The Lives of the Muses, and the Artists They Inspired

Francine Prose
Harper Collins, 2002

Prose is a writer. She can whip up descriptive sentences that flow like warm Belgian  chocolate until they are so rich, it’s necessary to pause and savor the flavor. A sample: “Rossetti’s squeamish circumlocutions and pleas for absolute secrecy alternate with breezier offers of gratitude and more tangible rewards.” It’s a sentence so full of itself a reader doesn’t know whether to be grateful or prepare for the aftermath of pimples.

Prose sets up her task in the Introduction to show the mystery of Eros in creativity and how it moves between the mortal and eternal. The lives of nine celebrated muses are outlined and heavily festooned with Prose’s observations and conclusions about their methods, private torments and place in the lives of their male artist. The book is too historically researched to be a steamy page-turner, but the lives she describes are intriguing windows into the surrounding social climate.

The women behind the men ranged from the child Alice Liddell who became Lewis Carroll’s inspiration for Alice in Wonderland, to Lee Miller who captured the hearts of many men including photographer Man Ray, and finished with today’s Yoko Ono. The not surprising common trait of the men’s attraction to the women was their need to simultaneously rely on them as safe harbors and use them as creative launching pads. Attraction and need was always mutual, though the women’s methods and motivations seemed far more varied in their feminine quest for love, security, independence, fame and that common desire to have a man with clout.

All were interesting well-drawn stories, but a favorite was Lou Andreas-Salomé, a Russian beauty who managed to charm Nietzsche, Rilke and Freud. Now there’s a resume. Here was a woman who refused the constrictions of her day. Prose describes her, “A diva with a Teutonic temperament and a proudly Russian soul, Lou viewed herself, from adolescence, as a seeker of truth, a missionary bringing happiness and wisdom to the lucky beneficiaries of her generosity and beneficence.” If someone would read that sentence aloud, I would just listen and pretend it was me.

Some women were inducted into being a muse as was Elizabeth Siddal for Dante Gabriel Rossetti, others fell into it like Yoko Ono. Lee Miller was born to it, and a few, like Andreas-Salomé chose it. But, all of them tried to sincerely succeed as they made themselves warm touchstones for their men’s creativity.

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