As a lifelong admirer of the art of Edgar Degas, I was intrigued to come across Linda Stewart Henley's novel Estelle, which is rooted in Degas' visit to his family in New Orleans during the 1870s. An American born in England, Henley moved to the United States with her family when she was sixteen and graduated from Newcomb College of Tulane University in New Orleans. After a career in university administration that took her to many parts of the country, she now lives in Washington State. When not sitting at her computer, she can be found painting wildflowers or tending her garden. Estelle, which appeared from She Writes Press, is her first novel, but a second is scheduled for publication in 2022. You can find out more about Linda and her work on her website and follow her on Facebook. Estelle is available for sale at locations including Amazon.com and Bookshop.org.
Q. What was the “seed,” the first glimmer of what became Estelle? How closely does the finished novel align with that initial vision?
As I was casting around for subject matter for my fiction writing class, I thought about New Orleans, a city that has held appeal for me since I attended college there. It would make a good setting. Thinking my memory might be unreliable, I bought a travel guide. I was surprised to find information about the Degas House, now a B&B, that was Degas’ family’s residence when he visited in 1872-73. I had not known about Degas’ five-month stay with his Creole relatives then, or about the home, and thought the story would be worth researching. I did remember Esplanade Avenue, the street where the house is located, and how the once grand neighborhood had declined when I saw it in 1970. After reading a number of books about Degas in New Orleans, I learned more about the family and the 19th century Creole lifestyle. I thought the story worth telling: Degas was not yet famous, and was at a turning point in his career. The story evolved differently from my original vision because of the dual timeline.
Q. The novel interweaves two narratives from about a century apart. They’re solidly linked by location as well as story elements, yet their different timeframes and events give them some interesting differences. Tell us a little about why you chose that structure.
The information I found about Degas was insufficient for a novel unless I greatly embellished it. I didn’t want to do that, preferring to adhere to a historically accurate chronology of events as much as possible. I added the second fictitious storyline set a century later, thinking that this framework would add interest as well highlight differences and similarities between women’s lives in 19th and 20th century New Orleans.
Q. Estelle is such a wonderful and poignant character. What drew you to her? What research sources did you use to ground your depiction of her character as well as those of her large family?
I was drawn to the real-life Estelle, Degas' cousin and sister-in-law, because by all accounts she managed her considerable challenges (failing eyesight, a philandering husband, and many children) with great dignity and fortitude, remaining a bright spirit throughout her life. Degas was demonstrably fond of her and painted her often, thus showing a sympathetic side of his personality. Degas was drawn to Estelle because he and she shared a visual impairment. Estelle was already blind in one eye in 1872, and losing vision in the other. Degas had been diagnosed with ophthalmia earlier in Paris and had received some treatment. Estelle, however, was told there could be no treatment or cure for her undiagnosed condition. The strong New Orleans light bothered the painter’s eyes, and he painted only interior scenes while there. Incidentally, this preference placed him at odds with his Impressionist colleagues, who relished painting outside and whose works often portrayed landscapes.
Fortunately, while researching sources for the story I discovered the catalog Degas and New Orleans, published by the New Orleans Museum of Art to accompany their 1999 exhibit of works completed by the artist while In New Orleans. Articles written by curators described the family members as well as details of Degas’ visit, and the publication included reproductions of paintings along with critiques. This wonderful source of information greatly reduced the research which I supplemented with other books to broaden my understanding of the city and its Creole culture.
Q. Since you attended Tulane University, you’re familiar with New Orleans. Did your time in the city inform your description of it in 1970, the date of the book’s more contemporary storyline? It’s a really interesting time, but also a low point for a number of formerly grand American cities including New Orleans.
As I mentioned earlier, Esplanade Avenue and its Creole mansions were in decline when I was there in 1970. I was aware of some redevelopment efforts and the controversy around them. When I wrote the book, I researched further about those and added a significant incident of vandalism to the 1970 story. I have a strong interest in historic preservation, which I hope comes through in the book.
Q. I love literary depictions of places, particularly houses, so your evocation of the Musson/Degas home on Esplanade Avenue was particularly appealing to me. I see from your website that it’s now a bed-and-breakfast! Did you have a chance to visit it and/or stay there?
I hoped to visit the house when the book came out in August 2020, but the pandemic jinxed to that plan. I hope to go soon!
Q. I revere Degas’ work and artistic process, but even I must confess that he could be a very difficult man. Your novel helps show us a more sympathetic side. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Degas did have a reputation as difficult and a misogynist, among other things. However, several curators mentioned in the New Orleans Museum of Art catalogue that at thirty-eight and while with family, a softer side of his personality emerged. Although he remained unmarried all his life, he wrote letters to friends while in New Orleans saying he was even considering marriage. Because I was aware of his sour reputation, I added notes at the end of the book giving quotes to add credibility to my depiction of the artist as more sympathetic at that period of his life.
Q. Estelle is your first novel. Were there any parts of the fiction creation process that surprised you?
I was amazed by the lengthy publication process! I wrote the book in 2017, it was accepted for publication in 2019, and it was published in 2020. I made many revisions before it was ready, and while not the most enjoyable part of the journey, I now understand how essential those were to making the book better.
Q. What are you working on now?
My second novel, Waterbury Winter, will be published in May 2022. It's contemporary fiction, and the protagonist, Barnaby Brown, is an artist. I won't say more than that about it except to say that again one of the themes is—no spoiler here—art.
I feel fortunate to have writing as an occupation, particularly during the pandemic. I'm a painter as well, but since (unlike Degas) I like to paint outside, that activity is curtailed during bad weather. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have dreary, wet winters, and often no sun for days on end. There are no shadows to spice up the drama in a landscape. I also paint native plants, but there aren't many of those blooming in winter. So writing has become my creative outlet for all those times when I'm indoors.
One unexpected pleasure about publishing Estelle has been the positive response I've received from readers. That makes me want to keep writing!