Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Quick Book Review

I haven't had a lot of time for reading, or indeed blogging, lately as I've been working fairly long hours at Royal Mail in the lead up to Christmas but one book that I've really enjoyed reading is 'Keeping the World Away' by Margaret Forster. I couldn't resist taking this book out of the library as its whole story, from begining to end, is based around one of my favourite paintings by my favourite artist.

The painting is from a series painted by Gwen John, during the years of 1907-1909, of her attic room in the Rue du Cherche Midi entitled ‘A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris’. The painting I have seen most often is the one owned by the Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield. This one shows the corner with a table in the window, a wicker chair against which leans a parasol. A coat or wrap drapes over the chair and on the table are primroses in a small pot. There are other versions of the painting showing the same corner of the room with the window open showing the buildings opposite, an open book on the table and the blue coat but no parasol.

The whole premise of the book is that one of this series of paintings, one with primroses on the table, is lost and explores its passage through time owned by one woman after another from the time Gwen John gave it as a present to her friend Ursula Tyrwhitt to the present day. The first part of the book covers Gwen's childhood in Haverfordwest and Tenby through to her studying, with her brother Augustus, at the Slade School in London, her departure for Paris, her love affair with the sculptor Auguste Rodin, and her subsequent and gradual withdrawal into an interior world. Each of the women who find themselves owning the painting are the kind of women who are different in some way from the expected norm of their age. Independent, unconventional, happy to be alone, striving against unsurmountable odds or unhappy with their lot in life. Each of them, like the artist herself, wanted to 'keep the world away'. The painting is lost in missing luggage on its way back from Paris, found by the person who recieves the valaise by mistake, it is then stolen, bought from a market stall, sold as a means of escape, given as a gift and then sold again. The painting travels from Paris to Hampstead to Cornwall, back to Hampstead, to the Scottish highlands and finally back to Paris where its fate is finally resolved. Although I found some of the women's characters less sympathetic than others and there was a strange moment when e-mails were referred to in a time I thought was supposed to be the 1970s - I may have been wrong on this - I was quite entranced by the book and thoroughly enjoyed reading it.


  1. I have that one in my book shelf to read soonish..my mum passed it on to me.
    I loved 'Shadow Baby' by the same author...have you read it?

  2. Hi Sal, I haven't read 'Shadow Baby' I must look out for it - the only other book of Margaret Forster's that I have read is 'Georgy Girl' - many years ago - because I enjoyed the film:)

  3. Hi Rosie,

    What a gorgeously evocative painting! It really does look like the perfect place to "keep the world away". I had not heard of that book, but I love the title. There are times, when life is so hectically busy, that I'd like nothing more than to keep the world away! Thanks for enlightening me... and even though it's not officially a holiday in the U.K..... Happy Thanksgiving!

  4. Very interesting book!
    I love the self portret from Gwen John. She looks fragile but also strong..A woman with great passion!

  5. Ooh, this sounds like the perfect book for reading by the fire this winter. It's going on my list!