In Jessie Burton’s novel The Muse, she lays out the scene of two countries separated by both time and space: 1930s Spain and 1960s England. Within the novel, Burton develops the story of two young women, each struggling with their own creative passion and, as it comes to light, genius. At a time when her own father dismissed female artists as mediocre, young Olive Schloss is struck by her own fear of never becoming an artist, by her deeper fear that perhaps as a woman she is not destined for greatness at all. Into London’s sixties, Odelle Bastien is forced to not only endure the obstacles thrown into her writing endeavours, but also the blatant racism of being a “Caribbean émigré” working within the elitist world of London’s art scene.
Although each of the young women are introduced as main characters in their own right, it becomes apparent that there are more lines drawn in this story. Although Olive Schloss is focused on her own goals and aspirations, the environment around her begins to fall into chaos at the onset of the Spanish Civil War. This novel allows for a discussion on intersectionality; Oliver at a disadvantage as a woman, while remaining clearly privileged and ignorant of the strife of those she seeks to take inspiration from. In this way, Burton is able to underline not only the flaws in authorship as far as structural sexism is concerned, but also structural racism, offering an intersectional and interrogative read.
With each flash-back to 1960s London, Burton refocuses on Odelle Bastien’s struggle. Although the story of Olive Schloss and company is integral to the plot, and does raise some more questions on how much the world has really changed in their treatment of the other, be it race or gender, Odelle’s storyline is sometimes overshadowed by the drama of the rumblings of war in Olive’s. This is unfortunate because Odelle’s entrance into the London art scene through the Skelton institute, working as a typist, may have acted as a stronger conductor for intersectional discussion. Driven, Odelle throws herself into her work and, eventually, her creativity inspired many. True, the two stories are essential to one another in order for the plot to progress and, true, each acts as a comparison for the other in order to further a discussion on racism and sexism, but if Burton’s work falters anywhere, it’s likely in its clouding of the incredible story of Odelle Bastien.
Apart from an intersectional discussion, Burton’s novel hurls itself into a discussion on art, the artist, and how each interacts with the rest of the world. Both Olive and Odelle face the challenge of their desire to create art becoming clouded and adulterated by those who view and read their it. Each come face to face with questions that invade their desire to paint and write: who the art is for? why art is being made? and what do each truly desire as artists – fame or to simply create?
This discussion of the pressure of those witnessing the artist may have an underlying inspiration itself, as this is Burton’s second novel. She debuted her novel The Miniaturist in 2014, where it quickly became not only an internationally published work, but an international best seller. Burton’s interrogation of whom art is for and how it is perceived by the world beyond the artist may have stemmed from her own questioning of art, under the pressure of writing a second novel to follow up her first extreme success.
Either way, Jessie Burton’s The Muse is an eloquently crafted story of two worlds facing crisis that, when looked at closely, hold similar threads of thought and experience running through them. The writing is clear and brisk, sprinkled with wit, and at times is able to depict the exact rawness of human emotion. The Muse is worth a read, not just to experience the expert story telling of Burton, but also to spawn a deep survey yourself in regards to what the purpose of art is, and who it is truly for.
Shannon Parr, Arts & Culture Editor