Imagine the biographical equivalent of a venn diagram and you have Desperate Romantics. Franny Moyle describes the chaotic private lives of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as though they were a number of overlapping circles. In the outer rings, accompanied by the various women they shared between them like opium pipes, are Ford Madox Brown, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, and the patron, or father figure, of the group, John Ruskin. At the intersection, touching on them all, is the brilliant, insatiable Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
For the models - Lizzie Siddall, Annie Miller, Jane Morris and Fanny Cornforth, slum girls picked up from the streets who blend into one icon of bohemian beauty - belonging to the Brotherhood was less like being part of a neat design than living in Dante (Alighieri's) second circle of hell. The cost of being a muse was high: Lizzie killed herself after marrying Rossetti (he painted her from memory as Dante's Beatrice); Annie (painted by Rossetti as Helen of Troy) resorted to blackmailing her former lover, Hunt; Jane Morris (Rossetti's Proserpine) was shared between her husband, William, and Rossetti; Fanny Cornforth (Rossetti's Lady Lilith) was traded between Rossetti and his friend George Boyce. The overfamiliarity of the Pre-Raphaelite women, with their mountains of hair, their cruel mouths and their writhing, muscular necks, makes it easy to forget that they were once considered iconoclastic. Moyle, who has had a career in arts programming at the BBC, is marvellous at explaining just how weird and offensive this redefinition of femininity was seen to be.
Desperate Romantics opens in 1848 with the ambitious art students Hunt, Millais and Rossetti founding the mysteriously named PRB in order to represent poetic, religious and mythical stories in a bold, realistic style. They joked that the sign on the studio door would be interpreted by the uninitiated as “Please ring the bell”, but for the raffish associate member Walter Deverell, PRB stood for “Penis rather better”. A moot point perhaps, as far as the priapic Rossetti was concerned, but the same could not be said of Ruskin. In the year that the Pre-Raphaelites formed, the critic who would do more than anyone else to champion the Brotherhood married 19-year-old Effie Gray. Their honeymoon night, as Moyle puts it, “did not go well”.
What happened when Effie removed her nightgown has kept biographers occupied for decades, and Moyle suggests that the groom was overcome by innocence as much as horror. Either way, Ruskin's inability, or refusal, to consummate his marriage runs parallel to the inability, or refusal, of Rossetti to resist seducing everyone he met.
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It is hard to tell which was the more lethal, Ruskin's fear of the female form or Rossetti's fetishistic obsession with it. Ruskin told Effie that he would make her “his wife” when she was 25, at which point he housed her with Millais in a cottage in the Highlands and placed himself in a hotel on the other side of a bog. Within a year, the breakdown of the Ruskin marriage was discussed more than the Crimean war and Effie had become Mrs Millais. Ruskin's next infatuation was with the 10-year-old Rose La Touche. After being besieged by Ruskin for 17 years, Rose starved herself to death.
Siddall, who showed signs of becoming a talented artist, may also have been anorexic. Spotted in a milliner's shop by the voracious Walter Deverell, she became his muse before being passed on to Hunt, after which she posed as Ophelia in the picture that made Millais's name. Rossetti kept her as his mistress for 10 years before marrying her, at the point where he thought (hoped, Moyle suggests) she might be dying of an illness we can only suppose was depression. When, two years later, Lizzie killed herself in response to Rossetti's affair with Fanny Cornforth, he threw his only copy of the love poems he had written to his wife into her coffin. Later, regretting his rashness, he exhumed the body to retrieve the poems that he now dedicated to his new lover, Jane Morris. Rossetti then asked Jane's husband, William Morris, to write him a complimentary review. “Ugh,” Morris said when he had completed the task.
Other reviewers of Rossetti's poems thought the same, particularly the poet and critic Robert Buchanan, who condemned what he saw as their moral vacuity and obsessive eroticism in an essay called The Fleshly School of Poetry.
Morris and Burne-Jones, who did not meet Rossetti until the mid-1850s, belong to the second generation of Pre-Raphaelites. As with the second generation of Romantic poets, it is curious how the lives of these younger men repeat what Moyle calls “different versions of the stories that had been played out once before”.
Morris, resigned to the affair between his wife and his mentor, did as Ruskin had with Effie and Millais, housing Jane and Rossetti together in an idyllic rural spot, Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire. Here Jane spent the summer months gathering fruit before returning to spend winters in London with Morris, now a hugely successful designer. Her life had become that of Proserpine in the Roman myth, and it is as the queen of the underworld with her fatal pomegranate seeds that Rossetti immortalised Jane. Morris himself found comfort in Burne-Jones's level-headed wife, Georgie, who had been feeling the cold since Burne-Jones fell in love with his model Mary Zambaco, who also tried to take her own life.
Despite its lush subject, Desperate Romantics is not a biography in the fleshly school. There is nothing indulgently sensuous, or melodramatic, or morally vacant in Moyle's handling of these stories. Instead she tells her tale plain and at a belting pace, pursuing events through troughs of letters and journals, peppering the commentary with the occasional Freudian reading. She writes with the bracing good humour of a head girl - friends are “chums”, people feel “chuffed”, journeys are “jollies”, arguments are “ding-dongs” - and the jauntiness of her approach is a refreshing antidote to the incestuous, dreamlike claustrophobia of these interlocking lives. Her book is powerful, absorbing and, well, rather jolly.