Emily Franklin takes us into the very heart and soul of Isabella Stewart Gardner in her engaging historical fiction novel “The Lioness of Boston.” In Franklin’s writing, Gardner is headstrong, sensitive, and in a sense — given the blue-blooded circles in which she tried to live — cursed with a curious mind and a desperate desire to make a mark on the world.
Of course, we know that Gardner does eventually do so, with the opening in 1903 of an Italian palazzo-style home as a museum to showcase her impressive collection of old masters, antiques, and objets d’art. But with a novelist’s freedom, Franklin builds the story of how this stunning art institution came to be by jumping off Gardner’s real-life tragedies, remarkable relationships with people of note, and extensive foreign travels, which provide solace to her troubled soul.
Franklin establishes Gardner’s strong will and artistic eye from her 1861 arrival in Boston as a young, wealthy newlywed who is deeply pained by society’s resolute rejection of her while simultaneously yearning for something bigger. In one of the many letters Franklin invents to help carry the narrative along, Gardner writes to her childhood friend and sister-in-law: “Will my presence in Boston matter? … What I mean to say is, Part of me longs, truly longs, to belong. And still another part wonders at a greater land.” And elsewhere, she says, “I want to matter. Or have what I do matter … I know I’ve a greater use in this life. And I’ll be damned if I let go until I find it.”
Gardner repeatedly thwarts her own efforts to fit in by continually flouting convention, unable to suppress her natural curiosity and desire for something more than the dictates of the times prescribed for women of her class and social rank. At one point, her friend astutely notes, “I do not think you are capable of keeping quiet. I do not think you can just let words pass over you, of just … allowing events to occur without somehow jarring them. Everyone is watching to see if you will settle into Boston life.”
Gardner looks to motherhood and, over the course of the book, despite many setbacks, fights to build a life of the mind and one that benefits others, becoming involved in and supporting the intellectuals and artists of the day, including Henry James, Oscar Wilde, and John Singer Sargent, to name just a few. Gardner eventually finds satisfaction in building a museum to house her extraordinary collection, where she mandates that nothing ever be moved.
In an email interview, Franklin describes how she came to shape Gardner’s extraordinary character: “I needed to combine her alienation and the fact that she did not fit in with the definite sense of self she always had inside. I also took into account the museum — that is, she left behind this incredible work of art made from other people’s works of art. I knew she was somebody who believed so strongly in her vision of what she had created that she did not want anything changed. This takes not only being sure of oneself and vision but also perhaps, on a psychological level, someone who has dealt with trauma or loss, and wishes to control their environment.”
Asked about her inspiration for writing “The Lioness of Boston,” Franklin describes growing up in the museum, and being captivated by how one could have not just paintings and sculptures but items such as plates, chairs, vases, perfume, tapestries, and so forth in the collection. She writes, “I was truly amazed as a child to learn that anything could be art.” Franklin continued visiting the museum during high school, and recalls the famous art heist and seeing the empty frames, which stand in for the works that were stolen, and still hang there today. Franklin says that after raising four children and writing many books, she revisited the museum in 2017, which “rekindled my fascination with her and her house, and I realized so much was known about the museum, yet relatively little is known about the extraordinary life she lived.”
It took years for Gardner to make her mark, straining against the confines and barriers of her sex and social station, but she eventually built her “Palace of Art,” as she calls it. In the book, Gardner reflects, “Why collect portraits, lithographs, etchings, a lock of Robert Browning’s hair? Don’t you see? We collect all that we are — we encase ourselves with high-society portraits or bone china and silver sets. Or we covet the collections of others. Or, as I learned, we gather so that we learn how to see, to look in order to let the eye’s lens decide what we truly desire.”
“The Lioness of Boston” makes you itch to visit Gardner’s museum to steep yourself in the wonderful institution that inspired her character. Franklin says, “I hope readers have a better understanding of the world in which Isabella Stewart Gardner lived, the extraordinary strength it took for her to contribute the way she did to art, to history, and to the permanent fixture of the museum in Boston. She was the first woman in America to open a museum, and certainly ahead of her time.”
“The Lioness of Boston,” by Emily Franklin; $28.95. Available at Edgartown Books, where Franklin will appear on Friday, August 25, from 2 to 4 pm. For more information, visit emilyfranklin.com/the-lioness-of-boston.