‘Maud could tell the whole story, but she will not.’
The Borough Press|2 May 2019|465 pages|Paperback Review copy|5*
I loved this novel about the American artist James McNeill Whistler and his model and mistress, Maud Franklin, the ‘Mrs Whistler‘ of the title. I’m familiar with some of his paintings, his Nocturnes and the portrait of his mother, Arrangement in Grey and Black, known as Whistler’s Mother, but knew nothing about his private life. He was painting at the same time as the Impressionists at the end of the nineteenth century and some of his paintings seem to me to be similar in style to their work, but I think he is above all an individual, standing on his own. I love his signature, a stylised butterfly based on his initials, that heads up some of the chapters in Mrs Whistler.
The book covers two episodes in their lives during the years 1876 to 1880 – a bitter feud with his patron Francis Leyland about his fee for painting The Peacock Room, and the libel trial in which Whistler sued the art critic John Ruskin, over a review that dismissed him as a fraud. Ruskin had criticised Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, accusing him of asking for ‘two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.’ These two events brought Whistler to the point of bankruptcy.
And interwoven is the story of Maud and her relationship with Whistler. Maud, as the title indicates, is the main character, on the borders of society she is not only his model, but also the mother of two of his children – both fostered at birth. Alongside these two are Whistler’s so-called friend, the flamboyant and duplicitous Charles Augustus Howell, known as Owl, and Howell’s mistress Rosa Corder.
It’s a good story, albeit a long one, that moves quite slowly through these four years. I loved all the detail – of Whistler’s impetuous and rebellious character, his relationship with his brother and mother (the real Mrs Whistler), as well as with Maud – and the details of the house he had built in London on Tite Street in Chelsea, which he called the White House, his flight to Venice and most of all about his paintings.
In his Author’s Note Matthew Plampin lists the books he consulted in writing his novel and referenced the online archive of Whistler’s correspondence at the University of Glasgow, which he used, as he puts it, for ‘many of this novel’s best lines.‘He explains that there are gaps in the records – notably about Maud. The American art critic Elizabeth Pennell and her husband Joseph had compiled a biography of Whistler in 1903, but they found that certain details were elusive. They had questions about Howell, about the saga of The Peacock Room and about Maud. Maud was still alive at the time but refused to talk to the Pennells, as they described it: ‘Maud could tell the whole story, but she will not.‘ Plampin’s fictionalised biography fills in some of the gaps in the story, imagining what Maud thought and how she coped with Whistler’s behaviour and attitude towards her and especially about how she felt about her daughters, living with their foster family.
Many thanks to the publishers, The Borough Press for my review copy via NetGalley.
About the Author
Matthew Plampin completed a PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art and now lectures on nineteenth-century art and architecture. He is the author of five novels, The Street Philosopher, The Devil’s Acre, Illumination, Will & Tom and Mrs Whistler. He lives in London with his family.