The fascinating details of Lee Miller’s life have been pored over multiple times by biographers. Historical novelists must now be kicking themselves as Whitney Scharer has written an evocative and impressive novel, The Age of Light, out of the raw material of Miller’s extraordinary life. Miller was one of the most beautiful and photographed women of the twentieth century. Scharer brilliantly evokes how different artists divided up Miller’s physical self, painting her lips, photographing her wrists or her ribcage. It is even said that a French glassware company modelled their champagne coupe on the shape of her breasts.
Miller really wanted to be known for her own work, however, and went on to become a war photographer and one of the first people to photograph the concentration camps after they were liberated. Her pictures of Dachau were published in Vogue amidst the kind of high fashion spread she had once featured in during her modelling days. Scharer describes Miller as thinking of the film canisters from Dachau as “grenades to send out for publication”. The pictures are as sickening today as they were at the time they were printed. Moreover, Miller tramped dirt from Dachau on her boots through Hitler’s apartment in Munich on the day he and Eva Braun took their own lives. She also staged a photograph of herself in Hitler’s bath with the Jewish photographer David Scherman, who had helped her get accreditation as an official US war correspondent. Scharer imagines how Miller felt as she got undressed for this bath, her first in three weeks, writing “her neck and face are Army-issue brown, the dirt almost topographic where it has dried on various layers of sweat.”
The novelist manages to recreate these well-known incidents as well as filling in the gaps which biographers have not recorded. She astutely decided to begin the novel towards the end of Miller’s life when she was living in Sussex with her second husband, the Surrealist Anthony Penrose who founded the Institute of Contemporary Arts, rather than the more well-known period of her life when she met Man Ray in Paris, in 1929. Scharer has said that she wanted to convey the breadth of Miller’s life but had to make some tough choices about what to exclude. She doesn’t, for example, even refer to Miller’s brief marriage in 1934 to the Egyptian investor Aziz Eloui Bey as she has said this felt like the material for a whole separate novel.
Miller was still writing for Vogue when she moved to Sussex but as a kind of domestic correspondent and had begun drinking heavily. Scharer deftly evokes the resurgence of past traumas during this period. We don’t know if this is entirely accurate but like any successful writer of biographical fiction, Scharer has confidently made the characters in this story her own.
She obliquely refers to Miller’s rape by a family friend at the age of seven and the treatment her mother had to administer for the gonorrhoea she contracted as a result of the assault.
Anyone who imagines this makes the novel consistently bleak reading should know, however, that the opium dens and smoky cabarets of 1930s Paris are conjured up in all their seductive glory. There are dazzling scenes from the set of Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet – which Miller worked on – and nightclubs where Josephine Baker sings or Surrealist parties where Claude Cahun perfoms.
The ultimate triumph of the book, however, is in Scharer’s ability to go beyond Miller’s image – both her distracting glamour and well-recorded trauma – to try and unearth something closer to the truth.
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