Monday, April 7, 2008

Sleep, Pale Sister

Well, when a sickness knocks you off your feet, the blog updates are sometimes the first thing to go. I apologize for not being able to update as frequently as I wanted to this past week. But here we go with another Pre-Raphaelite book review!

Today's title is Sleep, Pale Sister by Joanne Harris. And thankfully, I found it to be a much more interesting read than the previously mentioned book on the Jane Morris love triangle. Here is the Amazon synopsis:

In the first American release of her 1994 second novel, Chocolat, author Harris dives headlong into a ferocious Gothic ghost story. Henry Chester, the son of a stern Oxford minister and his unapproachable wife, develops an unhealthy interest in virginal young girls and a chloral habit after a life-altering experience during puberty. A gentleman artist of independent means, he disguises his unsavory sexual preference in his painting, frequenting lower class neighborhoods in search of models. On one trip, he encounters the hauntingly beautiful, fatherless Effie .She spends more and more time with Henry as model and protégé, and, despite a 23-year age difference, they marry when she's 17. Soon Effie becomes pregnant then miscarries. Though Henry keeps her drugged with laudanum, Effie eventually falls for Moses Harper, a rival painter and ne'er-do-well. Harper in turn introduces her to Fanny Miller, the occultist madam of a brothel that Henry frequents; she mothers the fragile Effie, and this trio cultivates a scheme to deal the despicable Henry a loaded hand. The pages fly by through multiple plot twists in a wash of drugs, ghosts and illicit sex in a tale that easily ranks among the best of the genre.

And my thoughts:

It is fascinating to see how the author weaves together inspirations from the biographies of John and Effie Ruskin, as well as Rossetti and Siddal. This book is brilliantly done to give a peek into the twisted thinking of many men during the Victorian era towards women. Henry is obsessed with simultaneously trying to capture the innocence of woman, and convinced of their inherent sinfulness. As the book continues on, it is a downward spiral into madness and supernatural revenge. It's especially interesting for the aficionado of all things Pre-Raphaelite to see how Henry's art style changes as he grows more dependent on chloral.

Also, I have to admit that this book made me look at the portrayal of Pre-Raphaelite women in a different light, and to see the dark and rather disturbing side to the Victorian obsession with the dichotomy of a woman as either fully innocent or fully sinful. Although part of me hated to view these artworks I loved through such a disturbing lens, it was also thought-provoking, and far be it from me to deny further educating myself, even if it may be disturbing.


Siddal said...

I liked this book at first, but by the end I was ready for it to be over. Harris' writing style has definitely improved for the better since this early effort. I did enjoy all of the Pre-Raph allusions, though, and the scenes in Highgate.
Have you read Idols of Perversity by Bram Dijkstra? I know some people find it a little skewed, but I think it's a pretty good synopsis of how women are portrayed in late 19th century art. It includes some of the later Pre-Raphs and Symbolists.

Margaret said...

Another great review! My husband always teases me that my beloved Pre-Raphaelite art is completely perverse! The Pre-Raphaelites' obsession with subjects like "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" tells a lot about the way they saw women as either innocent virgins or dangerous witches.

Grace said...

Margaret, that brings me to my opinion of La Belle Dame, who I feel was an innocent bystander in all of this. I can go on and on about textual evidence for this, and contemporary treatment of female subjects, etc. I'm really into defending La Belle Dame!!! :)

Siddal, that book sounds great!! Thank you.

Aurora said...

Hmmm...must admit, this sounds interesting--and a bit like one of my personal favorites, "The Lady in White", by Wilkie Collins. Yes, it's over the top. Yes, it's overwrought...and's wonderful. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. Not so much because of PRB references, but because to me, it's quintessentially of that era. :)

(A modern gem, is "Nevermore", by Harold Schecter...a silly, but surprisingly convincing novel purportedly written by Poe, in the first person. It mimics Poe's style beautifully, and again, does a wonderful job of capturing the "flavor" of a Victorian novel...including Poe's obsession with his young cousin. ;))

I'll have to check this one out--thanks! :D

Grace said...

Yay! New book suggestions! Thank you, Aurora. I've needed a few tips on what I might read next. :)

Aurora said...

Be prepared for conflicting feelings about his feelings for his cousin! One minute, he's just ridiculously funny...and the next, you remember that she WAS very young, and it's all a bit creepy, actually. A very good book, though--a light-hearted bit of fluff.

The funniest thing about it all is--apparently the guy who wrote it actually has this huge website about serial killers of all things. Where the writing is--not all that great, actually. Guess it's all about finding your stride! ;) (Ooo-and it looks like he's written another one "by Poe"--now *I* have something to look out for! :D)

KajiraSuzanne said...

I highly suspect that Ms. Harris has read "Idols of Perversity", and, possibly, "Sexual Personae". I loved both of those books and clearly see influences in this excellent novel.

Harold Schechter has written many interesting books about crime in general and serial killers in particular, both fiction and non-fiction.