REVIEWED BY TRICIA GILBEY
Sophie Haydock (Doubleday: 2022)
Many years ago, I became intrigued by a print on a friend’s wall. The eyes of the woman, her head resting on her knee, seemed so knowing, so piercing. My friend told me it was ‘Seated Woman with Bent Knee’ by Egon Schiele. Now, after reading The Flames, I feel as if I know this woman really well.
She was Adele Harms, the first of Schiele’s muses in Sophie Haydock’s fascinating novel, which features four of the women Schiele knew best. We initially meet Adele as an older woman, desperate and living in poverty. Each time we return to her, in brief interludes, we understand more about the reasons for her erratic behaviour. We see her with her sister, Edith, in pre-First World War Vienna. They have a comfortable life, disrupted only by Adele’s fixation on the artist with a reputation who comes to live in the building opposite. We see Schiele through her eyes as a rebellious, heroic figure, shattering norms and setting the world alight with his art. She thinks of him as a way to escape her parents, who are trying to marry her off to boring men. We know that all will not end well for Adele. Schiele will marry Edith.
Next, we meet Gertrude. I loved the unhurried portrayal of Gertrude and Schiele’s childhood, which takes them from their settled life in a neat country town, through many formative experiences to Vienna. Schiele passionately defended his art against a troubled father, supported by his adoring younger sister, and I felt the poignancy of Gertrude’s loss, and Egon’s, as they later grew apart.
After this, it’s the turn of ‘Vally’ Neuzil, who was originally a muse of Klimt – Schiele’s mentor. She’s a streetwise, loving partner to Schiele, helping him become established as an artist. We come to understand how Vally fought for Schiele, and with him too; and how their tempestuous life together, in Vienna and the provinces, shaped his coming-of-age as an artist.
As we view Schiele through Edith Harms’ eyes, he’s different again. Sophie lays bare the drama and conflict within the sisters’ relationship; the changes wrought in Schiele and Edith by the war; and how their married life unfolds in unpredictable ways. Finally, we have a brief but powerful account through Egon’s eyes before we return to the older Adele.
I found the layering of viewpoints in this novel extremely involving. It drew me in more as it progressed, and I came away feeling I knew all the muses, and Schiele himself, really well. I liked that, after the close of the novel, Sophie separates fact and fiction and outlines her authorial choices. Her research has been extensive, but the book relies, too, on her vivid imagination, and I very much look forward to hearing her talk about this unusual and intriguing story when she visits us in September.
Here is Sophie Haydock’s Instagram page about The Four Muses: https://www.instagram.com/egonschieleswomen/
Learn more about Sophie here: https://sophie-haydock.com/
Sophie Haydock will be talking to Suffolk Book League at our event on Wednesday 13th September 2023.
You can buy tickets here: https://www.suffolkbookleague.org/events-1/sophie-haydock