THE CRIMSON PORTRAIT
by Jody Shields, © 2006
Little, Brown & Co. , Hardback: 296 pp
“There is no such thing as a good war,” Benjamin Franklin said long ago. It’s a profound and simple statement. But if war itself is terrible, it has given rise to vivid stories and great literature, from the writings of Homer and Virgil and Shakespeare, to works by Margaret Mitchell, Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway.
War has also stimulated remarkable inventiveness from its participants, not just for advances in weaponry like the cross bow or the atomic bomb, but also for scientific developments that benefit the world long after the conflict is resolved. Among the latter are plastic and penicillin and medical devices designed to ease the lives of wounded veterans.
The Crimson Portrait, it seems to me, falls into the “vivid story” category. It’s a fascinating look at one aspect of World War I, that brief, brutal conflict that introduced many new tools of modern warfare, such as the use of airplanes, radio communication, poison gas, and motorized vehicles. It also introduced something unique to its time, in the form of trench warfare.
It is the latter that brought about a plethora of head wounds and facial injuries. According to one source, soldiers didn’t reckon on the incredible firepower of machine guns aimed at the trenches. While their bodies, below ground level, were relatively protected from anything but a direct hit, when they poked their heads up to take aim at the enemy, they were subjected to intense and deadly fire that swept indiscriminately along the row.
Jody Shields’ new novel concerns a group of doctors, scientists, nurses, and an artist who cared for soldiers with severe facial wounds. They were thus the developers of a new branch of medicine: plastic surgery. Even if the book were no more than a simple recounting of that venture, it would probably hold the reader’s attention, but Ms. Shields has given us a deeply thoughtful and emotionally satisfying tale.
The story begins at a base hospital in France, where the patients are men wounded during the worst of the horrible trench warfare. One of the volunteers helping with the patients is Anna Coleman, an artist whose husband is an artillery officer serving elsewhere. Recruited by Dr. McCleary, the officer in charge of setting up a hospital to specialize in treating facial trauma, Anna agrees to go to England with the unit.
Her artist’s eye and her ability to draw or sculpt anything she sees will prove invaluable to the rehabilitation of the patients. When reconstructive techniques fail for the most seriously injured, Anna creates masks they can wear. Working from pre-injury photographs, she is able to produce frozen likenesses of their former countenances.
The hospital in England is in a large home on an estate owned by Catherine, wealthy young widow of an English officer killed early in the war. Before he left, her husband had volunteered their home as a hospital, and Catherine has no choice but to honor his wish. It is not, however, an easy task for a young woman cosseted by wealth and position (and a bevy of servants). She is in deep mourning for her husband, and seeing her home being dismantled to make room for the patients, having all the mirrors removed from the walls, and being herself relegated to a small suite of rooms, leaves her extremely resentful. Life is made even harder by the defection of most of the servants to war jobs or the army.
This reviewer couldn’t help being reminded of another book covered in this section of Senior Women Web in 2005: Robert Hicks’ The Widow of the South. It, like The Crimson Portrait, is set in a large home requisitioned by the army as a hospital. The Widow of the South takes place during the American Civil War, and is an engaging tale, but it can’t touch The Crimson Portrait: the difference lies in the writing itself. Shields builds her story in a painterly manner: small brush strokes, carefully chosen colors and points of view, and focus and faithfulness to time and place. She is a fine, fine writer.
Shields brings her characters fully to life, and the ensuing tale, which I won’t detail and spoil for you, makes for a lively read. Suffice it to say that there is romance and deceit and pathos aplenty.
Although this is a novel, it is based on fact. Anna Coleman was an actual person who did indeed use her skills as an artist to try to give soldiers with dreadful facial wounds a tool (the masks) to help them re-integrate into society. In what may or may not be a coincidence, the February issue of The Smithsonian magazine has an article by Caroline Alexander, entitled “Faces of War” about Coleman’s work, with pictures of the masks. Seeing the actual features of the grievously injured men hurts the heart.
Something in me wishes that Shields hadn’t used something so close to the real Anna’s name in her novel. Once again, the line between fact and fiction gets tangled around something which is really irrelevant to the story. But that’s a small cavil from an admittedly cranky reviewer.