"Young Woman in a Garden" by Delia Sherman, for Timeslip Tuesday

"Young Woman in a Garden" is one of the stories in the anthology of the same name by Delia Sherman (Small Beer Press, November 2014), and it's my Timeslip Tuesday pick this week.  This is something of a spoiler right from the get go, but I really liked the story and wanted to share it, and there are plenty of other good stories in the book that aren't spoiled...There will be more and worse spoilers for this story to come, though, so before I get to them I will simply say--this story is about a young woman working on her PhD in art history, who has come to the rural home of a rather less famous French impressionist and his wife Celeste (who herself was a fine painter, before marriage), hoping to find among his papers something that will make him a more interesting subject for her dissertation.  What she finds is a whole lot more interesting than she ever imagined (which is an awfully generic sentence of unspoilerishness, but true, especially given that the protagonist isn't all that good at imagining things....).

Edouard Beauvoisin was known primarily for two paintings, "Young Woman in a Garden," and "Reclining Nude," whose model was a Spanish woman, Luz Gasco, that any art historians who thought much about him assumed was his mistress.  Theresa, the young grad student, is a great great great niece of the painter, and has used her family connections to get an introduction to the keepers of the museum that is Beauvoisin's house.  Instead of the usual set up of such museum houses, she finds a home lived in by two old women, with a lovely garden, and no other visitors.  She spends little time thinking of the strangeness of the situation, but becomes absorbed in following a web of clues in journals and letters that almost spring from the house as if waiting for her to discover them.  While she is absorbed in her work, she comes almost to be a stand in for Beauvoisin himself, the outsider to the relationship between his wife Celeste and Luz Gasco....and solves the mystery of Beauvoisin's relationship, such as it was, to Luz Gasco, which is what the two women wanted.

Starting the spoilers for real, now.

And having learned the truth, that it is Celeste and Luz were the lovers, and that Celeste was the artist of the two paintings, she sees that the beautiful gardens of the house are no such thing, but a rather neglected overgrown tangle (the garden changing is what makes this clearly time travel, and not ghosts).  All afire with what she's learned, she spares little though for the remarkable fact that she had been spending the past few weeks back in the past, but fortunately the reader (not having a dissertation to write) gets to enjoy the thought.  (I'd say that she'd spent her time back in the mid 20th century, based on the two women now being old, but not dead....).

It is very unusual to have a time travel story in which the main character doesn't get that they have gone into the past.  It only works if you can plausibly get rid of modern conveniences (by setting the story in what is assumed to be a historical museum house), and it helps if, as is the case here, the only two other characters are somewhat in on the truth (they recognize Theresa is standing in for Edouard, and want her to find things out...).  Of course, the reader is also taken aback, but it makes for nice re-reading!

So basically it is an academic detective story about a romantic relationship in which the protagonist has travelled several decades back to a time when two of the players in the relationship are still alive, but who are unable? unwilling? to actually tell her the whole story.  It's a perfect short story for any feminist art historians, or those who want to spend a month or so researching in a country house in France.

And just for the record--the other stories in the anthology range from horror to domestic fantasy, and offer a nice variety of mood and tone.


  1. I should check this collection out. I am trying to read more short stories this year. Not that I am entirely sure I would like this particular story...

    1. I think there are other ones here you would enjoy more. I don't read many short story collections, but when I do it always makes me wonder why I don't!


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