Beethoven was a difficult genius, who wrote complex music previously undreamt of, who lived in a time of conflict across Europe, and in this novel, loved with a steadfast devotion that many have wondered about since his death. This is a novel which recalls the identity of that love amongst the vicissitudes of Napoleon’s military activities across Europe and the social conventions that prevented people from marriage. It is told from the point of view of a singular woman who wants more from life than a suitable marriage and children, but is also devoted to certain people and determined to fulfil certain dreams. Therese is a countess, a musician and an unreliable narrator of a complex and vivid story of love, social concerns and music, especially relating to the challenging figure of Beethoven who dominates the narrative.
This is a book written with a keen appreciation and knowledge of Bethoven’s work, as the difficulties and dedications of various pieces are written with real understanding. Beethoven is a character on the edge, difficult, unpredictable and liable to furious outbursts. Josephine may well be the woman he loves, but we see her through the unreliable eyes of Therese or Tesi. This is a complex story of love and betrayal in difficult circumstances, of unplanned pregnancies, of the social disgrace accorded to women who did not follow convention and much more. It is a well paced and occasionally disturbing story of love and life, and pushes the boundaries between reality and fiction. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this compelling book.
The novel begins with the young Tesi and Pepi being taken by their mother to launch them in society in Vienna. Tesi has already decided that she will not marry, partly out of devotion to her late father, partly because she dreams of teaching girls who have thus far gone uneducated. Pepi, on the other hand, is delighted to wear beautiful dresses and jewelry, attend balls and dance. They are both accomplished pianists, who have revelled in the late Mozart’s work. They have hopes of lessons from the young Beethoven whose astonishing music is beginning to find favour with influential people in the strict society. People tell the sisters that he rarely gives lessons, and never attends other people’s houses to teach. However, when they meet something about the girls attracts him, and amidst the social whirl of picnics, parties and balls, the girls see a lot of the lonely man as they begin to understand how driven he is to make unique music. There is an attraction between Pepi and Beethoven, but his non aristocratic birth means their marriage is effectively forbidden. Pepi marries another man and has children, but in the complex social system of Europe at the time different pressures affect families and individuals, as the ambitious Napoleon changes from glorious hero to self appointed Emperor. Betrayal and cruelty, financial pressures and more shake the family and friends of the young women as they try to find peace, experience highs and lows, and overlap with the stunning music of a driven man.
I found this an amazing book for its research, insights into the world of dynamic change, and the position of women as they began to discover new ways to live. It provides one explanation of the famous “Immortal Beloved” letter discovered among Beethoven’s effects, and compiles an authentic picture of how his music developed. It has a depth of musical understanding that exceeds most fictional work, and I found it a moving and even inspirational book. It is stunning in its detail and understanding of illness and childbirth at the time, and provides a touching description of Beethoven’s descent into terrible deafness. I found it a compelling read and a persuasive picture of an unconventional woman who had an explanation for one of history’s great mysteries. I recommend it as a piece of historical fiction that revels in the research that anchors it, and flows beautifully through lives of love and loss.
Reading this book made me realise how little I know of Beethoven’s music, and indeed how much I have forgotten from my music O level (yes, I am that old!) I think that one of the signs of a good book is the fact that it makes you want to find out more…