March 27, 2023
Located in the magnificent Somerset House, with arguably one of the great art collections in the UK, author Sophie Haydock’s life changed on Saturday, January 10th, in 2015, when she visited the Courtauld Gallery, in London, with her friend Ali Schofield, to whom Haydock’s debut novel is dedicated. Ali had invited Sophie to see an exhibition of the artist, Egon Schiele.
In her debut novel, The Flames, Sophie Haydock wields her prose as deftly an any artist does brushes. Haydock paints four intriguing portraits of women entwined under the umbrella of artist Egon Schiele, in Vienna from 1912 through 1918. Haydock told me, “That day at the Courtauld, I was amazed to see all that incredible artwork in one place – all those women posing in their stockings or completely nude. I realized then that Schiele’s muses had been seen so explicitly for almost a century, but that their sides of the story had never been told.”
It would have been easy for Sophie Haydock to have been ‘taken’ with the eroticism of Schiele’s figurative work in the exhibition, as have so many before. However, Haydock responded to what she saw and knew she must write about Schiele’s muses, to write the narrative in the voice of these four women, who posed for the artist, and whose lives became forever altered as a result of their relationships with the artist. Haydock further said, “The first woman I connected with was Edith Harms, when at the end of the exhibition I discovered a detail about her tragic death that stopped me in my tracks. I knew I wanted to write about Schiele’s life from her point of view. But before long, I discovered three other muses whose voices were just as urgent, with their own hopes, dreams, and sadly, their own tragic fates. I decided to weave these four voices into a novel, giving Schiele’s muses the chance to paint a portrait of themselves, and the artist, for the first time.”
I found The Flames, well researched, which is essential for historical fiction, with Haydock weaving her story around real people, places, and times. Blending the known reality of Schiele’s life, his demons and deceptions, with the known and imagined details of the four women. A story that careens from wealthy Vienna before World War I, through the years of the Spanish Flu, when lives were thrust into a world of unspeakable trauma and heartbreak, by which Haydock ultimately reveals the ribald stories of each Muse.
Gertrude Schiele – Egon’s Sister, who shared an intimate bond and posed for the artist early on. Vally or Wally (Walburga) Neuzil – Schiele’s lover and mistress, modeled for the artist and plays an instrumental part in setting the tone for the book. Edith and Adele Harms, Sisters who lived across the street when Schiele moves in with his lover Vally. Both sisters modeled for Schiele and vied for his love. When little sister Edith became Schiele’s wife, she sets in motion, the pivotal plot turn; “And oh, the guilt she feels for the pleasure that is promised by him.” [THE FLAMES]
As the artist’s Sister-in-Law, Adele continued to model in ever more erotic poses for Schiele while coveting him with ever more intense obsession. Lest we spoil things, Haydock brings the story home fifty years later, in 1968, in heart wrenching style, in her account of Adele.
In Haydock’s compelling story of the four muses, she gives the reader the gift of creating another portrait, that of Egon Schiele himself. This awakens readers to the prospect that the stories about the models in an artist’s life, often do as much to define the artist, perhaps as much as the artist’s art.
Creative types, be they artist, models, authors, or performers, all shine, sometimes briefly, with a fire that sets them apart. While Egon Schiele has long received adulation, it is with brilliant insight that the Author, Sophie Haydock, intimately delves into the stories and the lives of these four women. I highly recommend The Flames, and I can see this book becoming a feature film or a limited series.
Sophie told me, “The next novel is about another artist, this time a French one, who was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. The women in his life have really spectacular stories, and I’m so excited to share them with readers who enjoyed The Flames.” I’ll be at the front of the line to get a copy. When I asked her if she will consider doing another book about another artist, she replied, “Yes, there are so many intriguing and troubled artists and their exceptional, underrated muses to choose from. I could write another fifty books and still not run out of excellent material about these complicated dynamics for readers to enjoy.”
If I’m allowed an opportunity, I will certainly have a suggestion for Sophie Haydock to consider as her next Muse to write about. For fans of biographies let me also recommend another book I recently reviewed here for Splash Magazines, `Barbara La Mar’ by Sherri Snyder. A couple of books about Artists that I have on my reading list are; `Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles’ by Francine Prose, and also `Lust for Life’ by Irving Stone, another fictional tale about Vincent Van Gogh.
Sophie Haydock trained as a journalist at City University in London, has worked at the Sunday Times Magazine, Tatler, and BBC Three, as well as writing for organizations such as the Arts Council, Royal Academy, and Sotheby’s, and has been awarded the Impress Prize for New Writers and was recently longlisted for the Historical Writers Association’s Debut Crown Award.
The Flames: a Novel, is out now, published in the US by Abrams / The Overlook Press, $28.
You can connect with Sophie Haydock on her website, and Social Media; sophie-haydock.com, Instagram account @egonschieleswomen (dedicated to Egon Schiele with over 110,000 followers,) on Twitter @SophieHaydock .
Photos provided by Sophie Haydock and used with Permission.