Keeping the World Away

Keeping the World Away

by Margaret Forster


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Gwen, a bold and spirited young English artist, defies convention and sets out to study in Paris, where she has a tumultuous affair with the inspiring, controlling sculptor Rodin. But as the relationship cools, Gwen feels lonely and adrift as she awaits the ever more infrequent visits from her lover. Attempting to restore her artistic vision and recapture her true self, Gwen pours out her soul onto a canvas, creating an intimate painting of a quiet corner of her attic room.

Lost, found, stolen, sold, and fought over, the painting enchants all who possess it. First it falls into the hands of Charlotte, a dreamy intellectual with artistic leanings–though little talent. In turn the work finds its way to the lovely, bright Stella; the destitute but willful Lucasta; self-sufficient Ailsa; and, finally, young, curious Gillian. All of whom long for a tranquil golden place such as the one depicted in the painting, a haven where they can “keep the world away.”

Praise for Keeping the World Away:

“Evocative . . . an apparently simple yet potent work of art.”
–The New York Times Book Review

“Highly recommended . . . One small painting, a still life of a corner of an attic room, is the thread that ties this moving novel together.”
–Library Journal (starred review)

“It is the painting’s power to evoke tranquility that Forster so effectively celebrates.”
–Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Haunting . . . revealing . . . exquisitely drawn.”
–The Washington Post Book World

“An intimate, subtly crafted, satisfying read.”
–Kirkus Reviews

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345496348
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/29/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Margaret Forster is the author of best-selling memoirs, Hidden Lives and Precious Lives, acclaimed biographies of Daphne du Maurier and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and of many successful novels, most recently The Memory Box.

Read an Excerpt



The wind pushed and forced them along, great savage gusts of it, stinging their ears, penetrating their scarves, whipping their uncovered hair into fierce tangles, slicing through their coats and chilling their small bodies so completely they were crying and gasping for breath before they ever reached the steps. Gwen fell. She tried to take the steps two at a time but the wind unbalanced her and she tripped, clutching in vain at the iron handrail. Thornton hauled her up, half-dragging her to the door where Winifred, lifted up there by Gus, already cowered. Gus had set her down and stood with his back to the door, his eyes closed, his arms spread wide to welcome the wind, and a smile on his face.

All four of them, gathered together at last, hammered on the big solid door, thumping it with their fists, rattling the letter box and yelling to be let in. The door swung violently back, the weight of the wood for once unequal to the powerful thrust of the gale-force wind. Closing it, as soon as they were safely inside the hall, took their combined strength. Eluned had not stayed to help. The children collapsed on the tiled floor, pulling at their outdoor garments, removing their boots, which were still thickly caked with mud and under no circumstances to be worn in the rest of the house. Winifred lined the boots up, taking pleasure in the task. On stockinged feet, they pattered down the stairs into the kitchen, eager for the hot milk awaiting them. Thornton and Gus drank greedily, and even Winifred sipped hers quickly. Gwen held her mug tightly, wanting its outer warmth on her hands, but not its contents. One mouthful was enough. The rest she would give to the cat, taking care that Eluned (who would report this to her father) did not see.

Slowly, mug carried carefully, she left the others and went back up the stairs to the hall, and then up the next flight and into her room, where Mudge awaited her, expecting the milk. She emptied her mug into his dish, and he lapped the milk up without looking at her. Closing the door, and sitting on the floor with her back to it, she watched him. He was said to be an ugly cat, the runt of the last litter, but she saw in the dull gray of his coat and the white-lined sharpness of his ears something unusual that stirred her. He was her cat, unloved by others and all the more precious because of it. But he did not like to be fondled or petted. They communicated through staring, at a distance, into each other’s eyes, and by listening for each other’s slightest movement. They did this now, when he’d finished the milk. There were sounds outside the room of feet approaching. Gwen braced herself. It was Winifred’s room, too, but if she pushed back hard enough against the door, Winifred, three years younger than she was, would not be able to open it. She would run complaining to their mother, and Gwen would gain more time.

But the footsteps ran past the door, heavy and hurried. Not Winifred’s, then, but Gus’s. She was safe for a while yet. She smiled at Mudge, who turned disdainfully and jumped onto the window seat. She did not join him. Here on the floor, against the door, the room looked different. The window loomed above the window seat, seeming twice the size she knew it to be. Interested, she followed the shape of it with her eye, measuring it for length and breadth. She wished there were no curtains framing it. The curtains were of dark red plush, thick and heavy, hanging from a brass rail all the way to the floor. She hated them, detested too the cushions covered with the same material on the window seat. Underneath there was wood, which she loved to touch, the raised grain of it satisfying to her fingers. She was sitting on wood now. There was a patterned carpet on the floor but it left surrounds of wood on each side. These floorboards, stained dark, were full of splinters but she liked the feel of them and never chose to sit on the carpet. Its swirls of color and its cloying wooly thickness offended her. So did the wardrobe, gigantic from where she was sitting, seeing herself reflected in its oval mirror. It dwarfed everything in the room. At nighttime, waking from dreams, it sometimes seemed to her that its mahogany sides ran with blood.

I am here, but not here, she thought, staring at herself. There is my head, and my hair, untidy as a rag doll’s, and there is my body in its green dress, limp and still, and there are my legs, sticking rudely out. It is me, but not me. And this room is not mine, it has nothing to do with me. I do not inhabit it. It is just a place in which I have been put. I can rise out of it whenever I want. So she rose, first just a little way, enough to hover over the head she had just left, and then higher, until she broke through the ceiling and was in Gus’s room, and then higher still and saw their house below, its roof gleaming in the rain. Then she came back down, satisfied. For the moment. Mudge turned and looked at her. He knew what she had been doing.

Reluctantly, she got up and went over to the window seat, where he allowed her to join him. It still poured with rain; the wind still howled. It was a mad March storm, sweeping in from the sea. They should not have been out in it. Their father, when he came home and was told by Eluned about their escapade, would be angry. No one was to cause trouble in the house. Trouble of any sort upset their mother, and she must not be upset, ever. Mother’s legs hurt, and so did her neck, and her back. She moaned when she moved, and bit her lip. She had stopped drawing and painting and playing the piano, and now she had to have her meat cut up for her because her fingers had no strength. Gwen stared at them at mealtimes. Her mother’s fingers appeared bent and there were strange lumps on the knuckles. She had tried to draw them but they did not look right. Gus had tried too, and was more successful, but he had hidden his drawing, not wanting their mother to see. He showed her instead a drawing of her face, sweet and smiling when she was at rest on the chaise longue. Hands were hard to do and attaching them to arms harder still.

Her mother was upstairs, in bed, though it was only three in the afternoon. Winifred would have crept up to be with her. She would have crawled under the eiderdown and snuggled up close, and Mother would be cuddling her and stroking her hair and kissing it. Whenever Gwen went into her mother’s bedroom, she stood at the end of the bed, silent and anxious. “Come to me!” her mother would say, and hold out her arms, but though Gwen obediently moved from the foot to the side of the bed, she could not do what Winifred did. She perched on top of the covers, and her mother put her arm around her waist and squeezed her. It felt awkward, and soon she was released. Inside, there would be a swelling of something she feared, a rising pressure of panic which made her hurry out of the room before something happened which she would be unable to control. She did not know what she would do. She might scream or cry or shake so hard that she would frighten her mother. So she left the room.

It was always a relief. The bedroom stifled her and she disliked it even more than she disliked her own. It was so packed with furniture, so overcrowded, and there was a smell which made her feel peculiar, a mixture of the scent her mother used, stephanotis, and the embrocation she rubbed into her limbs. The window was rarely opened, the room rarely aired. She had tried to draw this bedroom but the paper was not large enough to fit in more than half. She had drawn the window, liking the way it sloped inward, and the view through it of the slate rooftops, but could not work out how to draw the bed and the chest of drawers and the linen box and the dressing table and the wardrobe and the nursing chair—it was too much, it made her dizzy. Her mother had looked at it and smiled and said the wallpaper was well done and the carving on the bedposts excellently rendered. She had said Gwen was ambitious but must learn to walk before she ran, and she had set her to color in outlines of children playing on the beach, which she had drawn herself, for Gwen and Gus.

Her mother’s paintings hung in the drawing room. They were admired by all who saw them for the first time. “Oh, how pretty!” people said, especially of Oranges and Lemons, a picture of children playing that game. Gwen could see this was true. Her mother drew figures well. The colors were vivid. There was life in the painting and yet it did not stay in her head. She had stood staring at it for a long time when no one else was in the room and then turned her back, and all that was in her mind’s eye was a vague impression of dresses and arms. Something was missing but she did not know what it was. She had asked Gus. He had said he did not know what she meant. She knew that he did but that either he could not say or he did not want to tell her.

Below, she heard the front door open and close. Their father was home from his office. The house seemed to breathe differently. Still sitting on the window seat, Gwen listened, raising her head like Mudge, stretching her neck as he stretched his. She must not move, must not betray her presence. The light, never strong on such a day, was fading. She liked the dimness, it made the room friendlier, as its bulging furniture was half-lost in the gloom. She heard her father’s voice below, and the striking of the grandfather clock, and then his footsteps, slow and measured on the stairs. He was going to see her mother. He would send Winifred away and spend half an hour with his wife, alone, and then they would be called to high tea where they would sit silently, eating and drinking. Their father would ask only the occasional question, and Thornton would reply. If their walk had been reported, there would be a lecture. Gus would have to say where they had been, and why. He would tell the truth. So long as he did not mention the Gypsies, it would not matter. They would all say they were sorry.

Winifred looked around the door. “Why are you in the dark, Gwen?” she whispered. Gwen did not reply. She got up from the window seat and followed Winifred down the stairs to the nursery where Gus was sprawled on the floor in front of the fire, drawing, and Thornton was turning over the pages of his atlas.

“Mama is going away,” Winifred said, “I heard Papa say so.” They all looked at her. She was pleased to be important and smiled at them.

“Nothing to smile about,” Gus said, “the aunts will come again.”

Thornton groaned and slammed his atlas shut. Gwen said nothing. It was always happening. Their mother would be too ill to get out of bed and then, when she seemed a little better and had come downstairs sometimes, she went away and the aunts came and everything changed, and there was nothing that could be done about it.

They waited at the table for their father to tell them what Winifred had already told them but he said nothing until the meal was over and then he cleared his throat. “Two pieces of information for you to digest while you digest your food,” he said. “One, your mama is going away for the sake of her health. Two, Aunt Rosina and Aunt Leah will come to be with you. You must all be obedient.”

None of them said anything. Gwen wanted to cry but if she wept in front of her father he would want to know why and he would keep her at the table to explain what she felt did not need to be explained. She bent her head and concentrated on her plate, tracing the flowery design over and over, forcing her eyes to follow the outline of the pink roses and up the green stems and around and around the prettily painted leaves decorating the rim. Her father was saying something else.

“When your mama returns, we will go to Broad Haven.”

This news helped. Gwen saw herself at once in her own tiny room there, at the very top of the house, bare except for its truckle bed and the mat on the floor and the stool in the corner. Her mother had wanted her to share with Winifred, as she did at home in Victoria Place, but she had begged and pleaded to be allowed to be by herself at Broad Haven. The room was like a cell, Thornton said, and neither he nor Gus envied her it. She had never been in a cell. But a prison cell would surely have little or no light and her attic room was full of it. She could lie on the bed at night and look up at the moon and the stars through the uncovered skylight, and in the morning the racing clouds, flashes of white, woke her. Winifred’s room, and the boys’ room, had views of the sea, but she did not care. Views of the sky excited her. She had tried to draw the sky, seen through the skylight, but nothing came of it.

yesterday had been market day in Haverfordwest. The streets and squares of the town had been full of activity, thronged with cattle and pigs herded by the drovers and with strong, tall Welsh women carrying creels of oysters on their broad backs. But what had fascinated Gwen and Gus were the Gypsies, great gangs of them, taking the town over, acting like kings and queens in spite of their raggedness. Their encampment was outside the town but Gus had vowed he knew the way to it and she had agreed to let him take her there, though she had not quite believed he would want to do something so dangerous when the time came.

Reading Group Guide

1. Before the affair between Rodin and Gwen began, Gwen found most of her passion from painting. She could sit for hours, focused intently on her canvas. Suddenly, when she started modeling for Rodin and their physical attraction blossomed, “she had no desire to produce any work at all. She no longer wanted to paint. Why should she?...It was enough to pose for her master... and make love with him afterward.” What do you make of this either/or scenario? Do you agree with the sentiment that “good” art often stems from an inadequacy: depression, insanity, loneliness, desire, etc.?

2. What do you make of Ursula’s interpretation of Gwen’s painting of her room as “a life inside which had been brought outside”?

3. When the feisty Charlotte is fourteen, she dreams of becoming an artist. Part of the appeal is that “...a true artist did not care about money” and that “being without money would be exciting.” To this day, people still have the opinion that being a starving artist is glamorous and thrilling for that very reason–that it’s somehow romantic to be poor. Where do you think this perception comes from, and do you agree with its sentiment?

4. How are each of the women in the novel connected? Do they share similar perspectives? Does the book’s title apply to them all?

5. Many of the women in this book long to be “real” artists but instead feel trapped by the responsibilities that come with marriage and motherhood. Do you think it’s possible in today’s working-mother world to do both, or do you think it’s still as difficult as it was?

6. If you had to choose one woman to whom you related to the most in Keeping the World Away, who would you choose and why?

7. Do you think rooms have spirits as Gillian does? If so, do you have a room that speaks to you in the way Gwen’s room painting spoke to its owners?

8. What do you like to do when you are in the mood to “keep the world away?”

9. If you had to pick your favorite painting, what would it be (and by whom?) and why?

10. If you were to stumble upon a painting that utterly possessed you, what would it look like? Where would you hang it?

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