The Glass House is a fictional account of the life of Julia Margaret Cameron and her extraordinary quest to find her own creative voice. As a Victorian photographer, to succeed she must take on the patriarchy, the art world and ultimately her own family.
The novel is split into two Parts: The Artist’s Death and The Artist’s Life. In the first part, we meet our heroine as she throws herself into the waves at Freshwater Bay in an attempted suicide. Over the course of the next few chapters we learn what has pushed her to the edge, the lifelong impotent fury of a thwarted creative urge. She has always longed to be an artist and berates herself for being a bad mother, wife and friend on her quest to create.
As scenes from her life in India, France and England flash before her, she feels a failure at everything. Her difficult relationships begin to emerge, her sister Sarah, daughter Juliette and her mother. We begin to see her drive for knowledge and gain a glimpse of her scientific understanding, and how it is patronised by all except her husband Charles and constant friend, the astronomer John Herschel. At the end of Part I we see the final indignity that brought her to this low point, the public humiliation of her new style of painting by the group of artists that live in her recently adopted home on the Isle of Wight.
Throughout the novel, even in her early years of yearning, there are hints of her future success. Every few chapters Julia’s story is interleaved with one of the Stories from the Glass House, a vignette from one of her sitters, describing a particular photograph in their own words and experience, as though the sitters are turning the camera back onto Julia.
In Part II Julia is truly reborn. The chance gift of a camera in her recuperation is the catalyst for her extraordinary rise to fame and the realisation of her sense of personal destiny. She turns her hen house into a studio, The Glass House, and becomes obsessed with photography and its ability to translate the scenes from her head into print. It is a perfect marriage of her love of science and art and she owns the field completely.
Over an exceptional 10-year career she changes the face of the Dark Art, photographing and befriending many of the day’s most famous literary, artistic, political and scientific celebrities. She becomes prized for her unusual portraits of ‘great men and fair women’ and for her wonderful interpretations of scenes from myth and legend.
While her camera has captured her imagination, Julia begins to feel it has taken a part of her soul. She has always had an uneasy relationship with fame and celebrity and she ends her career as abruptly as it started, moving back to India and taking her life full circle. Before her death, age 68, she makes her peace with the world, knowing that she eventually found both peace and Beauty.