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 their heads.
What might Clara have achieved without the fetters of children, husband and household? There’s no doubt that Robert loved her deeply, but he was reluctant to let her practise, because the sound distracted him. Galloway is good at conveying the strategies women employ when handling constraints on their lives, and one of her achievements as a writer is to explore such feminist territory without slipping into clich?. In Clara, the struggle between creativity and domesticity is always present, but never explicit.
Galloway draws on extensive literature by and about the Schumanns. But Clara is unmistakeably a novel, sitting amongst the best of the biographical novel genre, alongside John Banville’s Doctor Copernicus or Robert Nye’s Gilles de Rais.
The marriage diaries (1840-1844) that Robert and Clara kept are perhaps the most remarkable source. The diaries were Robert’s idea, a way of building their marriage in words, a route to reconciliation after misunderstanding and a yardstick by which they might measure their success; they were exchanges between true friends who confided everything to one another. Or, not quite everything. Robert was not above correcting his wife’s entries if he disagreed with them.
When madness engulfed Robert in 1854, he was committed to an asylum for the last two years of his life. For Clara, the absence of the person with whom she’d been utterly entwined for her whole adult life makes for nearly unbearable reading. By the time they were allowed to see each other, two days before his death, his mind was so turned he barely knew who she was. The heart of this very fine novel is a meditation on identity. What it is to be a woman; whether it is possible to be a good wife, mother or daughter and have anything left over; whether creativity can flourish in isolation or needs the nourishment of friendship and love. Galloway has a gift for conveying abstract ideas and states of mind. In the stoical, yet passionate figure of Clara, the daily conditions of a life and its artistic ambitions become equally extraordinary. Clara Janice Galloway Jonathan Cape, ?10.99