Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 25, 2020

An Equal Stillness, by Francesca Kay

I’m in the habit of reading something from the non-fiction shelves during the day, and a novel at night, and so when memory stirred as I was reading Stella Bowen’s autobiography Drawn from Life, I hunted out Francesca Kay’s An Equal Stillness from the TBR.  This novel explores the same dilemma in fiction that featured in real life in the Sensational Snippet that I posted from Bowen’s book.  As the bookcover blurb says: Artist, lover, wife, mother: can one woman be them all? To be more specific, how do women reconcile being a loving, supportive spouse with the need to advance their own careers, especially if they have a special gift?

An Equal Stillness is a novel but it reads like an intimate biography, charting an artist’s professional and personal life from a close perspective.  It’s clear-eyed and not blind to the subject’s faults, but it’s gentle and not quite detached.  It’s not until the very end of the book that the reason for this is revealed, though some readers may guess it beforehand.  What they may also not guess is that this is not a fictionalised retelling of a real artist’s life… Jennet Mallow is an entirely fictional creation and using the form of a biography is the author’s way of making the story convincing.

Jennet was born in England’s north, in the fictional village of Litton Kirkdale in the upper valley of the River Aire, to a mother disappointed by life.  Lorna wanted to escape her parents, and—this is not quite as cynical as it sounds—she married, fully expecting the man to die on the battlefields of WW1.  Her father had died when she was 13, and her brother had died at Ypres.  The people she loved had died, and she expected that Richard would die too.  But he didn’t, and he didn’t want to stay in the army despite his family’s traditions.  He retreats to a quiet, humble life as a cleric, with a wife frustrated by his lack of ambition and their dull domestic life.

Somehow, from this blighted family, Jennet becomes an artist of renown. As a child she made art in a hidden space behind her bed, and untaught, she wins a scholarship to an art school in London in 1945.  Thriving in the cultural milieu she marries another artist, David Heaton, older than her and already becoming successful.  But before long she gives birth to a son called Ben, and her art takes second place to domestic life.  When they go to Spain because they are fed up with dreary postwar England, she—pregnant again—is content with her role:

Those first few months in Santiago stayed in her mind as a time of happiness, and they mark the start of her most fecund periods as an artist.

There was money enough to live on but not to spare.  David’s, then, was the lion’s share of the expensive art materials.  This was fair, Jennet conceded; she had made nothing from her painting but David had, and was on the brink of making more.  His professional world encompassed dealers and collectors; she was nowhere near this stage.  But in Santiago she had time, now that Ben could play on his own or guarded by adoring girls, and space, in the cool square room she shared with David.  Although his nearness could be intimidating and his critical presence sharp, Jennet felt free enough to paint again for the first time since Ben was born.   To start with she let David keep the canvas — it was pricily shipped out to him by a colleague at Stockwell — and instead made use of whatever she could glean: cardboard, bits of broken boxes, driftwood.  On these she painted the green jug they used for wine, a blue bowl full of lemons, the upturned hulls of fishing boats, the slither of a net of anchovies and, over and over again, the sea in all its nuances as she saw it through her upstairs window.  (p.71)

Expats join them, and David begins drinking heavily.  But when he goes back to England for an exhibition of his work, he takes something of hers with him, almost as a kindly afterthought.  Unexpectedly, Jennet’s work is taken up by an influential art dealer called Patrick Mann.  He visits, and he encourages her.  But the drudgery of children and keeping the household going after the birth of twin girls Sarah and Vanessa gets harder… even as the urge to create gets stronger.  The issue of women’s dreams and ambitions being subservient to a man of lesser talent looms larger in the novel but Jennet loves David despite his flaws, and they move back to England primarily because of his drinking problem.

From there the novel becomes a bit like a soap opera with infidelities that morph into catastrophe, but there is a truth about these kinds of lives, and the writing about art is superb. What is also superb is the attention to the compromises Jennet makes with herself:

…there was, even in the hardest day, the promise of reward. As the diver groping though the murk sustains himself with images of pirate’s gold shining through the dark bones of a shipwreck, so Jennet clung to the prospect of the time she set aside for work.  She used to play a private game: points scored for no mishap or time saved by some cleverly cut corner; five points if Sarah did not spill her drink, eight if Vanessa’s sheet was dry, ten if the preparation of a stew today would do for soup tomorrow.  An extra minute earned for every point, on a good day a whole hour won to add to those she let herself spend painting.  Mabel Harris was part of this private deal as well; the money Jennet paid her was justified if it bought time for work, which in its turn would earn enough to generate more time.  That the argument was circular she knew, but she saw no way to break it, unromantic and prosaic as it was.  The notion of an artist starving willingly for art might make good fiction, but it was never Jennet’s.  Jennet was a realist, saddled with three children who had not chosen to be born and must be fed and clothed and shod, and a husband who did not always want to share the burden.  These were not ideal conditions for an artist.  But, however sorely it was tried, Jennet kept her faith in herself, quietly, doggedly and in the meantime cooked three meals a day and cleaned her little house, painting in every spare second she could find.  (p.144)

An Equal Stillness won the Orange Award for New Writers in 2009.

Author: Francesca Kay
Title: An Equal Stillness
Publisher: Phoenix, an imprint of Orion Books, 2009 (first published in 2009 by Weidenfled & Nicolson)
ISBN: 9780753825655, pbk., 324 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings $22.99


  1. It’s such a tricky, and still emotive, topic. A marriage of creatives *should* have equality in the relationship and in their need to create. But there is still this emotionally blackmailing pressure on the woman to be the carer and take charge of those aspects of life. Although we have mod cons nowadays, which do make things easier, women are still expected to balance family and career in ways men won’t.


    • True.
      And hasn’t COVID_19 revealed some ‘interesting’ aspects of domestic relationships?!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting to have fictionalised a biography, I wonder what the inspiration behind that was?
    In the recent memoir I read On Chapel Sands by art historian and critic Laura Cumming, I found it interesting that both her parents were artists, but that her mother stopped painting after she had children, though took up large tapestries instead.
    I have family members who are artists, two sets in fact, where both husband and wife are/were equally successful creatives and equal partners in domestic affairs, though neither of these couples had children. I think it is easier to retain that equality when a women isn’t usurped by motherhood which then morphs into domestication.
    It does seem sad when talent or passion is unable to flourish.


    • Hi Claire:)
      Yes, interesting, I don’t think I’ve come across a novel in this form before.
      Re Laura Cumming… I think that quotation I posted about the materials is very telling. If the artistic pursuit costs money, that makes it harder still for women to pursue if they have no money of their own, though even when they do, they tend to spend it on the family rather than themselves.
      I saw this happen in the GFC. Prior to that there were scrapbook shops all around me, thriving businesses with an amazing clientele of creative women who made the most beautiful artefacts that celebrated their families’ lives. Their work will be treasured in future years as family history heirlooms. I don’t have an artistic bone in my body but I went to a couple of classes to learn some skills for the scrapbooks I make. (I did one of my father’s life for his 80th birthday, which I treasure now that he has passed on.) But as the effects of the GFC wore on, one by one these shops closed, and the communities of women who went to the classes faded away. When money is tight, women stop spending money on themselves.


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