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Keeping the World Away

Keeping the World Away

4.5 2
by Margaret Forster

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Lost, found, stolen, strayed, sold, fought over... This engrossing, beautifully crafted novel follows the fictional adventures, over a hundred years, of an early 20th-century painting and the women whose lives it touches.

It opens with bold, passionate Gwen, struggling to be an artist, leaving for Paris where she becomes Rodin's lover and paints a small,


Lost, found, stolen, strayed, sold, fought over... This engrossing, beautifully crafted novel follows the fictional adventures, over a hundred years, of an early 20th-century painting and the women whose lives it touches.

It opens with bold, passionate Gwen, struggling to be an artist, leaving for Paris where she becomes Rodin's lover and paints a small, intimate picture of a quiet corner of her attic room.

Then there's Charlotte, a dreamy intellectual Edwardian girl, and Stella, Lucasta, Ailsa and finally young Gillian, who share an unspoken desire to have for themselves a tranquil golden place like that in the painting.

Quintessential Forster, this is a novel about women's lives, about what it means and what it costs to be both a woman and an artist, and an unusual, compelling look at a beautiful painting and its imagined afterlife.

Editorial Reviews

Ron Charles
"Keeping the World Away will remind you of two other works you probably enjoyed. The first is Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue, a lovely novel that traces the ownership of a Vermeer painting from the present day back to the artist's 17th-century home. The other is Virginia's Woolf's "A Room of One's Own," an essay that imagines William Shakespeare's brilliant (and unknown) sister, Judith, and describes the way poverty and prejudice have long denied women the opportunity and the space to write. Forster combines these two themes to produce an exceptionally thoughtful novel based on a painting called "A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris," by Gwen John (1876-1939). Distinct but interrelated chapters describe each owner of an early draft of this painting, starting with the longest chapter, which describes John's adolescence in England, her eventual move to Paris and her passionate affair with the sculptor Auguste Rodin."
—The Washington Post
Susann Cokal
In Margaret Forster's new novel, a small painting of an attic room is lost, sold, inherited, given away and stolen. One owner nearly burns the canvas; another is tempted to punch a fist through it. The painting itself may be all too destructible, but Keeping the World Away (one of the best entries in the literary subgenre that traces an object through history) demonstrates that true art is more than its perishable elements; it makes a world of its own.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

An enigmatic painting by Gwen John created as the young English artist pined for her neglectful lover, Rodin, connects the disparate characters in this century-spanning sentimental tale. Forlorn Gwen paints a canvas of a corner of her Paris flat intended to "signify herself—calm, peaceful, content" and gives it to a friend, who misplaces it. So begins the painting's journey as it ends up in the possession of an artistically bankrupt teenager, an impoverished nurse, a downtrodden farmer, a scorned wife, an aging woman returning to Paris after a long absence and, finally, a promising art student, all of whom find either strength or solace in the valuable work. Though the men characters are less than convincing, Forster captures a wide swath of 20th-century European womanhood. (Aug.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

One small painting, a still life of a corner of an attic room, is the thread that ties this moving novel together. Gwen, a young woman who defies tradition and moves from London to Paris to pursue a career as an artist, finds herself in a passionate affair with the sculptor Rodin. When he casts her aside, Gwen uses her anguish to create a painting that is so simple in composition and yet so complex in emotion that it affects each woman who subsequently owns it. Forster (Lady's Maid) interweaves all of the women's stories in such a clever way that they are united by more than just the painting. After Gwen, we meet awkward, intelligent Charlotte, then Stella, emotionally wounded and trying to paint. They are followed by Lucasta, a successful painter, and Ailsa, bravely independent after her husband's death. Finally, we are introduced to young and curious Gillian. Their stories span decades, and the similarities among the women are subtle yet profound. Each one must struggle with the urge for balance between solitude and opening her life to others. Highly recommended for all fiction collections.
—Anna M. Nelson

Kirkus Reviews
A haunting painting entrances the women in whose hands it falls over the course of a century. Forster (Is There Anything You Want?, 2006, etc.) continues her tradition of examining literary and artistic lives with this look at painter Gwen John (1876-1939). Survivor of a grim, motherless childhood in Wales, her cool, detached demeanor covers a maelstrom of emotions. She leaves home at 18 to attend London's Slade School of Art and eventually ends up in Paris, where she refines her artistic approach. Continually under the shadow of her flamboyant brother Augustus, whose fame as a painter came more quickly, Gwen struggles to achieve recognition. Rebuffed by her former lover Auguste Rodin, she turns inward, painting her loneliness into a small picture of her attic room. That painting's fictitious journey over the next century is the heart of the story. Gwen gives it to a friend, who loses it. The work is subsequently sold, passed down from mother to daughter, stolen, given by a woman to her lover, fought over in an estate and bequeathed to a young female artist. For each woman who possesses it, however briefly, the painting's quiet luminosity calls to something deep inside her: emptiness, poverty, welcoming, tranquility or a "strange yearning . . . for something unobtainable." Forster captures the characters' artistic desires and delicately hints at the connections that nurture and inspire these women. She sets her characters in the context of the events that define the period, from the hardships and tragedies of two world wars to the escalation of art prices at the end of the 20th century. An intimate, subtly crafted, satisfying read.
From the Publisher
“Forster’s style is easy and unpretentious. In a brief paragraph she can create a character we care about, a story we long to see resolved.”
Independent on Sunday

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Random House Publishing Group
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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.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet 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.

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Keeping the World Away 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
BreeFL More than 1 year ago
Margaret Forster has a talent for writing period books with amazing clarity. Just like 'Ladys Maid', this is one of my favorite books.
NEBooknote More than 1 year ago
Margaret Forster has a amazing talent for packing period, scene, action and emotion into a single sentence. In Keeping the World Away she presents a painting -- a rather famous one, at that, of a corner of a room -- and gives us an intergenerational picture of its affect on various people. The book is a time piece, full of characters that enchant and intrigue. This is a book with enough depth to fascinate through several readings but it is not a book for someone who prefers the light fare that pervades the contemporary "best seller" lists.