Inspired by the Glasgow Girls, a collection of pioneering Scottish female artists working in the early 20th century, this third novel from author Maggie Ritchie follows the adventures of two women as they try to make their mark in a male-dominated world.
The story starts in 1901, in Kirkcudbright, Scotland, when two schoolgirls, Lily Crawford and her friend Jeanie Taylor, are making daisy chains in a field. Already they have plans for their futures: Lily dreams of being an artist, Jeanie a dancer. These are lofty aspirations as Lily’s well-to-do parents believe her best career plan is marriage and Jeanie’s slattern of a mother is more interested in her latest beau, Calum, who, unpleasantly, has dishonorable intentions towards her daughter.
To escape Calum’s attentions, Jeanie runs away with the circus. Persuading her father to let her study art, Lily wins a place at the Glasgow School of Art. As she leaves home, her mother reveals that she too wanted to be an artist and gives Lily the following advice:
Children are a blessing, but marriage and motherhood are not easy. They crushed any hopes I had of becoming an artist, and there’s not a day goes by that I don’t struggle with the urge to walk out the door and never come back. I don’t want you to end up like me, living a half-life. Whatever you do, fight to be your own person.
Lily begins her studies in 1911 at “The Mack”, as the art school is nicknamed. Here she meets Jack Petrie, a fellow artist with whom she falls in love, and his best friend, a law student called Ned Raeside. She adopts a bohemian lifestyle and reconnects with Jeanie, now a rising star in Viktor Ivanov’s dance company and Viktor’s lover. Both women are ambivalent about marrying their partners because it could compromise their burgeoning success. When Jeanie falls pregnant, she decides to move to London with Viktor and join a new company. At the same time, Jack decides to move to France to further his own career. He asks Lily to accompany him but, abiding by her mother’s advice, she refuses as she is finally making a name for herself in Scotland.
Alone in Glasgow, Lily meets Hugh, a friend of Jack’s who has given up his medical studies for missionary work. Jack returns to Glasgow but Lily’s study has finished. With few commissions on offer, Lily helps Hugh with his work of feeding and teaching poor children. When war breaks out, both Jack and Ned sign up. While Ned survives, Jack is lost in the action. With her lover dead, Lily accepts a marriage proposal from Hugh. The pair then travel to Shanghai where Hugh can use his medical skills and bring the word of God to the Chinese.
The vividly realized sojourn in the east proves to be the undoing of the relationship. Ritchie traveled to Shanghai to research the novel and conveys a highly credible picture of the city in 1919, all the more so because she details its ugly, industrialized parts as well as the beautiful Beaux Arts buildings. Lily’s first sight of the harbor is particularly revealing. There are no “willow-pattern pagodas” as she imagined. Instead there is an “ugly jumble of shipping wharves” and an oil installation, all swathed in “noxious clouds of vapour”. Ritchie is also good on the suffocating snobbishness of the other expat wives who consider Lily’s attitudes to be too liberal. Unhappy and frequently left alone by Hugh, Lily finds solace in sketching street scenes which also enables the reader to see the city and its people through her eyes: there is plenty of local color and customs to enjoy.
Daisy Chain is an easy read but Ritchie doesn’t flinch from showing the underbellies of the two cities, particularly the extreme poverty in Glasgow and the horrible consequences of the booming opium trade on Shanghai. Nor is the human tragedy of war ever far from the surface, especially in China where Lily’s journalist friend keeps her up to date with the rise of Communism as the other expats ignore it, cloistered from the trouble in their beautiful, enormous houses.
It is also clear that the lives of the two protagonists are not plain sailing. Lily’s artistic progress is frequently blocked and Jeanie suffers at the hands of her childhood tormentor who resurfaces unexpectedly. Worse, Hugh reveals himself as less of a Christian than Lily assumed. Despite the birth of their daughter, he takes up opium and mistreats a local prostitute before becoming violent with Lily herself. Back in London, Jeanie is feeling stifled by Viktor. Hearing of her friend’s troubles, Jeanie leaves Viktor behind and brings her own dance company (and daughter Stella) to Shanghai in a bid to help.
By the end of the story, it is clear that the women’s determination to stick to their principles, and their loyalty to each other, are the keys to their survival. Most importantly, Lily and Jeanie’s lives disprove Lily’s mother’s advice, as Jeanie tells her daughter.
Becoming a mother made me a better person and a better dancer. You gave me courage to fight for you and to fight for myself.
Richie ends the book with a historical note about Eleanor Allen Moore, one of the Glasgow Girls on whom the character of Lily is modeled. This adventurous artist also emigrated to Shanghai with her husband and daughter in the 1920s, showing that, like Lily and Jeanie, it is possible for women to achieve their ambitions and raise children, they don’t have to choose one or the other.