#983 A studio of one’s own
One Madder Woman
by Dede Crane
Calgary: Freehand Books, 2020
$23.95 / 9781988298689
Reviewed by Carole Gerson
France’s Impressionist artists are now so canonical that we often forget that their first exhibition of 1874, organized in protest against the conservatism of the Académie de Beaux Arts that vetted the annual displays of the Paris Salon, was met with derision. Today, we savour how their paintings composed en plein air capture the texture of outdoor light, and we admire their attention to commonplace activities that range from farm work to Parisian café culture and cabarets in Montmartre, subjects that challenged the traditions of French art. The men who painted these works enjoyed a freedom that was forbidden to bourgeois women like Berthe Morisot, the only female contributor to the 1874 exhibition, which was excoriated by one critic for displaying the work of “madmen and one madder woman” (the source of this book’s title, p. 346) who “paint as if suffering seizures.”
Morisot’s participation would establish her future renown, but did nothing to loosen the constraints of respectability that limited her life and her art. In many ways her story invites comparison with that of Emily Carr (which should be familiar to readers of this review), as a brilliant woman artist whose determination to pursue her talent chafed against the social restraints and gender inequities of her day. Even as a mature adult, Berthe had no privacy: her father opened and read all the mail that arrived at the family residence, and an unmarried woman of the grande bourgeoisie required a chaperone whenever she left home, lest she ever be alone in the company of unrelated men. Indeed, Berthe’s pursuit of art represented major concessions on the part of her family, who permitted her, along with Edma, her similarly talented sister who essentially ceased painting after her marriage, to maintain a studio so long as they also maintained decorum.
Other than occasional visits with family members, Morisot spent most of her adult life in the district of Passy, which became Paris’s upscale 16th arrondissement, near the Marmottan Museum that now houses the largest collection of her work. In this novel, Dede Crane situates us in Berthe’s mind by giving us an autobiographical memoir, ostensibly written in 1895 as Berthe records her story for her teenage daughter whom she is nursing through a critical bout of influenza – the disease that would then kill Morisot herself. Wanting Julie to know the truth about her mother’s unconventional life, Berthe begins with the serious recognition of her artistic talent in 1858, when she was seventeen, and concludes with her late marriage, at the age of thirty-three, to Julie’s father, Eugène Manet, brother of the alluring artist Édouard Manet, for whom Berthe posed many times. While Morisot interacts with the major artistic figures of her time, her first-person story is limited by the social shackles against which she constantly rails. Hence the reader meets Degas, Monet, Renoir, and other artists only as Berthe can experience them, at the elegant soirées hosted by her social peers, rather than in the bars and cafés where they congregated to argue about art and politics.
However, the narrative’s interiority is far from claustrophobic: we are party to Berthe’s thoughts and we read intimate letters (some destroyed rather than sent) in which Berthe and Edma share their goals and frustrations. Moreover, Berthe’s account of her family’s experience during the traumatic siege of Paris in 1870 and the ensuring Paris Commune captures the suffering of the poor as well as the rich. Above all, Morisot recounts her secret affair with Édouard Manet in great detail.
Writing fiction about historical figures is a tricky venture. In the genre of magic realism, such as George Bowering’s Burning Water, the author toys with the historical narrative in scenes and episodes that are entirely spun out of his imagination, entertaining readers with his parodic wit. In realistic novels about historic women, fiction writers often imagine what might have happened – particularly with regard to lovers. Such is the case with Emily Carr in Susan Vreeland’s The Forest Lover, which gives the painter a male acquaintance who gratifies the author’s desire for Carr to have enjoyed a romance for which there is no documented evidence. Similarly, One Madder Woman responds to the comment by Morisot’s biographer that “art-historical gossip has speculated feverishly on the exact nature of Morisot and Manet’s relationship” by creating a torrid affair that sexualizes the subtext of the many portraits of Morisot by Manet, who already had a wife and was therefore not free to marry Berthe. In the context of the novel, this secret relationship, which enlivens the narrative, seems possible and befits Morisot’s passionate, rebellious nature. Yet its presence raises questions about craft and gender: is it a possible to imagine the story of a woman’s life without assuming that accounts of creative women are incomplete without romantic intrigue?
Fictionalizing the story of a French artist poses interesting authorial and editorial challenges. How does one write about art when painting is its own expression, in a different medium? Dede Crane’s lyrical prose does much to capture the painterly sensibilities of those who see the world in terms of shape, light and shadow. As well, the book’s layout cleverly resolves the disparity between paint on the canvas and words on the page by including a paginated list of the artworks described in the text, which the reader can easily find online. On the other hand, at the level of language, I am puzzled by some editorial choices. To maintain the texture of Morisot’s life, French words sometimes appear, as when the characters eat tartines, walk out on the quai, and address each other as “chéri.” Yet the text always refers to the Vernissage that precedes the annual opening of the Salon as “Varnishing Day” — a translation that suggests carpentry rather than the acme of social display, “swarming with the Paris elite dressed to be seen and admired” (p. 98).
However, this is a small quibble regarding a captivating book that brings to life a remarkable woman who insisted on being her own person and proved that the notion of a woman artist was not a contradiction in terms.
Dr. Carole Gerson (FRSC) is Professor Emerita in the English Department at Simon Fraser University. Co-editor of volume 3 (1918-1980) of History of the Book in Canada / Histoire du livre et de l’imprimé au Canada, she has published extensively on Canada’s literary and cultural history with a focus on early Canadian women writers, from well-known figures such as Pauline Johnson and L.M. Montgomery to more obscure figures who can be found in her two databases: Canada’s Early Women Writers and the more inclusive Database of Canada’s Early Women Writers. In 2011, her book, Canadian Women in Print, 1750-1918, won the Gabrielle Roy Prize for Canadian criticism. In 2013 she received the Marie Tremaine medal from the Bibliographical Society of Canada. Her most recent book, co-authored with Peggy Lynn Kelly, is Hearing More Voices: English-Canadian Women in Print and on the Air, 1914-1960 (Ottawa: Tecumseh Press, 2020).
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“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster
 Anne Higgonet, Berthe Morisot (New York: Harper & Row 1990), 92.