Saturday, 20 April 2019

At Last, The Love School!

It is a shocking oversight on my part to have been born too late to enjoy the BBC's 1975 Pre-Raphaelite drama The Love School.  In fact until the advent of Desperate Romantics I probably had not even heard of it, and even then, the best I could do is seek out the paperback novel of the series.  Even the little clip of Ben Kingsley and Patricia Quinn as Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal available on YouTube didn't really give me any idea of what it was like.  Imagine my utter, glorious joy in finding out that The Love School was to be released at last!  O Rapture Unexampled!  Anyway, it appeared just about the time of my birthday (which is a smashing coincidence) and so here is my review...


Spread over six episodes, this series traces the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (or to be exact, the big three, together with Morris and Burne-Jones) from 1848 to the deaths of the protagonists...

William Holman Hunt interrupts Millais while he is painting Cymon and Iphigenia
We are hastily introduced to young, handsome John Everett Millais (played by Peter Egan) and his rather clumsy, noisy best friend William Holman Hunt (played by a superb Bernard Lloyd).  The closeness of the pair, their mutual excitement and enthusiasm powers us through the birth of Pre-Raphaelitism.  I had forgotten how delicious young Peter Egan was.  Moving on.

Ben Kingsley *is* Rossetti!
We meet Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the midst of his large, loud, Italian family.  They are a little 'Dolmio family' but you get the idea that Dante Gabriel is a boisterous, attention-seeking baggage who is charming for the first five minutes and then is pouty and exhausting, played with insane skill by Ben Kingsley.  The dinner where Holman Hunt is exposed to the Rossetti family and spaghetti is utterly delightful, and it is lovely to see a laughing, quick-talking Christina Rossetti rather than a sour old maid.  It was also good to see James Collinson...

Collinson being sparkling at dinner
Yes, Christina, we would not have married him either.

That lovely couple, the Ruskins...
Also, you'll be delighted to meet that thoroughly pleasant couple, Mr and Mrs Ruskin who have absolutely nothing amiss in their marriage.  I was somewhat startled by how jolly the pair look, and how not like an elderly pervert he appeared.  Well done BBC.  John Ruskin (played by David Collings) is the fairy-godmother of the PRB and wonderful paintings start appearing. Enter Miss Siddal and a bath-tub...


The bath-tub scene was so undramatic, but in a good way.  There she is in the bathtub and we slowly notice that not all those candles are lit anymore and she is somewhat shivery.  Cut to the painting and the end of the episode. I was really impressed as it seems we can't mention Miss Siddal without the words 'bath-tub' coming hot on her heels but this is not a series about the women, so there is no need to over-dramatise moments of victimhood. Hurrah! Sort of.

The Ruskins and their house guest on holiday...
By episode 2, 'An Impeccable Elopement', it is clear that the bonds of brotherhood have somewhat frayed.  Hunt and Millais remain close but Rossetti is too busy keeping Lizzie caged up in Chatham Place painting an oddly bad portrait of her.  I have to say that the quality of the art they used for the series is, by and large, astonishing, leading me to suspect that some of it is actually the real thing.  This is especially true of the works in their massively intricate frames, but we'll come to that.  Anyway, off goes Millais and the Ruskins to Scotland, where Millais and Ruskin play improbable badminton and the cracks in the Ruskin marriage begin to show.  I appreciated that although Ruskin is ultimately the villain, there can be ascribed blame on both sides.  Effie pouts at not being paid attention and Ruskin is far more excited about art than his wife. Out and about in Scotland, there are fades in and out of pictures from Millais' letters, such as...

The awful midges!
...and...

Haircut!
The sweetness of Millais and the desperation of Effie make a winning combination and by the time she's cutting his hair it's all over.  Peter Egan's over-emotional artist reminds you that he is so young and inexperienced and prone to crying and so it's tempting to see him as collateral damage in the Ruskin marriage but we all know how that ends.

Annie Miller and William Holman Hunt
Meanwhile, back in London, living the Pre-Raphaelite dream, William Holman Hunt has discovered a stunner and is preparing to delouse her.  Looking like a bag of turnips and sounding like Nancy from Oliver, Annie Miller (played by Sheila White, who actually played Nancy's best mate, Bet, in Oliver) is a challenge to Hunt's ideas of how grateful a 'rescued woman' should be.  She makes him jealous and he makes her pose awkwardly as a ruined woman.  He also has plans to go off to the Holy Land and leave her in the care of Hot Fred Stephens...

Please leave me in the care of Hot Fred Stephens
We all know how well that ended but special mention has to be made on how much David Troughton looks like F G Stephens.  It is uncanny and I salute that level of care.  Also, Bernard Lloyd looks really like Hunt once that beard kicked in during Episode 3, 'Seeking Bubbles'.  Sheila White makes a very confrontational Annie Miller, not playing along with old Hunty at all, only as far as it suits her.  You know there is no way she is going to put up with his schemes, but the pairing of her with The Scapegoat painting does make you wonder exactly why all the men rush to blame Annie when everything goes wrong.

Queen Vic gets a Hunt brought to the palace for a closer look
I really need to know if they used the real paintings in the series as the frames are spectacular.  I'm wondering if back in the mid-70s people would have missed the paintings from the galleries for a few weeks, rather than the production team having to notch up these masterpieces.

Name that painting!
Talking of the paintings, such a lot of care and love has gone into the recreations of how they were created, leading scenes like the above. Millais' outdoor painting of The Blind Girl is wonderfully imagined with impromptu rabbit shooting.  The beauty of Millais' early work and the care and attention put into his conversion from 'academy' art to Pre-Raphaelite makes it deeply touching when, at the end of a long career of, dare I say, 'sloshing' for profit and a title, he has a moment of clarity in a side-room of his exhibition.

I am sick and neglected and bored and sad...
We have to wait until episode four, 'Remember Me' in order to cover Rossetti's love affair with Elizabeth.  As I said, no grand drama was made out of Ophelia and so all we have is poor Lizzie stuck in the claustrophobic Chatham Place.  Two things caught my attention in her miserable scenes.  Firstly, the room has several red geraniums dotted about looking pathetic which immediately reminded me of this...

Thoughts of the Past (1859) John Roddam Spencer Stanhope
Again, I am left with the impression that the people responsible for The Love School actually love Pre-Raphaelite art and want to ram as much as possible in.  Talking of Stanhope, he crops up as Rossetti takes his band of new friends off to Oxford to paint a massive mural.  The debating chamber is an impressive set and it is where we really get to know this pair...

Topsy and Ned!
I think the thing that hacked people off the most in Desperate Romantics was the depiction of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones.  I was a bit nervous when Ned and Topsy bustled in to Rossetti's art class to meet their hero, but I need not have worried.  David Burke as William Morris (looking oddly like a chunky Will Ferrell) and Kenneth Colley as Ned Burne-Jones start nervously and in awe but grow in confidence and charm as they find their feet as artists, husbands and fathers.  The portrayal of William Morris especially made my heart sing.  There was none of the bumbling cuckold, but a rounded (no pun intended) character of genius and passion, in love with his ideas, his wife and his life but with an explosive temper, quickly diffused.  Instead of showing him made a fool of by Rossetti and Jane's affair, his relationship with Georgie made me raise my eyebrows a few times and it was clear that people loved him and gave you decent reasons why.  The Morris marriage was not seen as the hollow, miserable sham it is often spoken of (based entirely, in my opinion, on Rossetti's vision of it through his art) but a tested marriage, with feeling as well as conflict.  

Rossetti and that look
 Possibly my most favourite moment has to be something so nebulous that I swore I had imagined it the first time but it absolutely caught my breath.  Having taken his band of acolytes to Oxford and presided as their king, Rossetti holds an evening of poetry at which Morris is expected to perform.  Morris does so with aplomb and the fellowship of the debating chamber are there applauding and cheering for Topsy.  Ben Kingsley's smile freezes then fades a little as he realises his student very much has the capacity to outshine him.  It's just a look, but something in it makes you know that poor Topsy will be taken down a peg or two imminently (as he is).  However, William and Jane outlast Rossetti and his influence.

The Morrises at Home in 1882...
I was astonished at how Jane and Rossetti's story was merely a background to the Morris marriage and Jenny's health concerns.  The Love School definitely make the link between Morris's temper and Jenny's (very visceral) fits which may or may not be true but definitely had a link in Morris's own imagination.  The writers also brought us Political Morris and Kelmscott Press Morris, together with a very Irish George Bernard Shaw and perfect Aubrey Beardsley.  It is in the depth we trace of these characters that we find their essence; in essence Morris was an idealistic, good man but Rossetti, not so much.  It is Morris' death we end on, not Rossetti's.  Sometimes I do feel we are told that Pre-Raphaelitism began and ended with Rossetti and my goodness me, it was such a treat to be told an alternative.  Mind you, there was one thing I was definitely watching for...

William Michael Rossetti and Fanny

Fanny!  You know me, I am utterly Fanny-centric and so imagine my delight in episode 5 'Beata Beatrix' when a grief-struck Rossetti was comforted by the wonderful Elephant.  Not a nut in sight!  As Ben Kingsley declared, it was rather smashing to see the lovely Lumpses and her smashing bum.  The beautiful April Wilding played Fanny perfectly, hovering around as Rossetti photographed Jane at Cheyne Walk and presiding over his dinner party like a disgruntled duchess.

Elephant and Rhino hold a dinner party with Charlie Howell (left), but look at the wall!
Jane Morris murmurs that she is jealous of Fanny as Fanny never has to be Beatrice, some idealised dream woman.  Fanny gets to be real whilst Elizabeth and Jane are merely ghosts.  I obviously would have wanted more, but Wilding played her with dignity and the interactions with William Michael are awkward and tense but with an understanding that both of them are fighting over the role of nanny to a petulant, adorable, destructive child.

So, what didn't I like?  Well, despite using mostly the original art works, unlike Desperate Romantics's sometimes dodgy copies, we were surprised with this oddity...

What on earth...?
Puzzling indeed. Also when Hunt was arguing with Millais over his straying from the true path of Pre-Raphaelitism in the late 1850s, it is argued that if you want to reproduce life in detail then photography is the obvious route and these are shown...

Hang on a second...
Julia Margaret Cameron! In late 1850s?  Um, no, especially as some of the photos are form the 1870s but it is a reflection of the fact that Colin Ford had saved the Herschel album for the nation in 1975 and she was hot news.

Rossetti, Jane, and those photographs
So, in conclusion I loved it. I was extremely nervous before watching it because obviously the production values are nothing like we are used to.  I grew up watching 1970s and 80s BBC dramas with wobbly sets and dodgy sound and this is no exception.  Another of my favourite moments is when Effie and Millais are discussing their ever-so secret love by the waterfall where her husband is posing, but the noise of the water is so great they have to bellow at the top of their lungs.  All this aside, the Pre-Raphaelites are being brought to life by some top notch actors and a first-rate script.  If you are looking for it there are layers and layers of double meanings and hints and references to be found.  When Lizzie stood sadly by Chatham Place window, neglected, and complained all she could see was the Elephant and Castle I squealed as I took that as a reference to her knowledge of Rossetti's cheating with Fanny.  The endless flashes of different pictures is quite something - were people aware of this art and The Love School just putting it in context, or did people not know it and it was a chance to say 'Look at it all!'?

Either way, it was worth the wait and will be the series I turn too when I want my Pre-Raphaelites on screen.  Enjoy.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Review: The Doll Factory

As you will no doubt remember, back in February last year The Doll Factory, the debut novel of Elizabeth Macneal, was the subject of much hub-bub after it was acquired by Picador after a 14-way auction.  What caught my attention was the subject matter - the Pre-Raphaelites.  Picador were good enough to send me a review copy in the autumn but I wanted to delay my review until you were able to pre-order a copy and so, a few weeks before it is released, here is my review...


A quick summary of the plot - The year is 1851 and sisters Rose and Iris work in Mrs Salter's doll emporium. Both have problems with their physical selves - Iris has a twisted collar bone and Rose is deeply pock-marked - and they spend their days creating perfect little figures for rich families.  On the sly, Iris pursues her dream of being an artist, painting herself at night by candle-light.

Walter Potter's Kitten Wedding.  I know...
 Into her life comes Silas Reed, collector of specimens and stuffer of animals.  He has an eye for a beautiful creature, and Albie, his snaggle-toothed urchin assistant has just the one for him.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and that other bloke
At the same time, Louis Frost is looking for a new model.  He's one of those Pre-Raphaelites we all know and love (I do feel sorry for Walter Deverell who always gets replaced by some made-up bloke) and he's on the look out for a model and sends a relative in to find him a shopgirl.  Sound familiar?

Rossetti finding Elizabeth Siddal (from Look and Learn)
Following the path of made-up Pre-Raphaelite novels such as The Crimson Bed (2010), Mortal Love (2005) and That Summer (2017), not to mention 'real' Pre-Raphaelite novels like Ophelia's Muse (2018) and Pale as the Dead (2003) (and mine, of course), The Doll Factory brings a lot of the grimy sensibilities of novels such as Crimson Petal and the Rose with urchins, prostitutes and an astonishing array of reasonably priced false teeth.

The Great Exhibition of 1851, with actual flushing toilets and everything
There is a continuing theme of being on display through the book and being your 'display' self, like a doll or a painting - perfect and frozen.  The juxtaposition between the dolls and the stuffed animals is very disturbing, especially as you are not spared any detail of where the animals come from.  Arguably there is a commentary on the Pre-Raphaelites insistance on being 'true to life', but demonstrably not doing so when the single-toothed Albie is dressed in a pretty outfit in the painting, a far cry from his actual existence of hiding under his prostitute-sister's bed as she services clients.


 Macneal has obviously done a lot of research for the novel as it is full to the brim with facts: we have The Germ, wombats, the PRB (please ring bell?) and even a girl who can crack walnuts between her teeth!  Heavens! 

The Proposal (c.1850) F G Stephens
There is also a hint that surface image is not what you think - Iris frets for the first part of the book about her deformity, and then, when it is seen by others, it is not really commented on and certainly does not stop her being attractive to Mr Frost. This might be alluding to the intricate detail of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, obsessing on every little thing but when viewed with a step back, it all seems normal.  The only one who dwells on her collar bone is the obsessive, unable to move anything but closer.

This is not for the faint-hearted as there are some moments that will make you exclaim 'lawks!' and almost drop your sherry, however I thoroughly enjoyed it and read it in a matter of hours.  Perfect summer reading for people who prefer dark obsessions and stuffed mice to sex and shopping.  On the publicity material I was sent it made an illusion to another famous novel which was a massive spoiler as you then knew exactly where the plot was going from the beginning which was a shame because I'm not sure how surprised I would have been had I not known, so I will spare you that.  However, it is a happy inclusion into the Pre-Raphaelite fiction library.

The Doll Factory is out on 2nd May and is available to pre-order now on Amazon (UK) and in August for the USA.

Friday, 5 April 2019

Folly and Learning Often Dwell Together

Now and then I see a painting which so grabs me with its dense symbolism that I have to sit and unpick it.  We all enjoy being grabbed by the dense symbolism sometimes, so I thought we could have a look at a mighty fine painting and share a bit of gossip and speculation.  Marvellous, let's crack on...

Folly and Learning Often Dwell Together (no date) Oswald Moser
Well, this is a curious picture, with an odd title and uncertain dating from an artist with an interesting life.  How could I resist?  Let's start with Mr Moser...

Self Portrait (1928) Oswald Moser
Robert Oswald Moser was born in London in the early winter of 1874 to a frankly enormous family.  As one of ten children, his twice-married father must have made a decent living as an iron merchant to be able to afford his sizable family.  Named after his father, Robert, it's perhaps unsurprising that the young art student was soon known as Oswald (to save confusion round the dinner table if nothing else). He studied at St John's Wood Art School before enbarking on a career that saw him exhibit 32 times at the Royal Academy and 10 times at the Paris Salon, where he won awards.  He was a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour and the Royal Institute of Oil Painters.

Lieutenant O. Moser and a model dazzle ship (c.1918)
During the First World War, Moser served in the Royal Navy and was placed in the camouflage department based at the Royal Academy.  He worked under marine artist Norman Wilkinson and developed 'dazzle' paint schemes for ships.  I'm a massive fan of 'dazzle' camouflage which looks absolutely barmy but works a treat for breaking up the outline of a ship, making it a hard target.

HMS Kildangan looking dazzling!
Amazing, however that doesn't help me with that strange picture we began with.  Mind you, Moser worked alongside this lady in the Dazzle Department (I would love to work in the Department of Dazzle, that sounds amazing)...

Portrait of the Artist's Wife (no date) Oswald Moser
Agnes Marjory, or Margo, Murray was a fellow artist who met and married Moser before the War.  Fourteen years his junior, she was 22 to his 36 in the 1911 census return, just months after their marriage.  Interestingly, Moser is listed as 'artist' in the census, whereas she is tellingly listed as 'nothing', which is just charming.  

Mr and Mrs Moser being Dazzling together
Working alongside her husband on dazzle, Margo also gave birth to their daughter Denise in 1916 and travelled with her work, visiting France, a country she knew fairly well as her mother and at least one of her siblings had been born there.  Even after the war Margo continued to visit France, and in March 1920 she went over the channel on 'business' and never returned.  Turns out her 'business' was funny business with a gentleman called Robert Durand. In her letter home, she urged her unfortunate husband "All I can hope is that you will take the necessary steps and divorce me."  That he did, uncontested in the following year.

The Dwarf (1920) Oswald Moser
So, back to our original painting, and it is one of Moser's Medieval fantasies, like The Dwarf from 1920. You'll see that Moser included a self portrait in the left, and possibly one of the women is the erstwhile Mrs Moser.  Looking at the subject, I wonder if Folly and Learning... is from the same time, but possibly after 1921 for the following reasons.


Let's start with how Folly is portrayed as a woman and Learning as a man, and also how young the woman is compared with our learned old sage.  I wonder if that is a nudge towards Moser and his younger wife?  It's hard to tell if the figure of Folly is a portrait of his wife, but it's not a reach to say that Moser did not think his wife's actions to be particularly sensible.  I also wonder about how women were perceived in the light of the War in general.  It's not something I have read much about, but I sometimes wonder if there was either conscious or unconscious judgement of women after the First World War, which was a rather male affair.

War Profiteers (1917) Christopher Nevinson
You can understand, if not agree, that women and men might have had an odd relationship after the men returned from France in 1919, so images like Nevinson's rather agressive War Profiteers possibly speak of a frustration that 50% of the population seemingly had a much different war. Of course this is nonsense as women were there as nurses and Mrs Moser's war was much like her husband's, but collective perception is different from individual.  Anyway, back to our painting.


Take a look at the windows behind the figures.  On the side of Learning we have what appears to be George and the Dragon, but the open window behind the woman has a figure and a tree which could be Eve and the Tree of Knowledge, again a judgement on a 'foolish' woman.  I am slightly puzzled by is the open window though; does it imply that Folly is not going to be applying herself to anything but instead will be daydreaming?  Or possibly that Folly is the outside world, and Learning remains inside, in his own little world of books and devotion.


You know I love the language of flowers and we have pink roses behind Folly, representing love but between the figures is a bowl of teasels, which represent hatred.  Quite what Moser was implying about his feelings towards women I think is obvious, but the teasels are somewhat haphazard and tumbling out so it could be the 'hatred' is not a certain emotion, just something placed there by Folly.


 Going back to Folly, does her dress look familiar?

Sidonia Von Bork 1560 (1860) Edward Burne Jones
I always get twitchy when I see a 'netted' dress because I instantly go back to Sidonia Von Bork.  I think Moser is implying that Folly can ensnare you in her skirts (take that as you will).  Learning looks very wary as he views Folly across the table, with his books seperating them, but she is pointing at him and definitely has her sights on him.  He looks like he is almost defending himself with his book pile, the other book resting against them; he is defending himself from Folly through knowledge.  I don't think it is too much of a stretch to say that you could change the words 'Folly' for 'Pain' and 'Learning' for 'Experience'.  Applying this to Moser's own life, his experience with his wife possibly taught him not to trust again and he shuts himself away with his experience, protected from further pain.

 
Looking at this painting I was struck by the vertical lines in the picture, in the stripes on the tablecloth, the vertical of the window frames, the stripes on his sleeves and even the crucifix, all appear barriers between the man and the woman.  Interestingly the stripes on the sleeve of the raised arm provide a complimentary line to Folly's pointing finger, but she would have to get through Jesus to get to him.  However attractive Folly is, Learning has defended himself against her very well, yet they will always be together so his studying will have to continue if he is to resist her.


Oswald Moser died on 31st March 1953 after spending much of the rest of his life living in Rye in Sussex.  He left what money he had to his daughter Denise.  Interestingly, his private life has not overshadowed his art or military careers, which is heartening as his art is so unexpected and interesting. However, I'm one for a little biography in art and confronted with such a gendered image it's difficult not to read the personal, not to mention the national, implications of such a painting.

Saturday, 30 March 2019

Review: The Secret Son of Dante Gabriel Rossetti

As you will know, I'm no stranger to family history.  As I often refer to in these posts, my family's past is filled with unexpected happenings, and I also take great enjoyment from finding out the ancestry of people from the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Imagine then, dear reader, my excitement when reading about this recent offering...


I can tell your facial expression from here, and let me tell you, I was also giving it definite side-eye however I was sent a very kind review copy and I set about reading.

The premise is this: Christabel Powell, Victorian academic and author of other books on 19th century architecture and art, knew of a family secret.  Her great-grandfather was the secret son of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and this is her very fulsome account of how and why, completed before her death in 2017.  That manuscript was then published posthumously with apparently minimal editing by Eric Eve and here we are...

Golden Water (1858) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
I'll start with reviewing what I enjoyed.  I ripped through this book in a couple of sittings.  It is engagingly written and very interesting.  If anyone ever thinks their family is boring, all it takes is a bit of a scratch below the surface, or a conversation with an elderly relative and who knows what will crop up.  My mother maintained that there was money on her side of the family until the daughter ran off with a railway worker and got cut out of the will.  Rats.  

Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah (1855) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Before I get to whether I believed the story or not, I have to say that reading the account was compelling.  It's like seeing a very familiar story from a completely different angle; imagine finding out that Han Solo bore a grudge against Peter Cushing in Star Wars and his secret motivation for the whole of it is not the money or the love of Princess Leia, but getting even with the bloke who ran over his Uncle Bert in a pub car-park in Mos Eisley.  With me so far?  Righty-o, here we go...

The Merciless Lady (1865) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
According to The Secret Son of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the one true and lasting love of our favourite painter/poet was not Elizabeth Siddal, Fanny Cornforth or Jane Morris.  That 'one face' that 'looks out from all his canvases', as Christina Rossetti wrote, was not Siddal, or even Alexa Wilding, but Mary Osborne (1837-1918), brewer's daughter and trainee milliner from Leicestershire.  She moved to London in 1852 in order to finish her training and ended up living in Old North Street, passing through Red Lion Square on her way to work.  It is apparently here she met Mr Rossetti and was invited to act as his model.  The couple fell in love and Mary fell pregnant.  In the resultant kerfuffle with Elizabeth Siddal, Mary fled in order to have her son away from London, leaving Rossetti a shell of a man.  All this happened between 1852 and 1856-7.

Lady Lilith (1868) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The problem is that, of course, there is no proof only family stories.  Apparently there were letters from the solicitors stating that Rossetti not only acknowledged his illegitimate son but also provided money for him up until Rossetti's death in 1882.  These were seen by a few members of the family, although seem to have been lost in time and no copies have been found.  The only other piece of 'evidence' is that the son, Robert, suffered from Bright's Disease, as did Rossetti, but also, so did Walter Deverell (who had form for picking up milliners).  If the letters from the solicitors could be located in the archives of Woolley, Beardsley and Bosworth, that would indeed make very interesting reading, but at the moment we are only going on family stories.

There are actually two narratives to contend with in this book and it is useful to separate them.  Firstly, and actually easily, do we believe the story that Rossetti and Mary Osborne had a child?  That I find to be plausible, regardless of whether I actually believe it.  As far as we know, Rossetti was in perfectly good health in the early 1850s and up until Elizabeth Siddal's death, he seemingly had no issues with fertility, that was all to follow.  In theory then, no problems.  However, we then come to the narrative of Rossetti's life into which this story fits and, as I said above, it involves turning everything we know on its head.

I'm not averse to challenging received knowledge, heavens I built a career on it via Fanny Cornforth.  However, in order to believe the story that Rossetti's involvement with Mary Osborne ruined him from 1857 onwards is to re-write things that are not only known but verified by others.  Powell maintains that William Michael Rossetti was so thorough in his protection of his brother's reputation that he erased any trace of the scandal, yet Christina is supposed to have left us tantalizing hints in her poems.  No-one is supposed to have known, yet Rossetti 'could not resist telling a few close friends' (p.63) of Mary's pregnancy.  Powell is rather scathing towards Lizzie Siddal, an 'insensitive and crude' artist (p.52) who attempts to poison Mary and her unborn child with arsenic-laced chocolates. Oh deary me, I'm sure if Lizzie wanted to do in Rossetti's girlfriends, there would not be enough arsenic in England.

This re-imagining of Rossetti's life completely erases the influence or involvement of Fanny Cornforth (not a popular move with me, as you can imagine) and moves facts such as the meeting with Jane Morris to the 1860s rather than 1857.  According to Powell, all the sketches of Lizzie between 1854 and 1860 are in fact of Mary Osborne, and the blonde figures that begin to crop up in Rossetti's art are also Mary, not Fanny.  Lady Lilith is in fact Mary and Rossetti's argument with Holman Hunt in 1857 was about, you guessed it, Mary.  In fact, so much of Rossetti's life seems to have been all about Mary, I'm surprised any of us pinned the blame on any other woman...

Lizzie Siddal c.1860, or is it?
Powell maintains that the 'oval face' sketches of the 1850s are of Mary, not Lizzie
Okay, so I am skeptical because although Powell's book is intensely researched on matters of history (with interesting excursions into the Zulu Wars and the territorial armies during the First World War), when it comes to the nitty-gritty of Rossetti's love life, it's a harder sell.  I am also not a fan of writing a woman's history at the expense of other women; it seems we can't have Mary in the narrative without downgrading Lizzie Siddal to a vengeful, murderous harpy and deleting Fanny, Alexa and Jane to bit players without importance.  There are painful omissions in the argument, such as George Price Boyce's diary, always a reliable resource for women, Rossetti's women especially and he was recording this part of Rossetti's life fulsomely.  Also, some of the witnesses called for Powell's argument are less than reliable, such as the odious Hall Caine and Violet Hunt, not above making up facts to fit their stories.

Violet Hunt.  Not exactly a clarion of truth...
In conclusion, do I think it is possible that Rossetti had an illegitimate child? It's possible, certainly, but the rewriting of the narrative seems unnecessary and unfair to those written out of their own story.  The fact that the late Christabel Powell and her family believe this to be the case with such certainty is in itself a fascinating story and so this book is worth a read to explore how family misfortune and intrigue can resonate through the generations.

The Secret Son of Dante Gabriel Rossetti by Christabel Powell is available now.