From Sebastopol to Muckleton:
An examination of the long history of the inspiration for my novel FIELD OF POPPIES
IMAGE: Cannon from the war in Crimea 1854 – 56
Field of Poppies in Argenteuil 1873 by Claude Monet
Photo of my mother, Laura Power, in the Conservatory, City Park, Launceston Tasmania in the early 1930s
Claude Monet painted ‘Field of Poppies in Argenteuil in 1873’. Argenteuil, where the people of ancient Gaul mined for silver, is on the Seine, about twelve kilometres from the centre of Paris. There is, I fancy, a silvery haze drifting across the field. The painting is now in the Musée d’Orsay which is a treasure house of Impressionism. I have never seen the original of this painting, and I am aware that my experience and understanding of the work is therefore flawed. However, this picture was the direct inspiration for my 2019 novel Field of Poppies, which is set in a fictional Australian town called Muckleton.
I chanced upon an image of the painting when I was checking out (on the web) a picture of a Monet woman with a parasol that was reproduced on a large hairclip given to me by a friend. My search led me to other Monets with similar motifs, and suddenly, on my screen, there was ‘Field of Poppies in Argenteuil 1873’. What was it that stopped me in my tracks? What was it that drew me into this particular scene, this impression of a moment, real or imagined, in Argenteuil in 1873?
I am no longer sure what I saw first – was it the great sweep of scarlet poppy petals across the hillside, occupying almost half of the canvas? Perhaps. Because I have now studied this picture in almost endless detail, I can in truth only speculate on the sequence of my reactions. Before I could have known it, I would have been responding to the two sets of human figures, and to the house in the centre of the horizon. And then before I knew it the whole experience of looking would have linked automatically to my memories, my ideas, my desires. Do I love poppies? I do. Do I love French provincial farm houses? I do. Do I love images of nineteenth century women with children and parasols? I do. Do I love the work of Monet, his astonishing way of making the scene shift, of sending a breeze rippling across the landscape? Oh yes. My vision of all this was almost instantaneous. A shock. Was it like having a ‘vision’, being visited by something supernatural? I think it was. Bear with me.
My response to the picture is a reaction to images arranged in a certain geometry, and applied with the specific Monet technique of feathery light and shade. First the response was emotional and sentimental, but before long, as I ‘studied’ the scene, it altered, becoming intellectual, and probing memory and meaning. I had somehow entered the picture, knowing, at some point, that I was being led to construct a narrative involving ‘Field of Poppies in Argenteuil 1873’. As an easy answer to the question: what was the inspiration for the novel Field of Poppies? I say: Monet’s painting.
I propose now to examine what I might mean there by the term ‘inspiration’. Readers sometimes wonder where a writer’s ideas for fiction come from. It’s easy enough to say they come from experience, memory, or a phrase overheard on a bus. I suppose every case is different. This essay is an attempt to explain where the ideas for my novel originated, what set my thoughts going until I ended up with Field of Poppies. What made this picture, for me, a source of grace, of dangerous knowledge, of inspiration for a whole complicated narrative that had apparently nothing to do with that first woman with her parasol, on the hairclip?
I sometimes wonder how it would have been if my first careful examination of the picture had been when I was standing at eye-level to it as it hung on the wall of the gallery. Would the painting have had the same mysterious impact? I think I know that, as I gazed at it, backlit as it was on the screen, my first reaction was to the joy that seems to me to be mixed with the very paint from Monet’s brush. But next I think my focus went to the house that is central, although it is in the distance. A blunt, ideal three-storey place with regular windows and a pale terra cotta roof. There is only the faintest blurry suggestion of a chimney. Then to the woman with the parasol and child at the bottom right. Then swiftly up to the distant woman with parasol and child high up at the top left. My gaze swept back and forth between the women, across the hillside splashed with the blood of a thousand poppies. The horizon where the house sits is a busy ragged line of trees, one of which is tall and bulky, and is definitely dancing on the skyline. The sky is sweetly blue, but densely fluffed with puffs of whitish clouds. Snuggling into a slight dip in the horizon, where one hill-slope folds into another, is the house. I have come back to the house. In the novel, the large house built on the goldfields by an Irish family in the nineteenth century, is at the heart of the lives of the central characters.
I imagine that for the artist this was just another ‘scene’, an impression of the landscape he loved, punctuated by images of two separate women with parasol and child. The inspiration and model for his pictures of women was often his first wife Camille who died in 1879, when she was thirty-two. Claude and Camille had been disowned by each of their families when their first child, Jean, was born out of wedlock in 1867. When Monet did this painting, the sun was still shining in his life. Perhaps the most curious feature of it is the presence of the distant second woman and child as they come over the hill. One of my interpretations is that they are a premonition of Monet’s second marriage. He married Alice Hoschede in 1892, the year following her husband Ernest’s death. In 1877, Ernest Hoschede, a wealthy art collector, had gone bankrupt. Ernest, with Alice and their six children, had moved in with Claude and Camille Monet in Vetheuil. Soon after, Ernest had moved to Belguim, leaving Alice and the children behind. After, it is speculated, and probably even before Camille died, Claude and Alice were having a love affair. This is only the briefest sketch of marital matters in the Monet household. But I think it is worth noting that Jean Monet (1867 – 1914) married Blanche Hoschede (1865 – 1947), the daughter of Alice and Ernest. Hence Blanche was both Monet’s step-daughter and his daughter-in-law. She was also a painter whose work reflects the influence of Monet. So I think I can see why I was intrigued by the meaning of the two women with their parasols in ‘Field of Poppies’.
As I studied the picture very closely on my screen, I allowed my imagination to go to work on the significances of its parts. I felt that the great sweep and splash of the poppies suggested the dead bodies of soldiers killed in Flanders in war, a war that was far in the future when Monet painted the picture. I felt that the arrival of the second woman coming over the horizon was a premonition of the troops coming up over the hill. Something very sinister had inserted itself into the whole picture. A narrative began to form in which the multiple global problems of the present day were in a sense set in motion by the First World War. The words of Herbert Asquith, British Secretary of State for War: ‘We are within measurable, or imaginable distance of real Armageddon. Happily there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators.’ These words, written the day before Britain entered the First World War, kept playing in my head, suggesting to me the blindness, carelessness, misguidedness, sleepiness of human beings, as matters to be explored. I set the story in a pleasant rural Australian village today, and I niggled away at contemporary complacency, working with satire and very broad metaphor. Monet’s ‘Field of Poppies’ is a key object in the life of the main character, Marsali Swift (whose surname is intended as a reference to Jonathan Swift).
An odd thing was that when I magnified the picture, bit by bit, I discovered a tiny detail about the central house. It is actually visible without magnification. On the top storey there are clearly three windows. There is probably another window obscured by the foliage of a tree. Just where that window would be, there is a tiny black spot with a minute white mark in the centre. As part of the dark atmosphere aroused by the imaginary dead soldiers beneath the poppies, I figured there might be someone with a powerful firearm up there. The gun is trained on the woman in the foreground. She is doomed, and when the second woman moves forward, she also will be shot.
In the novel these things are ‘only’ in Marsali’s imagination, but in this fact lies an aspect of the technique of this particular novel. I didn’t want to present actual historical scenes – everything is mediated through Marsali’s thoughts in her journal. So my encounter with ‘Field of Poppies’ is translated into her lifelong knowledge of it, her great fondness for it, and the narrative is set in motion by her shock response at the loss of the painting during the robbery. She has a much more profound reason for being so connected to the picture than I do. I have puzzled over why this particular painting obsessed me to the extent that it gave rise to a novel. I kept examining the women with their parasols, particularly the larger one in the foreground. I even thought I could envisage, in the folds of her greyish skirt, the sketch of a little horse. Fanciful, yes.
Now, something I often observe about students of fiction writing is that sooner or later many of them seem to write about their mothers, in one way or another. This is really no surprise, since writing fiction (I believe) is an activity by which people try to make sense of their own lives, and such sense-making will frequently take you back to where you began, and who else was there. So one time, when I was staring at the horse-skirted woman in the foreground of the painting, I had an inkling of a photograph of my mother. The woman in the painting is elegant and French; my mother was neither of these things. However, I searched for the photo in question, and I realised the link was probably the hat. So here she is, in the conservatory in the City Park in Launceston Tasmania is the early 1930s. Even the hat – so jaunty in Argenteuil, so practical, if tilted, in the conservatory – can hardly be held responsible for the fact that the image of Camille Monet took me back to my mother. But I think it did. She is accompanied by a child. Could that child be me in my straw hat, carrying a bunch of poppies? There are no poppies in the photo of my mother. I think the great puffs of black and white blooms in the conservatory are begonias. Baskets of Begonias – a title for a novel? Maybe not.
There is a wealth of emotion, for me, in the picture in the conservatory. It was taken years before I was born, but I remember we used to have picnics in the City Park, gaze at the begonias, visit the cages of rabbits and monkeys, marvel at the intricate stone memorial of the Boer War, climb on the Russian Sebastopol gun from the war in the Crimea. Oh, suddenly there are thoughts of war.
That war lasted from 1854 to 1856, so it was over before Monet, who was born in 1840, painted his ‘Field of Poppies in Argenteuil 1873’. Another clear memory from the joyful times in the City Park is of the horrible smell of gas from the nearby gasworks. And then there was the fact that along the side of the park ran a street with a fascinating French name – it was Cimitière Street, because it once led to a cemetery. These days it leads to the Launceston Entertainment Centre. Times change.
So there you have it – in my somewhat fanciful way, I believe I can trace the genesis of Field of Poppies from the Sebastopol gun to the flowers of Argenteuil.