Wednesday, 30 April 2014

My Muse, My Self

I have been pondering a question I was asked this week.  When I was talking about the new novel I am currently engaged in, I was asked if I base my characters on real people.  Well yes, I replied, they are all me.  This was greeted with some surprise, but I think it is true that to a greater or lesser extent almost every character that drips from my quill (which sounds much nicer than 'rattles out of my keyboard') shares characteristics with yours truly.  I began to wonder if this was true of everyone...

Venus Verticordia, again
Coupled with this, I put up a lovely big poster of Venus Verticordia in my office this week.  She is massive and looming over my desk.  While I was admiring her I began to think about the artist who had put so much time and care into creating her with her big eyes and lips and look of sadness.  A bit like this...

Rossetti Selfie, c.1847
The more I looked at the big, deep eyes of Venus, the more I wondered about those archetypal Rossettian lips. None of the women possessed the pouty pucker he painted them with, but judging by his rather flattering 1840s selfie (and, to be fair, his death mask) he had a set of kissers that a stunner would be proud of.  So does looking at Rossetti as a reflection of his model tell us anything about him?

Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah (1855)

Writing in the Sand (1858-9)
The Rossetti woman of the 1850s has a sweet romance about her.  She is sometimes thoughtful, she is sometimes sexy, but she is always playing a part.  The deeper feeling in images such as the Dante pictures or the Arthurian images are a way of trialling devastating emotion removed from the pain.  Elizabeth Siddal, as seen through Rossetti's eyes, is coy, flirty, desperate for love, but then, in turn, quiet and contemplative.  For a young man searching for his identity as both a man and an artist, he is trying on life, through the form of Elizabeth and the sweet pain of medieval romance.  None of it matters because it is just a moment, and another moment is awaiting you tomorrow.

Bocca Baciata (1859)

Regina Cordium (1860)
It would be easy to say that sex began for Rossetti in 1859 with the advent of Bocca Baciata.  The full-lipped archetypal Rossettian woman was born, giving love and lust as interchangable sides of the same coin.  Everyone got sexed up, flesh is on show and those lips burst forth from the canvas as ripe and lush as the apples and flowers they share the picture with.  All is hot, close-up and the exaggeration of eyes begins.  The resemblance to that optimistic early self-portrait is in evidence.  It's all about the hair, the eyes, the lips and being there for love, lust and eternal summer.

The Blue Bower (1865)

The Blue Silk Dress (1868)
I think it's no coincidence that Rossetti embraced a more aesthetic path just as he would have desired to be devoid of any thought other than art.  The women of the 1860s, after his wife's death, get blanker, typified by Alexa's vacant gaze, until they just exist within the beauty.  How much did Rossetti long to be able to live like that?  He no longer craved the sensation of romance so much as stark beauty as a means to an end.  Each woman was a reckless pursuit of the emptiness of the perfect shell.  Look at me, I am beauty, what more do you want of me?  It could be argued that like Alexa, Jane and Fanny, he craved to be frozen in that moment of luscious hollowness, a kept-up appearance with nothing behind it.

A Vision of Fiametta (1878)

Pandora (1878)
As the 1870s crept onwards, subjects recur in images of Jane Morris, if not Alexa Wilding.  The Rossettian muse became woman of regret - Pandora and her box, La Pia, sorrowful in her marriage.  The vision of the beautiful woman, Fiametta, is a vision of what has been lost.  The box is open, the woman is dead.  Now is not the time to clear our minds.  That moment has gone, has itself been lost.  The women and in turn, the artist himself cannot help but be confronted by the truth of their situation and that situation is tragic.  It is as if Rossetti cannot silence the clammer of his own accusing mind.  He is each of these women and more.  He is Lady Macbeth, he is Prosepine, he did something that will affect and destroy his future and there is no escape.

Astarte Syriaca (1877)

Mnemosyne (1881)
Towards the end, the vision is fixed.  The muse becomes singular even when she is a multitude.  She is alone in a dark space and she is terrible and powerless all at once.  The artist envisions a perfection of memory, a woman who exists to remember.  Maybe that is her punishment; not to be actually punished or harmed but to constantly remember that thing that brought her to that place.  On the table in front of her is a pansy, the flower clutched by Elizabeth Siddal in Regina Cordium when she was the Queen of his Heart until he broke hers.

Death Mask (1882)
It's a tenuous argument, I know, but it would resolve just where exactly those enormous lips came from for starters.  The idea that Rossetti would identify with the subjects, the mediums, of his art is not unbelievable.  Just because they were women does not preclude him from being at one with the emotions they are projecting.  After all, it is the artist that is projecting, the artist that is speaking and it is his voice we hear.  Just because the method of his communication is a woman does not make the words come with any less clarity.


  1. I think it's true of most writers. It's certainly true of me -- except in those few places where the first draft of a character horrified my beta readers, in which cases I had to retrench and base the character on somebody else.


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