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A Family Secret and an Artist’s Obsession: A Perfect Copy by Derville Murphy

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perfect copy

By Derville Murphy

For me, writing focuses my various interests and hobbies into something unique that is immensely pleasurable. I love to paint – I enjoy historical research – and I like writing stories. I like to write the kind of stories that I want to read, fast-paced, with twisty plots, and full of memorable characters. Inspiration usually comes from one idea, or central theme that I play around with, nudging it into shape, stretching it across a historical framework, one that involves art, and most importantly is set during a period that I, and I think my readers, want to know more about.

From an art perspective, A Perfect Copy explores why someone would create a copy of a portrait, and art detection techniques used to establish fraudulent artworks. During the Covid lockdown a friend had lent me Sleuth: The Amazing Quest for Lost Art Treasures by Philip Mould. The art dealer’s amusing memoirs described the bizarre ways that these works come to light. I know a fair amount about Victorian art from my studies, but the technicalities of forgery were something new to me. The idea of two identical paintings turning up at an auction, and one being a fake, intrigued me. Drawing on my own experience of the art world, and several informative chats over the garden wall with my friend Ele von Monschaw, who – conveniently – also happens to be an art conservator at the National Gallery, I started to develop it as an idea for a plot.

This got me thinking about portraits, particularly those of beautiful women, where the relationship between the artist, model and viewer can be so intimate. For the artist, to capture beauty authentically, he or she must feel desire, but it is an unfulfilled, objectified desire. And really isn’t that the way that we all regard beauty, as objectified desire. Something we admire and sometimes want but can never truly ‘own’. So, what we think we want, and how this is influenced by objectified desire is a theme threaded through the lives and aspirations of the various characters in my book.

But the main inspiration for A Perfect Copy came from a family secret, unspoken for so long that it was simply forgotten – that my husband’s grandfather was Jewish. This fact was discovered almost accidentally at a family gathering when one of my in-laws asked a cousin why they had similar but different names – Wilson and Wingard. He replied, ‘Oh, didn’t you know, our grandfathers were Jewish, but yours changed his name’. The knowledge haunted me – my children should understand their heritage, know their history, and how this collective ‘forgetting’ came to pass. I started to research the family. I tried to imagine what life was like for their great-great-grandfather.

The family’s story was similar to thousands of other Jews who, like them, were forced to uproot their lives and flee from bigotry and persecution. But this journey into the past uncovered a whole new world for me, a rich tapestry of Jewish life in Eastern Europe in the mid-19th Century. One that subsequently led me on a fictional journey from Kornyn, in the Jewish Pale of Settlement at the eastern edge of the Russian Empire, to Hapsburg Vienna during the building of the Ringstrasse and finally to Victorian London.

When I started reading about Jewish life in 19th Century Eastern Europe, I felt that it was too ambitious a project for a novel. That I would be unable to write authentically about a place so removed from my own lived experience and a culture about which I knew nothing. But I persisted and as well as reading cultural and historical studies, I read first-hand accounts and novels written during the period. Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, anevocative history of the Ephrussi family and their collection of ivory carvings, netsuke, was particularly useful. The more that I read, the more fascinated I became with Jewish culture, and the more confident I was that I could do it. 

One of my biggest challenges was to represent a convincing Jewish voice, their lovely lyrical way of speaking where a sentence ends in a crescendo. I tried to develop this by watching Jewish films and documentaries and listening to Jewish actors. While writing the novel, I even started thinking that way, where every sentence ends in a question.

When I had finally finished, Hilary Abrahamson, an expert in Jewish social history, kindly agreed to read my novel. However, despite all of my best efforts, I had still made a number of serious errors. The main one being that a made-up folk tale I used as a central part of the story could be considered by Jewish readers as an inaccurate appropriation of a well-known bible story. It meant a rewrite of part of my book, but I was so grateful to her, for the opportunity to rectify the mistake.

Working in dual timeline, I needed a way into the period. A bridge between the past and the present. Some people use a diary, or letters, in this instance it was a family portrait. I also used objects that I introduced throughout the book. One of these was particularly poignant for me and inspired the opening Jewish scene in Kornyn. It is an heirloom from my husband’s family, a 19th Century tablecloth from Eastern Europe. The linen is now the colour of parchment with small geometric designs covered in tiny blue and white cross stiches. Looking at it closely you can see the stitches are uneven, some more wobbly than others, and that it was made by several different people. I like to imagine a group of women on long winter evenings sewing by candlelight, laughing, gossiping and telling stories while they made this cloth for some young girl’s trousseau. It made me wonder, if this cloth could talk what incredible stories would it tell?

However, in a tragic and heart-breaking turn of events Kornyn, which is approximately120 kms southwest of Kiev, is now centre stage of the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s current invasion of modern-day Ukraine. Some people conjecture that we lead parallel lives with the past, and that sometimes, at times of great upheaval, the past and present can collide. Metaphorically, this is how hearing the news of the Russian invasion and the Ukrainians’ desperate plight felt to me. But hopefully, this aspect of the novel will give readers an insight into the complex cultural history of the area.

Reading back this article I hope that it doesn’t sound stuffy, because it isn’t. To be honest, I did cry writing one scene in the novel, but more often I was intrigued and filled with anticipation as I conjectured where the story was taking me, and frequently I felt amused with several of my hapless characters and the impossibly tangled webs they got themselves into. I do hope readers will enjoy A Perfect Copy as much as I enjoyed writing it.  

(c) Derville Murphy

If you wish to know more about Derville Murphy and her work, you can visit her website at www.dervillemurphyauthor.com.

About A Perfect Copy:

Daisy Staunton and Ben Tarrant meet at an auction and discover they own identical copies of a Victorian portrait of an elegant, enigmatic ancestor of theirs. But is one of a fake? On a sweeping trail of mystery and intrigue that leads them across Europe – from the impoverished shtetls of Russia to the elegance of Hapsburg Vienna and Victorian London – they uncover the story of two young Jewish sisters, Rosa and Lena Rabinovitch, forced to take heart-breaking decisions in their attempts to survive. Ben a primary school teacher, and Daisy a successful marketing executive, initially do not hit it off. But compelled to prove the paintings’ provenance, they reluctantly form an alliance. Each is dealing with a personal issue – Ben increasingly despondent about advanced plans for a flashy, expensive wedding, and Daisy fed up with playing second fiddle to her boyfriend’s all-consuming career. But discovering disturbing secrets about their past makes them question their own lives – who they really are, and more importantly who they want to be.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Derville Murphy is an architect, artist and art-historian. The Art Collector’s Daughter (2020) and If Only She Knew (2021) were published as eBooks by Poolbeg Press. A Perfect Copy is Murphy’s third novel, and the first to be traditionally published by Poolbeg.

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