Friday, 21 October 2011

Sex and Spires

A couple of posts ago I was whinging that I wanted to read Victorian Love Story by Nerina Shute.  Well, lo and behold, after a bit of wrangling I managed to get hold of a copy and it proved to be a bit of a revelation…

Nerina Shute
Published in 1954, it fits nicely into my obsession with mid-20th century ideas about Pre-Raphaelitism and is an extension to my previous comments about how certain ideas changed and developed as the century drew on.  Shute prefaces her novel with an explanation of what sources she used in writing her fictionalised account, and more interestingly what she didn’t.  May Morris donated her mother’s correspondence to the British Museum with the proviso that it shouldn’t be read for fifty years, which expired in 1958.  Therefore, Shute relies on her suspicions to paint the relationship between Rossetti and Jane Morris, with a note that only time will show how accurate she was.

This is a Rossetti-centric book; the subtitle is ‘A study of the Victorian Romantics based on the life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’, alerting you straight away to the fact that this is a book about Rossetti and his loves.  Similar to Elizabeth Savage’s Willowwood, it revolves around Lizzie, Jane and Fanny, with only brief mention of Annie Miller and almost no mention of Alexa Wilding.  Poor Alexa, I would say ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride’, but she never even seems to get invited to the wedding.  Anyway Victorian Love Story is split into two parts: Part I revolves around the courtship of Lizzie resulting in the marriage, then Part II is a downhill slope of honeymoon, death and obsession.  So far, so familiar.  What makes this book so good?  The humour.  This book is hilarious, who knew the Pre-Raphaelites could be so funny?

Lizzie Siddal,
funnier than expected...
There is a Downton Abbey kind of gentle humour that pervades the action of Victorian Love Story.  When Mrs Deverell describes Rossetti as having ‘the misfortune to be the son of an Italian professor’, you know that it’s not going to be misery all the way.  Mrs Millais describes the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in glowing terms: ‘the Brothers did not swear, nor drink, and were, with the exception of Rossetti, as good as gold…and longed, said Mrs Millais, to rescue women from a fate worse than death.’  While Lizzie poses for Millais, Mrs Millais gives her opinions of familiar people in a funny and astute manner, setting the characters up for the rest of the book.  Interestingly, Shute hints at a possible romance between Lizzie and Millais, with Millais offering to teach Lizzie to paint because he is a better artist than Rossetti.  This made me think about an alternative history, where Millais married Lizzie and stayed PRB to the bone.  Rossetti then may have married Jane because I doubt he was ever going to marry poor Fanny.  Maybe he would never have married at all and spared a load of women a load of heartache.  Mind you, that would mean that Effie would never have left Ruskin for Millais.  Possibly Ruskin would have thrown Effie at Rossetti.  It doesn’t bear thinking about….

Back to the book.  Now, I had never thought about Lizzie Siddal beyond the party-line we are so often given.  She was a troubled artistic soul, she was a victim of Rossetti’s neglect, blah blah blah… What Shute does is give Lizzie a sense of humour.  It makes so much difference, and lifts her from being a victim to giving as good as she got.  I adore the idea that she held Rossetti off with her wit:

            “Do you not wish me to love you?”
“Oh yes, thank you, it is all right when a person gets used to it, but,” said Miss Sid, “it is ever so tiring at first.”

Rossetti, who should be
ashamed of himself

Shute’s depiction of Rossetti is of an earnest, passionate man, who is uncompromising in the manner he wishes to live.  Lizzie has to find a way to fit comfortably into his life while not risking her wellbeing and good name to a disastrous degree.

“I think I shall go mad!” cried Rossetti, throwing out both his arms in a gesture of torment. “I have, my dearest Lizzie, the natural desire of a man for a woman!”
“Do be careful,” said Miss Sid, observing the wild movement of his arms, “or you will knock the aspidistra off the table.”

What Shute manages to provide is not the Free-Love Wildchild, or the ghostly victim of Rossetti’s lusts, but a Victorian woman who makes a calculated gamble on a man who she thought would change, but who doesn’t?  Which of us hasn’t fallen for a man thinking ‘He’ll change, he’ll mature just like Millais’ only to find out he’s a feckless wastrel?  I’m longing for someone to say that on Jeremy Kyle now….

Tom Hollander and a Feckless Wastrel
Reason number two why Victorian Love Story is brilliant is the scene where John Ruskin has to explain to his parents exactly why his wife has left him.  One of the few redeeming features of Desperate Romantics was Tom Hollander as Ruskin, and it is that rather lovely actor I imagine now when I think of the pretty much unlovable art critic, as Mr Hollander made him human.  Well, Shute delivers a scene that made me both laugh out loud and feel horribly sorry for Ruskin (imagine that) as he has to admit his own catastrophic weirdness to his completely baffled mother and father.  When trying, painfully, to explain why he couldn’t consummate his marriage, Ruskin admits he would rather think about art and architecture.

“But no one,” said his mother in a moment of exasperation, “can think about Cathedrals in bed.”
“Why not?” said the great art critic.

The Millais Family -
Obviously he didn't think about cathedrals
Shute then goes on to describe the disastrous wedding night without sensationalism or drama, just the increasing desperate Ruskin stalling Effie with stories of swans and bees, and the increasingly puzzled Effie asking more and more questions and getting less and less answers, while laughing then finally crying as Ruskin buckles under the weight of his disgust.  It’s sad, understated and beautifully written and as much pity as I naturally felt for Effie, I actually felt sorry for John Ruskin, as much a victim of his strangeness as the unfortunate woman who married him.

Fanny does not figure heavily in the opening scenes of the novel.  She is mentioned, already married and flirty, but she only reappears in the closing phases of the Rossetti/Siddal romance.  She is cited as a cause of miserable jealousy for Lizzie, but Rossetti is clear on what he wants.  Shute’s Rossetti wants his soulful maiden to paint, but he needs a woman to bed as well, and he has no intension of marrying.  Either Lizzie fulfil both roles and surrenders her hopes of marriage, or she hangs onto her virginity and watches her lover cavort around with other women.  As Fanny has more and more hold over Rossetti’s passion, there is an interesting scene as Rossetti paints Fanny in his studio and Lizzie constantly summons him with a little bell which drives Fanny mad.  The sadness of the scene is revealed through the implication that Lizzie is as desperate as Fanny is, but Fanny has the ultimate weapon at her disposal and only has to suggest a quick tumble and she has Rossetti’s full attention.  Shute doesn’t seem to pass any judgement on Rossetti other than the self-serving philosophy that tumbles from his lips.  What Shute does to balance the fact that Rossetti is an idiot is that the women go along with it and pander to him.  He is not properly challenged when he makes astonishing statements, which arguably never wake him to the mistakes he makes.  When Effie challenges him on his treatment of Lizzie, he is puzzled by the question:

“It is wrong and very wicked,” she told the poet, “to have your mistress in the next room.”
“But I cannot have her in the same room,” replied Rossetti in surprise. “Lizzie and Fanny do not like one another.”

Lovely Janey
When Lizzie dies, Fanny rules his heart for a while before the advent of Jane Morris.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had a difficulty with imagining how on earth William Morris ever put up with the goings-on between Jane and Rossetti.  It’s generally felt he bowed out to his master, but I was delighted to see Fanny’s reaction to the situation.  She describes William and Jane as being ‘like a trained bear behind its keeper’, which is a fabulous image.  She finally confronts Morris when he brings Jane to model.

“Ain’t you jealous?”
Morris frowning, turned a flushed face and replied at the top of his voice: “No, I am not! Please mind your own business!”

He does look quite hacked off....
Fanny stalks away, angry and Rossetti admits that Fanny doesn’t like William. “Women never do,” comes Morris’ sad reply.  When Morris finally loses his temper with the couple and almost breaks down the door to find Jane, Fanny actually kisses him and is utterly delighted that at least someone is behaving in a normal manner. “You’re as jealous as I am!” she declares, smiling.

The remainder of the story is very familiar, but Rossetti’s years of self indulgence catch up with him and I’ve always found the end of his life to be horribly pitiful.  It seems to me that he died surrounded by people who respected and revered him, rather than the people who loved him, and that was his punishment.  I have to admit that my feelings towards certain familiar people were changed subtly by imagining things that are just outside the official story:  Did Fanny ever meet Jane?  Or Lizzie?  Did Topsy ever lose his patience with Rossetti?  How did Ruskin explain himself to his parents?  Did Rossetti ever consider how his behaviour affected the choices other people made for him when he was no longer able to make his own decisions?  The mark of a good book is that it makes you reconsider people and events that you thought you knew inside and out. 

If any of you go to bed tonight to think about cathedrals, I shall be very disappointed in you.


  1. Very much enjoyed this. Thank you.

  2. Loved this very personal review,Nerina Shute looks like Helena Bonham Carter!She also wrote about Wordsworth and and Dorothy and I think Shelley.All the best Angela

  3. Thank you! Yes, Nerina looks very glam indeed. I will work on my glam hair and soft focus for when I am a Pre-Raph novelist.... I'm glad you both enjoyed the piece x


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