In superb timing with International Women’s Day, I have had the opportunity to encounter some remarkable female literary characters lately who have really surpassed my expectations.
Hold Still, début novel by art critic and poet Cherry Smyth continues the trend, narrating a significant period in the life of artists’ muse and model Joanna Hiffernan, the woman now widely believed to be the face behind Gustave Courbet’s controversial painting; L’Origine du monde (soon to be displayed in the Relish en-suite bathroom if I can find a nice frame!) Charting her relationship with temperamental American artist James Whistler, her blossoming one with the tremendous Courbet and the general pitfalls, hopes and dreams of being an artists’ muse, a Victorian woman of humble origins and an aspiring artist all in one, this novel lived above and beyond its tantalising blurb and nicely unassuming book jacket to entertain and enlighten me all the way through the gloomy January days.
Flitting between the bohemian, intellectual circles of mid 19th-century Paris and London (a big tick location/time wise for any novel I might care to read), Smyth has harnessed her work as an art critic and curator to lend authenticity and vivacity to this fictionalised account of a remarkable woman’s life, an account that, as far as I can tell, seems as true to the real tale as we could possibly be. Certain moments throughout Jo’s dramatic, romantic tale can seem at odds with the image we have in our mind of a typical Victorian woman; displaying an independence of mind, body and spirit that we admire in our own, 21st-century selves:
‘ She is laughing, her body’s pleasure distilling into clarity and boldness, red as a matador’s cape. This is the fire she has stolen, the trail of bright flame, her own power.’
Some modern authors may have a tendency to throw our modern attitudes and fancies onto their period characters without much thought. Although still living somewhat on the whims of the men she loves, Jo’s strength, intelligence and modernity seems genuine, a rejection of those ‘real women’ of a Dickensian persuasion who often seem a little too sensitive and fatalistic for their own good. Her modest beginnings could have spelt a very different life for her, much like that of her Bridget. Instead, Smyth has afforded us a glimpse into this woman’s exciting world. A world I wouldn’t really have had a clue about (despite an active interest in art) without reading this wonderfully entertaining novel. Much like Gallic Books, pioneering publishing house Holland Park Press have discovered a real gem in Cherry Smyth. All you lovers of fancy book covers place aside your shallow thoughts aside in favour of content. I promise you won’t be disappointed.