How lovely to hear from Hermione Farthingale, the girl with the mousy hair and muse of David Bowie for his 1971 song Life on Mars. Finally we’ll be able to get closure on those questions that have baffled us for the best part of half a century. Why was her mother yelling no? Why did her father tell her to go? And why didn’t she consider some sort of colouring product to brighten up her hair?
In fact, none of these questions is satisfactorily answered in the interview Farthingale gives for the forthcoming BBC film David Bowie: Finding Fame. We learn, though, that after they fell in love in 1968 (“He looked ridiculously young, he looked about eight”) they formed a band called Feathers. The following year the dancer and actor ditched him to make a film called Song of Norway.
We learn that Farthingale later married an anthropologist and moved to Papua New Guinea; that now she teaches yoga and pilates in Bristol. And, oh yes, we learn that she broke Bowie’s heart. “I didn’t get over that for such a long time,” he says in the film. “It really broke me up.” His song Letter to Hermione includes these lines: “I tear my soul to cease the pain, I think maybe you feel the same, what can we do?” He was carrying a torch for Farthingale as late as 2013. In the video for his single Where Are We Now? you can see he’s wearing a Song of Norway T-shirt. Farthingale still remembers him fondly too, telling interviewers: “We were soulmates.”
How rarely we hear from artists’ muses, especially if they’re women. There is no reply to Bob Dylan’s portrait of an unravelling marriage, Blood on the Tracks. In another world, Sara Lownds would have replied to Dylan’s “We’re idiots babe/It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves” with her own song entitled Speak for Yourself, Laughing Boy. Will we ever hear from the former schoolgirls who inspired the Boomtown Rats’ Mary of the 4th Form, or the Police’s no less sexually charged Don’t Stand So Close To Me? Probably not.
True, Amber Rose, muse of Kanye West’s album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, has made her feelings about her ex plain on Twitter. But often the muse is monologued into oblivion. The history of western art can be told as the story of women stripped naked for the male gaze, then in a double violation programmatically silenced. Muses are seen but not heard.
Giving silenced women posthumous voice is the task of later artists. Pat Barker’s new novel The Silence of the Girls gives unprecedented voice to the abducted, raped and otherwise maltreated women of the Trojan wars. These include Helen of Troy, the woman whose beauty catalysed the unpleasantness and prompted its commemoration in song and story, making her a muse.
When we do hear from women who have been on the receiving end of male art, their version can be eviscerating. Loudon Wainwright III’s mea culpa of a song, Hitting You, includes this verse: “Long ago I hit you, we were in the car/You were crazy in the back seat, it had gone too far/And I pulled the auto over, hit you with all my might/I knew right away it was too hard and I’d never make it right.” Later, his daughter Martha retorted in song: “I will not pretend/I will not put on a smile/I will not say, I’m all right for you.” She was sick of him using her and his family as material.
Not that men are immune to cultural erasure. I’d like to hear from the subject of Sylvia Plath’s rant of a poem Daddy, with verses including: “Every woman adores a Fascist/The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a brute like you.” Daddy’s sonnet cycle – maybe entitled, I’m a Nice Man, Actually – would be worth a look.
There’s a scene in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time that gets to the heart of the problematic artist-muse relationship. The narrator lies beside his sleeping lover, Albertine, and masturbates against her. “It seemed to me at those moments,” wrote Proust, “that I possessed her more completely, like an unconscious part of dumb nature.” The writer and academic Jacqueline Rose wrote a novel called Albertine, to free the woman from being made dumb and unconscious. Rose told me: “I thought, this is ridiculous – she’d have woken up by now! I had my feminist reaction, which is: just let the woman speak.”
Quite right. Though there’s one problem: Proust’s muse may not have been a woman, but rather a mash-up of at least two unattainable men – namely his chauffeur, Alfred Agostinelli, and his secretary, Albert Nahmias. “If only I were able to change my sex,” Proust wrote to Nahmias in November 1911, “alter my age and the way I look, and take on the aspect of a young and beautiful woman so that I could embrace you with all my heart.” Instead, Proust sublimated his feelings by creating Albertine and possessing her in fiction. That’s the problem with muses. If they’re not dead, they’re composites or silenced. What a delight when they’re not. How lovely to hear from the girl with the mousy hair, who escaped from a song to become a woman in her own right.
• Stuart Jeffries is a feature writer