We all knew this day would come. Ever since it was screened in the summer of 2009, there had to come a time when I talked about the portrayal of Fanny Cornforth in the BBC drama Desperate Romantics. It was either going to be at a therapy session or here, and this is cheaper. Don’t mind me if I lie on the sofa while I’m telling you this.
Look, I’ve had some calming down time and I have to split this into different sections if I am to be fair. I can’t just start shouting swear words and crying, that wouldn’t be constructive, so I would like to respond to the following things:
Fanny Cornforth in Desperate Romantics (the book) by Franny Moyle
Fanny Cornforth in Desperate Romantics (the television series) screenplay by Peter Bowker
Fanny Cornforth, as portrayed by Rebecca Davies in Desperate Romantics
When I first heard that there was to be a drama series based on the lives of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, I was delighted. I even read the description of it as ‘Entourage with Easels’ with good humour, assuming that Telly Chaps had to spout such nonsense so that people who wouldn’t normally watch a drama about Victorian artists would tune in, if only to see Aiden Turner naked. That obviously wasn’t why I tuned in. Ahem, moving on…
I was delighted to see an accompanying book which preceded the series (I had the impression that the book came after the series, not the other way round, which is false but how I understood the marketing), and found the choice of Frederick Sandys’ Love’s Shadow as its cover image interesting, seeing as he was never a member of the Brotherhood. Then I gave myself a slap and told myself not to be so childish. However, the first thing I did was to see if Moyle had used my book in her research. She had not (aren’t I presumptuous and a little bit vain?). Then I checked how Fanny made her entrance into the Pre-Raphaelite circle. Oh nuts….
I finally bought it in paperback, with the tv tie-in cover. The account of Fanny is pretty much in line with Jan Marsh’s splendid account in The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood (1985), but not much more. There is no account of Fanny without Rossetti, but it is debatable whether Desperate Romantics is the place for such an account. Fanny story ends with the marvellously enigmatic ‘In 1905 Mrs Villiers sold anything of remaining value belonging to Fanny and moved her to Brighton, where she died.’ Really? Please elucidate…oh, don’t bother then.
Despite my rampant bitterness, I’m not going to give Franny Moyle a hard time and I’ll tell you why. Check out my monumentally bad reviews on Amazon – it’s easy to take something that someone has worked on for years and dismiss it. Moyle obvious put a lot of effort gathering all the source material, a lot of work went into her book and it is a good read. It doesn’t break new ground or tell me anything I don’t already know and it isn’t about Fanny outside her interaction with Rossetti. Franny Moyle can rest easy, despite the nuts, which I will come to. I don’t blame her for what followed, and if I get to meet her I will give her a copy of my book.
Oh dear, Peter Bowker needs to be taken to aside, though. On one hand, I did laugh out loud a lot, the dialogue was very funny and it was never boring. Possibly the best line for me was when Fanny announced ‘Just because I work with my below decks, doesn’t mean I don’t have a heart!’ My God, I shouldn’t have called my book Stunner, I should have called it My Below Decks: The Fanny Cornforth Story. However, and it is a giant ‘however’, by putting a cute little disclaimer at the beginning, you cannot get away with changing that many facts without making me need to sit in a darkened room and fan myself.
Let’s start with how we meet Fanny Cornforth.
|One woman and her bag of nuts...|
Fanny’s version of their meeting involved Rossetti grabbing her hair and asking her to sit for him where he drew her for the figure in Found. Oh hang on, that kind of already happened in Episode One…
When the barmaid was propositioned by Rossetti in the first episode, I thought ‘Oh, interesting…well, Fanny did own a tavern later in life, possibly it’s a nod towards that,’ and Maisie McCoy did look vaguely right. I loved the scene where Rossetti positions her and composes Found.
|Hard luck deary, you ain't Fanny Cornforth|
But no, in the credits she is listed as ‘Margaret’. I would have to wait until Episode Five before Fanny turned up…
Ten years I spent researching, following up comments and diaries and letters, and I thought that after all that no-one could credibly say that Fanny Cornforth cracked nuts between her teeth and spat them at Rossetti. Seriously, please, it’s a metaphor. It’s William Bell Scott’s mean little way of saying Fanny Cornforth is an animal. He wasn’t even there. Lo and behold, in Episode Five, there she is, Fanny Cornforth spitting nut shells. My screams could be heard all over southern England.
Mind you, had they used my research we would have been robbed of the lines ‘Do you make a habit of spitting?’ ‘Depends what I have in my mouth at the time, sir…’ Nice.
So, back to the nuts. Rossetti by this point has abandoned Found and wants to paint her as ‘The Kissed Mouth’, Bocca Baciata (Mmm, great name for a blog). Cue my favourite scene in the entire series.
|Aidan Turner as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Rebecca Davies as Fanny Cornforth|
I have to admit that I didn’t really care about the plentiful, energetic and on occasions slightly terrifying sex, what really made me watch, rewind, and watch again was the scenes of them painting the works of art. It was at this point I began to suspect someone in the team making Desperate Romantics had actually heard of the Pre-Raphaelites and liked their art. While screen-capturing the images for this blog I just adored the Bocca Baciata scene, the attention paid to Fanny’s hand, the apple which she bites (oh, how symbolic…might have worked better if Rossetti hadn’t been portrayed as a giant whoremonger beforehand), and for a moment Aidan Turner was allowed to show that Rossetti wasn’t an irritating git all of the time.
|Oh dear, no wonder it's The Kissed Mouth|
You understood the relationship between them, you were given 'artist and muse' and the playfulness that existed. Interestingly, neither of them says anything for the scene, it’s unnecessary and frankly it’s a bit of a relief. Oh and there’s lots of sex, what a surprise.
|Gabriel and Fanny|
|Fanny and George|
When Fanny goes to look at how the picture is progressing, either by accident or design the pose is reminiscent of the portrait of George Boyce and Fanny. I was very happy by this point. Then they showed Bocca Baciata…
|Bocca Baciata ?!|
Oh dear. Could someone not just buy a copy of the original printed on canvas? The copies of Ophelia and Holman Hunt’s works had been beautiful, but this was a little bit dreadful, and the worse bit is the ‘Rossetti mouth’, the most iconic part of a Rossetti female oil. Mind you, I think the Beata Beatrix he does later is even worse…
Fanny is shown eating in almost all our dealings with her. She is marvellously fleshy and eats with gay abandon, unlike any of the other women. It is a bit of a hallmark of ‘Fanny Cornforth’, but possibly not an untruth. Plus, it makes a pleasant change to see that amount of woman naked, although she was taking a hell of a risk as Rossetti appears to live in a greenhouse.
|Naked, eating chicken, in a greenhouse. How bohemian.|
The relationship between Fanny and Rossetti did ring with a fair amount of truth. Stripped of complicated facts and timelines, the basic point of their affair was that he wanted a woman who he could be with without responsibility and she provided that. Rossetti comes across as a feckless idiot that people enable because he is very pretty. The assumption seems to have been that viewers would not be able to understand ‘charismatic’, so they used ‘saucy hotness’ instead, because your average Pre-Raphaelite art lover isn’t very bright, apparently. Thanks for that.
The idea that Rossetti would invite Fanny to his wedding is unthinkable, but it did neatly allow you to see her reaction to being deserted by the man she was beginning to rely on, if not love.
|Fanny (and pipe) at the wedding|
I found her sadness at Rossetti’s ‘desertion’ of her touching, more down to the performance than the script, and, again, the idea that she would seek solace with Holman Hunt might be credible but felt a little opportunistic, as if Fanny was only about sex.
Here is the saving grace of Fanny in Desperate Romantics: Rebecca Davies. Despite seeming to channel Catherine Tate, she makes Fanny more than just a tart with a heart, when the danger always was that she would come off as a second rate Annie Miller. She is given very little to work with, the dialogue is mostly bordering on Carry On (I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing), but she allows a dimension of both affection and hardness which make you understand her attraction and her survival. Watching the series back, concentrating on her performance, I admire her subtlety when none was really expected from her, judging by the script.
On the whole, I enjoyed watching Desperate Romantics more on repeat viewings than I did to start with as I already know which bits are going to make me livid and so I avert my eyes. Instead I concentrate on seeing Millais paint Ophelia…
The splendidly cheeky Annie Miller, as portrayed by Jennie Jacques…
The scene when Rossetti paints Jane Morris in her blue dress…
Again, I think the person who had seen a Pre-Raphaelite painting before was on-set that day…
And that marvellous scene where Aidan Turner stopped being a gittish sexpot for five minutes and got to be the artist that I adore, with the woman I spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about.
|The Love School (1975)|
Yes, it is a wasted opportunity to show the complexity and beauty of a fascinating art movement which is insanely fashionable just now. Yes, they might as well have just reshown The Love School from the 1970s, or at least released it on DVD. Yes, they went with basic rumour and shallow characterisation, leaving it up to the actors to fill in the gaps, but even though my fifteen years of Fanny Cornforth research (ten years to the book and five years since) were pretty much ignored, I can see that the series may have raised awareness of Fanny Cornforth, and, bar the nuts, the portrait of her did not do too much to damage her good name.
It’s not like I wrote a book about William Morris or Ned Burne-Jones…