Rachel Pattinson’s debut novel, Synthetica, is a magical story about a young woman who finds herself transported away from her boring, conservative London life and into a secret society of poets and artists who live by their own rules. The novel is inspired by Elisabeth von Mengden’s 1869 short story, “The Bohemian Girl,” and is set in the Edwardian era, when it was popular to dress up in elaborate costumes, dance at parties, and spend one’s time painting and writing artful compositions.
Rachel Pattinson’s family is from the United Kingdom; she was born in London and lived there until the age of fourteen, when she moved to the countryside with her parents. After completing a BA in English Language and Literature at Cambridge University, she became a teacher. At the moment, she lives in London with her family.
A World Of My Own
In the opening pages of the novel, we are told that “London had changed since [Emily’s] childhood days.” The early chapters then give the sense that much of London that Emily knows and loves has been altered by time, nature, and the countless tourists who come to gawk at the famous sights, buy souvenirs, and eat delicious foods. This is especially apparent in the streets close to Victoria Park, where Victorian houses meet with modern apartments, offices, and factories.
Then, all of a sudden, we are transported to an entirely different world, where it is declared that “the air [is] thick with poetry and music,” and where people “live and breathe art and literature.” The streets are crowded with students, artists, and writers, all coming together to celebrate the glory that is English literature.
Emily, a shy and bookish young woman, has always dreamed of escaping her humdrum life in London and becoming one of these artists. So, when she is granted an opportunity to study in Berlin under the renowned English professor, Dr. Hermann Klett, she jumps at the chance.
Together with her friend, Karl, a bohemian artist who also wants to study in Berlin, Emily sets off for Germany, where they live for the next six years. During their time in Berlin, Karl teaches Emily to be bold, to express herself, and to question everything. Most notably, he teaches her to “live a lie” and to appreciate the beauty that comes from breaking with convention.
The Art World In Berlin
When we first encounter Karl in Berlin, he is sitting in a barber’s chair, drinking vodka and listening to jazz. He has already established a reputation as a talented artist and has exhibited in notable museums. Together with his “friend,” Gustav, who is also studying at the Academy, Karl hosts open-house exhibitions, where anyone can come and see his and other students’ work. He also plays jazz music every Thursday night at a pub in Mitte, where he frequently drops in for drinks with his artist friends. It is made quite clear that Karl and Emily’s time in Berlin is going to be anything but dull.
One of the things that I particularly enjoyed about Emily’s time in Berlin is how she explores the city’s art world, asking questions and gaining new insights into this world that she had always wanted to understand. She starts by paying a visit to the Kunstgewerbeschule, a school of applied arts, where she observes numerous studios, meeting places, and exhibition halls, all built around a series of courtyards. The sheer volume of activity in the school, especially during the week, is quite amazing. The faculty and students are dedicated to encouraging and supporting one another’s talent, which is apparent from the large number of exhibitions that take place within the building each year. There, Emily witnesses a group of elderly German artists exhibiting their work, which they have spent their entire lives mastering.
She later goes to another exhibition, this one showcasing the work of English painters who have set up shop in Berlin, all anxious to make connections and get their work viewed by Germany’s top art lovers and collectors. One of the exhibitions she investigates covers the life and work of William Powell Frith, who is best known for his luminous watercolors, featuring scenes of English and European life, done in a style influenced by the Fünfzehnjähriger Krieg, the “war of the fourteen years.”
While in Berlin, Emily befriends Helene, a beautiful red-haired woman who is married to the school’s principal, Dr. Richard Wolff. They eventually become close friends and, as the novel progresses, a bond grows between them. Emily’s friendship with Helene, who comes from a wealthy Bohemian family, gives her access to places and people that she would not normally be able to access, due to her upbringing. For example, she is able to spend time with Helene’s parents, who are very happy to discover that their daughter has a friend who is also studying at the Academy. When Emily’s father expresses concern about her socializing with “bad elements,” who may try to persuade her to do “unsuitable” things, Helene encourages him to trust in Emily’s good judgment. In addition to this, Emily finds that she is able to question and criticize certain aspects of German culture that she never really had the opportunity to explore.
Also while in Berlin, Emily begins an affair with Ludwig, a handsome young man who is studying art history at the Academy. Her family strongly objects to the affair, but Emily feels that Ludwig’s presence will invigorate her creatively, as well as help broaden her horizons.
The Bohemian Girl
Just before the outbreak of World War I, Elisabeth von Mengden’s short story, “The Bohemian Girl,” is published in several English-language newspapers. The story, which is about a young woman named Marie, who lives with her elderly invalid father in Bohemia, a territory that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time, focuses on the clash between traditional German society and the rising tide of cultural change that was sweeping through Europe, especially Berlin. The young woman rebels against her confining, old-fashioned life, and as a result, she meets with misfortune and becomes an outcast in her own society. The story ends with the moral that “one must not disturb the harmony that belongs to a well-ordered community.” In the narrative, the narrator makes it quite clear that this is a message that is directed at the young woman’s father and friends, warning them not to encourage Marie’s “wild” ways. These are ways that that the young woman was born to express and explore, not to suppress.
The parallels with Emily are quite obvious: both characters want to rebel against the status quo, wanting to be accepted by their peers, and are encouraged to do so by interesting and stimulating men. The fact that so many of the events in “The Bohemian Girl” take place in Berlin is also quite fitting, as it was there that Elisabeth von Mengden’s story was set. While there is no direct indication that Rachel Pattinson had “The Bohemian Girl” in mind when she wrote her novel, it is quite possible that she did. In any event, it is quite clear that Emily and Marie are alike in many ways.
Like “The Bohemian Girl,” the novel can be read as a series of vignettes, set in an English countryside paradise, which brings to mind the paintings of J. M. W. Turner. We are then transported to a world of intellect and reason, where ideas are debated and where everyone’s opinion is valued, regardless of their social standing. In this world, Emily does her best to find her place, embracing the freedom that she finds in London and in Berlin. While she is still the same young woman who wants to escape her restrictive, traditional life, she discovers that the constraints of her childhood no longer apply. She discovers that she can now be herself, finding her own way in a big, exciting world.
However, it is quite clear that Emily’s way is not going to be easy, especially since, in all three cases (i.e., “The Bohemian Girl,” Turner’s paintings, and the novel), one of the main characters is ostracized for wanting to disrupt the status quo. The novel’s sub-title, “A Romance of the 19th Century,” also serves as a reminder that society, especially in the Edwardian era, did not easily accept change and questioned established ways of thinking and behaving. The result is that the ostracized characters in all three stories are likely to suffer the same fate. They are not to be trusted, and their unconventional ways and desire for freedom are ultimately going to get them in trouble. It is a familiar story that sociologists, philosophers, and economists have been telling us for years.