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Book club: Disobedient by Elizabeth Fremantle

by
03 May 2024

Natalie K. Watson reads Disobedient by Elizabeth Fremantle

A HOME is not a human right (though there is a basic human right to adequate housing and shelter); yet the word “home” conjures ideas of safety, security, protection, and belonging. Home is where the heart is, as they say. Yet, even if the heart is there, this does not mean that home is where bodies are safe, where integrity is protected, and where human beings can and will flourish. The home is where secrets are kept and where many acts of abuse are committed.

The house of Orazio Gentileschi, an Italian painter of the late 16th century, now largely forgotten, is one such home. He has fallen on hard times. His wife has died, and business is not what it used to be; so he and his children have to down-size, moving into a smaller house in a less desirable neighbourhood. His children work in their father’s workshop, and there is an apprentice, too, though his artistic talents are limited and so he is relegated to preparing the paints, until he can conveniently be thrown out of the house under a pretext. And it is the “wrong” child who has inherited his talent — the girl, his daughter Artemisia, Arti to her family. “She wonders fleetingly whether, given the choice, she would sacrifice her talents if it meant she could have been a boy. Dismissing the notion instantly. She is her art and being female is the price she has paid.”

And it is Artemisia whom Orazio worries about. It is becoming obvious that Artemisia’s work is beginning to supersede his, and she is getting her first commissions. What is a father to do? Her honour — as his daughter — is to be protected until a good match can be arranged, and so he takes in Zita, the wife of a tradesman away on business and mother of three small children, as a female companion for his daughter.

Artemisia is the heroine of this remarkable historical novel, based (with some liberties) on the story of Artemisia Gentileschi, now regarded as a significant painter in the circle of Caravaggio. She works in her father’s workshop, dreams of becoming a painter herself, and knows that there is a world out there that she is unlikely ever to see, let alone paint. Yet, she catches glimpses of it, and they leave a deep impression on her. What has been seen by a child cannot be unseen. “Get right to the truth of what it means to take a life,” Caravaggio, her father’s friend and rival, said to the six-year-old taken along to what she thinks is a play about one of the virgin martyrs but turns out to be the execution of Beatrice Cenci, a girl convicted of having murdered her father.

Artemisia’s life is lonely, but her art is the only life she needs. A first commission comes her way, but she is not interested in potential suitors, as marriage is likely to restrict her own ability to paint. One day, a painter of note, Tassi, comes to the house and gives her a painting lesson. A second lesson is offered in due course, but Artemisia tries to reject the offer. She has learned all there is to learn from Tassi, and, indeed, realises what his real interests are.

© J. P. MascletThe historical novelist Elizabeth Fremantle

The second painting lesson is the dramatic climax of a historical novel that in many ways speaks the truth not only about the past but about the present, about sexual violence against women and the multi-layered collusion that facilitates it. Tassi appears while Orazio is out of the house and Zita is called away to look after her own children. The rape and Artemisia’s struggle is described in a way that only someone who has experienced it can speak about it. Artemisia flees into dissociation. There is blood everywhere, hers and Tassi’s, but when one of her brothers appears in the room, she tells him that she has had a nosebleed. She washes the sheets, throws away the ones that can’t be cleaned, and washes herself, but something has changed that can’t be washed away. She knows that she will be forced to marry Tassi, that her life has indeed been taken away.

Orazio hears of what has happened and sets out to pursue the restoration of honour — his own, not Artemisia’s. Artemisia resists her father’s pursuit of a public trial. She knows that she will once again become the object of the public gaze, male and female, not just the rumour mill of the city, but of a painful forced interrogation under torture, including an examination by three midwives who are tasked to ascertain whether or not she is “intact”.

It is Artemisia who is on trial here, not Tassi and not those who have colluded with him. This she realises from the beginning. As an artist, she knows what it means to see and to be seen, and this becomes a strong theme in her work, especially in the two paintings that feature in Disobedient. The first, Susanna, Orazio attempts to pass off as his work to a potential buyer, who soon realises that he himself has been painted as one of the men gazing at the naked Susanna; and the second is her masterpiece Judith. “Who is Judith?” the six-year-old had asked her mother on returning from Beatrice Cenci’s execution. “She was a very courageous woman from the Bible. . . You will learn about her when you are older.”

Artemisia certainly does learn, and her painting of Judith becomes the artistic, material, embodied expression of that which cannot be expressed in words but cannot be unseen and unsaid either: her rape — she insists on calling it that, while others speak of “deflowering” or “dishonouring”.

Artemisia and Orazio are the main characters in Disobedient. Orazio appears as resentful, selfish, at times pitiful, and envious; and it is the sin of envy from which he seeks to unburden himself at the end. If envy is his motivation, what he has done is nothing less than betray his own child.

Yet Elizabeth Fremantle paints a picture of something much bigger than the sin of an individual. Feminist and liberation theologians have described sin not merely as action by individuals but as structural: a convoluted and intricate system of structures that justify and enable the oppression of others, into which individuals such as Orazio and Zita, Tassi, and Artemisia are conditioned, and from which it is hard to transcend. The stories of the women in the Bible and the “virgin martyrs” have been “reconditioned” to suit such structures; yet they can be, and are, re-read as stories of transcending “inevitable” victimhood. Such transcending begins with seeing, with naming, in words or in art; what has been seen cannot be unseen.

Fremantle claims no vested interest in the Christian narrative that underlines the story that she tells; nor does she seek to lay blame. The power of her work is in the naming, by means of a historical novel, what continues to be part of present reality — violence against women, the power of naming and seeing that home is for many women and girls not a place of safety, and the need for a “room of one’s own” from where the truth can be spoken.

Dr Natalie K. Watson is a theologian, writer, and editor, living in Peterborough.

Disobedient by Elizabeth Fremantle is published by Penguin Books at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-1-4059-5281-1.


Listen to the author Elizabeth Fremantle in conversation with Sarah Meyrick in this week’s Church Times podcast. This is a monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature. Listen here.


DISOBEDIENT
— SOME QUESTIONS

  1. Is Artemisia a victim? A survivor? A heroine? Does Artemesia change in the course of the novel, and especially through the experience of rape?

  2. Is Orazio a bad man? How do you understand the relationship between Artemisia and her father?

  3. How do you see Zita? And what is the significance of her stealing?

  4. Both of Artemisia’s paintings, Susanna and Judith, are stolen. What is the significance of this in the novel?

  5. The female martyrs of the Early Church, about which Artemisia has been told since early childhood, are part of the Church of England calendar of saints. How and why can their story be told today?

  6.  What is the part of Piero — Orazio’s apprentice and Artemisia’s friend and, later husband — in the story?

 

IN OUR next Book Club page on 7 June, we will print extra information about our next book, Fifteen Wild Decembers by Karen Powell. It is published by Europa Editions UK at £9.99 (£8.99); 978-1-78770-545-6).

 

THE BOOK

Fifteen Wild Decembers is a re-imagining of the life of Emily Brontë set against the wild moors of the author’s beloved Yorkshire — the same wild landscape that inspired her best-known novel Wuthering Heights. The book’s title is taken from Brontë’s poem “Remembrance”, words spoken at the graveside of her past love — “Cold in the earth — and fifteen wild Decembers”. She, too, like her lost love, ends up living a short life. In this first-person narrative, we hear Emily’s account of the domestic struggles that she has with her siblings from schooldays to adulthood, and the long journey to publication of not only her work, but that of her sisters, too.

 

THE AUTHOR

Karen Powell grew up in Rochester, Kent, and now lives in North Yorkshire. An early draft of her début novel, The River Within, was awarded a Northern Writers’ TLC “New Fiction Reads” prize in 2020. Her second novel, Fifteen Wild Decembers, was shortlisted for the Nero Book Awards 2023. The author also works at York Minster Fund, an independent charity that raises money for the conservation and restoration of the Minster.

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