Tuesday 1 April 2014

The Trouble with Alexa Wilding...

This will be a bit of a rambly one, so forgive me in advance, but it comes from a few discussions I've had in the last couple of weeks regarding Alexa and where she sits in the whole Pre-Raphaelite story.  The problem with Alexa is that in order to put her in, you have to shove other things around...

Alexa and Fanny

Lady Lilith (watercolour) D G Rossetti
Lady Lilith (oil) D G Rossetti

Slotting Alexa into Fanny's story is reasonably straightforward.  Fanny reigned supreme from 1862-65, then Rossetti dragged Alexa off the street and Fanny was shoved in a box.  He scraped Fanny out of pictures like Lady Lilith, Venus Verticordia and arguably (by me at least) Monna Vanna and never looked back.  What was it about Fanny that Rossetti no longer found inspiring?  She had grown fat (oi!) and therefore unattractive as a muse (watch it!) and he needed the beautiful, young Alexa to relight his creative fires and earn him a bit of cash.

I find the weight argument a bit spurious and based on a remark made by William Bell Scott (who hated Fanny's guts).  He called her 'the creature with three waists', how kind, but he was also the man who claimed that she cracked nuts between her teeth.  This coupled with Rossetti's nickname for her, 'Elephant', sealed her fate as being unattractive.  It should be noted that Rossetti had called Fanny 'Elephant' for years before he stopped using her and was calling her that when this picture was taken...

Fanny, 1863
When he replaced Fanny with Alexa, she looked like this...

Alexa, mid 1860s
No offence to Alexa, but she's not really a wisp of a thing.  Maybe then it had more to do with age.  When Rossetti grabbed Alexa she was around 17 years old.  Fanny was 30.  But Alexa wasn't the only woman on the scene, as 26 year old Jane Morris reappeared as Rossetti's Muse in 1865 too.  Fanny was well and truly put to one side as main muse, but if it was not her appearance, what else could it be?

I wonder if Rossetti's move away from Fanny was a move away from his dependence on her.  She had become a permanent inclusion in his life in 1862 when his wife died.  Unlike the other women who had caused Elizabeth Siddal so much heartache, Fanny moved herself in to Rossetti's life and became a fully integrated part of him as man and artist.  Annie Miller remained a muse but slipped away; Marie Stillman, Anne Ryan, Ellen Smith, all came and went but Fanny was there in his house, in his bed, in his kitchen, and in his studio when he needed her.  Possibly his move away from Fanny was a move away from any weakness he had understandably felt after Elizabeth's death.  She was around his age, she had been in his life for a while.  Maybe what he wanted was a fresh start and not be Sad, Mad Rossetti anymore.  Maybe in Alexa he found a way to forget the past.

Alexa and Jane

Whilst Alexa is quite easily slotted into Fanny's story, the real problems and arguments come when you try and reconcile Alexa and Jane Morris.  Possibly one of the main reasons that Alexa has been ignored by biographers for so long is that she makes the whole Rossetti-Jane love story a bit less single-minded.  The official story says that Rossetti fell back in love with Jane Morris in 1865 and remained devoted to her, obsessed in fact, until his death.  But then things like this happen...

Kind of Jane's face, kind of Alexa's hair.  I like to call her 'Jalexa'...
One of the reasons I wanted to write a Pre-Raphaelite story from the perspective of Alexa is that she was there at all points between 1865 and 1882.  She is a bit of a fly in the ointment of the obsession because she gives Jane a run for her money in terms of being Rossetti's muse.  Alexa appears in more oils than Jane and countless sketches.  She was there at Kelmscott Manor when Jane and Rossetti were 'all alone', she was there in Bognor when Jane and Rossetti called an end to their romance.  She was equally a matter of speculation among Rossetti's friends, but has roundly been dismissed as anything other than a model.  Why?

La Pia De'Tolomei (1868) D G Rossetti
La Pia De'Tolomei (1868) D G Rossetti
Much of Alexa's poor reputation is fixed upon a throw away remark by Rossetti, which I merrily quote in A Curl of Copper and Pearl.  Rossetti wrote to his mother from Kelmscott that Alexa was 'a really good-natured creature - fit company for anyone & quite ladylike, only not gifted or amusing.  Thus she might bore you at meals & so on (for one cannot put her in a cupboard)...' (24th May 1873)  Upon those damning words poor Alexa has been written off as not of interest in comparison to the dark goddess, Jane Morris.  Why bother with looking at Alexa when Jane was obviously his consuming passion?  Look at the pictures he painted of Jane in comparison to those of Alexa...

La Donna della Finestra (1879)
La Bella Mano (1875)
I wonder how much our knowledge of Rossetti and Jane's relationship informs how we view his art and how much that feeds back into how we view his relationship.  He loved her in real life and so his image of her is loving, therefore he loved her in real life.  It's a relationship that is self-fulfilling by this point with all the times it has been repeated in print. We can tell how intense Rossetti felt about Jane Morris because his images are so intense.  His images are so intense because he felt so intense.  But what of Alexa?  Do we believe the images of her are any less intense?   To my eye, the same gaze is reflected in all the Rossetti's muses.  It is easy to argue that Alexa looks disinterested and bored/boring because that is how we believe she was in real life.  Looking at the two images above, do we really see more passion in Jane than in Alexa?  Is it really there or do we imagine it because Rossetti felt differently towards Jane?

Did Rossetti feel differently towards Jane?

Alexa and Rossetti

Ah, now, here we go.  I am queen of unfounded speculation, but I am not alone.  Alexa and Rossetti's relationship caused gossip among his friends but mostly it was put to bed because he was openly seen with Jane.  He could not possibly be seeing two women, that wouldn't be like him at all!  In answer to the evidence of the letter, there are many reasons why Rossetti might have said Alexa wasn't amusing or gifted.  He might have been closing down an avenue of interest from his mother who was about to meet the young lady.  He might have been feeling spiteful.  He might have known that people were talking or have been paranoid enough to think they would be.  He might have been sleeping with Alexa and wanted to hide it from Jane, from Fanny, from his family.  Come on, he's not really a one-woman man now is he?  Are we claiming that Jane Morris was a far stronger influence on Rossetti than Lizzie Siddal?  Did Jane cure Rossetti of his womanising that drove one woman to the grave?  Bold claim indeed.

What we know of Rossetti and Alexa's relationship is that he guarded her jealously, not allowing her to pose for anyone other than himself, Boyce and Dunn, his studio assistant (who was also in love with her).  He paid her weekly, even if he wasn't using her, and he complained about her absences bitterly in his letters.  When he went away from London he invariably took Alexa with him, he gave her extra funds when he sold pictures and he worried about her health.  In many ways he treated her the same as he treated Jane and Fanny and yet Alexa doesn't fit in the simple narrative of Rossetti's life.  Fanny is difficult enough but she just about slots in between Lizzie's death (for which she is often help culpable) and Jane's return.  He loved Lizzie, he loved Fanny, he loved Jane, but as for Alexa, he just painted her.

Venus Verticordia (1867-68) D G Rossetti

Are we so sure?


  1. Rattling good read and thought provoking too, I think Rossetti might be the type of man who is 'when I'm not with the girl I love - I love the girl I'm with' if only he'd written copious diaries about his love life!

  2. Excellent and thought provoking post! True, our thoughts often slide right over Alexa. Her 'narrative' isn't as interesting as Lizzie, Jane or Fanny. There are so many possibilities about her relationship with DGR, though.

    Also, I LOVE 'Jalexa'!

  3. One of my favorite entries here by far! I am starving for information on Alexa and wish there were more or access to more letters &c by DGR about him!

    1. ...about HER. sheesh. and...she was at Kelmscott?? when they were alone?? This changes my little internal picture show quite a bit.

    2. The house where she lived got bomb in the war (WW2).interestingly Fanny lived in the next road along.

  4. *William Bell Scott, arbiter of Pre-Raphaelite beauty and professional Tommy Cooper lookalike.

  5. Thanks for your comments and how did I never see that about WBS before?! Uncanny.

    I like Alexa possibly because she puts a few cats among the pigeons of accepted wisdom. That is never a bad thing.


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