The muse gets some dirty looks nowadays.
Considering that some of the most celebrated contemporary artists are female, the idea of a femme fatale whose only role in the creative process is to inspire through her static beauty—well, it sounds pretty passé. Yet we continue to gorge on the lives of past muses such as Lady Caroline Blackwood or the assortment of women profiled in Francine Prose’s Lives of the Muses, because these tales offer a pathway through the mysterious inner workings of art, provoking questions about where inspiration comes from and what price it exacts. I always thought of muses as sacrificial lambs, tamping down their own unwieldy creative impulses as they offer themselves for delectation by male geniuses. But Elizabeth Hand suggests in a recent essay that the connection is perilous for both parties: “The threat of one being consumed or obliterated by the other is constant. Yet it is precisely this tension, this tango macabre, that underscores the erotic nature of the relationship between artist and muse, suspended as it is between longing and dread, the yearning to possess and the knowledge that capture is so often destructive of the very object of desire.”
This tango macabre is the core of Mortal Love, Hand’s latest novel. It’s a gothic fantasia steeped in the perfumed myths of Victoriana, but Mortal Love doesn’t wholly devote itself to reimagining the 19th century like recent blockbusters by Sarah Waters and Michael Faber. Instead, Hand (a Nebula-winning fantasy writer) traipses between the 1880s and the present day, deftly intertwining the tales of three men ravaged by the same muse. In the late 1800s, a young impoverished painter named Radborne Comstock takes a job at an insane asylum on a foggy English moor worthy of Fowles or the Brontës. There he meets Evienne Upstone, a fragile woman who has already enchanted (and then discarded) several Pre-Raphaelite artists. Nearly a century later, Radborne’s grandson Val comes of age in a cliffside mansion in Maine—”creepy as shit,” Val proclaims in a wonderfully cynical adolescent voice that brings to mind a gothic Holden Caulfield. After stumbling on Radborne’s paintings of a woman whose orifices act as portals to a teeming miniature universe, Val begins to obsessively draw an imaginary world reigned over by a creature named Vernoraxia, “a woman who was a vast tree, with boles for breasts and leaves for eyes and a mouth that opened into another hidden country where even stranger creatures lived.”
Val eventually collides with Daniel Rowlands, a jaded American journalist taking a sabbatical in London to write a study of the doomed lovers Tristan and Iseult (entitled Mortal Love, of course). Daniel’s feeling apathetic until he meets Larkin, a lovely former mental patient clad in a tatterdemalion riot of velvet, leather, and fur. Veiled in a nimbus of smeary green light, Larkin resembles someone from a Pre-Raphaelite painting of “women who were too big for their world.” Although Daniel seems like a sensible, reliable guy—the most lucid of the book’s narrators—he nevertheless follows Larkin to her lair. (She offers to show him some etchings.) Soon he is vertiginously strung between the mundane reality of 21st-century London and the teeming visions that now fill his head. “Everything was fertile and alive, everything. The slate countertops held the coils of imprisoned ammonites; each drop of water that fell into the sink contained a universe.”
Hand balances the flights of florid Victorian fancy with sharp contemporary voices; the two eras walk in lockstep, eyeing each other warily. Calling Mortal Love “an imaginary tree with roots in the real world,” Hand laces the novel with real historical figures like Algernon Swinburne and Lady Wilde (Oscar’s folktale-spinning mother) and drops in amusing literary allusions and references to artists like Brian Jones and Kurt Cobain, who have themselves been scorched by the muse. In fact, there is such a heap of characters that some get short shrift, like the wonderfully sinister Dr. Learmont, a folklore enthusiast who collects artists in his asylum as if they were butterflies. “He has theories about the birth of Art: they involve entrapment and madness,” warns Swinburne, a gibbering soothsayer who gets all the best and worst lines.
The novel succeeds as both a thriller and a meditation on the mysterious nature of inspiration. Yet I felt faintly disappointed by Larkin. She’s both a dangerous man-eater and a breathless, dizzy figment who can barely keep track of which guy she’s bewitching. Hand has explored double-edged goddess figures before. In 1995’s Waking the Moon, a college student stumbles upon an ancient cult that worships malevolent female power, giving Hand the perfect opportunity to skewer feminism’s misty reclamation of matriarchal myths. In Mortal Love, the author grapples with clichés and myths of the muse in the hope of crafting a more prickly, complex view. In this new rendering, the muse preys on artists partly because she has unbearable longings (even nymphs have needs) and partly because she despises her own ephemerality. The only way she can telegraph her longing to the world is through her conquests’ books, paintings, and statues. Just like any artist, Larkin hopes “to leave something permanent behind.”