Maggie Ritchie: Novel sealed with a kiss

Maggie Ritchie's novel was inspired by Rodin's famous statue. Picture: comp
Maggie Ritchie's novel was inspired by Rodin's famous statue. Picture: comp
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Deep in thought, writer Maggie Ritchie gazed again at the entwined figures that had captured her imagination for so long.

The white marble with its mottled tones and waxy sheen, skin-like under the Scottish National Gallery’s subtle lighting, the pose – a couple caught in the deep passion of their kiss – and the skill of sculptor Auguste Rodin, all had been part of her life for more than a decade.

Back then she was on honeymoon with husband Mike in Paris. Entranced by The Kiss at the Musée Rodin, she delved into its creator’s background to find a story of romance, despair and tragedy – inspiring her first novel and setting her on the road to achieving a childhood dream to write a book.

Now as she paused once more to take in its beauty and power, she needed one more favour.

“I stood looking at it thinking ‘bring me luck, bring me luck,” says Maggie, recalling how she’d stopped by the gallery to look again at the stunning work.

“I’d met my agent for coffee near the Meadows. She’d spent two years trying to sell Paris Kiss and we were just about to give up. It was slightly depressing. I left her and decided to pop to the National Gallery where The Kiss was on loan. I texted my agent back and said ‘Hi, I’m looking at The Kiss, it’s wonderful’ and she replied saying a publisher was about to make an offer.

“By the time I was on my way home another publisher had been in touch. The Kiss had brought me luck.”

It was a remarkable moment for the former St George’s pupil, the culmination of years of devotion to Rodin’s work and the idea of building on the real-life story of his doomed romance with his tragic assistant Camille Claudel as the frame for her first novel. That it should all finally fall into place in Edinburgh – where Maggie always felt most at home – seemed only natural.

As a youngster she had travelled the globe with her parents John and Ann, following her father’s teaching role with the British Council from India to Zambia, Venezuela to Portugal. Day to day life might have been in a foreign land, but their house at Grosvenor Crescent at the West End where they spent many summers was where Maggie always felt most at home. “My parents wanted to make sure I had Scottish roots, Edinburgh roots. So when I was 16 I left them in Caracas to board at St George’s.”

It was, however, a culture shock. Maggie recalls the boarding school seemed straight from the pages of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – even if some of the girls had possibly strayed there via St Trinians.

“We could be a bit naughty,” Maggie reflects. “We used to jump out of the windows to escape so we could meet the boys from Fettes at the pub. We’d say we were going out for a walk and end up hanging about with the boys. But – honestly! – it was all really 
innocent stuff.”

Years later as she trawled through page after page of French research for her novel, seeking fine detail to recreate the 1880s Paris of Rodin’s times, Maggie found herself grateful to St George’s and one teacher in particular.

“Mrs Williams taught French and she was a bit of a tyrant,” laughs Maggie, whose parents now live in the New Town. “She terrified me while I was at St George’s. I’m very glad she was so strict.”

And little did she know at the time, but her bohemian and arty Edinburgh University friends would also provide vital background for her research for Paris Kiss, the fictional account of Rodin’s love affair with muse and fellow artist Camille which would eventually plunge the young woman into decades of mental illness.

“I lived in Stockbridge and my friends were among a group of emerging young artists who showed their work mostly at the 369 Gallery in the Cowgate. I loved their world and how dedicated they were to their art with very little chance of recognition or money. They didn’t seem to care, as long as they could carry on painting and sculpting or making ceramics.

“I admired their courage, their determination and their unwillingness to compromise their dreams, and that fed into Paris Kiss when I was writing about young, struggling artists trying to get their work exhibited and fighting for recognition.

“They were wild and unconventional, so they were entertaining company as they didn’t care who they shocked as long as they were having fun. Hanging around with them gave me an insight into their world and helped me write Paris Kiss. And it also taught me never to fall in love with an artist – they are far too temperamental.”

She also visited a friend’s own sculpture workshop to see and touch marble and sense how it must have been for 19th century women artists like Camille to work with, from the dust to the sheer effort needed to work on it while dressed in bustles and corsets.

Paris Kiss will finally hit bookshops this Thursday, the latest chapter in Maggie’s own story of determination to become a published author and one which was almost overtaken by her own personal health drama. She was still celebrating last May’s book deal when by chance she discovered a small lump in her right breast. A biopsy brought grim news: “It was horrible. My first thought was for my son Adam, who’s eight. It was such a difficult time,” remembers Maggie.

Thankfully her treatment went well. “I finished radiotherapy at the end of November,” she adds. “I saw the oncologist who said ‘That’s you, now go and have a good life’. You’d hardly even know it happened.

“One thing it has done is given me a renewed zest for life,” adds Maggie. “It’s made me enjoy what I have much more and I definitely do not worry about the wee things

“Life is too short.”

n Paris Kiss is published by Saraband and is due out on Thursday. Maggie Ritchie will appear at the Central Library on May 21 as part of Edinburgh Reads programme of author appearances. Tickets are free.