Hold Still

Cherry Smyth

Portrait of Whistler’s and Courbet’s muse Joanna Hiffernan

Sample Passages

  • I - Wapping, 1861


    Wapping, 1861
    The studio is quiet and still.  Jo undresses behind the maroon curtain and wraps a sheet of green silk around her, tying it over one shoulder like a toga.  She is sleepy, her limbs as heavy as thick felt.  Or is it her mind that is filled with felt, weighing her down, as if by a strange dream the meaning of which has not yet emerged?  She bends over and untangles her red hair, adding volume.  Yesterday she was Ariadne, draped in blue and white robes with a loose red satin scarf twisting over her collar bone.  Today she will be Minerva, seated on a stool holding a spear, balancing one foot on the rung.  A big fire blazes in the hearth.  Wood not coal.  She prefers its more companionable smell.  There is also heat from the ring of gas-burners closely packed together overhead.  The students are drifting in, setting up their easels, murmuring and lighting their cigarettes.  Her mother no longer accompanies her to each sitting.  The screaming rows are over.  Jo had to promise – cross her heart and hope to die – that she would not pose nude.
    She settles on the stool on the platform at the extreme end of the room.  The walls are lined with charcoal and watercolour winners.  Her eye always finds the drawing of a sleigh moving through snow, its passengers bundled in blankets, the dogs pressing homeward.  Or perhaps their journey is away from home, the long road ahead, unseen in the whiteness.  She can never quite decide.  This morning they are heading out, their food still warm in their bellies, their eyes straining for the new view, the unmapped vista, words like ‘tundra’ and ‘the steppes’ beckoning.
    Around her is the hush of lazy industry that Jo loves.  Studios have a kind of dirty spaciousness – all those angles pushing out of young men’s dreams.  This atmosphere of yearning opens and tightens her chest at the same time.  She wants it the way she wants the first roast chestnut of autumn, a smell you can eat.  Stuff yourself with.  Her father would take them down to Greenwich Park on the river when he still ran a tug, her and her sister, to kick through the spiky green pods looking for fruit splitting out of the casings.  The ground was spongy with them and they pricked their fingers trying to prise them apart.  There was nothing her Da loved more than food that cost him no money.  ‘See that, Jo.  What would that steal from you in Portobello, eh daughter?’  She remembers big brown river trout from Essex, white mushroom skulls by the basketful from Epping, gory blackberries from Hampstead Heath.  Those expeditions of plenty.  Their proud scavenging.  Her father’s delight in saving a few bob.
    She can hear one of the students say her name.  Joanna Hiffernan.  She must have written her name more times than anyone, her father watching.  That’s H.I.F.F.E.R.N.A.N,. not Heffernan, which is more common, or Houlihan.  No, Hiffernan grew out of the sound of rocks, the sea and the hard scrabble soil of County Clare.  Many slight shifts of the tongue had adapted the Gaelic name for ‘the people of the shining hair’, or ‘the people skilled with horses’ or some such – people that Jo would invoke when asked, where are you from?  She could tell by the tone of the question that some wanted it to be a slap in the face, meaning get the hell back there, while others used it more as a probe, as in which part of the country and for how long, and who were your people’s people?  Every story begins with a bigger story wrapped up inside it.
    Jo looks around the room, scratches her wrist.  Soon she will have to keep her head straight and still.  All of the students in the studio are men.  Some have been expelled from art schools for wanting to draw the nude, places like the Royal Academy where students have to sketch antique sculptures for three years before they are allowed to set eyes on a female model.  Last year Jo heard that thirty-eight women had signed a petition for permission to study live models with Academy teachers.  The Academy had let in one female artist by mistake after she had signed her submitted drawings with only her initial.  Good for her, Jo had thought at the time.  Then others could follow.  She envisages her signature: J. Hiffernan.  Joseph?  Jack?
    How elaborate can a capital ‘J’ be?  She learnt it can carry animals.  And fish.  And serpents.  Could extend its trunk the length of a page and curl its dragon head along the top.  Her father showed her a copy of the golden pages from the Book of Kells, had her mimic the intricacies of the lettering, the fantastical creatures with the head of an eagle and body of a deerhound.
    ‘They saved civilisation,’ she remembers him saying, his voice rising, his speech-voice coming into him like sea air, opening his chest.  ‘When the Roman Empire fell and libraries were ransacked, destroyed and burned to the ground, they had great books, great learning.  Where?’
    ‘Inside the monks, Da.’ She parroted the rote.
    ‘The Irish monks, daughter dear!  I’ll tell you this and I’ll tell you for nothing, they rescued knowledge.  Kept it safely transcribed and hidden.  And beautiful writing makes beautiful thinking.  Even up those “ff”.  That’s it.  Good.’  His face is still rubicund with passion and excess.  To Jo, it is the colour of love.
    She sees herself dipping the nib, running a snake along the edge of the page, patterning its skin in coiling knots.  He would give her spine a gentle poke and she would sit up straighter.  ‘As a twig is bent, so it will grow.’  She was six and still believed everything her father said.  He had it all mapped out for her: she might have the luck of looks, he told her, but she would also learn a trade; she would work as a botanical illustrator somewhere like Kew.  She would be commissioned by a great empress to detail every plant in her vast gardens.  She would make voyages he never made in his squat little river tug.
    She remembered travelling her nib up the wrist of her left arm, drawing a lily and blowing on the inky trail.  She held it up for him.  He winked.  He always encouraged both her talent and her contrariness.  It amused him, made up for the lack of a son to entertain him.  Then one by one, she added ants, their busy legs clinging to the stem.  A mound of ants gathered at the head of the flower until the petals were dotted black.  She was dreamy with satisfaction.  The lily would never look the same on paper, would not flutter as she made and unmade a fist, the tendons jumping.  She kept every drawing in a small leather trunk held shut with two straps.  She would sit on it and hide it under her skirts if anyone came in.  She wanted a drawing no one could destroy.  A drawing that lived with her.
    Jo had left school early.  Most girls did.  She helped her mother to bring in the washing and fought acres of white tablecloths and sheets – the cliffs of suds and the flapping, drying cloth hanging all over the house, like white dividing walls she could not draw on.  She scribbled and scrawled on anything flat and smooth.  Her father sold her drawings outside Mass.  They were the spitting image of people in the congregation.  He thought her hand could be her fortune, but her mother knew it would be her hair.  What couldn’t she catch with her lovely long copper-coloured hair?
    The London sky sheathes the skylights in intermittent cloud.  Jo watches a white billow float overhead like a massive imperial galleon, its sails tipped in sunlight.  She would like to paint the brighter edges, a study of the sun that is always there.  Why is it so hard to remember on overcast days?  She wonders if her mother will ever get better, why no doctor can say what is wrong with her, why her belly is bloated and her cheeks dented as if nourishment can no longer reach them.  Two frayed cirrus merge and part, leaving a gorge of blue.  Her father had taught her the names of clouds, how to read the changing weather by the wind above the river.
    Conversations fragment and fade across the room. ‘The new RA show – an absolute load of rot!’
    ‘I agree!  Utter piffle!’
    ‘I saw Millais’ illustrations in The Cornhill Magazine – that’s hardly art, is it?’
    ‘Anyone know of cheap lodgings?’
    ‘He’s moved back from Scotland, I hear.’
    The voices are not fully engaged, but rumble, low and perfunctory, back and forth.  They only half-listen.  All their senses are occupied by the eye and its message to the hand.  Stan McGovern, a stout man with delicate wavering hands, passes through the room, tapping on students’ drawings, on their wrists, on their backs.  ‘No talking, gentlemen, please.  Go back and look at Rubens, like I said, Halliday.  You’ve given her the ankles of a heifer.  Here, like this.’  Jo is listening and learning.
    She looks ahead.  A young man is staring at her.  He has an eyeglass attached to one eye, which makes him look lopsided and a tiny bit peculiar.  But still dashing.  His hand is moving behind the easel but he is not supervising it.  His feet are shifting in light-toed dance-steps.  He is short and thin but the way he stares, his bearing and his movements make him appear larger; his behaviour and figure seem to spread out into the room like a force.  It could be to do with the low-crowned, wide-brimmed hat he is wearing over his black curly hair and the red necktie and the fat, shapely moustache.  He does not look English.  She finds that her eyes keep returning to his face.  Concentration makes his brow stern, his thick eyebrows knitted.  He lights a cigarette, steadies for a moment and turns to his drawing.  She feels a kind of relief.  No, it is loss, masked as relief.  Now he is squinting at her with only the briefest of glances, moving his head like a tern tripping along the edge of the tide.  The drawing is the living thing he is interested in.  She knows he is working on the finer features of her face and tries to stare him out, meet his presence with hers, become the brain in her body and make him connect with it.  She wants to send out the signal: Look, mister, I’m not just dairy and narrow ankles and flaming red hair.  She knows it is the kind of shade that turns heads – more like a metal than something human.  Perhaps that is why people want to touch it – or tear it out.  It has its own fire that a mere girl must have stolen to possess.  She can almost hear them thinking, this girl, she burns.  She is a trail of bright flame.  Not just her hair, but her pool-blue eyes.  Large and unaccountably sad, they say, although some would guess, if they ever looked back far enough, that the sorrow came from the hunger, the hunger that her family ran away from, carried in them, as they had once carried the cell of her.
    Then, before anyone else, this man, this hopping pixie of a chap, rolls up his drawing, turns and leaves.  The energy in the room lulls.  Jo was certain he would loiter, sidle up and try to speak to her, and she was ready to be aloof, give him a line about never walking out with a student.  She has been cheated and is desperate to move, get off the stool, stomp her feet and rub her thighs.  Pins and needles torment her hands.  She could chuck this bloody spear at someone.  The rich boy with a stiff, fake-looking beard who cannot draw and attends every session – he would do for starters.  Who was that damn elf-man?  The hippity-hop of him.  Then, pouf, gone in a puff of smoke.
    Jo is at the centre of nine pairs of eyes, pinned by invisible threads like a lady Gulliver, and yet she is nowhere, she needs to piss and her stomach is growling.  The sun comes out and she knows by the windowed shadow on the parquet that it is not yet noon.  The clock is on the wall behind her.  Anyway, Stan forgot to wind it and it has stopped at twenty-two minutes past seven.

    Jo collects her pay from Stan, walks down Rathbone Place and crosses Oxford Street side-stepping the steaming manure.  She swings her umbrella to a song in her head, which becomes sung on her lips without her realising it. My mother won’t mind, and my father won’t slight you for your lack of kind.  The afternoon has brightened and the March air is touched with the tingly smell of new growth.  Yellow catkins hang off the trees in Soho Square.  Poor King Charles is iced in bird droppings, his face drooping and disconsolate.  She plans to go home via the haberdasher’s in Covent Garden to buy some bands of fur for her new mantle.  Her crinoline jerks and pivots from her waist as she walks along.  She passes an Italian café on Greek Street where three young men are sitting outside at tables on the pavement, joking and waving their arms.  One waves at her.  It is him.  The vanishing student.
    He motions her to join them.  ‘Mademoiselle!’ He bows theatrically.  ‘I’m Jim Whistler.’  He sounds American and French, all put on.
    ‘Joanna Hiffernan.’  Her hand darts out too quick, a nervous fish.  Jim removes a burgundy glove with fastidious care.
    ‘Enchanté.’  He introduces his friends.  ‘Meet Henri Fantin-Latour, who we call Fantin, and this is Alphonse Legros, who is Alphonse.  Don’t ask me why.  Our petite Société de Trois,’ he says grinning.  ‘I met Fantin in the Louvre when we were both doing knock-off copies of the Great Masters to sell on the street.  We’re all on the same road – ’
    ‘– the road from Holland,’ Fantin finishes his sentence.  ‘So says Degas.’
    Alphonse stays silent, seems shy or disconcerted.
    ‘And where’s the road heading to?’ Jo asks.  ‘Paris?’
    They all raise their teacups and cheer.
    ‘To framing and fame!  Do sit down.’  Jim pulls up another chair, dusts its seat with his sleeve.  ‘Do you draw or paint yourself?’
    ‘Doesn’t everyone?’ Jo says.  She is surprised and reassured that he does not say where he knows her from.  She wants to say that she drew before she could talk.  She drew images that were seen and those that were not.  When they first gave her a pencil, she was off, skating away across the surface of the paper as if she had been waiting all of her short life for this missing part of herself to be restored.  Finally she could put all the pictures that cluttered and crowded everywhere she looked on to a surface where they stabilised and took solid form.  It felt like exhaling after holding her breath for a long time.
    ‘Be warned, an artist’s career always begins tomorrow,’ Jim says.
    ‘Unless you’re Courbet,’ says Alphonse.  ‘The Salon accepts everything he paints.’
    ‘Yes, Alphonse, but Courbet has fifteen years on us,’ Jim says.  ‘We are all of our time, the test is to be ahead of it.’
    ‘And live long enough to know.’ Alphonse laughs and adjusts his waistcoat as if it is too tight.
    ‘Yes, we will, provided that some unruly critic doesn’t asphyxiate us with slander and derision!’ says Jim.  ‘That infernal fool at the Telegraph that – ’
    ‘Les hommes!  Les hommes!’  Fantin interrupts, shaking his head.  ‘Do you know, Jo, that Courbet once brought a live ox into his atelier?  The place was full of runaways from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.  Sadly, it only lasted for four months because Courbet wrecked the place and the landlord wouldn’t renew his lease, but I learnt more than I’d learnt in four years at art school.’
    ‘I cannot permit any relationship between professor and pupil to exist….’ Jim begins in a heavy French accent.
    ‘I, Courbet, have no pupils…there can be no schools…’ Alphonse continues with an air of pomp.  ‘Only painters, collaborators…’
    Fantin has commandeered another cup and saucer and pours Jo some tea.  ‘Milk?’
    ‘Lots, thank you.’
    ‘Milky tea for a milk-white girl,’ Jim whispers, a smile on his face.  He holds a match to Alphonse’s cigarette, then with a flourish lights his own and shakes out the flame when it threatens his fingertips.
    ‘Cheshire cat,’ she whispers back and looks away but she is enthralled, hooked into their camaraderie, their utter self-regard and seriousness beneath the dusting of wit and raillery.  They all act as if they are well-dressed swells but up close, their clothes are shabby, almost shapeless with wear.
    The tea tastes as if someone has extinguished a cigar in it.  She can barely finish it.  Much later she will learn its name: lapsang souchong.  She will repeat it to herself as if it is a password to an underground passageway that will lead down to a hidden world. Lapsang souchong.


Hold Still is set in 1860s London and Paris, and is a fictional account of a short period in the life of Joanna Hiffernan, the muse and model of both James Whistler and Gustave Courbet.

Joanna, or Jo, as she prefers, left behind a few intriguing traces: being captured in now famous paintings such as Whistler’s Symphony in White, No.1: The White Girl and Courbet’s La Belle Irlandaise, as well as being mentioned in Whistler’s and Courbet’s letters.

From this information Cherry Smyth has created an enthralling picture of what must have been a remarkable woman. How did a young girl, just seventeen when she met Jim Whistler, admittedly with beautiful red hair, and a vivid personality, inspire talented painters to create these wonderful paintings which made their name?

Hold Still tells the story from Jo’s point of view. Her father instils in her a sense of self and Jo grows up to be a free spirit, a suffragette avant la lettre.

She learned this the hard way, because there is a dark secret in her life: But it was too late. They had to get engaged. She was fifteen, feeling more like twenty-five. The door locked by everyone else. 

Jo draws you in on her journey and her growing sense of her own artistic identity: He has selected her portrait of Jim. She is elated. Her nervous system is giddy, her spine tingling with emotion. She has sold her second piece of work.

The novel offers a wonderful insight into the artistic process; the rivalry and at the same time the supportive camaraderie. Yet Jo needs all her wits to keep things together when one negative review wipes out all praise: La Fille en Blanche disquiets the critics. Jim reads from the paper in a mocking voice, ‘“Who is the white girl”, they ask, “what has befallen her, why is she wearing merely a shift?”’ He thumps the table. ‘All they want is story, story. What about the style, the achievement of the paint?’ 

How familiar this sounds, and this is what makes you want to read on, to find out what other trials and tribulations are in store; for example, nearly getting poisoned in the name of art: ‘You are both suffering from white lead poisoning and need to halt any exposure to these compounds at once.’ The doctor catches Jim rolling his eyes as he snaps his leather bag shut. ‘But it’s like me asking you to give up your best scalpel, doctor. We use it for its opacity.’

You get a fresh understanding of how women in Victorian society were supposed to behave, such as having to move out when Jim’s mother comes to stay, because his mother refuses to set eyes on her son’s scandalous girlfriend. Jo tackles this head on, and it’s this courage that enables her to progress from seemingly being used as an artist’s model, to turn this into the break she needs to make her way in life.

At the heart of the story is love, which shapes Jo’s life: She loves him looking at her, feels as if she is made for his gaze, is made anew in it. She gains new insight into relationships between women through her friendship with Fanny, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s companion.

Now what has this to do with Courbet’s famous, or actually notorious, painting The Origin of the World? 

Well, read Hold Still for an interpretation of the painting’s genesis, with a highly plausible explanation of the absent head and face of the model.

Or if you simply want to get carried away by the story of a striking woman finding her feet in life, Hold Still is not to be missed.

Comment in The Guardian about Joanna Hiffernan subject of the Royal Academy’s exhibition Whistler’s Woman in White during the first half of 2022.

In June 2022, Playground Entertainment took out an option for the film/TV rights.

Hold Still by Cherry Smyth was launched in a packed October Gallery on 7 November.

To request a review copy or for press inquiries, please contact the publisher.

ISBN: 978-1-907320-36-1
Number of pages: 253
Price: £0


‘A jewel of a book, rich and sensual, vivid with the colours of paint and flesh, scents of skin and sea, the taste of a lover. We are lured deep into the real world of the model whose face and body we already know intimately. Now we know her heart, as her extraordinary life and conflicted passions are brilliantly recreated.’ – Marcelle Bernstein

‘Smyth has afforded us a glimpse into this woman’s exciting world. A world I wouldn’t really have had a clue about (despite an active interest in art) without reading this wonderfully entertaining novel.’

‘Pioneering publishing house Holland Park Press have discovered a real gem in Cherry Smyth.’ – Literary Relish

‘Jo is one of the more intriguing heroines I’ve read about in the past year and the fact that she really existed makes this all the more wonderful.

With tangles of love, art, jealousy and sex, Hold Still has it all and I can’t recommend it more.’ – Rebecca on Novel Escapes

‘For readers who enjoy the pleasure of art, and the world of the Victorian Artist, this will be a novel to be devoured with enthusiasm.’ – Historical Novel Society

‘Eloquently descriptive, scandalous, and sizzling’ & ‘The character development in this novel is Shakespearean.’ – Belinda on Every Free Chance Book Reviews

‘In bringing to life real people from the past, Hold Still is in the tradition of Paula McLean’s The Paris Wife and Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, and is as compelling and fascinating as these popular novels.’ – Ruth Latta in The Compulsive Reader

‘It does have passion on display in several of its exhilarating forms which I do believe we should all experience in measured doses every day.  Recommended for older teens and beyond due to some content; nothing too scandalous, but enough to mention.’ – Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers 

‘It is almost allegorical in its exposition of a woman defined by male gaze, yet striving for autonomy.’ & ‘Smyth is a meticulous writer and clearly chose each word precisely.’  – Eve on her blog Eve Proofreads

‘Jo Hiffernan seems to have been a creative, intelligent and capable woman and Cherry Smyth has done us all a favour by drawing attention to her.’ – Elizabeth Hilliard Selka on Bookoxygen

Hold Still is featured in the review essay about the publication accompanying the Royal Academy of Art exhibition: The Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan and James McNeill Whister.

Hold Still is such a fresh, invigorating and lively account of Joanna Hiffernan by a writer who understands and highlights her Irish heritage.’ – Deborah Cherry

Previewers’ feedback:

This is incredibly powerful and gripping!

I got totally wrapped up in the voice from the start.

I like, and can really relate to, Jo’s sense of distance growing between her and her family because of her dreams, desires and aspirations.

The images are stunning and the writing is fluid and often very beautiful.

Jim Whistler is very well done, and Jo is a subtle, complex – and very likeable – creation. The sex scenes work extremely well, there is humour in the novel, and considerable pathos (the letter to Jo from her mother).

I love the world Smyth has opened up, especially the relationship with Courbet, his studio with Jo in it and the connections with her and the painting.