Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Fanny and Nuts: The portrayal of Fanny Cornforth in 'Desperate Romantics'

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
Bocca Baciata
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.  

Rebecca Davies
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…


  1. Great post Kirsty - we will spend the rest of our lives explaining that Desperate Romantics was not a history programme but I remembered a wonderful explanation at the time and found it again on the Guardian web site: 'A rollicking gambol through a fictionalised Victorian London with a narrative as contemptuous of historical reverence as its rambunctious subjects were'.

  2. I must admit, I've stayed away from it, since I saw a few clips from it on YouTube, including one in which one of the Pre-Raph painters Shanghai-Slings another one! If I could just watch bits of it, like the bits with Lizzie which I understand are marvelous, I would. But I refuse to buy it just to watch bits, and I don't do Netflix and it's not for rent in my part of the world. So there you go, my two cents worth again!

    I do wish someone would re-release the one with Patricia Quinn and Ben Kingsley. I've seen a clip from that on YouTube and it looked wonderful.

  3. I think I was about 2 years old when The Love School aired, and it doesn't seem to have been repeated. Mind you, having read the book of it, Fanny doesn't appear in it really, so I don't know how I'll feel when or if I do finally see it. With Desperate Romantics, I do wish they could have found a middle ground - it is entertaining and funny, but all the Pre-Raph people I know wince a little when speaking of it. How they handled the digging up of the manuscript was just appalling (Ned, Top and Gabriel dig her up about five minutes after they buried her for no real reason). No wonder people think Rossetti is a git.

  4. Kirsty, I love this post! I have my issues with Desperate Romantics, but I enjoyed the actress who portrayed Fanny.
    The choices they made perplex me. Even little things, such as the name of Lizzie's sister? Why name her Charlotte when they could have named her after her actual sisters Clara or Lydia or Anne.
    And their rendition of Beata Beatrix was a travesty. Don't get me started.

  5. I am just loving your blog so much! I felt the Desperate Romantics (the tv show I have not read the book) was pretty okay. Nothing special. But it did get me interested into the PRB. Though I have not yet really pursed researching the movement outside of blogs. But I plan on getting some book from the library soon. My favorite character was Fanny. I almost wish they had made another season just so we could have gotten more Fanny the actress was wonderful. Actually, I found all the models more interesting than the artists.

    I liked that they put a disclaimer at the beginning. At least they acknowledged that they were just making stuff up. More historical fiction should do that.
    (also, I think you only have one bad review of amazon, but I understand it is still discouraging. Don't worry I am going to buy your book anyway.; )

    anyway, wonderful post!

  6. Thank you muchly :) I think the reason I can stand Desperate Romantics is that it does bring people to the Pre-Raphaelites (and I have a soft spot for Tom Hollander). A lot of people asked me if they were going to make another series, but of course they can't because the whole of the 1860s for Rossetti was a slow disintergration of his mental state due to Lizzie suicide and his gradual blindness, hence his need to reclaim his poems, which then completely ruined him as they had a giant worm hole through them and some of Lizzie's hair. I wanted a second series because we could have had Holman Hunt's marriages to the Waugh sisters (scandal !), Rossetti's works in oil (better reproductions please), proper addressing of Burne Jones and Morris.

    Stephanie: And yet Ophelia was fabulous, I don't understand why the Rossetti copies were so very very awful!

  7. Please let the Gods grant some bright spark release The Love school on DVD!!!

  8. Maybe if we all beg/threaten/cry in front of the BBC, they will...I would love to see it.

  9. Hi Kirsty,
    Thank you for all you said above! When I found out I had been given the part of Fanny Cornforth I knew that a whole lot of research(and nudity!) lay before me!Before filming I read your book cover to cover and it was like being given the answers to an exam before you sit it. Meeting Fanny through your eyes was incredibly revealing (and helpful!) and to read your comments made me feel very chuffed! I just wanted to let you know that you were very much a part of that series - you showed me who Fanny was and I did my best to play her as more than just a tart with a heart! You're book will always have a very special spot on my book shelf and i'm very grateful to you for writing it! It would be lovely to meet for a coffee at some point and share in our mutual adoration of that splendid creature - Fanny Cornforth. I would have loved to send this to you as a personal message but couldn't find a way to! I really would love to meet you and thank you in person. Perhaps you could let me know a way of messaging you privately. Bex x

  10. Hello Rebecca !!!! It is beyond amazing to hear from you :) You can get me through Facebook (I'm just 'Kirsty Walker' on there) and I'd very much like to have a chat. Kxx

  11. I loved Rebecca's portrail as Fanny in Desperate ROmantics. I thought she did a good job and i liked her better then Lizzie Siddal.
    It is most definitley not historically accurate but i enjoyed it all the same.
    Fanny seemed like a person i'd hang out with;

  12. She'd show you a good time, that's for sure ! ;)
    Thanks for your comment Erin.

  13. I just saw "Desperate Romantics" and while it did just awful things to history (I too was appalled by the Rossetti reproduction and leaving out Christina really bugged me for some reason) But they were naughty boys and it made me giggle a lot.I am about to begin "Stunner" now. I hated what they did to Morris and Burne Jones
    I think one of my readable historical books, with a great title is, "Pre-Raphaelites in Love"
    I am delighted to have found your blog
    Elizabeth Owen

  14. Hello Elizabeth, and thank you for your comments! I hope you enjoy Stunner, and I agree 'Pre-Raphaelites in Love' is a brilliantly cheery book (with that marvellous picture of Fanny with her hair down) which showed me that biographies didn't have to be stuffy and a bit dull. Desperate Romantics remains a double-edged sword: it did bring a lot of people to the Pre-Raphaelites but it also told a lot of nonsense that didn't need to be told and left out people. Poor Ned and Topsy, poor Deverell, poor Ruth Herbert, poor lovely Boyce, poor Fred Stephens, poor William Michael, poor Christina.... the list goes on and on.

  15. Just watched the series on DVD and really enjoyed it and was actually looking to find out more about Rebecca Davies when I came across your blog. So pleased I did! I visited William Morris's Red House in Bexleyheath recently and it re-galvanised my interest in the art movement. I know the series was very much a dramatisation of the truth, but if it gets people discovering that era of art for the first time then that's pretty cool. So pleased to see Rebecca swing by this post! Rebecca you were aces x

  16. Yasminselena, anything that brings people to my blog is a good thing. Desperate Romantics does seem to have brought a lot people in search of the truth, which is a jolly good thing indeed, even better than naked Aiden Turner. Now that is a very good thing :)

  17. Kirsty - How lovely to have found your blog. I enjoyed "Stunner" very much and was pleased with the reclamation of Fanny and your expanded telling of her story.
    Having been a disciple of the Pre-Raphaelites for most of my life; it's been wonderful in the last few years to read new books like yours; which have been so wonderfully researched and written. I rank "Stunner" up there with "The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal" as books which have enlightened us about these ever so important women.
    I've portrayed Elizabeth Siddal and am about to portray Fanny Cornforth at a local Dickens inspired Victorian fair. Your book has been indispensable to my research for portraying her. I only hope that my portrayal, like yours; will do justice to this amazing woman.
    As for Desperate Romantics, what is there to add to what has already been said here? It's entertaining, certainly, and we can only hope it brings more people into the fold and introduces them to the Pre-Raphaelites. I enjoyed Rossetti more as a handsome, sexy man than any of the other attributes that they gave him. Lizzie Siddal was shown as more of an artist than a shrew, thanks to Jan Marsh for that; and it seems the actress who played Fanny was informed by your book - fantastic - so it has its merits and moments. Overall as a fictional work it was enjoyable. After watching it to find that I can read your views about it here is exceedingly gratifying. Thank you.

  18. Laroberouge, how marvellous to be playing Fanny! Where will you be? I'm glad you have found my work to be of help. Desperate Romantics is a hard one to come down on one side or the other, as you say. Yes, I enjoyed the humour and the lush gorgeousness of it all, but it was fiction, unnecessarily so when we know so much entertaining fact. I am ever intrigued by hints of a second series...

    Good luck with the Victorian Fair :)

  19. I'll be portraying Fanny for a day or two at The Great Dickens Christmas Fair - www.dickens-fair.com. It's a lovely event; with a huge cast of characters from Dickens, as well as some of the real individuals from the period. The Pre Raphaelites have their own representation now during a "Pre Raphaelite hour," where the public is invited to join the artists sketching from models posing as various paintings. This was all set in motion a few years ago when my friend Raymond Andre III and I played Swinburne and Lizzie, respectively. You can see a few pix of my Pre Raphaelite portrayals at my facebook page; http://www.facebook.com/jwlhyfer.dewinter?ref=tn_tnmn I'll try to get pix of the Fanny portrayal, as well.

    I too, was frustrated by the changes in Desperate Romantics. As you say; the true story is already fascinating, why change it? I also found the paintings to be terrible for the most part. I think they were trying to get them to look more like the actresses, but it was an abysmal failure. The only thing I was happy with, (mostly,) was the portrayal of Lizzie as an artist rather than some of the other portrayals of her such as the Ken Russell film or even Lucinda Hawksleys' book. Anyway, I hope you enjoy my Pre-Raphaelite images on facebook. I enjoyed being Lizzie very much; and it will be fascinating to play her rival.

    1. Madamoiselle Alexandrine is my google id, Laroberouge is my Live Journal, but I couldn't post with the Live JOurnal id this time for some reason. You can also find out about some of my work at www.jwlhyferdewinter.50megs.com

  20. Thank you, and I am now really sad I am not in the States so I can come and see you and the Pre-Raphaelite Hour! It sounds wonderful. What splendid photos.

  21. Well, the portrayal of Fanny went very well! I only did a couple of days but it was well worth the preparation. The Pre-Raphaelite hour did not dissapoint in the least and Fanny went over quite swimmingly. A few people even recognized her from the roses and jewels she wore in her hair. I put a couple of pictures up on my facebook page. Apparently the Pre-Raphaelite Hour is one of the most popular audience participation events at the Dickens Faire. It's amazing to see sixty or more women, men and children sketching away while a lovely model poses in an attitude remeniscent of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. Several of the artists are portrayed; William Morris, Burne-Jones, Millais, Rossetti, Swinburne, Lizzie Siddal, and others. I think there may even be an Annie Miller. In any case; it was great fun and I wish you could have been there, as well. Thank you again for your fine book again and I hope I can take Fanny out again next year.


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