Egon Schiele’s painting, ‘Seated Woman with Legs Drawn Up’ hung on my friend’s wall at university when we lived together in dorms. I remember going into her room and being captivated by the image, my eyes drawn to it every time I visited. The vivid use of colour and the provocative look in her eyes had something alluring to it. It demanded attention. Without knowing the painter or the model at the time, this image was bought to the fore again whilst reading Sophie Haydock’s equally captivating and utterly brilliant novel ‘The Flames.’ Set in early 20th Century Vienna, the novel focuses on and explores the lives of four women connected with the Expressionist painter.
What is significant to note is that even though Egon Schiele is a central presence and preoccupation within the text, it is the four women who the author develops and gives voice to in the most poignant and immersive of ways. Haydock asks the reader to consider events through the lens of these characters who played such a prominent role in Schiele’s life. The woman in the painting that captivated me all those years ago was, I discovered through this book, Adele Harms, sister-in-law to Schiele. Adele frames the narrative, from the opening we are introduced to her as an elderly lady who is troubled by events of the past, traumatised, and unable to let go. The novel switches to her younger years, when she was a model for Schiele with Haydock painting her as a defiant and charismatic figure chaffing against the societal demands placed on women within upper class echelons.
Women feeling restricted in different ways is a theme that threads itself through the text. This is evident in the second individual we spend time with namely Gertrude Schiele, Egon’s sister. She was my favourite character, an individual who shone brightly from the page, nuanced and well-drawn. Her love for her brother and desire to escape the family home were central to her story and I thought it incredibly interesting how Haydock imagined their close relationship and how necessary one was to the other in their early years. Like Egon, who broke down barriers in artistic circles, Gertrude too wanted something different from the life set out for her and was unafraid to face the condemnation of many around her.
Next was ‘Vally’ a character based on Egon’s lover Walburga Neuzil, a model of the famous painter Gustav Klimt. Haydock imagines this may have been the connection that bought both Egon and herself together, as Egon became the protégé of Klimt and the pair developed an intense and close relationship. The love and affection between Egon and Valley was apparent, yet in some ways this connection felt to be the most heart wrenching. Neuzil was presented as such a strong presence, yet I felt she was someone who was often used and discarded by everyone around her largely due to her class. Raging and fighting against this ill treatment she sets off to become an army nurse. Her fleetingness in the narrative is hard hitting and it is desperately sad how her story turns out.
Last is Edith Harms, Egon’s wife. A woman again, who dares to act outside of convention and faces the consequences. Her relationship with Egon and the dynamics between the couple was fascinating and imaginatively played out. I was particularly captivated by the interactions between the two sisters. The imagining of what Edith would have thought to Egon painting Adele and having her for his muse, it is interesting to consider the dynamics, frictions and tensions that would have been played out.
Egon is a character central to all their narratives. I thought the writer utilised time and the passing of characters into each other’s stories well. Each reading added a layer of meaning making the experience incredibly immersive. All these women rise from the page with their passions, desires, rage and light. They have occupied my mind in the days after reading this book and it makes returning to look at their images captured forever by Schiele to be evocative and haunting. By painting them Egon Schiele has captured their image but in writing this story Haydock has prioritised their stories and prompted discussions around not only what their interactions with the artist might have entailed but perhaps more importantly what their own narrative might have been.
A wonderfully compelling and evocative book. One that will no doubt provide an even richer experience with every re-read.