MORTAL LOVE *
By Elizabeth Hand. Morrow. 364 pp. $24.95 We know the images created by the pre-Raphaelite painters of Victorian England too well. Seen through modern eyes, the ethereal femmes fatales beloved of Edward Burne-Jones or Dante Gabriel Rossetti appear now as little better than projected male fantasies, vacuous and sentimental, visual cliches on a par with Canaletto's Venice.
But are we seeing the pictures themselves, or only our reductive preconceptions of them? Elizabeth Hand has reclaimed the ur-impulses of the pre-Raphaelites -- their delight in arcane folklore, fascination with nature and openness to supernatural experience -- and created a pre-Raphaelite work of her own. Mortal Love is at once a painting in prose, an investigation into artistic obsession and a re-evaluation. We may see the strange, attenuated women of pre-Raphaelite art rather differently after reading Mortal Love. And, if the book's strange tale is to be believed, they may see us differently, too.
The story begins in England in the 1870s with that most unblushing and Victorian of opening gambits: a letter. One director of an insane asylum, Dr. Hoffmann, has written to another, Thomas Learmont, of the spontaneous combustion of a young woman in his care. Hoffmann's name, one presumes, is Hand's sly salute to the German folklorist; we never meet him in person. Learmont will prove pivotal, but it is the dead woman who will link the different times and locales in which Mortal Love is set. Reduced to ashes before the novel begins, then reincarnated as numerous women within it, she is the enigmatic object of quests ranging from Victorian England to an island off the coast of Maine in the 1980s, and from a remote coast in rural Cornwall to present-day London.
Learmont is only the first of a series of protagonists, all male, who encounter a strange and alluring young woman, become drawn in by her, and then are mysteriously damaged and discarded. She is pictured for us initially in the late works of an eccentric and reclusive American painter, Radborne Comstock, who seems to have been inspired by a meeting with her during a trip to England in the 1880s. Comstock's obsessively detailed canvasses show a fairy world that, a century later, enchants the painter's young grandson, Valentine, who is compelled to create his own vision of such a world and the mysterious woman at its center. Valentine names the woman "Vernoraxia." In a hallucinatory scene, she visits him in the guise of another woman, takes his virginity and disappears, leaving Valentine in a state of catastrophic mental breakdown.
Twenty years later, in present-day London, a 44-year-old journalist named Daniel Rowlands has taken a sabbatical to write a novel, or "an exploration of mythic love," about Tristan and Iseult. Its working title: Mortal Love. Soon Daniel's understanding of both those terms is being vigorously redefined by the mysterious Larkin Meade, a possibly schizophrenic young woman with a penchant for absinthe, offal and exotic underwear. She introduces Daniel in turn to the wealthy Russell Learmont (descendant of Thomas), who is bargaining to buy a late painting by Radborne Comstock.
Mortal Love negotiates cleverly between its 20th-century and Victorian time frames, embroiling us in a rich stew of lost artworks, the folklore behind them and (merely glimpsed) the reality behind that folklore. Those glimpses provide the book's edgiest moments as Hand's carefully constructed realistic settings cede to a vision of a green-glowing fairy world from which the likes of Vernoraxia or Larkin might have credibly issued. Here is the Victorian poet Swinburne, one of several real characters reimagined by Hand, encountering that scene for the first time: "Within a green world, prismatic things flickered and flew and spun: rubescent, azure, luminous yellow, the pulsing indigo of the heart's hidden valves. All were so brilliant he could see nothing clearly. . . ." Alas, Swinburne's robust verbal reaction to this vision cannot be quoted in a family newspaper, but the reader, too, might utter the odd imprecation at such visual incoherence. Such passages, however, are few and, like the occasional confusions of geography and genealogy, hardly detract from the beguiling sense of mystery that envelops the reader as Hand's disparate narratives slowly braid themselves together.
Daniel's affair with Larkin affords the reader an enjoyably twisty but dependable narrative thread in the modern episodes. Comstock's sojourn in England does the same for the Victorian era. With Comstock we are led through a steaming, sodden London and introduced to its strangest denizens. Hand's gift for deadpan comedy serves her well in larger-than-life characterizations such as that of Swinburne and, most wonderfully, the gargantuan mother of Oscar Wilde. Bolder still is her reclamation of the hoary tropes of Victorian Gothic fiction: deformed servants, decaying mansions, Learmont's insane asylum perched atop a remote, crumbling cliff in Cornwall. The novel is stitched together with enigmatic symbols and teasing coincidences.
All these conspire to give Mortal Love a satisfying, story-rich texture. But Hand's use of such traditional materials is also deceptive. The novel's presiding artistic genius is neither Comstock nor Daniel Rowlands but Jacobus Candell, a painter and inmate of Thomas Learmont's asylum. Candell is modeled on the Victorian artist Richard Dadd, a murderer and the creator of some of the strangest, most compelling and obsessive images of the 19th century. Where could such inhuman creations have come from? What lies behind the complex, even violent process that we call artistic inspiration? That is the final mystery evoked in Elizabeth Hand's ambitious and richly imagined novel. By tracing the turbulence and reverberations of that process back to its source, Mortal Love offers its readers the satisfactions of a detective thriller. Here, however, the mystery goes deeper than murder. Nothing, Hand convinces us, is quite as mysterious as art. *
Lawrence Norfolk's latest novel is "In the Shape of a Boar."