This epistolary sequel to The Woman in White sets Wilkie Collins’s hero the herculean task of writing a life of the legendary English painter J.M.W. Turner.
In response to the fears of Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, wife of the National Gallery director, that Walter Thornbury’s forthcoming biography of Turner will be too vitriolic to take its subject’s true measure, Walter Hartright, himself an artist, agrees to undertake a life of his own. The task of reconstructing his subject from the clues he can find in the painter’s lodgings and studios and from among his friends and colleagues originally seems daunting enough, since some acquaintances, like the painter George Jones, refuse to talk to Walter; others, like influential critic John Ruskin, speak so oracularly that they are little more helpful; and others still, like the artist’s housekeeper Mrs. Booth, will unburden themselves only to Walter’s sister-in-law Marian Halcombe. But the real difficulties lie deeper. Turner, who inspired wildly contradictory opinions while he was alive, had a pathological fear of public appearances—he hated being painted, was never photographed under circumstances that would identify him as that Turner, and often conducted his irregular domestic arrangements under an alias—all of which made disagreements about him nearly impossible to resolve. As Walter traces the artist’s steps through country villas and London alleys, naively secure in his determination to unearth the truth about this wild genius, he sinks instead more and more deeply into the life he is supposed to be investigating, neglecting his fairy-tale wife Laura and their two children back in Limmeridge. Not even Marian, when she takes over the research from Walter, can avoid Turner’s infernal pull.
Though it brings the horrors of the other Victorians perhaps too literally to life, this first novel from historian Wilson (The Earth Shall Weep, 1999), taking its cue as much from A.S. Byatt as from Collins, is a powerfully somber meditation on the impossibility of writing a life.