The Questions of Jessie Burton’s ‘The Muse’

I recently finished reading the latest book by Jessie Burton: The Muse. The plot is woven around two different artists at two different moments in time. The first is Odelle Bastien, who works in 1960s London as a typist at an art gallery, whilst secretly harbouring a great talent for writing herself. The second is Olive Schloss, the nineteen-year-old daughter of Harold and Sarah Schloss, living in Civil War Spain.

Olive is a painter; Odelle is a writer. But the real difference between the two girls lies in their attitude towards their own work. Odelle is initially hesitant to let people read her stories, but her ultimate ambition is to become a published author. Olive, on the other hand, is happy for the world to see her work, but not for the world to know that it has come from her. This is partly due to the fact that she does not believe that a female artist will be taken seriously in a world full of Picassos and Dalís and Mirós, but it is also partly due to the fact that, for both girls, there is something intensely personal wrapped up in the process of creation, something which neither one, at first, feels the need to share with anyone else.

The book in its simplest essence, then, revolves around such ‘musings’ upon the importance of the creation of an artwork, and of the place of the creator within that. If a tree falls in a forest but no one is there to hear it, perhaps it doesn’t make a sound. So does an artwork lose something of its value if no one is able to appreciate it but the creator?

Why is it that, more often than not, we feel that we end up forging some sort of personal connection with unknown literary heroes, with anonymous landscapes a world away from our own? What is it that makes a work of art; whether it be a book, a poem, a painting, or a drawing, speak differently to different people? Is it a personal relationship with its creator, or simply with its content: the writer, or the written, the painter, or the painted?

Upon reading The Muse, you can’t help but feel a strange, almost personal sense of indignation that Olive doesn’t receive any credit for her work. But if this is her choice, why should we see it as unfair? The art is hers, and so surely she should choose how it is presented, if at all. As you gradually come to accept that Olive may simply prefer anonymity, Burton makes you realise just how much importance society continues to place upon the cult of the creator: upon the fabled genius behind the pen, or the tortured soul behind the paintbrush. If a work of art is detached from the person who creates it, does it change? Why should we hunt for the hidden secrets of a ‘beautiful mind’ within that which is already beautiful in its own right? For as Oscar Wilde once put it, (and a fair deal more eloquently than I could ever hope to): ‘It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearance. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible’.

The Muse is a very good book. You can find it here.

Cover Image: Curt Merlo on curtmerlo.com, Text Image: Picador

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