Astute cultural history examining the role that nine women played in the lives of male artists who obsessed over them.
Prose’s first book-length piece of nonfiction delivers on a subject she’s written about so well in her novels (Blue Angel, 2000, etc.): the power of women to live outside convention, often by capitalizing on their position as the objects of men’s desire. From Alice Liddell, who asked Lewis Carroll to tell her a story one summer afternoon, to Yoko Ono, who moved John Lennon to embrace politics, the muse is still a potent force, writes the author. Her subjects often received short shrift, however; they were perceived either as inanimate objects, a perspective that belied their power while playing into feminist theories of domination, or as destructive parasites exploiting the artists they motivated. In a refreshing twist, Prose argues that the women she chooses to redeem from history’s dustbin were more often cagey types themselves, motivated by love of art. They used relationships with artists to rescue themselves from the boredom of middle-class housewifery and to indulge in their own intellectual pursuits. In short, they became friends with artists because they were artists. The weakness of men is another theme here. Samuel Johnson needed Hester Thrale; he simply couldn’t take care of himself and for years lived with Thrale and her husband because no one else would tell him to change his clothes. Lewis Carroll had his issues with young girls. Nietzsche, for all his talk of supermen, was unable to muster a mature stance toward Lou Andreas-Salome: he loved her but didn’t want to admit it. Thrale and Salome are good examples of Prose’s kind of muse: when their artists became too constrictive they moved on, often to true love, and wound up writing books of their own.
An excellent companion to studies of the men included here, and a wonderful work of revisionist biography on its own.