Review

The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired

by Francine Prose



"Muse" is a concept that brings to mind lovely women inspiring
incredible works of art, literature and philosophy. The nine Greek
muses embodied a liminal space somewhere between the realm of
humans and the realm of gods. But what about those famous (and
infamous) human muses who have inspired the creative works of some
of the most revered artists? In THE LIVES OF THE MUSES, Francine
Prose explores the idea of the mortal muses and the artists who
relied on them. She asks questions about their own creative
impulses and their identities, both in relation to their artists
and alone.

Prose examines nine muses, some obvious in their muse-hood such as
Suzanne Farrell and Alice Liddell and other controversial figures
like Gala Dali and Yoko Ono.  Several are tragic figures and
several are quite mysterious. And all have a unique and interesting
biography, beautifully and honestly rendered by Prose. Prose's
exploration of these nine muses is arranged in roughly
chronological order. Each section gives readers insight into the
life of the muse and the man (or men) she inspired. And each tale
raises new and often difficult questions: Must a muse always be a
woman? Must the muse always inspire a man? Is the muse's role
active or passive? Does it always have a sexual component? And can
a muse successfully maintain her own artistic identity and remain a
muse?

THE LIVES OF THE MUSES begins with Hester Thrale, muse of English
writer Samuel Johnson. An intelligent and outspoken woman, Thrale
was married to another man, yet was a companion of Johnson for many
decades. While it is unclear whether or not their relationship was
sexual, it was intellectually passionate and for many years she
acted as his caretaker. Their witty exchanges were famous and his
letters to her reveal an emotional dependency and a creative debt.
Their friendship was all but ruined when, after being widowed, she
married another man Johnson did not approve of. Thrale is a prime
example of a muse intellectually equal to her artist; in fact, she
was an accomplished writer herself.

Other muses discussed by Prose are a bit more problematic. Take for
instance Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's ALICE
IN WONDERLAND. There is much speculation about the relationship
between this little girl and this grown man. Prose is mostly
concerned, however, with how Liddell functioned as a muse; in what
ways she inspired and encouraged. The case of Alice Liddell raises
questions about whether or not the artist always sees (or
appreciates) the muse for who she really is as a person. The
relationship between painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his wife
Elizabeth Siddal demonstrates that the muse often loses her own
identity in the one that the artist (and thus the audience) assigns
her.

Each of the nine woman examined in this wonderfully written book is
interesting on her own. But collected together, their stories and
lives speak to larger and more philosophical themes. Prose does a
good job of not letting the subject get away from her. The book is
focused and well crafted, posing interesting questions and
suggesting (though not insisting on) thoughtful answers. THE LIVES
OF THE MUSES is so readable, entertaining and original it is truly
hard to put down.

Not quite biography, not quite gender studies or philosophy, but
something unique and enjoyable, Prose's delightful book will
satisfy readers of all tastes. Prose will have readers rethinking
the concept of "muse" altogether.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 22, 2011

The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired
by Francine Prose

  • Publication Date: October 1, 2003
  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0060555254
  • ISBN-13: 9780060555252