Agony Column Criticism


Sleep Pale Sister
and Pre-Raphaelite Fiction
The Agony Column for October 15, 2004
Commentary by Serena Trowbridge

The Black Swan re-print of Joanne Harris's second novel, Sleep Pale Sister.

Sleep, Pale Sister
Joanne Harris

Black Swan
UK Paperback
ISBN: 0-552-77178-3
Pages: 400; Price: £6.99
Date Reviewed: 15th September 2004
Reviewed by: Serena Trowbridge

General Fiction, Horror 12-30-03

Click here to open a gallery of relevant Pre-Raphaelite Art

Elizabeth Siddal as Ophelia painted by John Everett Milliais. Click Image for full-size gallery.
I have long wondered why more fiction is not inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites. [1] They seem now like a secret society, inhabiting their own world that is touched on by others, such as Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Ruskin, but is private to themselves. We can see it through their paintings, which are coming back into vogue now, with the recent publication of a book about the doomed Elizabeth Siddal, the most famous artists’ model of them all (above, as Ophelia) and a major exhibition at Tate Britain.

So perhaps this is the right time for Black Swan to reprint Sleep, Pale Sister, Joanne Harris’s second novel. (The first being The Evil Seed, which she would rather remained forgotten and out of print!) It is also the right time in Harris’s career, given that she is now enough of a name to sell books easily, and this one is more like her most recent novel, Holy Fools, than the lighter and brighter Chocolat for which she is most famous. She has been told that she is a very visual writer (for which perverse reason she is now making the narrator of her next novel, The Man Who Sold St. Oswald’s, blind) and this is an exceptionally visual book, as befits a novel about artists and artists’ models.

John Ruskin painted by John Everett Milliais. Click Image for full-size gallery.
However, you don’t need to invent the pictures yourself (although from the lush descriptions in the book you easily could); the novel is a paean to Pre-Raphaelite art. The novel concentrates on the life of Henry Chester, a (fictional) artist of the Pre-Raphaelite school, a rather stern man with an uncomfortable predilection for young girls. I imagine him very much as John Ruskin (above, painted by John Everett Millais) who himself married a young girl, Euphemia Gray, or Effie.

Apparently on his wedding night Ruskin was so shocked to discover that women have pubic hair that he fainted and refused to consummate the marriage. Effie later found happiness with Millais, while Ruskin went on to nurture a hopeless passion for the (even younger) Rose La Touche (who later died insane), and it is apparently this story which inspired Joanne Harris. There is no doubt that this novel, like the stories and myths surrounding the Pre-Raphaelites, contains all the staples of good Victorian Gothic fiction: death, sex, cemeteries, London, ghosts, beautiful women, and of course art, mixed together for an unforgettably chilling tale.

Henry Chester, looking for models to paint, finds a young girl (also called Effie), whom he paints constantly and in whom he finds his ideals of purity and chastity. He moulds her into the young woman she becomes and marries her; however, he is reluctant to consummate the marriage as he is afraid of corrupting her. The ethereal and initially innocent nature and appearance of Effie seems to me to be the ideal of Arthur Hughes’ painting, April Love (below), which Ruskin described as “exquisite in every way”, and for which the model was Hughes’ young wife, Tryphena Ford. I am beginning to spot a pattern.

Detail from 'April Love' by Arthur Hughes. Click image to see full version in gallery.
Effie is often ill, and sedated by laudanum, to the extent that her life becomes a miserable blur, which Harris presents beautifully in narratives in Effie’s voice describing the torpor and the strange dreams by which she is plagued. Eventually, as a kind of escape, Effie begins an illicit affair with the raffish young artist Mose Harper, who introduces her to Fanny, the keeper of a brothel. Fanny’s young daughter, Marta, wasmurdered ten years before, and Fanny finds solace in a close friendship with Effie, which also suits other hidden motives, and plays out the Victorian repressed interest with “fallen women”. The ghost of Marta takes hold on Effie, who in many ways becomes her – a quite different young woman; the other side of the Pre-Raphaelite coin, in fact: the sensual beauty of Jane Morris, the wife of William Morris, whom Rossetti painted and eventually had an affair with (the model for Rossetti's Proserpine, below).

This dual role takes its toll on Effie, her mind clouded and drugged, andthe novel unfolds irresistibly. The respectable face of Victorianism is portrayed delicately and clearly, with the hidden underworld (the side which fascinates the twenty-first century) equally well delineated. The novel, with its recreation of Victorian life and with its subtle and sinister ghost story reminds me a little of Affinity, Sarah Waters’ novel of the Victorian fascination with the occult, and if you liked that you’ll certainly enjoy this.

Jane Morris was the model for Rossetti's Properine. Click image to see full version in gallery.
Affinity(see review) is one of those novels which plays with the reader, and reality is carefully disguised, like a Pre-Raphaelite painting. Ghost stories are particularly relevant to historical fiction set in the Victorian era since the supernatural, with seances, mediums and fortune-telling were extremely popular then. In fact the sections of the novel are divided by the names of tarot cards, the meaning of which becomes clear as you read (and I won’t explain for fear of spoiling the story!) But once again, there is a touch of magic in the story, which allows convention to be subverted.

However, there is another side to this novel; the Pale Sister of the title is drawn from one of Rossetti’s poems, My Sister’s Sleep, which you can read online here.

The poem, written in 1847, is the verbal equivalent of Rossetti’s pictures, idealizing a dead, beautiful sister, who lies on her bed in the moonlight on Christmas Eve while around them people are celebrating. This is easily comparable to the listless Effie, lying drugged in her room while a life of which she has no knowledge goes on in the world about her, and has resonance for later events in the novel, which I will let you find out about yourself.

A detail from Kay Nielsen's Scheherazade. Click image to see full version in gallery.
Harris also draws upon the myth of Scheherazade (see below, by Kay Nielsen, who was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites), who told tales to her husband night after night to prevent him from executing her. There is an excellent online article on the enduring myth of Scheherazade by A S Byatt, who incorporated her into her Victorian novel Possession.[2]

This image is used as a metaphor throughout the novel, both as a depiction of the trickery of women, and the need that Chester feels to destroy any woman he lusts after. The novel also takes the conventional Victorian beliefs about the naturally hysterical and base nature of women pitted against the innate logic and superiority of men, and shows the falsehoods and double standards on which this is founded. While some of the women in the novel are not good per se, the majority of the men are evil, with secrets eating away at them, from debts to death. Joanne herself says, in an interview with Kevin Mahoney:

“I did have Ruskin quite strongly in mind when I wrote SPS, as well as a number of other Victorian writers and artists. I'm fascinated by the amazing dual standards of Victorian morality - and endlessly amused when well-meaning politicians talk about "returning to good old Victorian values". Certainly a whole culture of institutionalized pedophilia (disguised as idealism) amongst the Victorians has been modestly glossed over by historians, as has their rather special attitude to sex, reflected now in the enduring passion of the fashion industry for childlike, waif-thin models. I wanted to talk about that to some extent, and to explore what might happen if that ideal were actually to take an identity of its own.”

The psychology of the novel is also interesting, with Harris trying (perhaps occasionally just a little too hard – something to which she is not prey these days) to show what in the lives and especially childhoods of her characters caused them to grow up and develop as they did. The seeds of the writer Harris has become are clearly sown in this novel, however. It is perhaps slightly less polished than her later work, but no less confident, and no less enjoyable, either.

Another recent novel which is working the Pre-Raphaelite vibe at the moment is Pale as the Dead, by Fiona Mountain (see review). Again this is a novel which concentrates on the seamier side of the Victorians, in this case with a genealogist using clues from the past to untangle the secrets of the present, which is yet another facet of the general public’s love affair with history. Here, the “ancestor detective”, Natasha Blake, traces a family line back to the doctor of Rossetti, and finds herself unraveling secrets that subsequent generations have puzzled over, in this case the mysteries of the life of Elizabeth Siddal. Her exploration of the life and nature of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is necessarily less explicit than Harris’s, but equally compelling, and the mechanism of the story allows Mountain to dream up answers that fit into the picture of history very conveniently, if in a rather romantic manner (of which the Pre-Raphaelites themselves might well have approved!)

A photo by Julia Margaret Cameron. Click Image to see large version in Gallery.
Interestingly, some of the traits of the secret society of the Brotherhood have filtered into the modern day element of Mountain’s novel, with a society called “The Ravens”, photographers who recreate the atmosphere of Pre-Raphaelite paintings in their pictures, much as Julia Margaret Cameron did in the late nineteenth century. The idea is, I suppose, that while times and circumstances change, human nature does not; we are drawn to the secret and the mysterious, which is one of the major reasons for the appeal of the Pre-Raphaelites: it’s about the people, not just the paintings.

For further information, there are a number of sites (varying in academic value) on the internet which look at the history of the Pre-Raphaelites, but I would like to recommend the Pre-Raphaelite Society, which is based in the UK but has a US arm and has done a lot of excellent work in promoting the Pre-Raphaelites. If you have suggestions for other novels which have Pre-Raph connections, please email me. Thanks!

[1] Although a fantastic book, made into slightly less fantastic film, The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles has a surprise Pre-Raphaelite twist at the end, but I won’t say anymore to spare those who haven’t read it yet![Return]

[2] Possession is one of my favorite books, although I wouldn’t recommend you see the film as a substitute for the book: it misses out a lot of the story, although it is lushly shot with evocative Victorian interiors. It deals with a scholar researching the poems of a mysterious Victorian poet, and has strongly Pre-Raphaelite overtones, both in the vivid pictorial details and in the Gothic and melancholy atmosphere which always pervade such books. No-one is interested in happy and normal Victorians these days; it’s all about those who were mad, bad and dangerous to know! [Return]