Thursday, October 29, 2009

Guest Blogger Sheramy Bundrick on "Who Was Rachel"

I was so excited when author Sheramy Bundrick contacted me about guest blogging on Scandalous Women. Her new book Sunflowers about artist Vincent van Gogh has been winning rave reviews. Publisher's Weekly wrote (in a starred review), " A knockout debut impressive volume of suspense, delight, and heartbreak." Please welcome Sheramy to the blog!

It is truly the discovery of a new hemisphere in
a person’s life when he falls seriously in love.
-Vincent van Gogh

The Sunday newspaper in Arles, Le Forum Républicain, featured a brief story in its 30 December 1888 issue about an incident that had happened just before Christmas. The article begins: “Last Sunday at 11:30 pm, one Vincent Vangogh, painter of Dutch origin, presented himself at the maison de tolérance no. 1, asked for a certain Rachel, and gave her his ear, saying ‘Guard this object very carefully.’ Then he disappeared.”

We know Vincent van Gogh, of course, as perhaps the world’s most famous artist, beloved for his colorful paintings, the object of fascination for his turbulent personal life. But what about Rachel? No other surviving historical source calls her by name. In a letter to his brother Theo after his recovery, Vincent only mentions “the girl I went to when I lost my wits” and claims to remember nothing about that night. A brief notice in another news clipping from the time discreetly calls Rachel “a café girl,” while painter Paul Gauguin — who’d been staying with Vincent at the time of the “ear incident” — refers to her as “a wretched girl” in a letter to another painter friend, Émile Bernard. The one other place that might reveal Rachel’s last name (or real name, if she used a pseudonym), age. etc. is the archive of Arles...but the files on Arlesian brothels from Rachel’s time period are sealed until 2042.

My novel, Sunflowers, was born from the question: who was Rachel? To have asked for her that fateful night, Vincent must have known her, but how well? Had he been just another customer, had she been just another prostitute...or not? I imagined a relationship between Rachel and Vincent on the premise that if there had been something between them in “real life,” Vincent would likely have kept it a secret from Theo and anyone else back home. After all, just a few years before in The Hague, Vincent had lived with a former prostitute and her two children for over a year, to the dismay of his family and all his friends. Paint such women, use them as models...yes., if he must. Live with them, love them...absolutely not.

I am not the first to be intrigued by Rachel. Irving Stone, in his novel Lust for Life, made her a rather dim sixteen-year-old who keeps dolls in her room at the brothel. The movie version of Stone’s book casts her as a sultry brunette with gypsy eyes, who purrs “Hello, redhead” to Kirk Douglas. In the later film “Vincent and Theo,” Rachel passionately kisses Tim Roth’s Vincent and lets him paint her face. Neither film shows Vincent taking the piece of his ear to Rachel after the self-mutilation, the episode for which she is actually known. Too gory for movie audiences?

My Rachel (I pronounce her name French style: Rah-SHELL) combines the historical Vincent’s taste in women with research I did on prostitutes of the time. Like many of the women populating the quartiers chauds (we’d call them “red-light districts” now) of French towns and cities, the fictional Rachel arrives at the brothel out of desperation, lost in a bad situation with neither family nor money. Like these women, for Rachel escaping this life seems nearly impossible. But then she meets a redheaded foreigner in a summery garden, and two lonely people suddenly have the chance to be less lonely. Later, Rachel must confront the realities of Vincent’s mental illness and try to help him to safety and freedom — and she must confront her own reality, too: the past she has avoided, the future that hangs in the balance. My Rachel has hard choices to make. My Rachel knows happiness, and she knows despair. Above all, my Rachel knows love.

Is this Rachel anything like the historical girl who fainted at van Gogh’s feet the night of 23 December 1888? I have no idea. Neither I nor anyone else will probably ever know for certain. But we can all imagine...

Sunflowers: A Novel of Vincent van Gogh is available in trade paperback from Avon-A. Visit Sheramy online at her website ( or her blog (

Thanks Sheramy! And wait for it, Scandalous Women is giving away a copy of Sunflowers to one lucky reader. Note this giveaway is only available to my American and Canadian readers.

Here are the rules:

1) Just leave a comment with your email address at the end of this post.

2) If you are not a follower of the blog and you become one, you get one extra entry.

3) Twitter about the giveaway and let me know about it, and you get two extra entries.

4) The contest ends November 5th 2009 at 12:00 p.m. and will be announced on November 6th.

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