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.