Keeping the World Away, by Margaret Forster

Miss Prism, put that painting down at once!
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The Independent Culture

On 22 June 1907, her 31st birthday, Gwen John finishes a painting of a corner of her attic room in Paris. She had started it to impress her lover Rodin and, reluctant to face the fact that her affair with him seemed to be ending, she had been working on it for months. Now she gives it to her friend, Ursula, who loves it, and loses it.

In a Miss Prism-style mix-up, the bag containing it is collected from Victoria Station by the wrong person and falls into the hands of Charlotte Falconer, an aspiring artist. The painting is subsequently twice stolen but never thrown out or destroyed. It reappears in 1920 on a street-trader's barrow and finds its way to Cornwall. By 2006, it is back in Paris and its future is secure, bequeathed not to a museum but to a woman who understands its significance.

Margaret Forster's fine novel takes firm fact as its basis: there is indeed a 1907 Gwen John painting very like the one described in her book. It is, safely and prosaically, tucked away in a gallery in Sheffield. But it's possible that there was another of the same subject and that it was given to Ursula Tyrwhitt, a fine artist herself and a close friend of Gwen's. If so, what might have happened to it? If - its provenance unknown - it had been lost, might it have survived on merit alone?

Her answer is yes, provided the right women were on hand. There are men who admire the picture, but it takes a certain kind of woman to treasure it. The clue to its uninhabited intensity comes with a quotation from Gwen John's papers, offering "Rules to Keep the World Away". These include listening and talking to people as little as possible, and not looking at them more than is necessary.

Each of the six women who come into close contact with the picture has her own reason to do this; each is inspired by this deceptively simple little scrap of canvas. Beginning with a long section on the life of Gwen herself, the story gathers pace as each succeeding woman takes heart from her work. After Charlotte comes Stella, a First World War widow who finds the courage to leave for a new life in America. Then Lucasta dares to start a career as a portraitist, Ailsa spends six months alone in the Hebrides and finally Gillian takes us back to Paris.

Forster's style is easy and unpretentious. In a brief paragraph she can create a character we care about, a story we long to see resolved. Her novel taps into our curiosity over objects: who might once have lived here, loved this old picture? She takes us into her confidence, hinting at possibilities. Might the woman offering a drink to Stella's wounded lover in Paris have been Gwen? Can Gillian guess why the picture mattered so much to her grandmother? At the same time, she has another agenda: that creative women have for too long been trammelled by domestic duties, that they need space, serenity and light in order to keep the world away - and that there is still a high price to be paid for such freedom.

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