Edward Armiger is a landscape painter who’s not all that happy with his life. Although it’s set in the 1800s, at its core is the struggle of a man who’s neither good nor bad, to find meaning in life at a time when politics and society were in a state of flux – like now. The life of the artists in his circle contrasts with the ‘new men’, the capitalists driving the industrial revolution, and the Luddites, the skilled workers being forced out.
A painting Competition provides the framework for the novel. The hero and his friends compete to succeed in the sharply-drawn art world of the day. Fascinating scenes depict art-world conflicts and comment on the eternal battle between old and new, reflecting the technological change taking place around them. For readers interested in art, there’s wonderful descriptions of painting techniques and crits of well-known art works. I liked the tactile writing – the author makes you see through the hero’s eyes, for instance in the factory scene where he doesn’t understand the machinery, or the feel of the paint when he’s grinding his colours.
Edward gets a commission in the north of England and it’s with the change of scene that his life begins to change. He sees different ways of being and of men, and women too, who are led by ideology. Contact with them, and experiencing food riots and an attack by frame-breakers, change him forever and lose him friends. Change comes at a cost.
In the end, Edward has to choose between meaning and money. There’s a feeling he’s only just scraped into the place he finds himself at the end. That was one of the things I liked about the book. It’s incredibly well-researched and I learned more than I thought possible about the worlds of art and industry in the background to Jane Austen’s books. But it’s well-written and the characters were people I could relate to, and I found I wanted Edward to succeed almost as much as he did. I’ll be reading it again.
f you love (impeccably researched) historical fiction, writing of great beauty and a riveting story then The Competition is for you. Set in the Georgian era, this debut novel by art historian Caroline Miley divides its time between London and the north of England bringing to life, in vibrant detail, the art world and the harsh realities of the Industrial Revolution. Glorious descriptions of painting techniques and the paintings themselves, the English landscape and architecture are one of the many pleasures of The Competition. But there is page-turning tension too, when Edward is introduced to radical philosophies that rail against the oppression of the working class, his embrace of new thinking putting his career and friendships at risk. And then there is his love for the beautiful Francesca – will his dearest wish to marry her end in joy or sorrow? But perhaps what I love most about Miley’s wonderful novel, is its resonance to today: a rapidly changing world, the struggles of conscience and the questions it raises about living a meaningful life.
Really enjoyed this book. It's not often an artist is the protagonist and the author takes us into the heart of the art world. There isn't much in the way of derring-do, villains lurking in dark alleys; instead, there's a detailed and wholly believable panorama of the ins and outs of the life of an artist in the time of Turner and Constable. I love art so I was carried away by the descriptions of painting, technique etc. In many ways, very like today - ordinary people trying to get ahead, worrying about the power of the establishment, falling in love. It's more like Jane Austen (who's mentioned briefly) than some of the more Gothic novels about the period. Edward Armiger, the protagonist, needs to make money but is tired of doing the same old thing. That's when the book jumps straight from the coffee-shops of London into a northern town (not identified, but could be any of the growing industrial centres - Leeds, Manchester?). Magnificent description of a woollen mill and steam engine - I really felt I was there. The book deals with the insecurities of the time, the political background, and I think succeeds in avoiding sentimentalising the Luddites although our sympathies are definitely with them.
This is a great book for people who love art and/or are interested in the nitty-gritty of the Industrial Revolution. An interesting juxtaposition and a good read.
The Competition will be launched by author and literary journalist Jane Sullivan at the Victorian Artists Society, East Melbourne, December 12, 6-8 pm