The Twisted Heart, Rebecca Gowers

twisted heart2

(Edinburgh: Canongate, 2009) ISBN 978 1 84767 154 7 · 284pp. Hbk 

On the surface, The Twisted Heart is a love story with literary pretensions. Scrape beneath the surface, though, and you’ll find an intricate fictive web, created from the interweaving of multiple literary and theoretical strands. A love story, a literary riddle and its solution, above all, The Twisted Heart is an engaging discussion about the value of research. As if that wasn’t enough, the fiction is delicately overlaid with nods, hints and intertextual links to the Victorian aesthetic and gender theories. It’s a very clever, carefully crafted book.

The novel tells the story of the blossoming romance between Kit, a brilliant but anxiety-riddled literature Phd candidate and Joe, an Oxford maths don. Their relationship has a ring of authenticity. It teeters on the brink of collapse as they gradually warm to one another, edge closer, give a little more of themselves with each new meeting. Like all relationships, when family becomes involved there’s a readjustment as they each take on new information, back off just a little to reassess each other in a new light as the person they thought they knew comes more into focus, more fully rounded. Both Kit and Joe have slightly embarrassing, needy siblings and annoyingly intrusive friends or neighbours. Humpty, Joe’s failed history student brother is mixed up with a Dickensian-like gang of antique fraudsters. His role seems to be to add menace into the light love story.  One of the many joys of reading the novel is observing how the characters grow, layer by layer, into three-dimensional, ‘real’ people.

At the heart of the novel is literary detection. Readers familiar with Kate Summerscale’s prize-winning research book, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (Bloomsbury, 2008) will be able to put their new knowledge to good advantage here as they follow Kit working through a puzzle about Oliver Twist. Although the question she ponders is seemingly slight (she wonders whether Dickens used the details about a real murder in his novel), it’s of real significance to Dickens scholars and Gowers’ actual research will add greatly to knowledge of how Dickens fashioned his novel, as well as to theories of writing.

The novel depicts the highs and lows, the frustration and also, the sheer pleasure of literary research. In this, it’s spot on. Gowers describes the dead-aired stillness of the Bodleian Library and captures perfectly that ‘eureka’ moment of discovery.

The reading room was warm, peaceful, concentrated, enclosed by the vision of nightfall. The great windows glittered where light from the ceiling lamps reflected off the inside of the panes. Kit took seat 103 and stared out through the glass at the looming roofline of huge, ancient buildings, each one caught in its own dense dose of sickish electric glare. (p. 16)

 “You know that thing where your brain is quietly fizzing away on its own and it makes a connection you completely hadn’t thought of, and it’s so exciting it makes you want to laugh, or you find that you do laugh, or at least exclaim or something?” (p. 160)

Countless hours squinting at barely legible manuscripts and reading books that may or may not be connected with the research question but need to be checked ‘just in case’ can be deemed either ‘time wasting’ or ‘fruitful searching’, depending on the outcome. Researchers compile maze-like indices, endless bibliographies and write miles upon miles of notes, which may or may not be useful. To the outside world, researchers are super-organised, thorough, rigorous, diligent. In reality, they lurch between states of panicky disorder, their minds racing four steps ahead of what they are reading. What does this mean in relation to that? Why does the author not mention X or Y? Could they have written Z? Mostly, researchers are good at following hunches and going against popular thinking. The Twisted Heart reveals all this and more.

The narrative style parallels the mind of the researcher-protagonist as it moves between the third person distant narrator and a stream-of-consciousness monologue where Kit weighs up possible clues, mulls over details of the real murder case and worries about her new dance partner. Both the plot and dialogue are mazy, mixed up and slightly incoherent, tailing off into dead-ends and incomplete sentences. At times, this style is simply annoying to read. Yet, as a whole, the style works well as a literary device.

The novel is filled with playful nods to the Victorian aesthetic interwoven with theories about art and writing. Making small talk with Joe about the artwork adorning his flat, Kit remarks:

“You know there’s this whole schtick about the image of the female reader in Victorian art? […] I wonder if he drew her because she was reading, or, because he was drawing her, he let her read to get through the time.”

She leant in closer. “She’s very peaceful, isn’t she, despite looking like she’s effectively unwrapped for display. It really is disconcerting how much she looks like me.” (pp. 99-100)

The above quotation demonstrates how much is packed into the novel. The artwork in question is ‘a large pencil study’ by ‘Rothenstein’, a ‘friend of Rodin’s’ who painted famous figures during the late Victorian, early-Edwardian era. In this one scene, Gowers taps into gender theory in several different ways. For example, she reflects how Victorian fiction and art included images of woman of all classes reading a variety of materials – Rothenstein famously painted The Browning Readers.

browningreaders William Rothenstein, 1910 (c.) Bradford Metropolitan Council

 

Susan Casteras points out how,

To some degree, this imagery reflected the struggles and challenges Victorian middle- and upper-class women faced in coping with patriarchal assumptions about their intelligence, learning, knowledge, and independence. The threat posed by women with books and the inherent link with their acquisition of knowledge was expressed, covertly and otherwise.

Gowers suggests that Victorian power struggles continue today. Set in contemporary Oxford, Kit epitomizes the Victorian ideal woman – statuesque, strong like Queen Victoria, yet at the same time she is weak with a propensity for fainting and light-headed giddiness, like the heroine of a Victorian novel. At this point, the reasoning behind the art work on the front dust jacket of The Twisted Heart, which shows a girl in silhouette balancing upon the pages of a book, becomes clear. The girl in silhouette performs a metafictional comment on the book itself, symbolising Kit, the intelligent female reading protagonist, Gowers, the writer and also researcher/reader, Dickens, writer, and also the ideal female reader.

Susan Casteras explains the symbolic function of the book in Victorian literature and art:

On another level, because there is a suggested identification between the female reader and her text, the open book may serve not only as a fantasy but also as a fused sense of self and text that makes the book function somewhat like a mirror. Looking into that “mirror,” the reader sees herself through the lens of a fantasy, using the book to fulfil that dream. Thus, onto the book of feminine yearnings can be displaced a mirroring of private feelings that is unconsciously capable of fetishizing the book and its symbolic roles.

Above quotes taken from ‘Reader, Beware: Images of Victorian Women and Books’, by Susan B. Casteras, in Nineteenth Century Gender Studies, Issue 3:1 (Spring, 2007).

Joe initially noticed Kit, he says, because ‘ “I thought, here’s my picture, she’s jumped off the wall and gone out for a dance” ’ (p. 99). Kit mirrors Joe’s ‘ideal’ woman, the image trapped behind the glass in the picture frame. Christina Rossetti’s Victorian sonnet, ‘In an Artist’s Studio’ (composed, Dec. 24 1856), provides a context through which to read Gowers:

One face looks out from all his canvases,

One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:

We found her hidden just behind those screens,

That mirror gave back all her loveliness.

A queen in opal or in ruby dress,

A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,

A saint, an angel — every canvas means

The same one meaning, neither more or less.

He feeds upon her face by day and night,

And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,

Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:

Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;

Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;

Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

 

Mardi Stewart explains how, in the nineteenth century, women’s writing was considered to be like prostitution – women wrote out of the ‘female space of domesticity’ but were marketed and marketed themselves in the ‘male space of commerce’ – see ” One Face Looks Out’ : The effects of the literary marketplace and the nineteenth-century image of femininity as shown in the work of Christina Rossetti and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Unpd, Phd. Thesis, Glasgow University, May 2004). In both the real life murder and in Oliver Twist, the victim is a prostitute.

The narrative tension within The Twisted Heart is created through the subversion of the male gaze on the female. Jane P. Stewart writes how, in the nineteenth century, ‘the controlling male gaze’ sought to contain women: ‘novels and romances were seen as corrupting or contaminating [to women] … women writers were also seen as inferior because their chosen mode of writing, the romance, was defined as inferior’ – quoted from The looking-glass empire : early feminist interrogation of the colonial patriarchy, 1850-1950 / Jane P. Stewart (University of Stirling, 2000), pp. 58-64. Kit is an intelligent 21st century woman. It’s Kit who takes on the role of the man during one of their dance lessons. And it’s Kit who reads about, picks over, enthuses about and gazes on the details of the dead female body. Yet, for all that, at the end of the novel, it’s Joe who teaches Kit the reality behind her ‘interesting’ research topic –

“This is violence, Kit. This is what it looks like” (p. 261).

At times, The Twisted Heart is too clever for it’s own good. Whenever the dialogue becomes stilted or veers towards explicating the real murder or the research question or how it relates to Dickens, or, when Humpty’s violent antics intervene, there’s a sneaking suspicion that, maybe, Gowers had theses such as quoted above, or literary text books open in front of her as she was writing.  Scholarly works such as Reading Women: Literary Figures and Cultural Icons from the Victorian Age to the Present, edited by Janet Badia and Jennifer Phegley (Uni. of Toronto Press, 2006)  and Kate Flint’s The Woman Reader, 1837-1914 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993)  provide an accessible route into all things Victorian and while works such as these clearly inform the novel, you don’t need to be an expert in Victoriana to enjoy this highly engaging read.

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