The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspiredby Francine Prose
All loved, and were loved by, their artists, and inspired them with an intensity of emotion akin to Eros.
In a brilliant, wry, and provocative book, National Book Award finalist Francine Prose explores the complex relationship between the artist and his muse. In so doing, she illuminates with great sensitivity and intelligence the elusive emotional wellsprings of
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All loved, and were loved by, their artists, and inspired them with an intensity of emotion akin to Eros.
In a brilliant, wry, and provocative book, National Book Award finalist Francine Prose explores the complex relationship between the artist and his muse. In so doing, she illuminates with great sensitivity and intelligence the elusive emotional wellsprings of the creative process.
In the classical world, the muses -- all nine of them -- were daughters of Zeus who inspired poets, musicians, and other creative types to produce works of genius. Today, says Francine Prose, the word has been weakened and is used almost exclusively to refer to the chic women who help fashion designers inform their latest lines. But in her scholarly account, Prose (a National Book Award finalist for her novel Blue Angel) presents nine real women who moved men to greatness and who were not mere catalysts but worthy of note on their own, in many cases deserving a share of the credit for the work they helped create.
Each chapter is a mini-biography of a woman's life and the way a male artist figured into it. We see the muse as prompter and creator in her own regard, like memoirist Hester Thrale, whose letters to Samuel Johnson helped form his later works. In Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the muse is at her most passive, asserting her independence of the child-loving author only by failing to remain seven years old forever. And with Yoko Ono, there is the muse as artist in her own right, who claimed not to have heard of the Beatles before meeting John Lennon, and whose avant-garde tendencies some blamed for his musical downfall.
To hit the mystical nine, Prose stretches a bit. For every Suzanne Farrell collaborating on ballets with George Balanchine, or every Gala Dalí cosigning canvases with spouse Salvador, there are personae only a graduate student would be likely to know. We learn of "serial muse" Lou Andreas-Salomé's involvement with Friedrich Nietzsche, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Sigmund Freud, and of how Charis Weston had to vie with a toilet for the attentions of her photographer husband, Edward. But these lesser-knowns help make the book a complete analysis of notable women who motivated men of achievement -- usually at the expense of their own -- and lived with the consequences. Katherine Hottinger
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On a spring morning in 1766, Henry and Hester Thrale visited Dr. Samuel Johnson in his rooms at Johnson's Court.
The lively, attractive young couple had known the famous writer since 1764, when the playwright Arthur Murphy had brought Johnson to dinner at the Thrales' estate in Streatham Park, a few miles from central London. Since then, he had been a regular guest at Streatham, and at the Thrales' city place in Southwark, on the grounds of their profitable brewery. But lately, Johnson's visits had tapered off, and the Thrales had reason to suspect that he was suffering from one of the profound and terrifying fits of melancholia that had plagued him for most of his fifty-seven years. Already, they had grown close enough for Johnson to have confided his fears about "the horrible condition of his mind, which he said was nearly distracted."
Unlikely on the surface, the friendship was a tremendous coup for the socially ambitious Thrales. Johnson was famous not only for having written the Dictionary, the Rambler essays, The Life of Savage, and Rasselas but for his witty conversation. Among fashionable Londoners, watching the doctor talk had become a sort of spectator sport; at parties, guests crowded, four and five deep, around his chair to listen.
Johnson brought his own celebrity talking-and-sparring partners -- David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith, Sir Joshua Reynolds -- along with him to Streatham, possibly because brisk repartee was not his host's strong suit. Well meaning and personable, properly insistent on his masculine right to overeat, hunt, and cheat publicly on his wife, Henry Thrale lacked,according to Johnson, the finer social skills. "His conversation does not show the minute hand; but he strikes the hour very correctly." He was the sort of rich, dull, solid fellow -- "such dead, though excellent, mutton," to quote Virginia Woolf's wicked assessment of Rebecca West's husband -- who turns up, with surprising frequency, in the lives of the muses.
Johnson liked the wealthy brewer; he admired the manly way he ran his household, and enjoyed the benefits of his expensive tastes in food and wine. Driven by an increasing horror of solitude and a craving for human companionship, the writer was drawn to the vibrant domesticity of Streatham, and especially to his hostess, a slight, dark-eyed Welsh fireball, who was disputatious, flirtatious, quick, well educated, and (unlike many of their contemporaries) unafraid of a man whom she described as having "a roughness in his manner which subdued the saucy and terrified the meek; this was, when I knew him, the prominent part of a character which few durst venture to approach so nearly."
Chroniclers of the period record the sparkling sorties that flew back and forth across the table between Samuel Johnson and Mrs. Thrale. And her own Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, LL.D., published in 1785, functions as a compendium not only of the writer's witticisms, but also of their exchanges on subjects ranging from faith to incredulity, from ghostly apparitions to the value of everyday knowledge, from marital discord to convent life, from the pleasures of traveling by coach to the rewards of reading Don Quixote, from the correct way to raise children to the necessity of constantly measuring one's minor complaints against the greater sufferings and privations of the poor.
The Thrales were tolerant of the writer's notorious eccentricities. Eventually, they would assign a servant to stand outside his door with a fresh wig for him to wear to dinner, since he so often singed the front of his wig by reading too close to the lamp. Nearly blind, disfigured by pockmarks, Johnson suffered from scrofula and a host of somatic complaints, as well as an array of psychological symptoms that, today, would virtually ensure that he was medicated for Tourette's, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, to name just the obvious syndromes. (The ongoing discussion of Johnson's "case" in medical literature has made him one of those figures, like Van Gogh and Lizzie Siddal, whose health care improved dramatically after death.) Happily, Samuel Johnson's own more permissive era was sufficiently enchanted by his intelligence, humor, and unflagging energy to overlook his rocking from foot to foot, mumbling, twitching, emitting startling verbal outbursts, obsessively counting his footsteps, touching each lamppost in the street, and performing an elaborate shuffle before he could enter a doorway.
The Thrales were used to the doctor's tics. Yet nothing could have prepared them for the scene they found on that May morning when at last they were admitted to the writer's rooms at Johnson's Court. His friend John Delap was just leaving, and it must have been instantly obvious -- from how pathetically he begged Delap to include him in his prayers -- that the great Samuel Johnson was veering out of control.
Left alone with the Thrales, Johnson became so overwrought, so violent in his self-accusations, so reckless in alluding to the sins for which he said he needed forgiveness that Henry and Hester were soon caught up in the general hysteria. "I felt excessively affected with grief, and well remember my husband involuntarily lifted up one hand to shut his mouth, from provocation at hearing a man so wildly proclaim what he could at last persuade no one to believe; and what, if true, would have been so very unfit to reveal."
It was an extraordinary scene: the handsome brewer clapping one hand over the mouth of London's most celebrated literary figure, while his agitated wife looked on in dread and horror. Something irreversible was happening to their friendship! The balance of power and need was being tipped forever by what Johnson was letting them see. They'd arrived as friends and hosts flattered by the doctor's affections, but uninvited, and perhaps a bit uncertain about their welcome and the future of their friendship. And now they had been drawn into this theatrical, eroticized tableau, from which they would emerge as guardians, saviors, confessors ...The Lives of the Muses. Copyright © by Francine Prose. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Meet the Author
Francine Prose is the author of twenty works of fiction. Her novel A Changed Man won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Blue Angel was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her most recent works of nonfiction include the highly acclaimed Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, and the New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer. The recipient of numerous grants and honors, including a Guggenheim and a Fulbright, a Director's Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, Prose is a former president of PEN American Center, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her most recent book is Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932. She lives in New York City.
- New York, New York
- Date of Birth:
- April 1, 1947
- Place of Birth:
- Brooklyn, New York
- B.A., Radcliffe College, 1968
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THE LIVES OF THE MUSES examines how eight women (Hester Thrale, Elizabeth Siddal, Lou Andreas-Salome, Gala Dali, Lee Miller, Charis Weston, Suzanne Farrell, and Yoko Ono) and one little girl (Alice Liddell) provided essential inspiration to their artist companions. While artistic inspiration can come from many sources (music, fasting, prayer, meditation, romantic love), Francine Prose's book examines the romantic kind of artistic inspiration which arises between men and women -- with men typically playing the role of artist to the woman's role of muse. And who, exactly, is a muse? Francine Prose writes, "The muse is often that person with whom the artist has the animated imaginary conversations, the interior dialogues we all conduct, most commonly with someone we cannot get out of our minds." Francine Prose delves into some of the most intimate details of the muses' and artists' sexual lives, yet never loses touch with the vision of her book as a guidepost to better understanding the art of being a muse. While muses are chosen by artists, and therefore seemingly have no ability to chart muse-dom as a career path for themselves, they appear to share certain qualities with one another. For one thing, many muses have been intensely disliked by their contemporaries -- perhaps because people can intuitively sense that there is an unusually strong bond of love between an artist and his muse. If the subject of this book at times makes one feel uncomfortable, that is no doubt due to the fact that the interaction between artists and muses take people to the very greatest emotional heights and depths. The passions felt between artists and their muses are so tremendous that they sometimes provoke people's behavior to go completely out-of-control... yet these same passions present artists with some of their greatest sources of inspiration. Francine Prose's extraordinary book, THE LIVES OF THE MUSES, shows us a unique vision of how artists' lives are shaped and driven by the love and inspiration of their muses. It is the gift of the muse to offer her artist "that rare and precious spark ignited by genius and passion."
This is a fun and juicy way to get a bit of a history lesson. Well written and quite enjoyable to read.