Review: A Type of Beauty: The Story of Kathleen Newton (1854-1882) by Patricia O'Reilly
Cape Press €9.99
The clash of Victorian values with the spirit of a proud young lady make for a compelling read, says Angela M Cornyn
Skilful mix of fact and fiction enlivens poignant tale
'The girls lay on their beds, pantalooned legs scissoring in and out and backwards and forwards in time to their chanting. They were heady at the romance of a wedding in their midst. Kate would be the first to be married, and the excitement of a surgeon husband, added to the exhilaration of living in India, had them swooning and passing round the smelling salts. Someone produced a flask of gin; another had a half-eaten box of crystallised fruit, but most coveted of all was the pigskin box containing a few cigarettes."
The time is 1870, the place is Miss Carmody's Finishing School for Young Ladies, Kensington. It is here that we first meet Kathleen Newton, the heroine of Patricia O'Reilly's latest novel, A Type of Beauty, a dramatised account of the life of the feisty and infamous Newton who was model, mistress and muse to French painter Jacques Tissot, one of the most commercially successful painters of the day. The couple's brazenly open and intense love affair scandalised Victorian London.
But who was Kathleen Newton? She started out life as Kate Kelly and was descended from an Irish Catholic medical family. Her father, Charles Kelly, was a major serving with the British Army in India. Around the time of the Sepoy Rising of 1857-58 he was transferred to Agra. Kate was reared in Lahore, Agra and London together with her brother Freddie and sister Polly.
In a desperate bid to get his 17-year-old daughter settled, considering her to be "too headstrong and too full of opinions, as well as believing she had the right to decide on her role in life", Major Kelly, a widower, seeks the advice of a friend, Mrs Montgomery, who arranges the betrothal of Kate to her cousin Isaac Newton, who was a surgeon attached to the Indian Civil Service and a strict Church of England man.
Miss Carmody, the head of the finishing school and a spinster who still harbours notions of marriage for herself, succumbs to flattery by the major and reluctantly accedes to his request to chaperone Kate on her voyage to India. She is an unwise choice for the position of chaperone as she is aptly described in the book as "an unworldly innocent".
Devastated by the news of her impending marriage to a man she has never seen, Kate embarks on the hazardous journey to India. With her chaperone indisposed due to seasickness, the beguiling Kate falls prey to the attentions of a 36-year-old Lothario-bachelor, Captain Palliser of the Bengal Rifles, who is enthralled by her beauty and unsuccessfully tries to seduce her.
At last Miss Carmody and Kate arrive in Agra and are safely ensconced in the home of Mrs Montgomery and preparations for the wedding begin.
Kate is introduced to her intended, Isaac Newton, who then unfortunately has to leave rather quickly to attend to some business, leaving Kate alone and vulnerable to the dishonourable attentions of Captain Palliser. On this occasion, the captain is slightly more successful with his scheme.
Prior to the wedding, the over-scrupulous Kate is advised by her confessor Father Jacobi to be honest with her husband in all things. As it turns out, this ill-fated advice proves to be her undoing. Immediately after the wedding, Kate confesses to her husband that she had a dalliance with Captain Palliser. Horrified by the confession and declaring her to be "damaged goods", Isaac refuses to consummate the marriage and speedily dispatches her and Miss Carmody for England with the promise of instigating an immediate divorce.
Armed with a paltry amount of money, the women once again are spotted by Palliser, who takes Kate as his mistress in lieu of financial support for the trip. Kate arrives back in London a ruined woman by Victorian standards, having embroiled herself in an unconsummated marriage, and an inevitable divorce. She's also pregnant by a man whom she despises and adamantly refuses to marry.
Back in London, Kate gives birth to her daughter, Violet, in 1871 just as her decree nisi arrives. She lives with her sister, Polly, and her husband, Gussie, in St John's Wood, London.
This is the shocking background of the young Kathleen Newton, who after a well-deserved break from controversy and managing to hold onto the dream of happiness meets the French painter, Jacques Tissot, and falls madly in love.
Patricia O'Reilly has carefully crafted into an intriguing story a mixture of fact and fiction. This is a difficult task to undertake and could only be carried off successfully by an experienced writer such as O'Reilly, whose thorough research and creativity shine through in equal measure throughout the novel.
The novel offers sharp insights into the English class system, the lives of Victorian women in particular and the limitations of their social mores. Its overall strength lies in presenting a poignant tale of an individual woman with an indomitable spirit who in seeking independence and happiness flouts the social conventions of the era and must live with the consequences.