Louisville novelist Sena Jeter Naslund was torn between two worlds when pondering the subject of her ninth book, The Fountain of St. James Court, or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman (HarperCollins, $26.99).
"I was drawn to writing a contemporary novel," Naslund, a former Kentucky poet laureate, said during a phone interview, "but I continued to be haunted by Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun."
Vigée-Le Brun was a rarity in her time, the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A talented painter in a profession dominated by men, she enjoyed a successful career as a portrait painter of the French elite, including Marie Antoinette, who became a friend and confidant.
Vigée-Le Brun had made an appearance in one of Naslund's previous novels, Abundance (2006), which focused on the life of Marie Antoinette.
"Her story just didn't let go of me," said Naslund, who is also program director of Spalding University's brief-residency master of fine arts in writing program and a distinguished teaching professor and writer in residence at the University of Louisville.
At the same time, a contemporary character was taking shape in the form of Kathryn Callaghan, a thrice-divorced, 70-year-old writer who, like Naslund, has had a successful literary career and lives in Louisville.
Despite being separated by an ocean and several centuries, Naslund noted that Callaghan and Vigée-Le Brun had quite a lot in common, primarily the joys and challenges of artistic creation and how their roles as artists had shaped their lives, connections that led Naslund to an unusual literary choice.
"I decided to write about both," she said.
Naslund crafted a novel-within-a- novel structure that allowed her not only to write about both compelling characters but fostered a relationship between the two despite their distance in time and history.
Callaghan, the fictional author, writes a book titled Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman about Vigée-Le Brun.
Naslund's book weaves between Callaghan's writing of the novel and the novel itself while also weaving thematic revelations between Callaghan and her subject, Vigée-Le Brun.
"Both are alike in that they are aging and successful in their art. Both are influenced by their original families and both are devoted to their children," Naslund says of their similarities.
One of their key differences lies in the historical contexts of each of their lives.
Vigée-Le Brun, though a commoner, lived among nobles due to her uncommon gift of painting. She believed in the divine rule of the king and queen of France and barely escaped the French Revolution with her life.
Callaghan, on the other hand, participated in the civil rights movement in the Deep South, lobbying for social equality.
They are also different in their romantic relationships. Callaghan, despite being divorced several times, remains a romantic, but Vigée-Le Brun, confined by the near impossibility of divorce in her time, accepts her husband's infidelity and makes the best of a friendship with him.
"The double structure serves to show how the writer's art is influenced by the artist's life," Naslund said.
Like Callaghan, Naslund has intellectual and creative relationships with artists from the past.
James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, particularly the structure of her novel Mrs. Dalloway, which weaves together narrative threads from different times, are 20th-century literary heavyweights who have left a mark on Naslund's work.
"Virginia Woolf was interested in relating the experiences of ordinary life, of focusing on what it meant to be fully alive," Naslund said. "My story, in terms of treatment of time, is similar to Mrs. Dalloway. The clock is ticking."
As to the reference to Joyce, whose Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a template for the Vigée-Le Brun novel, Naslund wanted to make a point about the many kinds of artists throughout history.
"Joyce's novel naturally pictures the artist as a rebellious, young Irishman, as he himself once was. His book has provided a kind of cultural icon, echoed throughout the 20-century as the icon of an artist," she said. "I feel there should be an alternate iconic figure.
"I'm insisting that women are artists, and also that an alternate icon should include the old as well as the young. My two old women are people of accomplishment, not merely of ambition. And they love their homes and their homeland, and want to celebrate how it has nurtured them as well as critique it for its oppressiveness and injustices."
IF YOU GO
Literary Tea with Sena Jeter Naslund
Where: The best-selling author and former Kentucky poet laureate reads from The Fountain of St. James Court, or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman
When: 2 p.m. Oct. 15
Where: Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, 251 W. Second St.
Tickets: $25. Reservations requested: Call (859) 254-4175, Ext. 25.
Learn more: Carnegiecenterlex.org
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.