Janice Galloway reclaims a life and the biographical novelby Rebecca Abrams / July 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
The name of Clara Schumann is eclipsed by that of her more famous husband, Robert. She is known as the devoted and long-suffering wife who played his work, composed a little, bore him eight children in 12 years, and supported him through his mental illness.
What is less well known is that she was herself a respectable composer and one of the most brilliant pianists of her day. Her reputation far outweighed her husband’s in his lifetime. Chopin and Liszt came to hear her. She commanded the devotion of Mendelssohn and Brahms, both of whom championed her career when Robert himself would have turned her into an invisible little hausfrau, playing only for occasional guests.
Like Mozart, Clara Schumann was groomed for greatness by a domineering father. By the time she met her future husband at age 15 in 1834, she was a name on the musical circuit. Her father’s reluctance to let her throw herself away on an unstable, insolvent, composer seems not unreasonable. It was only after his death in 1856, and hers 40 years later, that their reputations reversed. Clara, convinced of Robert’s genius when their contemporaries found his originality merely eccentric, was proved right about her husband.
Clara Schumann is an ideal subject for Janice Galloway. In her first novel, The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989), she wrote about a woman suffering a slow nervous breakdown following the death of her lover. The tension in Galloway’s story lay between Joy’s mental disintegration and her determination to hide it from the world. Two subsequent short story collections, Blood (1991) and Where You Find It (1996) consolidated her thematic turf: dependence; gender and power; the extent and the limits of love. They also confirmed her reputation as a leading figure in 1990s Scottish fiction and its implicit argument with literary London. Her long-awaited new novel, however, evades such national and metropolitan dialectics.
Galloway conjures the repressed passion and creative energy in the Schumann household. This is an epic tale of work-life balance. While Robert and Clara pour out their music: practising, performing, touring, there is no escaping the ever-present demands of domestic life, at least not for Clara. Pregnancies, marital spats, guests, servant trouble, the cost of cloth and carriages parade through the novel with scant regard for the demands of musical talent. The question of how to keep emotional collapse at bay circles continually over…