The Flames
By Sophie Haydock
Doubleday, UK
ISBN: 978-0857527622
464pp.

Austrian Expressionist painter Egon Schiele broke a great many rules with his work, particularly propriety ones. Impassioned and driven, he had very little concern for what society thought of him, as long as his work was valued.

But the judgements passed on him and his work didn’t end at him — they extended to his models, to the women in his life who were far more affected by societal censure than he was. That, however, is often the case.

There were four women in particular whom Schiele painted again and again, in the most intimate of poses; four women whose stories have somehow been lost in art history — or perhaps their stories were never considered important enough to tell in the first place.

In her debut novel The Flames, journalist Sophie Haydock chronicles the lives of these four women: Adele, Gertrude, Vally and Edith. Each of them wanted more for herself than she was allowed to have, whether by society, family or the artist whom they all loved.

Adele and Edith were Schiele’s neighbours in Vienna, Gertrude was his younger sister and Vally was a model introduced to the artist by his mentor, Gustav Klimt. Each woman had an impact on Schiele, each also had an impact on the others, but little is known about who they really were.

Haydock takes some artistic liberty with their stories, expanding on what little is known about them and presents a narrative that gives the reader a deeper understanding of the four women so well recognised visually from Schiele’s paintings. As for Schiele himself, Haydock is not often distracted by him, although we do get a little sense of the artist’s life, especially via his sister Gertrude’s perspective.

What does her name matter now? I could be anyone in this world for all people care, she thinks. It has been decades since anyone wanted to know who she was. — Excerpt from the book

The book is evenly divided between the four women’s lives in Vienna in the 1900s and starts off with Adele, a young, vibrant and well-off society girl who has grown bored of her “petty” existence and wants something more exciting.

When Schiele moves into the building across from Adele’s family, she and her sister, Edith, watch the artist with great interest, though it is only Adele who throws herself into Schiele’s path as often as possible. However, as much as Adele attempts to entice Schiele, it is her quiet, more subdued younger sister in whom he shows an interest and eventually marries.

Edith takes up the last quarter of the book. Her life (and death — no spoilers here, this is historical fact) alongside Schiele’s bring the story to its natural end, though Schiele’s work, of course, has lived on and, in those portraits, so have Edith, Adele, Gertrude and Vally.

In between the bookends of Adele and Edith are Gertrude and Vally. Gertrude was Schiele’s much beloved younger sister, with whom it is indicated that he was unnaturally close — Gertrude would often pose for her brother in ways that had many around them mutter ‘incest’, though Haydock holds back from any such assumptions.

It is via Gertrude’s story that we learn the most about the artist as well, as we see the siblings growing up in a small town, the children of conservative, conventional stationmaster Adolf Schiele, who does not want to accept his rebellious son, or even accept the way syphilis rapidly declines his own mental and physical health at the cost of his family’s wellbeing.

There is a lot of unease in The Flames, whether it is how selfish Schiele can be in his treatment of the women in his life; the strange intimacy he shares with his much younger sister who models nude for him from a young age; the decidedly odd way Klimt seems to pass Vally — as a model or lover or both, it is unclear — on to the younger artist; or the way Edith has her sister pose for her husband when she herself is unable to.

Haydock does not pass any judgement on the artist or on the women she writes about, but neither does she gloss over some of the very uncomfortable situations in which they find themselves.

Egon Schiele was a brilliant artist, but a very troubled young man. The women who loved and supported him were, of course, human, and in possession of the same foibles, insecurities and shortcomings as anyone else. It is easy to imagine how Schiele’s singular focus on his art was often his biggest weakness in regard to his human relationships.

Since this is a historical novel and some facts cannot be erased — such as the onset and outcome of the Spanish Flu in 1918, which now feels eerily contemporary — many readers might already know of the sad, lonely end to Schiele’s life, which makes this story all the melancholier: Edith, six months pregnant with their first child, died from the flu on Oct 28 and Schiele followed three days later. He was only 28 years old.

Haydock takes a soft-feminist approach to exploring the lives of the four women as they attempt to navigate a rapidly changing Austria. Her language is very readable, if slightly melodramatic at times. But perhaps the dialogue is justified, since this is Vienna at the turn of the 20th century.

Against the backdrop of World War I, and of massive upheavals in the socio-economic status quo, Haydock makes sure that each woman is more than just a name, more just a model, lover, muse.

The reviewer is a book critic, editor of The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories and hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 23rd, 2022

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