A review of Hold Still by Cherry Smyth

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Hold Still
by Cherry Smyth
Holland Park Press
2013, ISBN 978-1-907320-36-1

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

Cherry Smyth’s new historical novel, Hold Still proves that one should never judge a book by its cover. The blurry greens and vague woman’s profile offer no clues that this novel is the remarkable story of a real girl from humble beginnings who becomes a model, muse and artist in mid-19th century London and Paris.

The title, Hold Still, is suited to a novel about a model, who must keep still while posing, and also sums up the prescribed role for women in Victorian England. Yet it gives no hint that the major characters are Johanna Hiffernan and the men who became famous by painting her – the American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and the French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877).

Either Whistler’s “The White Girl”, 1862, or Courbet’s “La Belle Irlandaise” (1965-6) would have made excellent cover illustrations, as each captures Jo Hiffernan’s beauty and personality. (Jo is believed also to have been the model for Courbet’s “L’Origine du monde”, a work too sensational for book cover art.)

It would be a shame if readers overlook this vivid, sensuous novel because of the plain cover and cryptic title. Written in the third person, it reveals the heart and mind of a girl in her late teens who blossoms in the art world. Irish-born, London-based Cherry Smyth, the author, is uniquely qualified to write such a novel, being an art critic, curator, poet and creative writing professor.

Jo Hiffernan’s parents were self-educated, working class Irish people who fled the Great Famine for London.  Jo, who was born around 1843 and died sometime after 1903, was one of two daughters. In Smyth’s novel, Jo dreams of being an artist like Italian Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi, who learned her craft from her father. Jo’s kindly, loving parents pay for her drawing lessons, teach her calligraphy and allow her to earn money modelling — if she poses clothed. Jo loves the atmosphere of the studio at Rathbone Place and identifies with the painters’ yearnings for achievement.

Among the students is a “hopping pixie of a chap”, the much-travelled American Jim Whistler. She meets his friends from Paris, Alphonse Legros and Henri Fantin Latour, but it is Jim to whom she is attracted, and the feeling is mutual. On an excursion to Hampton Court, when Jim corrects one of her sketches, she realizes that she has learned more from him in thirty seconds than in her art lessons. “This is the poetry she had dreamed sex could be,” she realizes, when they make love.  When she tells her parents she wants to live with Jim so that she can pose for his painting-in-progress, her father says, sadly and resignedly, that Jim won’t marry her. Jo knows that if Jim married a working class girl his wealthy family would cut off his funding. As well, she enjoys her freedom. “If I do what is expected of me,” she tells her mother, “I shall never paint… Jim makes me feel that I am art.”

In Brittany for Jim’s health, and then in Paris, a world of beauty opens up for Jo. Smyth evokes the charm of coastal landscapes and city streets. In Paris Jo meets celebrities like the author Baudelaire and the painters Manet and Courbet. Living there with Jim is a delightful education, but the demands of housekeeping, selling his art and building his morale mean that her own art is shunted aside. In Brittany, for instance, Jim severely criticizes her half-finished painting, and then, in Paris, uses the canvas for a new work of his own, claiming that he thought she had abandoned it.

Whistler is portrayed as insecure, easily discouraged and jealous of his peers. “She could not ask him for what she really needed: his support for her to paint.” Back in England, before his mother arrives from the United States for an extended stay, he asks Jo to move back to her father’s house and to keep their relationship secret. In Smyth’s novel, Mrs. Whistler is as dour as in Whistler’s famous portrait of her. During his mother’s stay, Jim visits Jo, but also has a fling with his new housemaid, Louisa. Then he decides to go to Valparaiso, Chile, to fight for Chile against Spain. (Meanwhile, the Civil War is raging in his own country.) He gives Jo the authority to act as  his agent, and money to last her three months.

Jo is remarkable for her complete lack of concern about Victorian morality and traditional roles for women, at a time when women of all classes were seriously oppressed in all aspects of life. Her Irish background, Catholic upbringing and humble origins may have made her enough of an outsider to immunize her against social pressures and conventions. Jim compares her to saxifrage, a plant that thrives in fissures of rocks where there seems to be no nourishment, but Jo is much more than a clinger and a hanger-on. Despite the loss of a pregnancy in adolescence, Jo is neither frightened nor ashamed of her body. She has an affair with Fanny Cornforth, a mistress and muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (Smyth may have included this plot twist because later Jo posed for Gustave Courbet’s painting “Le Sommeil”, of two voluptuous women in bed together.)

While Jim is in Chile, Jo returns to Paris. Courbet soon learns that she is back and wants her to pose for him. Soon they are having an affair, in which she finds “new ways to enjoy her body.” Although happy with him, she is determined not to become his mistress and muse. “Artists are like mistletoe,” she reflects, “living off the tall fine body of someone else till they have drained it of its sap. Can women achieve it differently?”

In Paris, she studies at an atelier and works on a series of pictures of women. When an Ottoman diplomat wants to commission Courbet to paint a picture of a woman’s private parts, (“L’Origine du monde”) with Jo posing for it, she agrees, on condition that her face is not shown and that she gets half the commission.

The novel ends on a high note with a London exhibition of Jo’s work. She feels eager to “to start something new, something too hard… something better.” The only thing missing is Jim, who was so important in opening the door to a wider world of art. Then he appears, and the novel ends. Smyth’s decision to close with Jo’s success is satisfying, because it seems throughout the novel that her growing independence and art aspirations were tenuous, and could be thwarted without warning. In real life, did Jo live long and prosper?

Smyth does not list her sources, and information about Jo Hiffernan’s later life is sketchy. Nevertheless, there is enough on which an author could build a sequel. Jo did not die in childbirth, of disease, or in the gutter, as did many Victorian women. Internet sources indicate that she outlived both Courbet and Whistler, living on into her sixties. She spent ten years raising Whistler’s son Charles (by a parlour maid, Louisa). In 1882, according to a letter written by one of Courbet’s sisters, she was in France, dealing in antiques and some Courbet paintings. Some sources say she married a Mr. Abbott in Europe sometime in the 1880s. When Whistler died in London in 1903, Jo attended his funeral. After that she dropped from the historical record. None of her art appears to have survived, but, of course, famous paintings of her remain. In 2013, Paris Match reported that a painting of a woman’s reclining head, recently purchased by an art collector, was thought to be the upper half of Courbet’s painting “L’Origine du Monde.”

In bringing to life real people from the past, Hold Still is in the tradition of Paula McLean’s The Paris Wife and Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, and is as compelling and fascinating as these popular novels.

For information on Ruth Latta’s books, including her latest novel, The Songcatcher and Me, visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com