In Rodin’s Lover, author Heather Webb has written an excellent biographical novel about the amazingly talented Camille Claudel, a female sculptor in late 19th-century France, a time when very few women became sculptors. The passionate and courageous Camille was a pioneer in this area. She grew up in the French countryside, and her talent became apparent at a very early age. Her father and her brother Paul, who became the poet and playwright Paul Claudel, encouraged her in her art, but her traditionally-minded mother wanted her to give up sculpting to get married and have children. In the 1880s, the family moved to Paris so Camille could attend one of the only art schools that admitted women. In Webb’s novel—I don’t know how much of this was true—there are two other female students at the school, both Englishwomen living in Paris. One has the talent to be a great sculptor, but not the ambition, and the other has the ambition, but not the talent. Later, Camille becomes friends with another Englishwoman, Jessie Lipscomb, who really did become a well-known sculptor, but gave up her career to get married. In the novel, Camille is very upset with Jessie over this, and their friendship suffers.
When Camille’s teacher goes to Rome, the great sculptor Auguste Rodin agrees to teach her and Jessie. Rodin recognizes Camille’s genius right away, and she becomes his inspiration and, later on, his lover, even though she keeps their relationship a secret for a long time because she knows her family, and society, would disapprove. But Camille becomes increasingly frustrated in her relationship with Rodin because he will not commit to her completely, refusing to leave Rose, his longtime mistress and the mother of his son. And Camille’s brother Paul, who becomes very religious, condemns her for relationship outside of wedlock, and for having an abortion. Eventually Camille has much success, exhibiting at the Salon, winning prizes, and obtaining commissions, but she is aware that her success has much to do with Rodin’s influence, and that fuels her desire to break away from him, to prove that she can be successful on her own. Also, critics accuse her of imitating Rodin’s style. Actually, they both influenced each other, and, as Webb points out, Camille’s most innovative work was done after her breakup with Rodin.
Tragically, Camille suffered from mental illness, beginning at a very early age and growing increasingly worse. We do not know exactly what her illness was, but, as Webb explains at the end of the book, it was probably schizophrenia. Webb portrays Camille’s illness with great sympathy. In the novel, Camille hears voices in her head, which warn her to keep her distance from Rodin. But she is irresistibly drawn to him and cannot break away from him until much later. Camille also suffered from headaches, and saw bright lights. Later, her illness led her to smash many of her sculptures, and her mother and Paul had her committed to a mental institution.
In Webb’s novel, Camille is a complex character, often sharp-tongued, and not very understanding of women, such as her friend Jessie, who prefer a more traditional lifestyle. Webb portrays this aspect of her character very well, and the reader never loses sympathy for her. Also, Webb creates a wonderful portrait of life in late 19th-century Paris, a society with rapid technological innovations including electric lights and the motorcar. Camille and Rodin attend the World’s Fair in Paris, when the Eiffel Tower was new, and Camille thinks it is very ugly. There are appearances by such famous people as Victor Hugo, who resists Rodin’s efforts to sculpt him, Zola, and Debussy, who might have been in love with Camille. Even though this is a tragic story, the novel has moments of humor, such as the scenes where Camille fends off the suitors her mother has chosen for her. I highly recommend this novel and its portrayal of a woman who followed her dreams at a time when that was very difficult.
Rodin's Lover is available from the Browsing Collection at the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.