Sophie Haydock: ‘I adored her for her failures’

Tackling well-known historical figures is a challenging undertaking but one Sophie Haydock has achieved with aplomb in her debut novel The Flames. It tells the story of the four muses who posed for the renowned artist Egon Schiele in Vienna.

The Flames is out now in paperback and we have an exclusive bonus scene right here for you to read! We took the opportunity to ask Sophie some questions about her research, the muses that inspired her and the challenges of writing historical fiction.

Sophie Haydock:

How did your fascination with Egon Schiele’s women start?

I’d always been interested in art, and thought I knew plenty about the artist Egon Schiele, who is famous for his distorted nude figures – all angular limbs, jutting hips and oversized hands. I had a postcard of one of his most famous artworks (Seated Woman with Bent Knee, 1917) taped to the wall above my desk at Leeds University. But when a friend invited me to an exhibition of his work in London, I entered the gallery and realized I knew nothing at all about Schiele’s complicated, controversial life. I was shocked to discover that he’d died so tragically young, just days after his wife, who was six months pregnant with their first child.

When did you know you had to write about these women?

In the gallery that day, I instantly knew I wanted to write a novel about the woman who became Schiele’s wife. I thought it would be interesting to tell his story through her eyes. But as soon as I started my research, I discovered there were three other significant women who posed for Egon Schiele, sacrificing so much of themselves in the process, and who, in turn, helped him to become one of the most celebrated artists of the twentieth century. I realized I could tell his story through four perspectives in The Flames, the artist shifting in different lights. I wanted to give these women the chance to paint their own portraits of the artist for a change.

Tell us more about the four women?

The four women jumped out at me, and made it impossible for me not to tell their stories. There’s Egon’s younger sister, Gertrude, who seemed to be such a strong-willed firecracker of a girl. She shared a very intimate bond with her brother, born of shared trauma during their childhoods, and went on to pose for him in the nude. He painted her so sensually that I’d assumed the woman in the portrait was his lover – so I wanted to explore their problematic relationship. Then there was Walburga Neuzil (or Vally). She was from a poor background, and met Schiele in the studio of another great Austrian artist, Gustav Klimt. She stood by Schiele during his darkest days, when he was imprisoned for a scandal in his art. She was so loyal, but that was not rewarded by the young artist – and her determination and dignity struck a chord. Then there were the well-to-do sisters Adele and Edith Harms, who were thrilled when the artist moved into a studio opposite their home. It was documented that he courted both, before asking one to become his wife. That made me wonder at the dynamics. What must it have felt like to be the rejected sister? Would there have been jealousy, perhaps delusion or an act of betrayal that impacted their lives? That’s where the story began for me.

What was the research process like?

“women who have been seen very explicitly for more than a century, but who have been silenced under layers of Schiele’s paint.”

My background is as a journalist, so it was natural for me to dive into research and to feel confident contacting people about the lives of these real women, who I wanted to re-create in fiction. I interviewed the leading Schiele scholars, spent time in the British Library, and consumed all the available books and documentaries about the artist. I ended up writing features about Schiele for Sotheby’s and the Royal Academy. I also made two research trips to Austria, to visit the museums in Vienna, explore the magical and far-flung places where Schiele and his muses spent their time, soak up the atmosphere, and eat sachertorte. It was a pleasure to get to know these muses intimately; women who have been seen very explicitly for more than a century, but who have been silenced under layers of Schiele’s paint.

Is there any one of the four women that you are particularly drawn to?

Adele Harms is the woman I felt most connected to in The Flames. That’s the name of the woman in the postcard-portrait that I’d had taped to my wall at university. Despite looking at her often, I’d never thought to ask who she was or how she came to be posing for the artist, with such a look of regret and longing in her eyes. I became fascinated by her. She had the world at her feet in her twenties, but died penniless and alone in Vienna, aged seventy-eight. I wondered how she must have felt looking back half a century, remembering the beautiful woman she’d once been, wondering if she’d squandered her chances. I adored her for her failures.

How did you grapple with the controversial image that surrounds Egon Schiele?

Of course, I wanted to explore Schiele’s controversial side in The Flames – he was dubbed ‘the pornographer of Vienna’ and was certainly viewed as an enfant terrible after his spell in prison, for ‘indecency in his art’. He’s not someone I wanted to protect from criticism – he certainly behaved terribly and hurt those around him, especially the women he professed to love. But ultimately, I wanted the reader to make up their own mind about him.

What was important to you in building the setting and atmosphere of Bohemian Vienna?

I wanted to capture that magical moment in time – Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century. It was a nucleus of culture, where artists and composers rubbed shoulders, and horse-drawn carriages took women in feather hats to the opera, where emperors attended the Burgtheater to watch the latest play, and where the big issues of the day – Freud’s latest theories on the subconscious and sexuality, women’s right to vote – would have been discussed in coffee houses. The Habsburg Empire had ruled for hundreds of years at that point, and there was decadence, and indeed hypocrisy, which Schiele tried to expose in his art. But the First World War changed everything – and by the end of it, the Habsburg Empire collapsed, just as the Spanish influenza pandemic was ravaging Europe, so the old Vienna was gone for ever. 

What were the challenges you encountered in representing a time of war and disease for your characters?

When I started writing The Flames and was researching the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918, I never imaged we’d live through a pandemic of our own. I felt such sadness that the war and the pandemic caused so much devastation, and tried to bear in mind while writing that the characters didn’t know their own fates or what horrors were around the corner.

What was the most unexpected thing you learnt while writing this book?

I discovered that one of Schiele’s muses, Adele Harms, is buried in the same grave as Egon Schiele, something that had never been known before, as there is no grave marker bearing her name at the cemetery. I’m now campaigning to have a memorial there to commemorate her.

What was the most exciting and most challenging part of the writing process?

I enjoyed how these women acted so forcefully, not just in real life, but in the pages of the book, where they suddenly behaved in ways that you, as author, haven’t anticipated, but is fully in keeping with their personalities. I loved that feeling, when it all flowed. I wanted to write a story that was enjoyable even if you’d never heard of Egon Schiele and didn’t have a particular interest in art. His muses always surprised me, in the best possible ways.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

One of the best pieces of writing advice, one that changed my attitude and led to publication of The Flames, was to embrace rejection. Stephen King would nail his rejection slips to his bedroom wall, and I’d read an article that recommended aiming for a hundred rejections a year. Opening myself up led to me becoming more courageous. I entered a dozen first-novel competitions and ended up winning one, which is something I’d never have anticipated.

If you could recommend one book written by a woman, what would it be?

I read a novel called I Was Amelia Earhart by the American writer Jane Mendelsohn as a teenager. It was perhaps the first time I fully understood that authors were allowed to take creative leaps, fictionalizing the lives of real people. Earhart was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, but she later disappeared over the Pacific Ocean in July 1937. The novel reimagines her fate. It certainly planted a seed for me as a writer.

The Flames by Sophie Haydock is out now in paperback. Don’t forget to read the exclusive bonus scene right here.

The Women's Prize Podcast

Tune into host Vick Hope and a line-up of incredible guests on our weekly podcast full of unmissable book recommendations.