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Book Review: The Flames by Sophie Haydock

Book Review: The Flames by Sophie Haydock

From erotic figurative pieces to explicit self-portraits, early 20th century Austrian painter Egon Schiele is known for his intense expressionist artwork. His paintings and drawings have been equally revered and abhorred – celebrated as being an early champion of the art movement but viewed as pornographic and grotesque too. Much has been written about Schiele and his art, but what of the women depicted in his work? Seeking to explore their personalities and lives, Sophie Haydock’s enlightening and impeccably researched debut tells the story of Schiele’s muses – a quartet of formidable and fascinating women with their own bold and tragic tales.

Set predominantly in Austria and split into four main parts, the book begins with Adele – the passionate and headstrong eldest daughter of a bourgeois family. We first encounter Adele in the prologue. It’s 1968 and she’s an elderly woman with failing physical and mental health. She’s wracked with grief and guilt, chasing the ghosts of the past, but how did this once vibrant and self-confident woman fall into such desperation and destitution? Shifting back to 1912, we meet Adele and her sister Edith as joyful, fresh-faced young women, living a life of wealth and privilege. When ‘the artist’, Egon, moves into the apartment across the street, Adele develops an instant infatuation that isn’t quite as reciprocated as she thinks it is.

The second muse of the story is Gertrude, Egon’s spirited sister, who’s stifled by her family’s provincial life and longs for excitement. She finds it in her brother – who she adores in an uncomfortable way that doesn’t always feel appropriate – but as they grow up, Egon begins to leave her behind, prompting Gertrude to find her own way to escape. If Gertrude is the original muse of the story, then Vally is perhaps the most bold and unapologetic. A proud and determined model for Egon’s mentor, the prominent artist Gustav Klimt, Vally is drawn to the young artist’s charm and intensity. Egon might treat her as an equal but she can’t escape the feeling that’s she’s disposable, and that their time together can’t last forever.

The final muse of the story is Edith, Adele’s overlooked younger sister, who might seem plain and mild-mannered on the surface, but yearns to be noticed. When Egon’s attention turns towards Edith, rather than her more obvious sister, it fractures both the sisters’ close bond and the trajectory of their lives. As war descends on their country, these four very different but equally passionate women find themselves not only competing for the affections of the same man, but also fighting against society’s expectations of how a woman should act and what she should be.

Men such as Egon Schiele can never truly respect women in her situation – girls without education, who have to shut up to survive. They mistake silence for consent, for willingness, for a transfer of power. And they take what they can until they eventually fulfil the expectations of their class.”

The Flames takes place amidst an alluring backdrop of art and bohemian living, blending fact and fiction to explore Adele, Gertrude, Vally and Edith’s intertwining untold tales. Though the women don’t have much interaction – except Adele and Edith – they’re bonded by their adoration for Egon. As a 21st century reader, the fascination with the artist is a little baffling, but these women existed in a time when society was repressed. Women were not supposed to have desires, let alone act on them. Egon brings out a wildness in his muses; a sense of reckless abandon that both frees and condemns them personally and publicly.

Though the shifting timeline does leave some gaps in the muses’ stories and their respective relationships with Egon, Haydock perfectly captures the spirit of the era, creating a vivid sense of time and place that immerses readers in the artistic and affluent world of Vienna, but also the less glamorous realities of poverty and war. Through this moving, illuminating and evocative story, Haydock gives a voice to the women immortalised on canvas but forgotten to history – bringing the muses out of Schiele’s shadow and into the light where they belong.

★★★★

The Flames is published by Doubleday on 17 March 2022

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