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Elizabeth Fremantle – Disobedient

Book Cover of Elizabeth Fremantle's Disobedient

Elizabeth Fremantle had wanted to write about Artemisia Gentileschi for a while but had kept the idea on her back burner – she was a writer of historical fiction set in Britain. But Gentileschi’s work is starting to have a renaissance of interest and so it was time for Fremantle to put pen to paper in the artist’s favour.

Artemisia is growing up to be quite the talent. Working on sections of her father’s work, she has honed her craft and is starting to excel past his own skill. It’s not gone unnoticed; though Orazio tries to hide the images she creates based on Biblical scenes from which she’s focused on the perspective of women, Artemisia is starting to wow art aficionados. But the family is poor; they have to move to a cheaper home and Orazio really needs a good commission. Unmarried, Artemisia must stay at home and do as her father says, and some male artists are not as nice as they seem. But Artemisia is a survivor.

Disobedient is Fremantle’s latest well-told story, this one about a formative year in Artemisia Gentileschi’s life. Writing again under her full name, as opposed to E C Fremantle, the author has returned to her more ‘straight forward’ historical fiction after a couple of historical thrillers, but the progress in writing skill carries over.

I’m starting a new paragraph here because this skill – essentially what sets Fremantle apart from other writers, her unique selling point, if you will – is the way she hones in on a, or some, specific element(s) to the successful eradication of all else. But what makes this so successful is that nothing is lost in this process – whilst the content hones in on one element, in this case a particular part of this one year of Artemisia’s life, the world building is not forgotten, the development of other characters is not forgotten, and so on. It’s really quite something. The world building, for example, could be said to exist between the lines and in particular words and phrases – it’s just there, in the atmosphere, providing a backdrop without any real focus on description.

In terms of Fremantle’s work in general, suffice to say I think this is the biggest takeaway, what makes the author special, and in terms of Disobedient it’s one of the defining aspects that informs everything else.

To Artemisia then, our main character, from whom we hear via Fremantle’s close-by third person perspective. The artist is brought fully to life, the moments that are factual honoured with a lot of love and care, the fiction created with an eye to relative accuracy and further understanding. There are parallels to be found in the Biblical tale of Judith, a figure Artemisia paints early on in the novel; she painted Judith a couple of times over all.

In Judith, and also, later, Susanna, as well as other women from the Bible, Fremantle has highlighted stories of sexual assault in a way that both includes them in the narrative and isolates them as tales in their own right. Involving her own fictional writings about these women, the author creates extra information from an effective other source before or whilst she weaves them into Artemisia’s story. And on this note, we see how Artemisia was regarded as an artist at that time – with respect; she travelled, her paintings more famous, perhaps then, than they currently are (as said, that is changing).

Disobedient is a stunning story of one woman’s fight to be known in her own right and the way she worked to be a survivor. The story ends before she is an adult but Fremantle shows us the way the story would continue – you’ll want to read more about Artemisia once you’ve finished the book if you didn’t know about her life previously. And her paintings are as wonderful as Fremantle describes.

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin Random House)
Pages: 349
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-58304-3
First Published: 6th July 2023
Date Reviewed: 27th November 2023


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