Jessie Burton’s second novel is set in the changing London of the 1960s and central Spain at the start of the Spanish Civil War. Like her bestselling debut, The Miniaturist, The Muse focuses on a work of art: in this case, a significant Spanish painting with a mysterious provenance that links the lives of three women over four decades. BookPage asked Burton about her love of research, her writing process and what historical fiction she admires.
What was your initial inspiration for The Muse?
I was inspired by so many things when I wrote this book—huge scopes, like war, and love, and art, and colonialism. Oddly, compared to The Miniaturist—which was anchored by a very solid, physical object—The Muse derives from multiple interests, and was driven more by experience than curiosity. I wanted to write about Spain, and about London in the 1960s, and about art. My approach to the historical research was the same, but my impulses to write this book were very different. I was chasing something different.
This is your second novel to revolve around a work of art. Is that where you start—imagining the painting or physical object?
No—it was different this time! The dolls’ house in The Miniaturist is a real object. As you say, the paintings in The Muse are imagined, and only emerged in my mind’s eye one the writing was underway, and I had started developing the characters and plot.
Why did you decide to make Odelle from Trinidad? What do you think her being a newcomer to London adds to the novel, and how did you approach writing from her perspective?
Trinidad had direct colonial links to London and England in those days. It still does have links, but now in a reconfigured form. I knew from the beginning Odelle wouldn’t be a white woman, but I didn’t make that choice so I could augment her character, or add to the novel in a tokenistic way. Nevertheless, as non-black woman myself, there was a lot of consideration that followed the knowledge that Odelle was going to drive the story.
I have long been interested in British behavior and policy in the West Indies from the time of slavery, and how this trickled down into the 20th century. Odelle’s life as a child of the Empire in the 1940s was a direct product of the legacy of slavery and colonialism. She would have been brought up to talk and think almost more Englishly than the English—and as a bright girl would have absorbed the message of “connectedness” that the British Isles had to the islands in the West Indies. She would also have subconsciously absorbed both the insidious, and more overt, messages of how whiteness equaled safety, power, wealth and authority. She would have been told how she was a family member of empire, and she would have also been told that she was an outsider. That must have had a profound, splitting effect on first arrival in England. Odelle is an “immigrant,” but she knows the English better than they know themselves, because she actually reads those Shakespeare plays and Tennyson poems, and had posters of Princess Margaret on her wall. She speaks the Queen’s English, she possesses all the signifiers of alleged Englishness except one thing: the colour of her skin.
For me, Odelle’s Trinidadian heritage assimilates into her womanhood, her falling in love, her fear of love, her ambition to write—it is not solely a racial prism through which I see her. I was striving for a woman who meets us at the axis of all these points. But obviously she is exposed to racism on a micro- and macro- level, in a way a white woman would never be. Does this fuel her ambition even more? I don’t think so. I think her secretly knowing she’s a great writer is fuelling her ambition. She resists thinking of herself as a generalized representative of her entire island. She is an artist. She is also a prim girl, desperate to rebel. She is Caribbean. She is a Londoner. She wants better make-up in the department stores. Her new boss, Marjorie Quick, sees all this in her, and I hope that I do too.
I read widely around the Caribbean experience in London and the UK, I read fiction and poetry written by Caribbean writers, and I also consulted a professor at the University of the West Indies, who is about the same age as Odelle would be now, to check I was accurate when Odelle uses her Trini dialect.
I checked out your Pinterest page for The Muse! It’s a wonderful way to share your visual inspiration. What other kinds of resources did you use?
Thanks! I used books, mainly. Trusty books. And films from the period, and radio documentaries. There’s an extensive bibliography in the back of the novel.
You have written two historical novels. What about the past appeals to you as a fictional subject?
I can’t answer that easily. I don’t really think of it as the “past,” as if it’s some dim and distant place that is severed from our present day. For me, it lives on. There are similarities and differences, and these points of reference are rich opportunities for me to explore universal themes of love, loss, triumph, grief . . . but also to understand how things have changed.
Why do you think Olive works so hard to conceal her talents?
For many reasons: because she enjoys the joke on her father, because she can paint without having to be accountable for the public product, because she’s frightened, because she hasn’t thought it through, because it keeps her close to Isaac, because it makes her feel powerful, because she can watch herself from the outside and the inside at exactly the same time.
Have you ever heard of this happening in real life?
Yes—it has happened in the history of art creation and marketeering that women’s work has been attributed to men. It happened to Judith Leyster in 17th-century Holland, it happened to Margaret Keane in 1950s and ’60s America. In the art markets, women’s work has historically always sold for less, with rare exceptions. Women painters are less prominent in art history, and less numerous. Women’s work has been destroyed by their menfolk (Alice Neel springs to mind, whose lover, Kenneth Doolittle, incinerated over 350 of her watercolors, paintings and drawings.) Women have often been disregarded as anything other than muses—unable to create works of “genius” themselves. We always are described as “women writers,” “women artists”—I’ve even been called a “lady novelist.” In 2016, this is still a held view in some quarters. It is a persistent and enraging state of affairs. It is complete rubbish. So yes, maybe I felt like turning the tables a little, and twisting the real reasons as to why Olive is ‘hiding’ behind Isaac. Olive doesn’t lack confidence in her talent, she just lacks confidence in the art market, which, when you think about it, makes her pretty savvy indeed.
How does your training as an actress influences your creation of characters?
I guess it must, because so many readers have told me now that they feel they know these people as if they were real, as if their dialogue was out of a play or a film. It’s not deliberate. It must just be part of where I’ve come from professionally. I always read my work out loud, several times, so in that sense it’s quite performative, my way of inhabiting these imaginary people, and putting flesh on their bones. But the best characters always keep a little bit of themselves secret, even to their creator. Perhaps that’s when the actor—or the reader—steps in and closes the gap.
Are you already thinking about a new novel?
Maybe . . .
Author photo © Hugh Stewart for Vogue 2015.
RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of The Muse.