Nowadays, Hals ranks with his compatriots Rembrandt and Vermeer in the pantheon of art history, but Ann Demeester, director of the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, prefers to see him as a “transhistorical” figure, whose influence leapfrogs across time, and into contemporary art.
That is why she has taken the unusual step of rehanging highlights from the museum’s permanent collection of Hals works and other Golden Age art alongside the works of living artists such as the photographer Nina Katchadourian, the multimedia artist Shezad Dawood, and the painter and sculptor Anton Henning, for “Rendezvous with Frans Hals.” She hopes to demonstrate that today’s artists are still inspired by Hals’s 350-year-old legacy.
It is striking that the author of the most brilliant literary study of marriage in English was a woman whose unorthodox romantic partnership excluded her from polite society. Mary Ann Evans, who took the pseudonym of George Eliot when she began publishing fiction, lived for 24 years with George Henry Lewes, a philosopher, journalist and critic, whose open marriage to his wife had already resulted in her bearing another man’s child. Lewes’s agreement to his name being on the baby’s birth certificate deprived him later, through a quirk of law, of the right to divorce. Technically, the unmarried Evans was pilfering another woman’s husband by living with Lewes – never mind that Lewes’s legal wife went on to have three more children with her lover, all of whom Evans and Lewes supported (along with Lewes’s three sons) through their writing, editing and translating. Their urgent need for money was partly what prompted Lewes to encourage Evans to try her hand at writing fiction at the age of 37.
But fame had a softening effect then as now, and by the time Eliot published Middlemarch, her sixth novel, she had been a celebrity for years. Men and women who had spurned her company in her early years with Lewes now flocked to the couple’s Sunday at-homes. Dickens, Thackeray and Queen Victoria were fans. She received passionate queries from strangers seeking advice on how to live better lives. Although she still published as George Eliot, she had revealed her true identity shortly after the publication of Adam Bede, her second work of fiction, whose runaway success prompted intense speculation about who was behind the pseudonym – and the emergence of a pretender demanding royalties. Her reputation continued to wax even through a troubled middle period, when she struggled to write Romola and Felix Holt, the Radical, which were less successful than her early novels, though critically praised.
Nobody tells you how long marriage is. When you fall in love, when you have fun with somebody, when you enjoy the way they see the world, nobody ever says, “this person will change. And so you will be married to two, three, four, five or 10 people throughout the course of your life, as you live out your vows.” Nobody warns you. But you, my dear. There is something deep and hard and lasting inside of you. And I wish I had known, when I was searching again for my bedrock, that all I had to do was reach out my hand.
It is out of these insights, sprung as surprises that often contain within them a retrospective inevitability, that Miller achieves real narrative propulsion. Some will consider her prose too purple, her plotting too neat, but others will find it supple, pitched in a register that bridges man and myth. At one point, Odysseus’s mind is described as being like “the spiral shell. Always another curve out of sight”. Miller has taken the familiar materials of character, and wrought some satisfying turns of her own.