Sunday, December 28, 2008

'With Violets' by Elizabeth Robards

I read books because I enjoy them. I read books because they allow me to get away from the sometimes crushing reality. And I read books because I can learn a lot from them or thanks to them. ‘With Violets’ by Elizabeth Robards turned out to be a novel I learned a lot from. It is historical novel, taking place in France in the second half of the 19th century. It tells a story of Berthe Morisot, particularly the story of her affair with and love for Edouard Manet and what resulted from it. It is also a story of the beginning of Impressionism, the artistic movement of which I was aware yet I didn’t know much at all. A depiction of this revolutionary movement, despite being in a background, was woven by the author into the main plot so skillfully and interestingly that I could not help but find out more about Impressionism and its main artists. And while knowing that Mr. Manet was indeed a real historical figure, I also found out that the book’s heroin, Ms. Morisot, was one as well.
I will mention one side of the book that I was not particularly happy about first, so I can have it out of the way and move on to the good parts. I have to admit that all the French phrases were irritating. First of all, not all readers speak French. It is okay to throw in a simple word or two, like ‘Oui’ or ‘Je taime’ which I can understand, and it would be enough to put me in a correct mood of France and Parisian society. However, whole sentences which I do not understand make it difficult to appreciate what I’m reading. Second of all, because some French phrases are followed immediately by English translations, it automatically changes the mood from romantic to somehow robotic. My humble suggestion would be to either stick to English altogether or put in French words that are simple enough for a reader and don’t need translations.
Now, that the criticism is out of the way, I have to say that language is very rich, the author managed to insert an abundance of adjectives and make it seem that what I was reading was a true, Impressionist painting indeed.
Most importantly however, ‘With Violets’ gives us a very complex character in Berthe. A woman who must go through a lot of struggles to remain true to herself and to her artistic vocation. I really enjoyed her internal dialogues, her divide between two personalities: Propriety and Olympia (who was a model for Manet’s nude painting which in a way began the breaking away of art from the convention and was considered rebellious and unacceptable), and how these two finally blended into one, giving Berthe a clear picture of who she truly was. The quote below perfectly describes this brave, intelligent and conflicted woman.

“Inside me two Berthes war: one is the picture of Propriety. The obedient
daughter. The proper lady, quiet and contemplative; the other is an impulsive
woman I scarcely recognize – an ugly creature prone to being swept away, she is
not so compliant, discreet, or pensive – an Olympia of sorts.”

‘With Violets’ gives an insight into a heart ravaged by love for someone who is unattainable, an insight into a mind so driven by an intense emotion, a desire to possess what cannot be possessed that all reason ceases to exist, all logic is thrown away and one’s whole life is on the verge of destruction. But it also shows us how this emotional war taking place in Berthe’s heart and mind prepared her to be strong enough for what is to come: painting, breaking away from the artistic regime and following her intuition to create what she wanted, not what was expected of her.