“Beauty in Thorns” and the Tragedy of Georgiana Burne-Jones

“If you eliminated all the works created by women throughout history, the impact on our culture would be negligible.” So runs the argument that women, by nature, are less equipped than men to be great artists, writers, poets, composers, filmmakers, etc. In the eyes of misogynist critics, if women do manage to make great art, it’s by accident; Joanna Russ, in her essay “How to Suppress Women’s Writing,” shows how any impulse to give women the credit they deserve for their creative efforts may be stifled.

Perhaps if you count all the art created down the centuries, men’s work will outnumber women’s — at least concerning the works that have been preserved, celebrated, and labeled “art.” Yet the misogynists want us to believe that this dominance is a sign of women’s natural inferiority. This assumes that men and women, over the course of history, have been given the same tools they may use to make art — tools such as education, encouragement, exposure, and economic independence. It assumes the playing field has been level, when it should be obvious that it hasn’t been. Kate Forsyth’s novel Beauty in Thorns, which tells the story of the 19th century “pre-Raphaelite” community of artists, sheds a bright and often painful light on the ways in which women’s efforts to produce meaningful art may be diminished and dismissed, causing us to wonder just how many women, over many long, long years, have had their creative aspirations starved out of them.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, and Edward Burne-Jones may be the artists whose work we remember and revere, but Forsyth’s narrative is told from the perspective of the women in their lives: Elizabeth Siddal, Gabriel’s tormented, tempestuous muse, longing to make her own artistic mark but defeated by self-doubts and lack of encouragement, as well as a wasting illness that saps her physical and mental strength; Jane Burden, a working-class beauty whose imagination buds when she becomes a model for Edward and Gabriel and, eventually, William’s wife and Gabriel’s lover; and Georgiana Macdonald, a respectable middle-class girl who yearns for a life more passionate and creative than her strict Methodist upbringing would allow, but who, as Edward’s wife, soon finds herself caged by Victorian domesticity. All three women are beautifully drawn and developed, with all their flaws and frustration, but Georgiana’s story, a tragedy of gradual wearing-away, haunts me most.

In the book’s first chapter, Georgiana, or Georgie, is introduced as a bright and curious girl constrained by the expectations of others: “Georgie’s whole life was bent and shaped to appease her mother’s God” (7). In young Ned Burne-Jones, whom she loves from the start, she sees the promise of a more expansive life, one that just might give her own imagination room to breathe and move. When she becomes his wife, for a while she finds married life suits her wonderfully: “Someone gave her a piano for a wedding present, and she was able to sing whatever songs she liked. . . When [Ned] was busy, she practiced drawing in her sketchbook. . . There was no one to frown at her and tell her such pastimes were a waste of time” (178). She may not hunger for renown, as Lizzie Siddal does, but she values her accomplishments, her efforts in music and art. Such “dabblings” may have made life bearable for many a middle-class Victorian woman with a creative spirit.

Sadly, while for Georgie Ned may represent freedom and art, Ned seems to look to Georgie to provide domestic stability and little else. Aware of her feelings for him, he knows she’ll be the worshipful and dutiful wife, mother, and caregiver, just what he needs to keep his life in order and make it possible for him to create. Once the children start coming, the romance goes out of their marriage, and he takes a dazzling, neurotic mistress — the kind of woman Georgie could never be — as an outlet for his passions. Georgie, meanwhile, finds her domestic duties leave her no time for the accomplishments she loves, as neither husband nor friends are willing to relieve her burdens. Forsyth explains, in perhaps the novel’s most painful sentence, “Georgie’s world narrowed down to a pinprick” (268).

Even after her children are grown, Georgie doesn’t really reclaim her life, though as Forsyth paints her, her strength of endurance is much to be admired. She survives her reverses with her dignity intact, which is more than can be said for her husband’s mistress. As I read, because I liked her, I kept waiting for a moment near the end when she would pick up a paintbrush once again — and that moment never comes. She does write a biography of her genius husband after he has died, but that seems less an expression of her own creativity than a tending of the Great Man’s flame. He’s the one who matters, the one whose thoughtless eccentricities must be humored and enabled in life an whose story must be told after death.

Yet in giving us Georgie’s perspective, in bringing her to life as an individual, Forsyth’s novel subverts this idea. Georgie does matter. It matters that her husband overlooks her needs while insisting she cater to his own. It matters that as a caregiver she is left without help, with no one to talk to. Georgie’s story is a tragedy of lost potential, and echoes of her sad story may be found in scores of overlooked women whose perspectives have yet to gain a hearing. I think of all the underdeveloped wife/mother and girlfriend characters in movies about men struggling to Achieve Great Things — characters like those played by Jessica Lange in Big Fish and Anne Hathaway in Dark Water — and I see the ghost of Georgiana Burne-Jones hovering behind them. What’s your story? What hopes do you cherish? What daydreams dance through your mind? What do you have, what do you cling to, that is absolutely yours?

The world Georgie knew is past, thank God, yet her tragedy may still be all too common. The story of #MeToo in Hollywood is, to a great degree, about stories never told, visions never shared, voices never heard, because they weren’t thought valuable enough in an industry that profits heavily from stories about men and their deeds. And even in this more enlightened day and age, mothers often still struggle without the help and support they need. Many of them must think, as Georgie did, that their worlds have shrunk to a pinprick. We’ve made progress, but we’re still pushing back against the habits of centuries.

Every story that brings creative women into focus is a step in the right direction. Beauty in Thorns is one such story, well worth reading.