Book Review

A thrilling story of a woman who left her mark on the world

By Donna Bruno
Posted 3/19/24

The very best in historical fiction, “ The Lioness of Boston” focuses on Isabella (“Belle”) Stewart Gardner, a …

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Book Review

A thrilling story of a woman who left her mark on the world


‘The Lioness of Boston’
By Emily Franklin

The very best in historical fiction, “The Lioness of Boston” focuses on Isabella (“Belle”) Stewart Gardner, a daring and independent woman far ahead of her time who transformed American art and Boston itself in the late 1800s and into the 1900s. Married to wealthy Jack Gardner, she would have been socially accepted by conservative Boston Brahmins, but she was shunned and ostracized for her bold and unconventional behavior.

Fortunately, her husband loved her and overlooked much, but was often frustrated each time she broke the “rules.” For one thing, she would venture out unescorted, taking public transportation to the Boston Zoological Garden, as well as the Boston Public Gardens, where she befriended both the zookeeper and the horticulturist, respectively. She delighted in plants, especially ferns, in addition to animals. She was ever curious and spirited.

Both husband and wife were ecstatic when Belle became pregnant, although she found her condition restrictive, dreaming of running off and riding a camel in the desert. These thoughts, which other women might keep to themselves, she was frank enough to express, to the dismay of her family. Moreover, she was concerned that the baby would not be enough in her desire to leave her mark on the world.

Nevertheless, when little “Jackie” was born in 1864, he was welcomed by two loving and devoted parents. Tragedy struck when he succumbed to a childhood illness at 4 years old, leaving Belle distraught and bereft. For months she took to her bed, lethargic and depressed. To help her recover, husband Jack took her to Europe, where she began to collect priceless works of art – paintings, sculptures, priceless wool and silk tapestries, Spanish furniture, a stone dolphin from the 17th century, stone lions from the 13th and 14th centuries, and ancient columns from temples, Venetian basins, figurines from Dresden, a desert shawl, an open-mouthed foo dog. Paintings included a Rembrandt, a Vermeer, a Titian, Tintoretto, Bellini, Matisse, Velasques, Holbein, Van Dyck, John Singer Sargeant, Whistler, etc. Later trips to Japan and India added to her immense collection.

With an insatiable appetite to know and know and know more and experience all there was to experience, she began a torrid affair with a much younger writer, Frank Marion Crawford, At this time, she also began to collect rare books and manuscripts, all of which were housed in what became known as Fenway Court, her home which she turned into a museum. A magnificent structure, its atria is filled with multiple ferns and greenery, cymbidium orchids, flowering maples, blue hydrangeas, paperwhites, and winter cyclamen in wild abundance, evidence of her keen interest in flora and fauna. Palm trees and nasturnium vines tangle from stone balconies.

This flower garden of sun, light, and wonder is reminiscent of those she visited in Venice, a city with which she was intoxicated. In this pleasure “palace” are 150,000 paintings and other works of art, 1,500 rare books, and thousands of archival objects, all of which with instructions not to be moved or rearranged after her passing.

Remarkably, she bequeathed all these treasures, as well as the house itself, to the people of Boston, despite the fact that they never accepted her. Forever courting controversy, one of her wilder exploits was walking a lion on a leash on Boston streets. Another was befriending a heavy-weight boxer. A third was attending a lecture at the Philadelphia Academy of Art, where male nude models were used in mixed gendered classes.

This is a most intriguing book about a fascinating woman who protested the strictures put upon women of her time. Hovering through it all is her resentment at not being able to ride her horse while pregnant, not being able to voice her opinions, criticized for her wide and varied interests.

Of Belle, author Henry James wrote: “She is not a woman; she is a locomotive at full speed.” This quote could well describe this book because it is a thrill of a ride to read – so much energy, so many ambivalent emotions, so much travel – enough to fill multiple books. Franklin does justice to it all, revealing the passion, unease, and sensuality of this complex woman and her unwillingness to conform to society’s expectations. Hers was a fertile mind that craved intellectual stimulation and perhaps as one headline said she was “Too wild for Boston.”

It was true that throughout her life she was forever raising eyebrows. Whatever the case, she left the city and its inhabitants a treasure trove of priceless gems to be enjoyed for years to come.

A mesmerizing documentary on Netflix, entitled “This is a Robbery,” recounts the 1990 theft at this museum, a mystery that captivated the world and has never been solved. Dressed as Boston policemen, two robbers gained entry into Fenway Court on St. Patrick’s Day, aware that most of Boston’s force would be occupied elsewhere. Multiple treasures were stolen, $500 million worth of paintings actually cut from their frames, which remain empty on the walls, according to Belle’s instructions that “nothing be moved.” Some clues led to an auto-repair shop in a nearby Boston suburb, but the case remains unsolved.

If you have access to this documentary, it is most intriguing. Of course, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to sell these treasures in the legitimate art market as they would readily be identified. There is speculation that they may have been destroyed or hidden underground. Belle, her museum, and art treasures remain a most intriguing subject!

Donna Bruno is a prizewinning author and poet recently recognized with four awards by National League of American Pen Women.

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