Robert J. Begiebing's thought-provoking and character-driven book opens with a scene in which his protagonist imagines an "unholy conflagration" which took place in secret. Victorian art critic John Ruskin, having discovered erotic sketches among the works of his late hero, J.M.W. Turner, elicits the help of National Gallery Keeper Ralph Wornum in consigning them to the flames.
Ruskin has difficulty processing that the revered master, known even then as Britain's greatest landscape artist, also created what he deems pornography. "They were... the products of a certain disease of mind that afflicted him at times," Ruskin tells his friend, American artist William James Stillman. To Ruskin, the crime wasn't in his burning of Turner's drawings but the offense of their existence.
Stillman, an admirer of Turner, is horrified by the thought that a collection so important to the legacy of British art history was destroyed, and this severs his close relationship with Ruskin. The Turner Erotica follows Stillman's decades-long pursuit of sketches that, rumor has it, escaped the fire. This draws him into the company of pre-Raphaelite notables William and Gabriel Rossetti, explorer Richard Burton, and a worldly American painter, Allegra Fullerton, a fictional character whose life and travels were the focus of Begiebing's second novel.
The Turner Erotica is a work of fiction that reads like the journal of a man living through the mid-19th century. Like the subtitle ("a biographical novel") implies, Stillman was a real person, and his life was dramatic in its own right; his and others' authentic words have been interwoven into the story. Named U.S. ambassador in Rome in his early thirties, his later diplomatic post saw him caught up in the Christian Cretans' insurrection against Ottoman rule in the late 1860s.
As he continually fights to reclaim the sketches, which he discovers had indeed been saved, Stillman struggles to raise his growing family and make his romantic relationships work. But the more elusive his quest for the Turners becomes, the more his obsession threatens to overtake what matters most to him personally.
Ruskin's burning of Turner's racy drawings may or may not have happened in real life (although Ruskin bragged about doing so, he may have made the story up to protect himself from prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857). What matters for this particular novel is that Stillman and his contemporaries would have believed it.
The Turner Erotica succeeds in expressing the unrestrained joys and the restlessness of the artistic life and provides an authentic sense of the era, both its legislated moral codes and the sensuality of those who dared pursue their passions. A page-turner when describing human interactions, it turns deeply philosophical when re-creating its characters' conversations about the meaning of art. Were Turner's erotic works part of his attempt to depict all means of human expression, or was his intent titillation? Should it matter, or should one judge on the quality of the art alone?
As the novel skillfully explores these issues and others, it compels readers to think about them as well.
The Turner Erotica was published by Ilium Press in April (trade pb, $14.95, 282pp).