Novel explores passion and devotion in late 19th century England
by: , ‘The Wayward Muse’
by Elizabeth Hickey
Atria Books — Washington Square Press

Two years after penning her fascinating debut, 'The Painted Kiss,' Portland author Elizabeth Hickey returns to the field of historical fiction with 'The Wayward Muse.'

Set against the blossoming Arts and Crafts movement of late 19th century England, the story focuses on a love triangle among William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the woman they both loved.

If you can get past the rather clumsy, Harlequinesque first chapter ('Did she dare to hope that he was right? Of course not. She was the ugliest girl in Holywell Street'), the Cinderella tale picks up speed and transports the reader back to a time when marrying for money was accepted and encouraged.

Jane Burden is the 17-year-old daughter of a stableman and a mother who loves to drink. By chance, she meets the painter and poet Rossetti.

Tall and gangly with wild, curly hair, Jane always has been considered ugly and awkward. Rossetti sees the vision of Guinevere in her and offers her a chance to earn a much-needed income by modeling for him.

And so Jane is thrown into the company of upper-class Englishmen, including the pudgy but wealthy Morris. After Rossetti seduces her, then disappears, Jane is offered the chance to work with Morris, who has fallen in love with her.

Pressure from her family and a genuine fondness for the workaholic Morris propels the young woman into a marriage of convenience.

Eventually Rossetti reappears, this time with a childlike fiancée. Fortunately, the rest of the tale does not follow the quintessential story line of adultery and redemption.

It is, however, difficult at times to understand Jane's passion for Rossetti, a man who 'carried himself like someone who had been thought beautiful from a very young age …' His character is selfish and annoying, especially in the face of Morris' patient and abiding love for his confused wife.

As in her debut, Hickey exhibits a keen gift for period detail and character development. In both books she takes a love affair and expands it, delving into the heartbreaking details and bringing all the characters, even peripheral ones, to life.

Both books deal with difficult egocentrics and the women who love them. 'The Wayward Muse,' however, suffers, because unlike Gustav Klimt - the painter featured in 'The Painted Kiss' - Hickey never gives us a reason to feel compassion or empathy for Rossetti. His weaknesses rarely rise above pettiness, which makes it difficult to understand Jane's obsession with him. Or to become as engrossed in the novel as we would hope to be.

Also reading this week

'Reading Portland' is a nice fat book that serves as a literary journey through the history of our city. Peter Donahue and John Trombold have gathered more than 80 selections of fiction and nonfiction from all walks of life. The authors will appear at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Annie Bloom's Books (7834 S.W. Capitol Highway, 503-246-0053).

It's no secret that Benjamin Black is the pen name for Booker Prize-winning author John Banville. But secrets and mysteries abound in Black's 'debut' mystery, 'Christine Falls.' The lives of two brothers-in-law in Dublin become more entangled and tense after the death of a young woman, Christine Falls. Black/Banville will read at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Powell's City of Books (1005 W. Burnside St., 503-228-4651).

Lionel Shriver always has garnered great reviews from the critics, but it wasn't until her novel 'We Need to Talk About Kevin' that book clubs began to take notice. Now she's back with 'The Post-Birthday World,' a novel that plays with a parallel universe as a woman contemplates life with one of two very different men. Shriver will read at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Powell's City of Books.

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Elizabeth Hickey

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 20

Where: Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St., 503-228-4651

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