TH: The novel explores the impact that the male gaze has had on how we imagine ourselves, particularly how women imagine themselves. The novel also questions what an artistic legacy is made of. As you write: ‘Velázquez established his legacy with brushstrokes, and Mary Richardson with knife strokes, both with impassioned diagonals.’ By focusing on the Suffragettes, were you interested in readdressing the violence of the male gaze?
CA: Once I’d had the idea of having a museum guard as narrator, I wrote the first draft in a male voice, but then realized it was much more interesting to explore the psychology of a female in that role. All day long they are surrounded by mythological figures, often nudes, and I thought that somehow there is more stripping of sexuality for women than men in this profession.
In the initial stages, as with my Berlin book, I would walk around the National Gallery taking notes, with the Rokeby Venus as my centre of gravity. I was looking for real or imagined sites of disturbance and how they would affect the psychology of my character.
Then there’s the leitmotif of craquelure in the book – the way the brushstrokes of the painter succumb to very slow kinds of decomposition and disintegration – but the Suffragettes take a much more active role in the destruction. There are two different kinds of legacy: one legacy damages, the other establishes. Mary Richardson was of course protesting the imprisonment of Pankhurst and I was fascinated by her autobiography, in which she describes her great irritation at the way men would come and gawp at the Venus all day.
For me, it may have had something to do with growing up in Mexico, where there is often very unabashed staring at women. But it’s something I’ve always noticed in very different spheres – the male gaze. It reappears later on in the book within a clinical context, the counterpart in Paris and the branding of female ‘hysterics’. They too are trapped by the male gaze.
Yes, Marie, the narrator, reacts very strongly to that pejorative use of ‘hysterics’.
That was something that outraged me: the way the Suffragettes were often described as hysterics by the press and other detractors.
The novel is a pressure cooker of female repression, with Marie unable to express her desires for fellow guard Daniel in particular. There’s a scene when she is staying in a room in Paris and is overwhelmed by the lingering presence of the couple who lived there previously, imagining their longings and frustrations. Is her distance from what she wants something you thought about while writing?
People who dismissed the Suffragettes would deride them as being sexually frustrated or say that they were terrified of ‘the unlived life’ and that that was part of what spurred them into action. Marie does see herself mirrored in almost every character in the book, and in some of the paintings, which can often be mirrors. Her anxieties about her professional and her personal life are similar. There is a constant recalibration of distance: distance from a painting, or from Daniel . . . in nearly every scene there’s an uncomfortable measuring going on. Distance and how you measure it is very important in the novel.
There’s a constant conflict in gallery spaces between preservation and entropy: they paradoxically suggest permanence and longevity but they’re full of transience, of people just passing through. The veteran guard Leighton Crooke epitomizes dedication to this almost monk-like existence. Is there a quasi-religious element to gallery spaces, do you think?
Yes. There’s the hush that falls, an expectation of how you should behave once inside. There’s theatre to it, an air of captivity, almost. And a resistance to stasis but also a desire for a very controlled environment. I was much more focused on the theme of impermanence. Every day at the National Gallery there was always something different going on. And I was inspired by an essay by Adorno (‘Valéry Proust Museum’) in which he says there’s not much difference between museum and mausoleum. He’s very critical of galleries as spaces because to his mind they are a slightly ridiculous reenactment of culture. He finds it problematic that they remove artworks from their original context. You can be ‘in’ culture and be having a cultural experience but there’s often a lack of authenticity about the experience of art. On the other hand I feel snobbish passing judgment – at least people are going to museums and engaging, trying to engage.
It sounds like going to the National Gallery was an important part of the writing process as was talking to the guards in person. Did you visit often?
It’s my favourite place in London. Early on I probably would go twice a week and spend several hours taking notes and then go home to write. But too much exposure can somehow cramp the imagination. So I’d go and take notes about one painting or one character I’d seen, or one strange interaction. I did speak to many, many guards but in the end none of them inspired any of the characters in the book, though they were extremely generous with their time and loved talking about their profession. Initially I was interested in the idea of invisibility but speaking to them I realized that it wasn’t an issue for them at all, that they were quite comfortable with someone walking past and not acknowledging their presence . . . After a while that became more interesting to me: the passivity of the profession. I also found interesting the way that many of them were surrounded by so much beauty and heritage and at the same time strangely impervious or indifferent to it. I also thought a lot about how someone in that profession’s thoughts might transition from one to another. I was less in pursuit of a so-called ‘seamless narrative’ and wanted to replicate more what the thought patterns might be, jumping from lighting to the sound of shoes, to people coming in and out. I really enjoyed just sitting there on a bench and watching, because I do feel that museums have strange effects on people psychologically – one does enter into a different mental atmosphere, regardless of how interested in art you happen to be.
Comets orbit the book, particularly in the painting by William Dyce. What was it that particularly drew you to these celestial bodies?
I was fascinated by the painting of Pegwell Bay at the Tate Britain. And also by the fact that somehow comets are both ephemeral and permanent – they pass overhead yet something of them remains. Then I came across a book by George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England. In it he mentions Prime Minister Asquith being on a boat and seeing Halley’s comet passing overhead, and reading it as an omen.
In the book Daniel says, ‘Life’s not complete without some kind of haunting’. To me the main ghost in this book is Mary Richardson. When did her ghost first speak to you?
I read Mary Richardson’s autobiography and at time she comes across badly and at others entirely sympathetically. In the context of the book, Marie’s main conflict is feeling allegiances with both gatekeepers and trespassers. She herself would probably have allowed Mary Richardson to come and deface the painting. What really struck me was the way the Suffragettes were pathologized, and the way women who took a political stance were deemed ‘hysterical’ in some way, or accused of hyperbole. And they came from the whole spectrum of society: you had noble suffragettes and working class ones (and they were treated differently in prison). These figures inhabit Marie’s mental landscape very strongly. In a way these are the women who are most alive to her. Her conflict, too, is that she doesn’t know to what extent she has inherited them. I suppose one of the questions the novel asks is how much do you create spectres for yourself and how much other processes are responsible.
It seems like there might be some parallels between the observing that gallery guards do and the observing that a novelist does. Would you say that’s true?
As a novelist you’re constantly observing, that’s why I thought a museum guard would be a very good job for someone who also wanted to write. It varies from gallery to gallery, but often the younger guards are aspiring artists, and others simply work in security. I’m quite shy but I do say hello to some of them when I go. The guard at the National Gallery with a stray eye is my favourite.
Photograph by Radio1_be