Tantalus by Jane Westwell

Tantalus: the sculptor's story by [Westwell, Jane]

I came across Jane Westwell’s novel, Tantalus, originally published under her pen name Jane Jazz, when she made a comment on one of my posts. It’s a love story set in the Yorkshire moors and marble mountains of Tuscany. The opening paragraph drew me in:

Journal of Thomas Hope: 30 June 1967

You were just 17, and I was now 70 years old. Your hair shone like burnished copper and you sparkled with youth, while I faded into the winter of my life.



Tantalus is a love story with a difference. The lovers are separated not by barriers of race, class or creed, but by something much more devastating  – by time. They can see and can talk to each other  but can never touch. Theirs is an impossible love as each is trapped in their own time and space.

It’s a moving story, written beautifully. Once I started reading I didn’t want to stop. It begins with Tom’s diary entry after he came out of his house as Sylvia was walking past. Sylvia then takes over the narrative, telling Emily their story:

I need to start at the beginning – the real beginning I mean, not this brief encounter on the footpath when your mum and I were just teenagers.

I need to ask you to undo the top few buttons of reality, and I need to fast forward eight years to that night of blind terror – the night I first saw the eyes in the wall.

How could I stop reading after that opening! And I had no trouble at all in undoing my buttons of reality.

Fast forward from 1967 to 1975 as Sylvia moves into an old house, the house she has known about and dreamed of living in since her childhood, Birchwood House. Sylvia had polio as a child and consequently has a withered leg. She is a painter, fascinated by a marble statue of a lady by the lake in the local park. She had thought of this lady as her secret friend ever since her mother pointed out that the statue had a damaged leg like hers – the statue is even called ‘Sylvia‘.

Birchwood House is a large Victorian semi-detached house, joined back to back with Oakwood House. Her life changes after she moved into Birchwood and sees through the wall of her studio into Oakwood and the eyes of the young sculptor, Tom who lived there 50 years earlier. I wondered if Tom was a ghost, or a figment of Sylvia’s imagination, the result of her loneliness? But I became increasingly sure that he was a reality as Sylvia centred her life and work on Tom and somehow they were able to communicate over a gap in time.

There is so much in this book that I loved – the characters, the story, the charged emotions and longing, the setting (in Yorkshire and Tuscany), and the art – the paintings and the sculpture. And one of the things that came as a complete surprise was the mention of Edmund Blair Leighton and his painting The Accolade. Tom describes it to Sylvia:

It portrays a maiden queen, with glorious autumn tresses, conferring the order of knighthood on a worthy squire. I was captivated by her loveliness, but never saw her like till now. You, my lady, are the living embodiment of his vision of beauty, and I the humble knight who kneels before you. (Loc 937)

I love this painting and have a tapestry of it hanging in the hall.

The Accolade P1090454

As I read on I began to hope that Tom and Sylvia would meet in real time, but this is not a slushy romance. It is such a poignant story, full of emotion and very moving, which I found completely absorbing. There is so much more I could write, but not without giving away too much of the plot.

This is Jane Jazz’s debut novel and I do hope that she will write another book.

I read Tantalus on my Kindle:

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 3632 KB
  • Print Length: 316 pages
  • Simultaneous Device Usage: Unlimited
  • Sold by: Amazon
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00I9E6ANU

Tantalus is a perfect title for the novel as according to Greek myth Tantalus was famous for eternal punishment by being made to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches, with the fruit ever eluding his grasp, and the water always receding before he could take a drink.

For more information about Jane Jazz and her novel go to her website: Tantalus.

And after I’d finished reading Tantalus I realised that it a perfect fit for Carl’s Once Upon a Time Challenge.

Posts on paintings

On the 6th anniversary of my blog I wrote about a selection of books that I’ve enjoyed over the last six years. I thought I’d also look back at some of my favourite artists and paintings, that I’ve written about. It’s taken me quite some time, but here they are, with links to my posts.

(Click on the images to enlarge them)

Claude_Monet The Artists House at Argenteuil1

The Artist’s House at Argenteuil by Claude Monet,  oil on canvas painted in 1873, now held in the Art Institute of Chicago. I especially like this painting because of the colours and also the figures adding personality.


Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, completed in 1870, oil on canvas, held in Tate Britain. This portrait, mourning the death of Lizzie Siddell, shown in a trance-like state, was inspired by Dante’s poem La Vita Nuova about his love for Beatrice.

ChattertonChatterton by Henry Wallis, 1867, oil on canvas, 1856. Thomas Chatterton was an 18th century poet who committed suicide. Peter Ackoyd’s novel Chatterton tells the story of the artist’s suicide.

Van Gogh Church at Auvers-sur-Oise 1890-6

 Vincent Van Gogh’s Church at Auvers-sur-Oise, oil on canvas, 1890. I love the colours and the wonky perspective.

Hunt Birds nestPrimroses and Bird’s Nest by William Henry Hunt (1790 €“ 1864), an English watercolourist. The date of this painting is not known – thought to be during the 1840s. It’s a still-life arrangement painted indoors. For more information about Hunt see Craig’s comment on my original post.


Pegwell Bay, Kent, a Recollection of October 5th, 1858 by William Dyce 1859 €“ 1860. I love the sepia colours and the geological detail.

Turn of the Century Salon: March

Turn of the Century Salon

The Turn of the Century Salon, is a monthly literary event where you can share recent posts related to literature or authors from the 1880s-1930s. One of Katherine’s suggestions for this month’s post is to find a work of art or music within the same time-period that reflect the book and share it.

After reading Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man I decided to read more of his works, including his poetry and bought The War Poems of Siegfried SassonWorld War One British Poets: Brooke, Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg and Others, edited by Candace Ward. I’ve also borrowed Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Siegfried Sassoon: a Biography by Max Egremont and am slowly reading through these.

I’m familiar with some of the World War One war poets, such as Rupert Brooke (The Soldier – ‘If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is forever England), Wilfred Owen (Dulce et Decorum Est), and Thomas Hardy (Channel Firing) and so on, but I hadn’t read any of Sassoon’s poems.

They are satires condemning the war. Sassoon described his poems such as The One-Legged Man as “satirical drawings”, which he intended to “disturb complacency”. Here is his poem In the Pink

So Davies wrote: ‘ This leaves me in the pink. ‘
Then scrawled his name: ‘ Your loving sweetheart Willie ‘
With crosses for a hug. He’d had a drink
Of rum and tea; and, though the barn was chilly,
For once his blood ram warm; he had pay to spend,
Winter was passing; soon the year would mend.

He couldn’t sleep that night. Stiff in the dark
He groaned and thought of Sundays at the farm,
When he’d go out as cheerful as a lark
In his best suit to wander arm-in-arm
With brown-eyed Gwen, and whisper in her ear
The simple, silly things she liked to hear.

And then he thought: to-morrow night we trudge
Up to the trenches, and my boots are rotten.
Five miles of stodgy clay and freezing sludge,
And everything but wretchedness forgotten.
To-night he’s in the pink; but soon he’ll die.
And still the war goes on; he don’t know why.

Looking for more information about this poem I found this description in Siegfried Sassoon: a Study of the War Poetry by Patrick Campbell (page 94):

‘The first of my outspoken’ war poems.  I wrote it one cold morning at Morlancourt, sitting by the fire in the Quartermaster’s billet, while our Machine-Gun Officer shivered in his blankets on the floor.  He was suffering from alcoholic poisoning, and cold feet, and shortly afterwards departed for England, never to return.  Needless to say, the verses do not refer to him, but to some typical Welshman who probably got killed on the Somme in July, after months and months of a dog’s life and no leave.  The Westminster refused the poem, as they thought it might prejudice recruiting!!’

Reading Sassoon’s war poems brings home the horrors of war, the deaths, the devastating injuries and the appalling indifference of the war leaders and the lack of understanding of the people back home.

Similarly some works of art were considered controversial and not suitable for public viewing. Such a painting is Paths of Glory by Christopher Nevinson showing the corpses of two dead British soldiers lying face down in the mud among barbed wire behind the Western Front. Their helmets and rifles lie in the mud next to them.

Paths of Glory by Christopher Nevinson 1917 Oil on Canvas Collection: © Imperial War Museum

This painting is held in the Imperial War Museum website. Its description is:

“The title is a quote from ‘Elegy Written In A Country Church-Yard’ by Thomas Gray. ‘The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, Awaits alike th’inevitable hour. The paths of glory lead but to the grave.‘ Whereas the poet reflects on bodies dead and buried in a church-yard, the so-called ‘Paths of Glory‘ have led these soldiers to death in a wasteland.

Paths of Glory‘ was famously censored by the official censor of paintings and drawings in France, Lieutenant – Colonel A N Lee. His concern presumably being the representation of the rotting and bloated British corpses at this stage in the war. The decision was confirmed three months before the opening of his exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in 1918 but Nevinson still included the painting with a brown paper strip across the canvas, blatantly inscribed with the word ‘censored’. As a result, Nevinson was reprimanded for exhibiting a censored image and for the unauthorised use of the word €˜censored’ in a public space. Predictably, the stunt created the publicity Nevinson desired. The painting was purchased by the Museum during the course of the exhibition.”

This was the ‘war to end war’! The pity is that it didn’t.

Saturday Snapshot: more cat pictures!

This time it’s the Cheshire Cat!

Last Sunday was my granddaughter’s birthday. Her party had an Alice in Wonderland theme and so instead of pin the tail on the donkey it was stick the smile on the Cheshire Cat.

I drew a cartoon version of the Cat and M and I painted it in pink and purple stripes:

here’s the Cheshire Cat minus its smile:

and here with smiles added by the children blindfolded:

For more Saturday Snapshots see Alyce’s blog At Home With Books.

ABC Wednesday: D is for Degas

Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917) was a French artist and is perhaps most well known for his paintings of dancers; ballerinas were his favourite subject:

This is The Dance Class, oil on canvas, 1874 (the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art). Here the dancers are in various poses at the end of a rehearsal. You can see the exhaustion on their faces and in their figures – see the girl at the front scratching her back, the girls at the back sunk to the floor, and the girl on the right, her arms folded, shoulders rounded and her head drooping down. I love the contrast between them and the rigid figure of the ballet master.Their flimsy tutus stand out so well against the hard diagonal floorboards.

I also like painting L’Absinthe, also called The Absinthe Drinker, A Sketch of a French Café,  or Figures at Café. It’s oil on canvas, 1876 (Musée D’Orsay). It’s a melancholy painting of a forlorn couple in the Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes in Paris.

They are drowning their sorrows. She is drinking absinthe, ‘the Green Fairy’, a lethal drink that was later banned. She is seen staring into space, sad, and desolate, lost in her own world. He is also in his own world, detached, his head turned away from her, as though they aren’t together. Degas’s models for the painting were Ellen Andre, an actress and Marcellin Desboutin, an engraver and artist. They were both annoyed by the painting, which depicted them as alcoholics and Degas had to state publicly that they were not.

I like it just because it tells a tale. It is so expressive and the detail is so fine, the slump of her shoulders, her air of exhaustion and his desire not to be there come over to me so powerfully. It gives the impression that Degas painted this from real life, but actually he painted it in his studio, with the pair carefully posed.

An ABC Wednesday post.

ABC Wednesday: A is for The Artist’s House at Argenteuil

Another round of ABC Wednesday began today. Amazingly it’s been going for around 5 years and this is Round 11.

A is for The Artist’s House at Argenteuil by Claude Monet, one of my favourite Impressionist paintings. It’s oil on canvas painted in 1873, now held in the Art Institute of Chicago.

Monet moved to Argenteuil in 1871 and lived there until 1877. This was a prolific period for him – he was happy and well-off during that time. It was whilst he was living there that he developed a passion for gardening, influenced by fellow artist Gustave Caillebotte. This painting shows the first house he lived in at Argenteuil, with beds of red, white and blue flowers in front of the house, a creeper covering much of the wall and potted plants in large blue and white tubs on the gravel drive.

I especially like this painting because of the colours and also the figures adding personality – the little child with a hoop is Monet’s five-year old son, Jean, whilst his wife, Camille is seen in the doorway.

Happy Mother’s Day

Today is Mother’s Day, or Mothering Sunday. My son knows what I like and sent me this book:

OakOak by Stephen Taylor

It’s a beautiful book telling and showing how British artist Stephen Taylor has painted the same oak tree in a field in Essex, England, dozens of times over a period of three years in extremes of weather and light, at all times of the year and hours of the day.

I’m fascinated by how artists create their pictures and this book is excellent. Not only is it full of illustrations, but Stephen also describes his methods of painting, outside and in the studio and explains what he was aiming to achieve.

I hope to write more about this book when I’ve had more time to study it. One thing that struck me immediately was this fact stated in Alain de Botton’s introduction:

The oak is estimated to be 250 years old. It was therefore already home to skylarks and starlings when Jane Austen was a baby and George III the ruler of the American colonies.

I love such connections! Thank you, Paul.

P is for Pissarro

L'Hermitage a Pontoise 1867, oil on canvas

 Camille Pissarro (1830 – 1903) was one of the French Impressionist painters. In 1866 he moved to Pontoise on the banks of the River Oise, on the outskirts of Paris and lived there until 1884. He loved the area and painted 300 or so paintings in that period. L’Hermitage à Pontoise, the painting above, is one of my favourites of his, painted in a realistic rather than an impressionist style, showing an idyllic village scene and the hills behind. I like all the detail and his use of light and shade drawing attention to the figures on the road and highlighting the houses.

Red Roofs, 1877, oil on canvas

Ten years later he painted Red Roofs showing a corner of the village in winter with the traditional 18th century houses viewed through the trees. I like the blend of colours with the differing tones of the red of the roofs, fields and earth in the foreground, contrasting with the green of the grass and the blue of the sky. The twisting forms of the trees with their vertical trunks contrast sharply with the geometric shapes of the houses.

An ABC Wednesday post.

‘Young Man at the Window’ by Gustave Caillebotte

Young Man at Window by Caillebotte (1876)

File:G. Caillebotte - Jeune homme à la fenêtre.jpg

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

I’m quite surprised that Gustave Caillebotte (1848 – 1894) was a member of the French Impressionists as his paintings are much more realistic than the others’ paintings. He painted more modern subjects and his paintings are almost photographic in style.

His painting of a Young Man at Window shows Caillebotte’s brother standing at the window of a new apartment looking out on the scene below. I love the clarity and crispness of this painting, the detail of the stone balustrade, the back view of the young man – a ‘flaneur’ or man about town – and the contrast between the dark interior and bright view outside the window. In the 1870s Paris was being transformed into a modern metropolis under Napoleon III, with Baron Haussmann’s new boulevards and apartements and the rise of the bourgeoisie. The urban setting of this painting shows the tree-lined boulevard and horse drawn carriages.

Is the young man looking at the woman outside? Does he know her? What is the story behind the painting?

An ABC Wednesday post.