Thursday, 29 March 2012

Twenty Pounds from The Elephant’s Hole

One of the joys of writing this blog is that I get such interesting emails in response.  So far I have had the honour of talking with descendants of Charlie Howell, Fred Stephens and a model for May Cooksey, together with many other lovely people who drop me a line for a chat.  This week has been a corker as in my mail box I found a note from Lila (hello Lila) who had just become the proud owner of a cheque from Rossetti to Fanny.  She asked if I’d like to see it.
Why, yes, yes I would.  You may have to wait for me to stop screaming first.
Hither came splendid scans of said cheque and I did a little dance of joy.  The cheque is from January 1881 and is for £20, no doubt a gift for Fanny’s birthday (which is at the beginning of January).  1881 was a year of mixed fortunes for Fanny and Rossetti.  Fanny had married John Schott in 1879, in response to one of Rossetti’s rather petulant turns while away in Herne Bay, and she had moved to the Rose Tavern, safeguarding her future.  When Rossetti returned to Chelsea, Fanny returned to him and their relationship returned to as it had been before, despite the presence of her new husband.  The letters of 1879 and 1880 are littered with little notes from ‘Rhino’ to ‘Elephant’, some clearly under the influence of either drink or chloral, or both, where Rossetti pleads for her to keep him company in the evenings and at night, with promises of ‘tiddy’ cheques, small amounts to buy her favour.  The letters become fewer, possibly because she needed less persuasion to come to him each day as his health was so uncertain.  All of these cheques went into 'The Elephant's Hole', Fanny's savings, together with other items of worth which migrated from Tudor House up to Fanny's own home in Royal Avenue.
Thomas Hall Caine
The closeness between Rossetti and Fanny became strained by the introduction of a keen young man, Thomas Hall Caine.  If you have read his autobiography, Recollections, you will know how florid his 'recollections' of the great artist were, including an entirely improbable scene when Rossetti dies in his arms. 

To begin with, Hall Caine liked Fanny and they sat and gossipped, Fanny letting rip about some of Rossetti's friends and what she knew about them.  When it came to William and Jane Morris, Rossetti overheard her accusations and laughed, saying ‘But who believes anything said by the Elephant?’  In a letter to a friend, Rossetti credited Fanny with helping him reduce his chloral use, a very positive act in her favour.  However, while on holiday together in Cumbria in 1881, Hall Caine felt the need to ‘unmask’ Fanny as trying to get Rossetti’s will changed, which must have immediately put the family on alert.  Fanny counter-claimed, stating that Hall Caine had been exchanging Rossetti’s chloral for water and the whole holiday dissolved into recrimination, goodness knows Rossetti’s paranoid state would not needed much of a push to turn on anyone and everyone.  In November 1881, Rossetti wrote that he would not be able to see Fanny until he wrote again as his illness and mental state (and the influence of his family) would not allow it.  It wasn’t an unusual threat as he had written such missives before, when he feared for his health, feared the opinion of others, or had been removed by family away from any bad influences.

However, this time he never wrote again. He died in the April of the following year.

Portrait by G F Watts (1870-1)
In the fallout of his death in 1882, Fanny’s attempts to claim her ‘due’ as his common-law wife set in stone her reputation as the worst sort of woman and brought out a particularly vicious side of William Michael Rossetti.  When John Schott attempted to collect on a £300 IOU from Rossetti, William lost any semblance of control, he took his brother’s accounts apart and tallied up all the amounts his brother had given to Fanny.  It amounted to £1100, at which point steam began to leak from William’s ears.  He proposed to ‘terrorise’ Fanny over what he perceived to be the theft of the portrait of his brother by G F Watts, which Fanny had been selling engravings of.  Fanny promptly produced a signed document from her lover, saying the picture was hers.  In the end, the Schotts were given hush money of £65 to go away and never trouble to Rossettis ever again, possibly admitting that neither side had a flawless case in their favour.

Now, what I think is difficult to comprehend is how much these amounts were actually worth in today’s money.  By the magic of the National Archive’s money conversion machine, we can see how affecting these ‘tiddy’ cheques became. Starting with the £300 IOU from Rossetti to Fanny, dated 31 March 1875, in today’s money it would amount to around £14,000, hence William’s seizure at the sight of it.  Then again, the amount of £1100 in 1882 comes to £53,000.  Yikes.  Settling for £65 or around £3,000 in today’s money seems tolerable in comparison.
So Lila’s cheque for £20, a birthday gift from the Rhino to his funny old Elephant, that tiddy cheque today would be equal to £966.  Happy birthday indeed…


  1. I LOVED seeing this! How exciting. Also, it boggles my mind that £20 would equal to £966.

  2. When you start doing the math, it sort of puts their relationship in a different context. However 'casual' his friends and relations wanted to dismiss the relationship as, when you think about the amounts of money, it obviously was worth something quite profound to Rossetti. I think that might have been what drove William Michael to want to cast Fanny out so completely. I can't thank Lila enough for getting in touch, it was such a thrill.

  3. Folks, I am only too glad to have shared my (and Fanny's) good fortune with you. I find myself running a finger over both those signatures and wondering if I might pick up some vibe from them through the mists of time. I'm thrilled to have found this treasure, and I hope others enjoy Kirsty's wonderfully informative report about it as much as I have. Thanks so much for building a great story from this checque, Kirsty! I think Rossetti must have seen Fanny as his rock, always the same in the midst of his maelstrom of a life. I think she was a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get)sort of person who called him out on foolish or bad behavior, commonly known in the American South refer as "not acting right." We all need someone like that in life, and it's a pity she couldn't keep him from dosing himself into poor health and an early death.

    1. Thank you Lila, you made my week :) And Lila has very kindly allowed me to reproduce the cheque in the new edition of Stunner. I officially love Lila.

  4. Wow, I enjoyed this post enormously! How kind of Lila to share this!

  5. This is magical, thanks for posting.

  6. What a great story and thank you Lila for letting Kirsty share the exciting tidbit.


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