Two Biographical Fictions from Barbican Press

What these novels have in common is that they are fictional reimagining of real lives. In both the protagonists are witness to, or involved in, important historical moments but their legacies are very different. Angelica Kauffman was an extraordinary eighteenth century painter, while Iordana Borila became the daughter-in-law of notorious Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. Miller’s Angelica was an inviting prospect, whereas Sergeant’s Red Hands was more daunting, I approached it with a certain scepticism, almost daring the author to prove Iordana Ceausescu was worthy of my time. Reading these books back to back was an experience:

Angelica Miranda Miller

Angelica Miranda Miller

Sadly an exhibition of Angelica Kauffman’s work at the Royal Academy this summer had to be cancelled, another victim of Covid-19, (happily there are several of her pictures at the RA website). The exhibition and the book would have complimented each other because, although a fiction, Angelica gives readers an idea of her significance in British art history. Born Anna Maria Angelica Catherina Kauffman in 1741 in Switzerland, she was a child prodigy, working across Italy major cities before coming to London where she spent fifteen highly creative years. Angelica garnered acknowledgement and respect for her work in her life time and her legacy, shared with Mary Moser, Joshua Reynolds and others, is the Royal Academy, she was one of the founding members.

Miranda Miller’s Angelica is an insightful portrait of an intelligent and talented woman, from an early age she was determined to pursue her art, seeking the same respect for her work as her male peers. The novel follows Angelica from the rebellious desire not to conform during her childhood, through the adult awakening of a single minded desire to prove that her sex should be no barrier to commercial and critical success, to her years of fame and fortune. In her own words she describes how she preferred drawing and working with her father to the more traditional role of a little girl that her mother was always trying to pin her to. The story is told by Angelica reflecting on her life in her twilight years. It has the quality of reclaimed memories, events give away dates but they are rarely referred to, this is more about feelings, it’s a very personal and endearing account of her life and times. Angelica softens the impact of certain events, as we all do over time, but these aren’t rose tinted reminiscences, there are plenty of sharp observations and hard edges to her story. Angelica is a beautifully written novel, gripping and so readable.

Angelica’s painter father is a mediocre talent, he travels Europe mostly working in small rustic churches. He can see that his daughter is truly gifted, others see it too but her mother is more concerned about her learning to become a marriageable prospect. Something that becomes an issue very early in her life. When Angelica is nine her father brings home a new apprentice, sixteen year old Josef, a son by his first marriage to a woman he abandoned. Immediately the boy replaces Angelica as the girl is more or less handed back to her mother, a rather stern, no nonsense figure. Her father quickly concedes that Angelica must submit to a more traditional upbringing:

‘“But what is to become of her?” said Mama. “She is neither fish nor fowl, girl nor boy. Men don’t like clever women.”’

Paradoxically, when she is thirteen her father asks her for a self portrait he can tout around the Bishop’s court at Como. Whatever they expect for Angelica’s future, there’s money in her work, (often signed by her father), her copies of the masters are passed off as original works to tourists. Angelica is clever enough to flatter the rich old patrons, part of her need to get on. The family move to Milan, Angelica’s reaction to seeing Titian’s Adoration of the Magi for the first time reveals her passion. With her father as her chaperone she earns commissions but is aware that he is controlling her, it’s her money that keeps the family. When her mother dies she looks after her father but begins to manipulate their relationship, he becomes her adjunct, Josef is sent away. Milan to Rome to Venice, where Angelica meets Lady Wentworth and under her protection moves to England finally breaking free from her father. At twenty-four she is finally independent, she soon becomes a friend of Joshua Reynolds. While her art rises not everything in life is straightforward, Angelica faces slights to her reputation, the attentions of a swindler and the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots, her later life against the background of revolution and the turmoil of Napoleonic wars across Europe. What is remarkable about Angelica is her resilience and ability to overcome prejudice and adversity. When the time comes she is clever enough to marry the right man:

‘… I had the good sense to marry dear Zucchi, who respected my work and was content to allow me to shine – and earn. Such men are to be prized, for the world generally condemns them and calls them parasites. Two ambitions cannot flourish beneath one roof.’

The portrait Miller paints is warm and compassionate, we get a sense of a woman who understands her worth and certainly knows she is as good as any of her male contemporaries, Angelica is a confident artist driven by her talent. Readers will come away with an impression of an intelligent woman, ahead of her times, largely undaunted by the misogyny and constrictions of the times. This is a celebration of a life, a credible portrait of a feminist icon, a woman who should be better remembered – she deserves it.

This is a lightly told and entertaining read, gripping and thought provoking. You won’t need to care about painting to enjoy this novel, to will come to care about Angelica. I’m glad to have made the acquaintance of miller’s Angelica.

Barbican Press, paperback, ISBN 9781909954410, 13/8/20
Personal read  5* Group read      4*

Red Hands Colin W. Sergeant

Red Hands Colin Sargent

An altogether different woman. This ambitious novel tackles the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu and the Romanian revolution of 1989 from a wholly original angle, the point of view of his daughter-in-law. Before getting too far into Red Hands I realised that this insider tale, Iordana was a member of the Ceausescu family by marriage, and therefore, guilty by association, is actually not that at all – Iordana is never an insider. Of course, Iordana has a case to answer, she is not innocent, nor is she in the same boat as the ordinary Romanians victims of the communist regime but the story isn’t that simple. Iordana is never accepted by the Ceausescu family, never included in decision making, never a part of the inner circle. While she is privileged and wealthy she also lives in fear of Nicolae and his wife, the formidable, if not coldly terrifying, Elena. Red Hands is Iordana’s story told in her own words, and as such some things have to be taken with a pinch of salt. However, it all begins with a teenage love story:

A love in a cold climate? Two teenagers from warring families are drawn to each other, they are typical, if spoiled, rebellious children, like their western counterparts they reject their parents values. Their privilege means they have access to western movies, music, French fashion and decadence. For Valentin there’s a spark when he sees her, for Iordana it’s an instant attraction too, they sneak behind their parents back.

Ceausescus: ‘We don’t want your daughter’, and, the Borilas: ‘We don’t want your son.’

When they are discovered Iordana and Valentin only become more determined to keep seeing each other. Iordana takes house phones off the hook, all but one, so that when valentine calls she can pick it up in secret, without the ring alerting her mother. The Ceausescus send Valentin to London to study, sure that he will forget Iordana, of course, it doesn’t work. The families are torn by their political rivalry. His father is Nicolae Ceausescu, a minor politician works his way up the politburo, eventually he will become one of the most feared dictators in the world. Iordana father is Petre Borila, a party leader and rival to the Ceausescu (the Great Conductor). When Ceausescu replaces Gheorghiu-Dej as leader the dispute between the two men grows. Borila a supporter of Moscow, he opposes Ceausescu nationalism, he is a hero of the Spanish Civil war, fought with la Passionaria, Ceausescu is an upstart. But this Romanian Romeo and Juliet, Valentin and Iordana, cannot be separated, they marry and that will propel them from the fringes of Romanian political life into the maelstrom of a vicious and oppressive regime. The story begins to change, become darker.

Portland, Maine after the wall fell, after the Romanian revolution. A journalist is approached by a Romanian businessman;

‘“I’ve brought a friend who needs a friend,” Catalin said. “But if I introduce you to this person, you have to swear to secrecy. No story here for your magazine. She is in great danger. Many people would like to hurt her. No one in the world knows she’s anywhere near this continent at the moment.”

The meeting is initially uncomfortable but gradually Iordana Borila Ceausescu tells her story. Her earliest memory is the family mourning for Stalin in 1953, this is still a superstitious society, Iordana is rebellious at school, when she meets him on holiday Valentin stand out among his peers. Despite the trouble between Petre Borila and Nicolae Ceausescu the lovers marry:

‘Becoming a Ceausescu was like stepping through an invisible membrane of fear, though in my happiness I wasn’t very conscious of it. Like my country, I tried to ignore the evidence of trouble all around me.’

The screw tighten, oppression, debt leading to hunger, people suffer, her family suffers. She works to stay on side with Elena.

‘…the head that bends, the sword doesn’t cut.’

She witnesses the excess, the gift of a yacht from king Hussein of Jordan, the selling of human rights improvements to US, the building of the People’s Palace. Eventually with the revolution begun in Timisoara she has to flee the retribution of the people.

“Back then we hadn’t seen the scinteia, the sparkle of the monster Nicolae Ceausescu was to become. Strike that. The monster I was to become.”

This is an insider/outsider view of Romanian history, and a credible reimagining of a woman, who, of course, sees herself as a victim, however, her fear is believable, her self justification does illicit some small sympathy. There’s real insight here, at one point Iordana notes the crowds call Elena a ‘whore’ but she isn’t they are missing the point she is a murderer, a tyrant. This novel is intriguing, the fact that it’s an uncomfortable and unattractive subject doesn’t mean the writing isn’t good, it is. More niche than Angelica this is an interesting read, emotionally I’m not sure it got me though.

Barbican Press, paperback, ISBN 9781909954397, 6/8/20
Personal read.  3½* group read 3*