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Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper
Harriet Scott Chessman
Paperback

 

INTRODUCTION

Readers will be transported to the vibrant art scene of late nineteenth-century Paris in this richly textured portrait of the relationship between Mary Cassatt and her sister Lydia.

Beginning in the autumn of 1878, Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper dreams its way into the intimate world of Cassatt's older sibling. Told in the reflective, lyrical voice of Lydia, who is dying of Bright's disease, the novel opens a window onto the extraordinary age in which these sisters lived, painting its sweeping narrative canvas with fascinating real-life figures that include Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas, Cassatt's brilliant, subversive mentor.

Shaded with intimations of mortality, Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper explores the dueling natures of art and desire, memory and identity, and romantic and sexual love. It is a moving and revealing portrait of the free-spirited artist and the sister and model who livedand diedwith such courage, dignity, and grace.

 

ABOUT HARRIET SCOTT CHESSMAN

Harriett Scott ChessmanHarriet Scott Chessman has taught modern literature and writing at Yale University, and is a member of the faculty of Bread Loaf School of English. She has published a novel, Ohio Angels, essays on art and literature, two children's stories, and an interpretation of Gertrude Stein's writings entitled The Public is Invited to Dance. Her novel-in-progress is about a contemporary family in which three generations of women, bridging Europe and America, become aware of the vital gaps in their knowledge of each other's secret life and history. She has recently moved with her family to the Bay Area.

Praise

"A lovely, moving bookelegant in its economy, delicately powerful. Chessman beautifully captures the rich relationship between model and painter, and between sisters."
Tracy Chevalier, bestselling author of Girl with a Pearl Earring and Falling Angels

"Laying down each sentence with exquisite delicacy, Harriet Chessman makes palpable the fragility and futility of desire in the face of the monster, mortality. For me, it achieves the sublime."
Susan Vreeland, bestselling author of Girl in Hyacinth Blue

"This flowing and lyrical novel...captures a bit of Paris of the time, gives us a teasing portrait of Degas, and brings to the foreground such questions as the relation of observer and observed, and the question of art and mortality."
Alan Cheuse, on NPR's All Things Considered

"One of the most talked about books of the season."
Book Magazine

"Entrancing, heartbreaking...makes [itself] felt long after one has finished this fine book."
New York Newsday

"A moving story of courage and creativity...Chessman, with pitch-perfect prose, has penned a celebration of family, love, and art."
Arizona Daily Star

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH HARRIET SCOTT CHESSMAN

What drew you to the story of Lydia? How deeply did you have to delve into Mary Cassatt's world to recreate her life and the lives of her family?

I loved the paintings for which Lydia posed. Something in the quiet vigor of these imagesa woman reading, holding a cup, crocheting, driving, embroideringappealed to me. The colors and shapes of the paintings, so beautiful in themselves, suggested an ordinary yet precious life, a calm and absorbing presence.

Once I began to think about Lydia in relation to her sister, these pictures became even more haunting and powerful. To know that Lydia posed while she was ill, and that she died about a year and a half after Mary created the last picture of her, made me wonder how she and Mary felt about each other, and how each of them approached Lydia's impending death.

I immersed myself in the world of the Cassatt family as much as possible. Nancy Mowll Mathews' superb biography of Mary Cassatt helped immensely, as did the engaging letters of the Cassatts, which Nancy Mathews selected for publication (titled Cassatt and Her Circle: Selected Letters). I read as much as I could about figures like the Alcotts, Berthe Morisot, and Edgar Degas, and I tried to understand these figures within the context of Impressionism and nineteenth-century American and French history. I also hired a wonderful research assistant, Jennifer Boittin, to help me with the texture of daily French life around 1880; she described the meals that the Cassatts might have eaten, the streets of their quartier, the bits of French that might have come into their conversation. Many other friends came to my aid, with information ranging from embroidery to articles of clothing.

My hope in writing this story, though, was to wear whatever knowledge I had gained as lightly as possible, so that the details could come in naturally and simply, just as they would in ordinary life.

What made you decide to tell the story from Lydia Cassatt's point of view? How much historical information was available about Lydia? What aspects of her character sprang from your imagination?

Although at first I thought of other points of viewMary's, another model's, Mrs. Cassatt's, a French child'sLydia kept coming into my mind. Even when I thought of holding the story to a day late in Mary Cassatt's life, or to a week in 1910 when she was on the Nile with her brother Gardiner and his family, Lydia kept appearing in another character's memory. As I searched for a story about Mary Cassatt, I finally decided to look at Lydia head-on, to question her, in a way. Once I began to engage in a kind of dialogue with this figure, I discovered that I was drawn to her very elusiveness.

One of the appealing aspects of Lydia as a character was precisely how little people knew about her. She enters books and essays about Mary Cassatt as a largely marginal figure; and yet I felt, as I looked at the pictures of her, that she could not have been marginal to her sister.

SoI learnt a certain amount about Lydia, through the references to her in her family's letters, and through the intriguing facts I gleaned from Mathews' biography. I could guess about some aspects of her life as an unmarried, wealthy woman, ill with a kidney disease, who had lived all of her life with her mother and father, in Pennsylvania and Europe, as the oldest child of a large family.

And, of course, most of what came into the book was of my own imagining. I created the letter Lydia, as a character, writes to Mary; the sketchbook she wishes she could find; her fiancé, Thomas Houghton; her dreams; her memories. I brought in factsher baby brother George's death, for instance, or Degas' frequent visits to Mary's household and studioand wove my imagination around them.

Does writing about a real person limit you in terms of already knowing the ending before you begin?

I actually hoped, at first, that writing about Lydia Cassatt would help limit me in a wonderful way, by tossing into my lap a story already formed. Yet this did not happen! All I knew about the "ending" of Lydia's life was that she died, and that she was in much pain from her illness as well as from the treatment, which included arsenic and drinking the blood of animals. In my first drafts, I planned to work toward her death as my own fictional ending, yet after much writing and rewriting, I discovered, to my surprise, that this wasn't the ending to my story at all, because the point about my character Lydia wasn't how she died, but how she lived.

If you think about it, you realize that each person in the world could inspire thousands of stories. Each story could be true, yet each would rise out of a special slant, a certain interpretation. What I discovered, in writing about this figure of Lydia Cassatt, was my own story, the one I felt ready to write.

Which authors do you enjoy reading?

I love reading fiction especially, although I often read poetry and autobiography, essays, creative nonfiction, and I enjoy plays too. The fiction writers I most cherishthe giants on my horizonare Jane Austen, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf. I admire many, many contemporary fiction writers, too many to name here; the authors who come to mind first include Michael Ondaatje, Toni Morrison, Kazuo Ishiguro, Chang-rae Lee, J.D. Salinger, and William Trevor. Among autobiographers, I profoundly admire Frank McCourt and Elie Wiesel. I have learned an immense amount about language, passion, and the world from Eudora Welty and Annie Dillard. So many more authors who have woven their words into my life: Jonathan Strong, David Huddle, Alice Munro, Susan Minot, Anne Michaels.

Lydia's disease and the hovering spectre of death permeate the story. Yet one comes away from the novel with a powerful and exhilarating sense of life and of complete lives lived. How do you want readers to view Lydia and come away feeling about her?

I do hope readers come away with a powerful sense of life. I hope my character Lydia can show something about how an ordinary person can live life in an extraordinarily open and sensitive way, right up to the moment of death.

If you had to describe your novel in one sentence, what would you say?

This is a story about the possibility of love and the power of art's creation, in the face of illness and loss.

What are you working on now?

I'm writing a novel in the form of intricately linked stories about a contemporary family, focusing especially on a grandmother, her daughter, and her granddaughters. As in my novel about Lydia Cassatt, this fiction raises questions about memory and love, yet in a highly different way. I am focusing on the ways in which my characters remain largely ignorant of each other's personal histories, in spite of their love for each other.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Does Lydia's illness permeate her every action or does she transcend its physical limitations?

  2. Why is Lydia so jealous of Mary's relationship with Edgar Degas?

  3. Degas confesses to Lydia, "You show me how to live, if only I could do it as you do." What does he mean by this? What is Lydia's reaction?

  4. How does Lydia feel about being the passive sitter as opposed to the active artist?

  5. Lydia tells us that she cherishes her time with Mary, yet she feels guilt that she is keeping Mary from her work, especially when her sister spends time nursing her during intense bouts of her illness. How does this dynamic play out in the story? Does Mary resent having to care for Lydia?

  6. Describe Paris in the late 1800s through Lydia's eyes. How is it a different place from the Philadelphia she knows so well? Discuss what she means by being "in love with this bright and foreign life."

  7. How would you describe Lydia's relationship with her mother and father? How does this compare to Mary's relationship with them?

  8. What does Lydia admire most about Mary's work?

  9. What is the message Lydia receives from Mary through her painting, Driving? Is this Mary's lasting gift to her dying sister?

  10. How does the spectre of The Civil War hover over the Cassatt family? In what ways has it influenced all their lives?

  11. Because of Lydia's illness, images of mortalitysome graphic, others allusive and allegoricalare found throughout the novel. What is the author trying to say about death and life?

  12. Lydia says she "can't tell May my thoughts, because she can't bear to face illness or death. My whole family's like that." How does Lydia feel about this? What has made her family this way?

  13. Why does Lydia have such a powerful, visceral reaction to the subject of one of Mary's paintings, Woman Reading? As Lydia says, "I can't think it is, and yet I know, with exquisite pleasure, that it is." How does she view herself as model and muse for her sister?

  14. As death draws nearer, how does Lydia change?