Thursday 27 September 2012

Fat is a Pre-Raphaelite Issue

Funny how some weeks go.  I was planning to do a light-hearted post on images of Autumn (which I'll do at the weekend now), then I got a lovely email from Mark Samuels Lasner, who very kindly allowed me to see this image from his collection....

With kind permission of  Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, on loan to the University of Delaware Library 
This changed my mind, so I was going to do a piece on this lovely picture of Fanny.  This image comes from 1862-65, after Lizzie Siddal's death and the subsequent move to Cheyne Walk.  This was Fanny's heyday, she was Queen of Tudor House, assured of Rossetti's love, the centre of his art, before Jane's reappearance, before Alexa Wilding.  Fanny had completed her transformation from blacksmith's daughter and housemaid, to one of the most admired faces of the bohemian art scene, hostess at  the table of one of the most famous artists of his generation.

Doesn't she look fat?

This week I have also had my attention drawn to Lady Gaga, that multi-talented musical artist who has redefined the notion of femininity in pop music...

Doesn't she look fat?

It's not often that I get to mention Lady Gaga and Fanny Cornforth in the same breath, but this week I began to get them mixed up due to the very similar media coverage both have received.  Thanks to the increased publicity that Pre-Raphaelite art has received, due to the Tate exhibition, Fanny has been mentioned in Press, Blogs and the such like, and time and time again she has been described as 'fat', 'plump', 'portly' and all manner of other words meaning the same thing.  Did the writers of these pieces call Jane or Lizzie 'skinny'?  Possibly once or twice, but on the whole their names could be mentioned without prefixing them with an adjective.  What is wrong with us?

This is somewhat of a sticky issue for me because obviously I'm a big girl (built for comfort, not for speed) so it's easy to assume that I have a sensitivity to the name-calling.  You'd be right because heaven knows I have heard it all, and none of it is relevant.  Just as some people are calling Gaga 'Lardy Gaga' or 'Porker Face' (oh, how amusing), so William Bell Scott called Fanny 'the creature with three waists'.  Why?  Well, this was the height of perfection for women in the nineteenth century...

This young lady is Catherine Walters or 'Skittles' as she was known to her friends and clients.  She was a courtesan (that's a nice word for prostitute, isn't it?) (maybe that's when they buy you pudding as well as your stew before you sleep with them) for some very important types and became a trendsetter when she rode around in this rather neat get-up.  In order to achieve that astonishingly small waist she was corseted in, then sewn into her 'Princess' riding habit.  I think we know who Fanny stole her two extra waists from...

I'll breath out when you've all left...
If your images of women are figure-eights, two perfect little spheres balanced on top of each other with the teeniest waist in between, then Fanny does look as out of place as the woman above would look to us today.  By abandoning her corset, Fanny adhered to aesthetic dress with the barest waistband holding in all the fabric.

She wasn't the only one.  Jane Morris, Elizabeth Siddal, Alexa Wilding all assumed a more rational way of dressing, and all of Rossetti's muses dress in long flowing gowns, not tight corsets.  Take this image of Jane from the middle of the 1860s...

I dread to imagine how much fabric is in that frock, it is endless and would cost a fortune.  Rather splendid though.  Equally lacking in the waist department as Fanny, but Jane is never referred to as plump or waistless, so what is the difference?  Firstly, historically it was never said of Jane that she was fat or in fact any comment on her weight.  Jane was shown respect during Rossetti's life and after it.  Fanny most certainly was not. Mind you, not that many contemporary sources referred to Fanny as fat.  They were too busy calling her a thieving illiterate whore.

But not fat, so that's alright.

The Battersbys: She weighed 631 pound more than him, apparently
Fanny's greed for possessions has often been transferred into a notion that she was greedy and therefore fat. Her acquisition of items, rightly or wrongly, from Rossetti had somehow translated into 'fat' as if she was eating the paintings she 'stole'.  Isn't it odd how we often think of people who get rich through no effort of their own as 'fat', as in 'fat cats'?

I've always thought that the permanent labeling of Fanny as fat started with the rebirth in interest in Pre-Raphaelite art in the 1960s.  I wonder if it has any connection at all with the utter crisis that seems to occurred in female body image, springing from the decade that gave us supermodels with figures that rejected any notion of traditional feminine curves.  Fanny, through her nickname 'Elephant', became the fat muse.  We never for a moment consider that Rossetti called her Elephant because she never forgot.  No, it's because she's fat.

Gaga made a very bold statement when she appeared in her meat corset this week, or at least she seems to have made others make many bold statements.  Is she a good role model now she's fat?  Is she going through a crisis because she's fat?  I suspect that Gaga is astonishingly shrewd and she just proved her point as the media descended to pick her over like a piece of meat, while she was wearing a piece of meat.

How many meals did Lizzie and Jane consume in that excellent documentary Desperate Romantics?  How often was Fanny seen with something in her mouth?  Okay, I'm being basic because we know a few things for certain about Fanny and food.  Firstly, she loved to eat.  This sounds stupid at first because who doesn't love food?  In a landscape of women who were unwell and missing meals, Fanny's love of eating out is documented in George Boyce's diary, and her love of cooking is apparent in Rossetti's letters, where he bemoans that a pudding made at his friend's house where he was staying was not a patch on hers.  While I have been writing my Pre-Raphaelite novel, I have Fanny eating quite a lot of the time.  Mind you, everyone eats quite a lot of the time in my book, it's that kind of book.

Is there a male equivalent to calling a woman 'fat'?  I was trying to think of one because Rossetti, who undoubtedly got fat during the 1860s and 1870s, is rarely called it, or if he is it doesn't seem to carry the same weight, if you excuse the pun.  I'm going to stick my broad neck out at this point and suggest that I don't think men care as much about a woman's weight as women do.  For a woman, being called 'fat' is one of the most awful things you can call them because it carries with it such value-judgements.  When we call Fanny or Gaga 'fat', that isn't what we mean.  We mean uncontrolled, lack of care, greedy, consuming, selfish, incapable, possibly also stupid, ugly, useless and so on, down and down.  It rarely seems to mean that you are larger in mass that an officially agreed amount.
For the Victorians, the notion of 'fat' had moral connotations, so do we really want to play that simplistic game?  Going back to my original train of thought, Mark Samuels Lasner generously showed me his beautiful sketch of Fanny, and to my mind (and Rossetti's) Fanny was a Stunner, a gorgeous looking woman, whose mass may have been greater than that of Lizzie Siddal or Jane Morris, but what of it?  Gaga may have increased in mass, but anyone watching her perform should be grateful she's eating enough to keep the energy up.

Do we really want to draw the conclusion that a person's weight should carry any weight to how much we value them?  If so, I'm very valuable indeed.

But worth every penny, obviously.


  1. Great stuff! I really enjoyed reading this!

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for your comment :)

  3. There is also the issue of Burne-Jones' depiction of fat people in his caricatures. In fact, B-J's attitude to fat women, in particular, was really quite cruel. It is remarked up in many of the books I've read about him. I don't know what his feelings about Fanny were.

    This is a difficult issue, and one that has always made me a little uneasy as a Rubenesque lady myself. There were the later images, as well, of the skinny almost emaciated Aesthetic maidens drooping about in Punch cartoons, though I've never figured out where the skinny part is supposed to come from. Most of the real Aesthetic ladies and the illustrations by Crane and others were solid, if slim creatures. Portraits by Leighton and Dicksee of women in Aesthetic dress do not show them drooping, but rather as strong and proud.

    One the subject of corsets, for every one tight-lacing lady like Skittles, there were many more sensible ladies who wore their corsets less tightly, or wore reform corsets (with less boning and elastic taking the place of the usual infinity of corset stays). While we know those photos of Janey so well in her loose robes, there is one picture in the Debra Mancoff bio of Janey, that shows her in a corset, which she apparently wore to have a passport photo taken, according to Mancoff. So the corsets were there.

    At any rate, this is a thorny issue, and I really appreciate your tackling it in this very thoughtful way. My conclusion personally is that what makes me valuable are my thoughts and my deeds, not my outward appearance. Unfortunately, that has never been how the world wags. I don't know if it's human nature or what, but it seems that there is no getting away from the influence that the first outward impression of a person gives us. All we can do is to personally struggle to look past that initial judgement and find the real value within.

    (Sorry for the ramble, my brain's a bit scattered today!)

  4. In addition, I've seen the Big Woman depiction as part of the anti-suffrage propoganda, showing women as large, powerful, angry, aggressive, abusive to tiny, frail husbands. The concept there was, "This is what you'll get if you let them vote." Funny how that comes down to one group having power over another. Again.

  5. Great post! I just received your book on Fanny and I can't wait to read it.

  6. Thank you very much for your comments. Yes, Burne-Jones felt that fat women were ridiculous and yet used Fanny as a model in very sympathetic ways around the time of the pencil sketch at the top.

    I agree that virtually every other woman could not achieve the insanity of Skittles' waist, just as the majority of women can never be as tiny as Kate Moss (and wouldn't wish to be) yet Kate Moss could be said to be the 'ideal' due to the way she is treated in the media. Isn't it curious how it is possible to know what you are told to want isn't right for you yet still fall in with opinion that if you aren't this ideal, you are wrong. It both breaks my heart and infuriates me to hear women discuss this woman and that woman as being too fat, too old or, more often, too fat and old.

    Rebecca: Thank you for buying Stunner and I hope you enjoy it!

    Thanks everyone for your comments!

  7. Terrific post and love the drawing of Fanny.

  8. A very interesting post. Firstly, I think Fanny looks beautiful in the sketch, actually. Funnily enough I was thinking of commenting to you anyway as something Nigella Lawson said in the Radio Times tied in with something you wrote in "Stunner" - that Fanny may have equated thinness with illness and then death. After the sad family history of losing both her mother and sister to cancer, Nigella said just that same thing.
    I never heard the bit about Rossetti liking Fanny's cooking - hilariously coinciding with that old chestnut from Johnnie Craddock "May all your puddings turn out like Fannie's"...
    See you soon in Bournemouth! x

  9. Thanks for the comments :) Moyra: In fact I wrote something similar, that Rossetti could never find a pudding he liked as much as Fanny's, but then laughed so much I felt ashamed of myself and changed it.

    See you in Bournemouth!


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx