I read Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper in 2008 and it has stayed with me ever since. I am actually tempted to re-read this at some point and, for me, that is a statement and a half. I am in my early 30s now and the only novel I have ever read twice is Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Which isn’t even a particular favourite of mine. I read it when I was 16 then revisited it a couple of years ago during one of my many periods of obsession with the Kate Bush song of the same name.
Well, anyway. I digress. The point is that I hardly ever re-read novels, for reasons I may blog about in the future if I can ever figure them out, but I am sorely tempted with Lydia Cassatt.
The novel is inspired by the work of Mary Cassatt, an American-born artist who moved to France, formed an attachment to Degas and became identified with the Impressionist movement. Harriet Scott Chessman takes as her inspiration five paintings Mary created of her elder sister, Lydia, who was afflicted by Bright’s Disease.
Lydia, who predeceased Mary by 44 years, is the narrator of this short novel, an approach that enables Chessman to touch upon an array of universal themes.
Seen through Lydia’s eyes, Mary’s world is rendered in details as impressionistic as her paintings. Readers are given a sense of Mary as a person and a painter, of her family life, her decision to choose career over marriage, and of her intriguing relationship with Degas.
Because Lydia is the narrator, Mary becomes both personally and professional defined by this sibling relationship. The connection between painter and subject is explored in some detail and Chessman seems to conclude that the latter has almost equal involvement in the creative process as the former. In doing so, she captures Lydia’s frustration at being ‘interpreted’ by a beholder who can only ever capture Lydia as they see her, not as she sees herself:
But you’re wrong. I’m not such a timid soul. Whatever I look at, I look at wholeheartedly and with as clear an eye as even you can turn on the world. (Chessman, p. 73)
Indeed, as portrayed by Chessman, Lydia is an intelligent, spirited woman, haunted by memories of the American Civil War and of past family tragedies. She is as creative as Mary and Degas, with a gift for embroidery and an ability to respond emotively and articulately to the world around her and to the work her sister creates. Tragically, Lydia is constrained by her illness and, whilst Mary’s unmarried status is seen as a sacrifice or exchange for her art, Lydia is cast into the role of unwordly, overlooked virgin. A role belied by her passionate nature.
An extraordinarily gifted writer, Chessman is at her strongest when exploring the nature of illness and the way in which it defines the sufferer and their relationships. The passages describing Lydia’s suffering and the most vividly realised and powerful. Lydia accepts her fate but Mary struggles to face the inevitable. It is Lydia who recognises that her sister has been able to gift her some form of immortality:
You will remember me because you caught my soul in paint. (Chessman, p. 191)
Lydia finds solace in her sister’s works, something that is apparent in this beautiful passage in which she confronts the imminence of death:
Terrible, to imagine a world continuing beyond my own dissolving; yet what if I am a presence for May (Lydia’s nickname for Mary), and for others too, leaving a trace, like the swath of white light on the top of this embroidery frame? Maybe I should not be so afraid of vanishing, after all. (Chessman, p. 192)
As well researched as this novel undoubtedly is, for me it functions not as a piece of biographical or historical fiction. Instead, I see it as a meditation upon illness, mortality and the power of art to partly negate the transient nature of existence. It is an incredible piece of writing. In a glorious instance of serendipity, I stumbled across the novel in a charity shop. It doesn’t seem too easy (or too cheap) to track down but, if anything in this post has piqued your interest, I urge you to don your deerstalker and have a go!