The lives of women, both extraordinary and ordinary, and, in particular, the tension between domesticity and independence are subjects frequently revisited in the work of the novelist and biographer Margaret Forster. Her latest novel is a variation on this theme and in it she explores women’s often troubled relationship to creativity. In the prologue, Gillian, a young art student and one of the protagonists, wonders about ‘the lives of actual paintings’ as opposed to the lives of painters, and Keeping the World Away is, in essence, a biography of a picture. The work in question is an unsigned study of an interior by Gwen John and the novel follows its history over the course of a century, telling us how it comes to be in the possession of a succession of women, connecting them obliquely to each other and to the artist.
The painting is variously lost, stolen, discovered, sold and inherited by five women, respectively Charlotte, Stella, Lucasta, Ailsa, and Gillian. The narrative is structured chronologically and each woman is the subject of a single chapter. It begins with the painting’s inception and a fictional portrait of the artist, Gwen, as