One of the biggest highlights of 2012 was my visit to the pre-raphaelite exhibition at Tate Britain. It was a source of inspiration leading to a private readathon.
Let’s take it from the top?
Waugh’s debut in 1928 was a biography of D G Rossetti, recently republished as a handsome Penguin hardback, part of a complete works set. I love Waugh as a satirical novelist – he can be very wounding. That talent is easy to spot in this biography too. In fact I did wonder why he chose Rossetti as his subject. While generally sympathetic to the man, he wasn’t too much in awe of Rossetti’s artistic talent. Take, for instance, this analysis:
Monna Vanna … is on the whole more than a little absurd. It is all sleeve; fair, hair, has, floral adjuncts and jewels, including the inevitable wheel of pearls, are all there, and painted with the utmost elaboration, but all one can see is sleeve. These other things have to be sought out, the great swirl of gold and white, prolonged and accentuated by the folds of the dress, stands out from the picture as though at some yards distance from the rest of the body, like the partially deflated envelope of an airship designed by some tipsy maharajah. At any gust of wind it may again take, dandling at its bow the little china hand with its ring and wristlet. (Bold highlights mine.)
He’s even more scathing about Venus Verticordia, calling it lamentable. However, when it comes to Rossetti’s poetry, Waugh is much more generous. Discussing Rossetti’s sonnets, in particular Still-born Love, Known in Cain, Lost Days and The One Hope, Waugh states, they are indeed singularly beautiful, melodious, melancholy, haunting. Even so, Waugh must qualify his praise:
The peoms do, within their limits – which are narrow – constitute a real contribution to the poetic literature of the century.
I enjoyed this work which provides a comprehensive overview of Rossetti’s life and his work. Stylistically though it is of its time and somewhat sanitised. While Waugh does discuss the controversial events in Rossetti’s life, he doesn’t dwell on them in detail. So, for instance, his relationship with Fanny Cornforth, the model of Monna Vanna. The impression given in these pages is that she was merely his housekeeper ……
If you want the truth of that matter, I suggest you read Kirsty Stonell Walker’s Stunner, written with the object purpose of restoring Fanny Cornforth’s reputation. Received wisdom is that Cornforth was a prostitute, picked up from the streets and kept by Rossetti as his mistress. I’m not quite sure whether this relationship was started contemporaneously with his relationship with the divine Lizzie or during one of their many breaks. But at some stage Rossetti did cheat on Lizzie with Cornforth. Stonell Walker argues that Cornforth didn’t know about her love rival. What is clear is that Lizzie knew about her and it made her miserable. So I am not naturally inclined towards Cornforth. Despite that Stonell Walker transforms Fanny from the harlot, thief and liar I knew her to be into a three-dimensional Victorian woman who did what was needed to ensure her own survival. I felt I understood Fanny by the end of this book and I must respect the loyalty she showed to Rossetti during his bad times. Can’t say I like her yet or am entirely convinced by all of Stonell Walker’s protestations of innocence. Still we mustn’t expect miracles. P.S Kirsty Stonell Walker also writes the magnificent blog The Kissed Mouth.
For a comprehensive study of the Wives and Stunners of the entire brotherhood, I wholeheartedly recommend Henrietta Garnett’s volume. This too follows the Pre-Raphaelite movement from the foundation of the brotherhood through to the death of the last pre-raphaelite, Edward Burne-Jones with an emphasis on the relationships between the artists and their muses. Lizzie, Effie, Annie, Fanny, Janey, Georgiana and Mary are all here in this cracking read. It’s hard to pinpoint which story is the most fascinating or sad. Lizzie obviously wins on the tragedy front but these ladies all beguile in one way or the other. I whizzed through the pages of this book which balanced scholarship with readability. The tone is perfect for a modern audience. If Waugh’s biography of Rossetti’s was dry in places, there’s not a speck of dust here. Nor did it teeter towards seediness or sensationalism, unlike that ill-advised BBC series from a few years back.
Of course, no discussion of pre-raphaelite muses ends on this blog without Lizzie having the last word. As a muse she is unbeatable! She appears as a ghostly presence in Fiona Mountain’s 2002 novel, Pale as The Dead. Natasha Blake, an ancestor detective, begins to investigate pre-raphaelite history following the disappearance of a model who is obsessed with Lizzie. The resolution of the mystery is based on an alternative outcome to a key event in Lizzie’s life. Mixing fact with fiction, historical and contemporary mysteries, this was an entirely satisfying read, particularly on the train which brought me back to Scotland from the exhibition in London.