I’m about to show you something that not many people have seen, and in fact many people claim does not exist. No, it isn’t my sense of decency; to be honest I think that may be up there with the Loch Ness Monster in terms of existence. This is something far more precious and special. I once showed this to a man from Brighton and it made his day.
It’s Fanny Cornforth’s rather lovely handwriting.
When I was researching Stunner, there was only one letter ‘in existence’ and that was written by Fanny in a moment of utter rage. While Rossetti was away in Herne Bay, his friends ganged up on Fanny and took away her keys, convincing her that Rossetti had finally dispensed with her services. It has spelling and punctuation mistakes and her handwriting is apparently dark and somewhat ragged, but reading the note you can tell that she is filled with such fury that she struggles to express it adequately. As I stand in a beautiful glass house of my own with spelling and punctuation, I’m not about to judge her, and the stream of her anger and love is very moving.
…I have been living on my savings for some time but your letters led me to suppose you were tired of me, you shall never say I forsook you although I felt it very much when another woman was put in my place…
I do not have a copy of that letter for you. The contents and appearance of it are described in most of Rossetti’s biographies that deal with Fanny and is seen as proof of her vulgar illiteracy. Mind you, any woman who can fit the word ‘Forsook’ into her day gets my support.
I do have a letter from Rossetti at this time. Any failings in his penmanship are blamed on his many and varied illnesses and addictions, so we can forgive him…apparently….
Good E Come to Old R The poor old thing is going to his mummy’s after dinner
Oh dear, that is both irritating and pitiful in equal measures. Of course Fanny went round, no-one ever refused Rossetti, which I’m guessing was half the problem.
Take a look at this...
In a box in the archives of Samuel Bancroft Jnr, founder of the Delaware Art Museum collection is a stash of letters from Fanny. These have never been published anywhere as far as I know and are full of small mundane moments of Fanny’s life in obscurity. In one letter she has sold him a picture, in another she was glad of his visit. There are some sad black edged ones from when her step-son Frederick died, but on the whole the most mesmerizing aspect of these pages is her handwriting.
As a woman of sixty five, she writes in a curling, confident hand, polite and correct in her respect for her new patron. Bancroft seems to be delighted with her, and even introduces his wife to the aged Stunner. Can you image for a moment William Michael Rossetti taking Lucy to meet Fanny? It’s not altogether certain that Fanny ever met either Lizzie Siddal or Jane Morris, yet the Bancrofts had tea with her, without a care.
Now, I think I’m probably preaching to the choir here – you good people are smart enough to know that the winners write the histories and Fanny, being a working-class woman of negotiable virtue, was never going to win. The histories say Fanny was an illiterate prostitute, therefore she remains one for ever more, just as the histories said she cracked nuts between her teeth. I hope the next time you read that Fanny was illiterate you can say with certainty that they are wrong.
While I'm here....Was Fanny a prostitute? Yes, of course she was, but the Victorian criteria for calling someone a prostitute is any woman who accepts anything from a man who is not her husband in return for her company (sexual or otherwise). My favourite easy definition of this comes from the animated series ‘Futurama’, when the boozy, foul-mouthed robot, Bender, changes himself into a woman and agrees to go out on a date with a famous robot actor. When challenged he retorts ‘You never went on a date with a guy just cause you were hungry?!’
That, my friends, is a perfect example of what counts as Victorian Prostitution. On that interesting note, I’ll leave you to examine your love lives…