In The Lost Sketchbook of Edgar Degas, Harriet Scott Chessman imagines the world Degas encountered when he visited his family in New Orleans in 1872. His brother's wife, who is blind, reflects on the painter's visit and relies on a young girl to describe the notes and sketches left behind.
How did you decide to write about Edgar Degas?
I started to think about Degas as I wrote my earlier novel Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper. In my first drafts of Lydia, I actually tried to keep Degas out! because I felt that I couldn’t do him justice, and I wasn’t sure I could become engaged with him as a character. Yet the more I developed my character Lydia’s relationship to her sister Mary Cassatt, and to Mary’s paintings of her, the more I realized how important Edgar would have been to them both.
One of the last scenes I wrote in Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper is one in which Edgar Degas talks compassionately with Lydia about her illness and impending death. In the course of this writing, I had come to have profound sympathy for this artist, and to wonder about his life, especially because of his increasing loss of sight and his isolation. It struck me as fascinating that just five years before Edgar met Mary and Lydia Cassatt, he had lived with his three Creole cousins and their families, plus his uncle, in New Orleans. The story of those cousins, especially of Estelle Musson Balfour De Gas, who married Edgar’s youngest brother Rene, started to appeal to me in all its richness and sorrow.
It was really the paintings, however, that tipped me over into having the courage to start a novel about Edgar Degas in New Orleans. They are so haunting, so beautiful, each one filled with what felt like a pressure both to tell a story, and to withhold a story.
How did you choose Estelle Musson as your point of view character?
Oh, it took me such a long time to discover Estelle as my primary character! Originally, I had in mind a design of many circling voices, all women and children. I felt inspired by Writing to Vermeer, a one-act opera about Vermeer, by Louis Andriessen, with a libretto by Peter Greenaway, in which the character of Vermeer never appears. I loved the concept of women and children singing about this great Dutch artist in his absence. So at first I created voices for Didi, Mouche, and Tell – Edgar’s cousins – along with some of their children, plus a child-servant whom I named Honor Benoit.
I couldn’t quite find my story amid this circling of voices, though, so I tried again with the voice of Edgar Degas himself, starting with his ocean voyage to America, and interweaving his chapters with those of his cousins and Honor. Somehow I just couldn’t get his voice right, though; I’m still not sure why.
In one of those many drafts, thank heavens, I suddenly came upon what felt like a wonderful, surprisingly real voice for Tell. Her voice simply came to me, and once I listened to her, I realized that she was my character! I was moved by the thought that she was blind, during that winter of Edgar’s visit, and that he must have been worried about becoming blind too; in fact, they shared the same vision problem, of a central blind spot that grew and grew, ultimately erasing their sight. Yet something I cherished in this character, as she grew in my imagination and on the page, was her great capacity for sympathy and love, and her tendency to focus on the good in life. She was so much less self-pitying than I feel I would have been, in her shoes! And I wanted to understand how she came to be that way.
How much of this novel is true?
I researched as much as I could about New Orleans in 1872-73, and about the intertwined lives of white Creoles with the “colored” people of that city. I am not an expert! yet I did discover how rich and astonishing New Orleans culture has always been.
Two books helped me enormously, in bringing the Musson family, their house, their neighborhood, and their relationships, to light. I highly recommend Degas and New Orleans: A French Impressionist in America, a marvelous catalogue, filled with images, letters, documents, time-line, and beautiful, thoughtful essays by art historians. A second book, Degas in New Orleans: Encounters in the Creole World of Kate Chopin and George Washington Cable does a wonderful job of placing Degas’ visit in historical context, especially around the issues of race. I also reread a novel I have always admired, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, which helped me with some details and texture.
So I would say that I did my best to hew to the historical truth about this family of cousins – nieces of Edgar’s mother Celestine Musson, who had been born and raised in New Orleans before she married a Frenchman, Auguste De Gas, and lived in Paris for the rest of her short life. What happened between Tell and Edgar’s youngest brother René five years after that winter (no spoiler here!) is true, and it is also true that Edgar scarcely stayed in touch with his American relatives once he returned home to Paris. He never gave them any of his drawings or paintings, as far as anyone knows, even though they asked him many times.
Here is what is fictional: the sketchbook itself (although many scholars have mentioned how odd it was that Degas didn’t leave behind a sketchbook of that 5-month sojourn); all of the conversations, imagined actions, and scenes; Edgar’s state of mind that winter; the relationships within the household; Honor Benoit and her relationship with Tell’s daughter from her first marriage, Joséphine. Also, another brother was present that winter in New Orleans, Achille De Gas, but ultimately I couldn’t find room for him! The world already felt filled to overflowing.
What did you find most challenging in writing this story?
Honestly, the history itself felt the most challenging, in that I wished to create a fresh, vivid story, and yet I also wished to honor the facts as they have come down to us. I kept having to remind myself that readers could satisfy their curiosity about the history elsewhere, but that my mission was to discover and develop a surprising and new story out of this material.
I have to say, however, I enjoyed this challenge, especially once I found Tell, and then once I decided to hold the story to two times: (1) the day of January 5th, 1883, when Tell comes across the sketchbook, and (2) the winter ten years earlier, which Tell is only now beginning to understand.