Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide/ Wayward Muse -- Elizabeth Hickey
Jane Burden is a plain girl, with unremarkable looks and a destitute upbringing. She lives in a run-down house next to the public toilets in the slums of Oxford, England, a daily reminder her that her existence is nothing more than waste and filth. Jane's abusive mother rules the house with an iron fist, and her father and brother spend all of their time and the little money they earn at the local pub. But when a band of carousing artists arrive in town to paint the interior of the Oxford Debating Hall, they discover in Jane a beauty she never knew she possessed. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the leader of the group, is so taken with Jane's gray, somber eyes, her slender frame, and her dark hair, that he falls immediately in love with her and insists that she sit as the model for his painting of Guinevere. Jane, swept up by Rossetti's attentions and affections, falls for him in turn, and they commence a secretive and passionate affair. When Rossetti disappears without explanation, however, Jane is crushed. In his absence, Rossetti's friend, William Morris, remains in Oxford, and asks Jane to continue modeling for him. Though his talent and passion cannot compare to Rossetti's, Morris is a polite and thoughtful man, and he gradually wins Jane over by his steadfastness. But Jane hangs on to the memory of Rossetti, and when at last the artists and the lovers are reunited, old flames and friendships are rekindled and new jealousies and secrets emerge.
1. When Rossetti inquires about the details of Jane's background he quips, "Poor Jane! All that is needed is three wicked stepsisters and a pumpkin coach." In what ways is The Wayward Muse a Cinderella story? Can you think of any other fairy tale archetypes that Jane Burden embodies?
2. What did you think about Jane before Rossetti discovers her? What was it about her that he thinks is so special? Rossetti nearly convinces her that "she was a princess taken from her royal position at birth and placed with a lowly family for her protection." But Mrs. Burden accuses Jane of condescension and "[getting] above herself." What do you imagine Jane's fate would have been had Rossetti not entered her world?
3. Who determines beauty and how is it measured? It seems that once Rossetti declares Jane a great beauty, everyone else awakens to her charms and agrees with him. How is beauty determined in today's society? Do you see the same effect, in which one person of great influence calls something beautiful and the masses follow suit?
4. In their attempts to seduce Jane, both Rossetti and Morris bring her to places high above the ground -- Rossetti to the rafters of the debating hall and Morris to the bell tower of Chartres. She asks Morris: "What is it with you artists and high places?" And he replies, "Perspective. To see things in surprising ways you have to extend yourself a bit." What perspectives or roles does Jane take on in this story? What do you think surprises her? Where do you think she is most comfortable, or true to herself?
5. Both Rossetti and Morris idolize Jane's beauty to the point that she becomes iconic and legendary. Her response to this status ranges from disbelief to flattery to embarrassment to needing the attention. What events or circumstances precipitate these varied reactions? How do you feel about Jane's transformation and her acceptance of her own beauty? Does she use the power of her beauty well?
6. Were you surprised at the friendship between Lizzie and Jane? What do you think about Rossetti's love for both of them -- are they equal in his eyes, or different? Rossetti says that, "Neither side of the coin is superior to the other. The dark must have the light, the strong the weak, the sharp angle the soft curve." How is this statement a reflection on these two women? How is it a reflection on his friendship with Morris?
7. Both Morris and Rossetti venture into other art forms, experimenting with poetry, interior design, and artisan-style crafts. Why, if Rossetti has won such acclaim for his painting, is he so destroyed by criticism of his poetry? Was he right to retrieve his work from his wife's grave? How does Morris respond to the praise he receives for his book?
9. What do you make of Morris's "arrangement" for Jane and Rossetti? Is it a noble attempt to gracefully bow out of their marriage, or is it a desperate attempt to maintain involvement in Jane's life?
10. Discuss the title of the book. Is Jane the only muse in the story, or does she have muses of her own? Who, in the novel, could be called "wayward?"
Tips To Enhance Your Bookclub
1. Print out images of Jane in the Blue Silk Dress and as Prosperine at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Burden.
2. Read aloud selected works of Tennyson and Keats, who served as Morris's poetic inspiration.
3. Plan a craft -- cover notebooks in William Morris-style wallpaper or buy a stained-glass coloring book!