Thursday, 22 September 2011

Willowwood Should Be Read By Everyone

I’ve been a busy bee, getting Stunner prepared for the second edition (yes, I’m spell checking and hopefully getting the grammar more better-like this time) and part of this is adding a piece on Fanny in film and fiction.  For film, God help me, I’m using Desperate Romantics because (a) I enjoy the rage seizure it brings on, (b) it is the only Pre-Raphaelite drama that shows her in any meaningful way and (c) it is the only one that people have a good chance of seeing and being conversant with.  Although the Ken Russell film Dante’s Inferno is available on Region 1 (thanks for that BBC), and Fanny is in it, she isn’t dealt with as much as in Desperate Romantics.  As for The Love School the BBC hasn’t had the common sense to release it yet, so that’s out. 

So, that’s film covered. 

As for print, I read a number of Pre-Raphaelite inspired books, and bought a copy of Willowwood by Elizabeth Savage, which promised to be ‘a novel about Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal’.

Look, there at the bottom, in capitals and everything...
In my experience, Fanny is usually a side-lined character, off-stage and barely mentioned.  In the play Clever as Paint she is literally off-stage, enraging Elizabeth just by the merest hint of her presence.  I wonder if this treatment of Fanny as ‘unseen influence’ is a direct reference to the way that Elizabeth influenced Rossetti’s life throughout the remainder of the 1860s.  Like Fanny, her image existed in Rossetti’s studio even when the woman wasn’t there.  I wonder if Fair Rosamund drove Elizabeth as crazy as Beata Beatrix drove Fanny.  Anyway, I digress.

I admit I had no great hopes of Willowwood. I had the feeling I would end up attempting to trace Nerina Shute’s novel about Rossetti, which is proving very hard indeed (if anyone has a copy they could lend me, please get in touch).  How wrong I was….

This is Elizabeth Savage, who looks very jolly.  It appears that Willowwood, published in 1978, was a bit of a departure for her.  Previously, she had written contemporary novels about American families, but she had a love of Pre-Raphaelite art and so gifted the world this random work about Rossetti and the three women who occupied his life.  The book is split into three sections, ‘Lizzie’, ‘Janey’ and ‘Fanny’.  Yes, Fanny gets her own section!  I was delighted.  Then I started reading…and it got better.

Bearing in mind that this came before books like The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood by Jan Marsh, you have to consider that Savage is using the stories that are known and documented in Rossetti’s biographies up to this point.  In many ways, I found it impressive that she had found out so much, or at least second guessed stories to build up a compelling narrative.  Added to this is that her story begins and ends with Fanny.  How happy was I?  Like the Cheshire Cat, my friends.

I think it speaks highly of Elizabeth Savage that I forgive the fact that there are nuts involved in the opening of her novel.  We all know how I feel about the nuts.  Add to this that some of the major clichés about Fanny are hit in the first paragraph, like so…
‘Her name was really Sarah Cox, but since she had a habit of appropriating that which she preferred, she took the name…Fanny had thought to be [an actress] because noblemen want to set you up in luxury…Now she is sixteen she knows she is too lazy for it.  For the stage, that is.’

Bam!  We have a lying, slutty thief, just like that.  And yet the red mist has not descended upon me, how could this be?  Ah, read on…

Fanny’s easy chatter with Rossetti as she attempts to get him to notice her is funny and shrewdly realised.  I love Rossetti’s dilemma of following his serious artistic concerns or doing what makes him happy, as it rings true and I suspect it was not much of a wrestle.

‘Rossetti is quite serious; the women whom he paints are spirituelle; a breath would carry them away; they have no legs. But he likes Fanny because she has no side and spills her friendliness as easily as Flora scatters flowers.’

That is one of the loveliest description of Fanny I have ever read, and how I imagine her.  I find the open meaning of Fanny having ‘no side’ to be intriguing because obviously it refers to her rounded shape, but also that nothing is hidden, nothing is kept back.  Fanny has no hidden depths that Rossetti is aware of and so she was easy company.  Savage does not imply this is because Fanny is stupid, quite the opposite. Savage refers to Fanny as ‘a big, ripe girl, and clever’ with ‘nothing of Lizzie’s exhausting self-concern’, but also that Fanny is shrewd enough to know that Rossetti needs a woman with no side, a woman who laughs at anxiety and endless inner-life.  There is a lovely conversation between them where he wants her to clean the house because he has guests coming, and Fanny suggests that if he made up his quarrel with Lizzie then maybe she would do the washing-up.  Rossetti find the idea ridiculous and tells her so, adding that Fanny is getting fat.  In comparison with the ever escalating arguments between Rossetti and Lizzie in the book, this one between him and Fanny is diffused quickly by Fanny’s laughter at his insult.

‘“Ah well,” Fanny said comfortably, “you know I love to eat. And anyway, Hughes likes a proper armful.”
Gabriel grinned. “He has good taste,” he said.’

They go from arguing to laughing affectionately in seconds.  What Savage seems to imply is that Fanny senses what Rossetti needs and complies, but it does her no good as she will never command his attention like Lizzie does, as Lizzie is what he wants in terms of artistic ambition and image.  What Lizzie will not or cannot achieve is a peaceful existence with Rossetti.  Neither of them compromise and drive each other mad, but Rossetti has Fanny to enable his bad behaviour because he knows he always has her to run to.  The night of Lizzie’s death is a prime example of this.  It’s curious that I can picture the scene so well, so clearly, yet the exchange between Lizzie and Rossetti was not witnessed, and so what we have is a piece of supposition which is now ‘fact’.  As Rossetti leaves, Lizzie shouts “it is not your night.  You are going to that slut.”
“At least,” Rossetti replies, “Fanny is pleasant company.”

Ah, there we have it.  Did he go to Fanny?  Did Lizzie really think he was going to Fanny?  Without the intervention of Jeremy Kyle and a lie detector special we’ll never know, but I think Fanny’s bad reputation is engendered by her ‘injury’ to Lizzie when she was at her most vulnerable.

In the section about Jane, Fanny doesn’t appear much, only briefly to judge that Jane Morris did very little apart from sitting around ‘being decorative, but could be excused a lot because she didn’t keep Gabriel from Fanny’s bed of nights.’  Finally then we reach Fanny’s section…

Fanny receives a scant 23 pages, but seeing as she appears throughout the book, I’m not complaining.  Add to this that in the 23 pages, Savage imagines Fanny’s thoughts and feelings unlike anyone else I’ve ever known.

By that I mean sympathetically.

Out of all the descriptions I’ve ever read of Fanny, the one I love most is that she was ‘a woman a cold man could warm his hands at.’  What a fabulous thought.  Fanny section is definitely the finale of the story, Rossetti’s decline and Fanny’s response.  Savage sums up their relationship like this:

‘Gentle reader, it is true that Fanny never understood him; she thought his pictures pretty and his verses rum, but she loved him all her life, although he was not a man much comforted by love.’

It’s hard to convey in a blog, but I am giving that passage a round of applause because it hits the nail on the head.  As Rossetti dies, William makes the decision to exclude Fanny from the funeral. The last sentence of the book is heartbreaking: ‘But Gabriel would have let the old Elephant come.’

As I stop sobbing with the pathos of it all, a few thoughts occur about the nature of Rossetti and Fanny relationship which are reflected in Willowwood.  Savage gives us a portrait of a man who is the author of his own misery and a woman who has to choose between keeping the man she loves and never truly getting what she wants.  Savages vision of Fanny is of a young woman achieving a lifestyle far beyond what would normally be available to her, but sacrificing the chance of an equal relationship, a relationship acknowledged by the world.  Further to this she gives up the fight for marriage with Rossetti as the chances of it are so very slim as to be almost impossible and she risked losing him in the fight. 

I love this book, and cannot recommend it enough.  No-one escapes the story as a hero or a villain and possibly gives a fair sense of the three women and the compromises (or not) that they made.  Fanny is not a slutty fishwife for once (hurrah!) and makes me realise possibly why I defend her so much.  Savage’s Fanny Cornforth uses humour to hold people’s attention as she feels that maybe it’s better to say something funny and saucy and risk being thought a fool, than to say something clever and risk being thought dull.  That reminds me of someone, but I can’t think who…


  1. This book looks wonderful. I'm also going to look for it. Have always been fascinated by the Pre-Raphaelites.

  2. It's lovely, and the chapter headings have the lovely leaf patterns around them. You get the impression of a labour of love.

  3. I really, really want to read this now. (Too bad my postgraduate coursework says otherwise.) Is it still in print?

    PS: Been following your blog for a while now, and your posts always make my day.

  4. It's not in print but seems to be fairly easy to track down, unlike Nerina Shute (grumble, grumble). Thank you for reading and I'm glad you like the blog :)

  5. I would like to get hold of a copy.Another great post ,thanks.


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