 1906 and has lasted almost 100 years. During that time it has touched the life of different women belonging to different generation, all more or less artistically sensible, and has changed it. Each woman in the novel owned it for a while, and by looking at it, analysing it tried to understand her own life. Their response to the painting was different as they brought to it the perspective of their own life experience.

    Given to Ursula by Gwen, who misplaced it, it ended up in the possession of Charlotte who faced with it realised how limited was her artistic talent and gave up her ambition of pursuing her artistic career. Stolen from Charlotte it reappeared in hands of Stella who never understood its secret message, for whom the painting did not look so powerful. Her life was so gloomy that she did not hesitate to sell the painting to be able to escape from it. By selling it to Ginny’s husband, Stella’s depressing life ended. By the way, it is a character that I liked the least.

    Ginny, who received the paining from her husband for her birthday, loved it, so did Lucasta, her daughter. For Lucasta it represented peace, “peace for something to be longed for”. But what was seen at the begging as a peaceful image of an attic corner, a bit “insipid, unexciting, even soporific” turned to be “a picture of sadness, a gentle wistfulness, the reflection of an aching heart” at the moment when Paul entered her life. Paul was the only man in the book who actually grasped the meaning of the small painting. It was Lucasta’s present to him when she decided to leave him. Long time after he was not able to understand what she meant by giving it to him. But once in agony caused by terrible pain, he seemed to have understood the message. “The heartache in it maybe” he concluded, “So difficult… love, so difficult, isn’t it, all the trying, striving, hoping. Empty. Like the room”.

    His wife, Ailsa, was the next on in the chain of those whose life was affected by the little painting. As others she also questioned how to manage her live after her husband’s betrayal and his death. Keeping away from the world on a small island and looking at the small painting she thought “It was only possible to be tranquil if there were no people around…people were disturbances…. but if so, was not existence rendered barren, loveless?”.

    What Gillian saw in it was not an empty room, without human presence. For her “…it only looks empty. It’s full, though: it has a presence, someone serene and contended and maybe in love”. This painting has a history and it is not only the paint on canvas, it has something that can always be felt if the onlooker knows how to identify it.

    Claudette was a character that I liked the best.

    For many years the message she had been getting from the small painting (the empty chair, the parasol, the flower) was “let life be simple”, keep the world away. But then she realised that she also needed people, to love and be loved and that the “simple life was not enough. The world could not be kept away, not entirely, if one wished to be happy”.

    Keep the world away was the message that the little painting seemed to have wanted to convey to the onlookers. By the way the artist had painted it to keep the world away. Reading the novel, especially a chapter describing Claudette’s life I was happy that the painting helped her to come to the opposite conclusion that the world could not be kept away, not entirely, if one wished to be happy.

    Tanja Sarenac

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