It was late last year when I started thinking about Clara Schumann again: travelling back home from Sheffield listening to Radio 3 I caught an excerpt of a programme about Brahms which discussed his friendship with Clara Schumann and her disappointment when he finally rejected her for a younger woman. Poor Clara- the two years of her husband’s confinement to an asylum made bearable by the light and youthful presence of Brahms in her household, perhaps hoping for a deeper attachment when her husband, Robert Schumann, finally died- to have happiness snatched away from her like that, how hard for her to endure!
It is this deep emotional engagement with the character of Clara Schumann which Janice Galloway offers us in her book ‘Clara’, first published in 2002, a fictional biography of the remarkable 19th century pianist and composer. Her gift was recognised by her father and piano teacher, Friedrich Wieck, at an early age and she was tutored and pushed by him to play and perform in the concert halls of Europe as a very young woman. Her relationship with this domineering and unreasonable man threads through the novel: she manages to free herself from his influence and has the temerity to take legal proceedings against him in order to marry Robert Schumann, her father’s former pupil, some years older than her, when her father disapproves of the match and attempts to slander him.
We then see her first few months of married happiness with Robert Schumann, playing his pieces, performing, befriending and entertaining other musicians of the day and we are treated to vivid portraits of contemporaries such as the dandyish and dramatic Franz Liszt, the energetic, compassionate and generous friend Felix Mendelssohn. Unfortunately this period of happiness is short lived as Robert Schumann begins to develop the symptoms of mental illness, as well as numerous possibly psychosomatic complaints, and Clara finds herself having to live with the increasing unpredictability of his moods and behaviour as well as being responsible for earning the household income through concert tours while bearing one child after another- they had eight in all. The demands on her are relentless and yet she continues to play, to seek a proper diagnosis and cure for her husband and to believe in him when his career as a conductor in Duesseldorf is patently falling apart. Sadly, Schumann’s health deteriorates and the novel ends with his death after two years of incarceration in an asylum.
Janice Galloway’ skill lies not only in depicting Clara’s notable strength of character and energy but the tragedy of Robert Schumann’s decline. She uses inner monologue and stream of consciousness to engage us fully and intensely with the thought processes of the main protagonists as well as the present tense to make the action more vivid- and this includes the frightening fragmentation and hallucinations experienced by Schumann. At times she extends the stream of consciousness technique to whole groups of people to convey the progress of Clara’s career and how she is being received: during her tour of Russia the aristocrats in her audience try to categorise her according to their notions of class, with her Saxon accent and being a woman performer, their comments almost like a Greek chorus. Galloway’s lyricism in describing the many places to which Clara travels takes us there too- this is Russia, ‘Snow made the streets they stood upon, the roads they skidded over: it made ice walks of rivers and shivered the stars into pinpoints: constant, muffling, scraping the skin and the memory raw as a graze.’
Though Galloway’s technique invites us to engage on a deep emotional and imaginative level with her characters she does not shy away from historical detail to flesh out and make real the environment in which they live. So we learn about Logier’s method, a board fastened to the hands of piano pupils to maintain their hand position, an example of the severity of the times, and the fact that it took Clara a quarter of an hour to lace herself into her corsets, ‘silk and whalebone, spiral brass wire and eyelet holes pressing against her back and ribs’. The precariousness of life and omnipresence of loss through illness is a theme running through the book-both Robert and Clara lose siblings in childhood and adulthood and the speed of death and ineffectiveness of contemporary medicine in the face of many illnesses both mental and physical is both shocking and deeply sad for the contemporary reader.
Yet despite this social historical detail, Galloway does not give us dates and alludes only indirectly to external historical events: when in Moscow visiting Petrovsky Castle, Clara sees the view that Napoleon would have seen and one is reminded that she is living in a Europe very recently devastated in conquest by Napoleon’s armies. Later she argues vehemently with her father against the brutal suppression of protest in Dresden when a number of students are hurled to their deaths from an upstairs window. I wanted to know more about this incident, to place Clara’s life in a clearer historical context, but this is not, after all, a biography and Galloway is only including as much or as little of this kind of detail to fit in with the mood and tone of the novel.
So why has she chosen to write a novel about Clara Schumann and not a biography? My conclusion is that Janice Galloway relishes the greater interpretive freedom which this form gives her. She is at liberty to imagine the character of Clara, in particular her life as a woman, and the reasons for the decisions she made. So Galloway’s Clara summons up the courage, after months of abusive and bullying behaviour from her father, to seek legal advice permitting her to marry Schumann after making a bold step towards independence in organising her own concert tour to Paris. There she meets other women, like Henriette Reichmann and the singer Pauline García, with whom she can talk about love and who encourage her to assert herself by consulting a lawyer. Other women become an important source of support for her- her delight in playing with Madame Hensel in Berlin, the kindness of Jenny Lind, her mother, Frau Bargiel, who despite leaving the family home and Clara to marry another man when she was only a child, becomes a great practical support later on. And this choice allows Galloway to interpret Clara’s feelings on ‘women’s matters’ which presumably are not documented- on sex, childbirth and repeated pregnancies. And to imagine the scene where this highly practical woman chooses a maroon dress when giving a concert too soon after a miscarriage- to disguise any possible staining.
This book is not a light read because of its length, intensity and subject matter but it succeeds in conveying a wonderful portrait of Clara Schumann, both musician and woman, and the times in which she lived. Do read it- it will enrich your life.