Book Review: “The Lioness of Boston” — The Mystery Remains

By Peter Walsh

Too often, Lioness reads like a digest of Boston tourist guides and historical surveys, at times even seeming to quote them directly.

 The Lioness of Boston by Emily Franklin. Godine, 400 pages.

During the last decades of her life and for nearly all of the 20th century, Isabella Stuart Gardner, widely known as “Mrs. Jack,” after her Boston Brahmin husband, John Lowell (Jack) Gardner, Jr., was celebrated as an entertaining public eccentric, a prime example, perhaps the prime example, of a classic Boston type. As the proud city slowly faded in economic and cultural clout, falling further and further behind its glamorous, sophisticated rival, New York, Boston prided itself, in compensation, on its uniquely peculiar citizens, and, particularly, on its quirky old institutions, like Mrs. Jack’s bizarre Venetian treasure box on the Fenway. It was a way of saying flash and cash didn’t matter in the rarified, cerebral atmosphere of the Athens of America.

In recent years, Mrs. Jack has been presented, more and more, as a kind of proto-feminist and her museum as an example of triumphant female creativity and originality. Ironically, part of the reason for the shift is probably the notorious theft, in March 1990, of 13 works of art from the Gardner collection. The eye-popping valuation of the stolen works, widely reported as the biggest art heist of all time, along with the torrent of publicity for the theft and the museum, made people look differently at Mrs. Jack’s pet project. Maybe it was more than a quixotic self-monument after all.

It is unfortunately impossible, though, to know exactly what Isabella had in mind about her museum, its contents, or pretty much anything else she did in her life. Her story is largely without a first person narrator. Before her death she asked all her correspondents to burn her letters and destroyed all the correspondence in her possession, save that from her art advisor, Bernard Berenson. Henry James kept copies of his letters to her, some of which were later published. Some travel diaries and albums also survived.

Destroying all personal papers, either before death or after by family or heirs, was a well-established upper class custom of the time. Edith Wharton tried but, thankfully for literary history, failed, when one of her secret lovers refused to return her letters to him. (He later sold them.) But Mrs. Jack seems to have succeeded exceptionally well, leaving the many potentially scandalous rumors about her life without corroborating written evidence.

Into this nest of mysteries steps The Lioness of Boston, a new novel about Mrs. Gardner by Emily Franklin. Mrs. Jack narrates in first person, as if the fictional character will now supply what the living person deleted: her own, unmediated thoughts and opinions. The book very much takes the feminist view of its subject: the intelligent and creative Isabella is constantly bumping up against crude forms of sexism, stuffy social convention, and rejection by her female peers in Boston (she was “too big for the room,” the fictional Isabella laments), only to triumph in the end. Oddly reticent, Franklin never strays too far from what can, based on surviving documentation, plausibly be said to have happened or at least ought to have happened. A Hollywood scriptwriter might use a less discrete approach and, in the process, create a more compelling plot.

Historical novels, and especially ones with first person narrators and famous figures in them, present numerous hazards and pitfalls. How to introduce the historical details necessary to understand the narrative without clumsy devices, such as forcing a dinner guest into a tedious discourse on, say, the War of the Spanish Succession? How to reconstruct all the lost minutiae of class, custom, diction, and social manners that historians tend to ignore? If your story includes characters with the names of historical figures, how many liberties with the facts can you take to remake them into living, breathing works of fiction?

Then there are the unavoidable point-of-view issues with the first person narrative. Who is the story written for and when? Is it like a diary, in which the narrator doesn’t know the future but the reader may have an inkling? Or is it cast like a memoir, in which the narrators look back on the whole of their lives? Or is it even composed from beyond the grave? (In My Name is Red, set in 1591, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk makes his choice clear in the title of his first chapter, “I Am a Corpse.”)

Lioness’ narration mostly floats without clear P.O.V. moorings. Most of the time, it seems to use the diary approach: the narrator does not seem to know, at any given point, what will happen later and much of the book takes place inside her head. The younger Mrs. Jack does not know she will create an art museum even though that outcome is heavily foreshadowed: by repeated references, for example, to orange hanging nasturtiums, a prominent feature of the museum’s central courtyard when it was completed. Mrs. Jack’s vantage point is also never quite clear, though it is pinned down a bit when Franklin quotes from Isabella’s destroyed correspondence, which she does increasingly as the novel progresses, fictionally recreating what has been lost.

Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1889. Portrait by Dennis Miller Bunker. Photo: Gardner Museum

Aside from family deaths, including that of Isabella’s only child, the book is light on plot, partly because the life of a Boston Brahman, especially a female one, was carefully designed to avoid as much unpleasant drama as possible. Franklin’s fictional Isabella has to make up her own fun, mostly by creating a long series of encounters, often fictional as well, with cultural and historical celebrities and prominent male Bostonians: Longfellow, Whistler, Henry James, the ultra fashionable Paris dress designer, Jacob Wirth, Harvard’s Charles Eliot Norton (“the first professor of art history” as Isabella proclaims several times), Oscar Wilde, naturalist Theodore Lyman, philosopher George Santayana, and Henry Adams among others, and including some prominent female Bostonians later in the narrative. Most of these take place as light social occasions: teas, dinner parties, strolls through art exhibitions, and the content consists mostly of witty exchanges between Isabella and her brilliant companions.

There is one especially awkward scene set at the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris. Isabella is greeted by a bubbly and quite unFrench Berthe Morisot who promptly introduces her to Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Cezanne, and the rest of the gang. At the end of the scene, Gardner encounters George Sand, who kindly tells Isabella “Call me Aurore.” (The encounter never happened in any form. As Franklin acknowledges at the end of the book, Isabella was never there.)

These are mostly cameo roles. Only a few of these people stay on stage long enough to be of interest beyond their celebrity status. As the pages pass, they seem depressingly similar.

Part of the task of the historical novelist is to digest all the research and facts that go into the book and convert them into believable, engaging, and memorable portraits of a particular place, a specific time, and a breathing set of characters. Too often Lioness reads like a digest of Boston tourist guides and historical surveys, at times even seeming to quote them directly. On this piebald background of local colors, small factual errors stand out like holes in the plaster: one Back Bay resident, for example, refers to MIT as “across the River” when the school’s impressive new campus was then just a few blocks away, outside Copley Square.

Sadly, the truly interesting and best documented events of Isabella’s life — her relationships with Bernard Berenson and John Singer Sargent, her scandalous “affair” (Platonic or carnal, the precise nature is unknown, though Franklin comes down on one side of the question) with the much younger (male) novelist Francis Marion Crawford, and the creation of her collection and museum — all appear towards the end of the book, where they are unable to enliven what has come before. A better approach might have to start with the opening of the museum — a given, not a spoiler, for the book’s readers — and work backwards.

By the time the newlywed Isabella Stuart Gardner arrived in Boston in 1861, the city was already well known for its strong-minded, creative, tirelessly organizing, reforming women: Margaret Fuller, Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, Elizabeth Peabody, Annie Fields, Sarah Josepha Hale, Louisa May Alcott, Mary Hemenway, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, and their many followers and collaborators. These women used their wealth and social position, when they had them, to shoulder great causes like Abolition and votes for women. They wrote books and poetry, edited magazines, founded schools and colleges, changed public education and higher education for women. They gave lectures and held salons where women discussed the nature of women and their future roles in society. They created bookshops and lending libraries and training programs for immigrants and the poor. The heady atmosphere around these women was captured vividly, if not entirely sympathetically, in Henry James’ 1881 novel, The Bostonians, which burned his bridges with Boston society with its supposed satirical portrait of the widely respected Elizabeth Peabody (James always denied the charges).

Isabella, as she laments from time to time throughout the novel, did none of these things. Instead, she created a uniquely personal but persistently enigmatic museum, for reasons not even fiction can unwrap.

Peter Walsh has worked as a staff member or consultant to such museums as the Harvard Art Museums, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the Boston Athenaeum. He has published in American and European newspapers, journals, and in scholarly anthologies and has lectured at MIT, in New York, Milan, London, Los Angeles and many other venues. In recent years, he began a career as an actor and has since worked on more than 100 projects, including theater, national television, and award-winning films. He is completing a novel set in the 1960s.

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