The Flames by Sophie Haydock – an intense novel of four women and an artist

The Flames by Sophie Haydock

Four women, four flames, four muses to a talented and unpredictable artist. In this intense and brilliant novel by Sophie Haydock the author shows the women as far more than models or even inspiration. The portraits of  Adele, Gertrude, Valley and Edith are vivid and sometimes tragic stories which give an idea of how they were affected by this wildly unprincipled man, and how they tried to retain their own lives. Framed by the story of one woman who feels all the guilt of decades, this book gives a multi-layered portrait of life in and near Vienna in the very early twentieth century, a city of wealth and culture, alongside another life of absolute poverty and struggle. The artist, Egon Schiele, is a man of compulsion and obsession, with undoubted radical talent but also a need to shock and overturn assumptions. In this book we see him from the female gaze, the women who observed him as he drew, painted and to an extent used them. The descriptions of the artistic lifestyle adopted by many of the characters are never brutal or gratuitously sexual, but the portraits and pictures left behind are revealing on so many levels. The writing is honest, picturesque in its detail, disturbing in its implications. There is a great depth of research behind this memorable book, but it is never allowed to interfere with the narrative drive, which slides between times and overlaps in its search for the truth which it presents so well. This is a book of enormous style and credibility, which reflects the women’s urge to be known, to be recognised as more than just a silent model. I was fascinated by this book, and so pleased to have had the opportunity to read and review it. 

The Prologue of this book is set in May 1968, when a young woman on a bicycle collides with a fragile seeming elderly lady. Expecting the worst, Eva tries to help the older woman, but as soon as she recovers speech she berates her. As the ambulance pulls away bearing its reluctant patient, Eva is left to wonder at the older woman’s determination and identity, something that she cannot ignore. Thus begins a journey through time to recall how Adele was a young woman of a wealthy family at the turn of the twentieth century. She lives a life full of activities and social encounters, but strangely free of emotion. When she spies a young man moving into the house opposite, she becomes obsessed with the comings and goings, the suggestion of a bohemian lifestyle with few rules, where young women come and go freely, even if with the suggestion of deep feelings. As she discovers more about Schiele, she is determined to get close to him, but discovers that she can be mistaken. Gertrude’s story is of a younger sister fixated on her brother, Egon. They share dreams, the urge to leave their home where their father rules with an unpredictable scheme of misdemeanours and punishments. Egon is the central being of her life, compulsively drawing, dreaming of an idyllic future. When events overtake the pair it soon becomes obvious to Gertrude that she is no longer the sole focus of her brother’s affection, and she takes action to thwart his independence. As they grow up and become independent, she must decide on her own fate. Vally is a muse, a model, and so much more. Although recommended by Schiele’s mentor, Gustave Klimt, he must discover her true worth. She comes from a very different background than the young artist, and continues to have family responsibilities. Although she stands by him when he proves more outrageous than previously, they have a difficult relationship that neither truly understands, and is fated from the beginning. The final woman of the four, Edith, was usually depicted by Schiele as clothed in stark difference from many of his depictions of women, and it seems she had a very different relationship with him from the other women; a relationship where they were on a different footing completely.

This is a book set in a turbulent time in Europe in so many ways – unrest leading to War, financial upset and a dangerous illness spreading among the people of Vienna as elsewhere. Adele, Gertrude, Vally and Edith would have been remarkable women at any time in some respects, but their contact with Schiele at this time was bound to have lasting effects. I found this book truly fascinating in so many respects, and I recommend it to all those interested in the strength and nature of women at this time and in this place, four flames in an artistic world that they left their mark upon in memorable ways.