This is a bit of a rambling post but it's something that has always puzzled me, but I've never been able to put my finger on what the problem is. Anyway, the point of this post is to try and unpick a very famous anecdote.
It's a truth universally acknowledged that this is the first picture that Fanny Cornforth appears in...
|Found (1854-1881) Dante Gabriel Rossetti|
To be exact, she appeared in a sketch for this unfinished piece, probably something like this one...
|Study for the Girl's Head in Found (c.1858) Dante Gabriel Rossetti|
In Fanny's account, which has never been disputed, she said that after they met, Rossetti invited her to the studio where he put her head against the wall and drew it for what she called 'the calf picture' or as we know it, Found. The story behind Found is that a country chap comes to London and discovers his former beloved, who had abandoned him for the bright lights of London. She's been living a thoroughly sinful life that seems to have turned her green and she is very ashamed of herself. Somehow, this account of an innocent country girl who becomes a sex worker in London has also become co-opted as Fanny's story. The simplicity of Found is in stark contrast to the utterly bizarre nature of Fanny's own alleged origin story, and there is just something about the details of that fable that have always bothered me. Let's start with a famous quote...
'He met her in the Strand. She was cracking nuts with her teeth and throwing the shells about: seeing Rossetti staring at her, she threw some at him. Delighted with this brilliant naivete, he forthwith accosted her to sit to him for her portrait' (Autobiographical Notes of the Life of William Bell Scott (1892) William Bell Scott)
This is the now infamous account about how Rosetti met Fanny. It is, of course, utter bobbins, but was sort of backed up by William Michael Rossetti in his book on his brother, where he says 'I cannot recollect ever hearing anything about the nuts, but do not contest Mr Scott's statement on that point.' It has to be noted that William Michael did not like Fanny, especially around the time he was writing. Also, William Bell Scott was not present at the alleged meeting in the Strand. Why William Bell Scott would make up such an elaborate lie is something that really interests me. The reasoning I always go for is this entry in William Allingham's diary, Sunday 26th June 1864:
'Enter Fanny, who says something of W. B. Scott which amuses us. Scott was a dark hairy man, but after an illness has reappeared quite bald, Fanny exclaimed, ' O my, Mr. Scott is changed ! He ain't got a hye-brow or a hye-lash — not a 'air on his 'ead ! ' Rossetti laughed immoderately at this, so that poor Fanny, good-humoured as she is, pouted at last— ‘Well, I know I don't say it right,' and I hushed him up.'
From the diary entry, it doesn't seem it was at a party or said to anyone other than Allingham and Rossetti but I don't put it past Rossetti to have to told William Bell Scott this 'hilarious' anecdote. I also don't feel, from Allingham's record of the incident, that Fanny meant the remark maliciously, she was just exclaiming on the change in Scott's appearance. Scott, by reputation, was proud of his looks, but his sudden alopecia after his illness had caused him great embarrassment. Like Rossetti, he appears to have been a very good looking chap in his youth but not so much later on.
|William Bell Scott (1850s) Arthur Hughes|
|Bell Scott, Ruskin and Rossetti in 1863|
|Rebecca Davies in Desperate Romantics|
|Woman Combing Her Hair (1864) Dante Gabriel Rossetti|
'Lo, it is custom for those who dwell in that city to break the nut with their teeth and swallow the fruit within. For others it is custom to break the nut and give food to those near them, who sate the hunger of others with the nuts which they are eager to take.'
Okay, so it's a stretch, but the symbolism of the nut as knowledge or faith being learned, digested or shared, is an interesting one. Read in this way, Fanny's nut cracking and throwing is an act of sharing, but it is only the shell she throws. If her nut cracking and throwing is truly symbolic, then it is an act of sharing something useless, that she keeps the good things for herself and shares that which is no use to anyone. This sort of symbolic reading of Fanny is repeated in Violet Hunt's The Wife of Rossetti (1932) where she talks about Fanny's ancestor who would promise to share peaches and apricots when all she had was apples. Hunt learned her version of the Pre-Raphaelite drama from Scott, who was a family friend, so the use of symbolism might have come from him.
|Found (study of a head of a woman) (1853-7) Dante Gabriel Rossetti|
So, where does all this leave us? Honestly, I have no answers, as the reason why William Bell Scott would write down such an elaborate lie is mysterious. Was the intended target Fanny or Rossetti? He brands one a sex worker and the other a man who likes women with strong teeth and weird soliciting techniques. It does occur to me that Scott might have seen a sex worker perform such a trick (I'm guessing with peanuts rather than walnuts unless she had really sturdy false teeth) and kept that in mind for when he was writing up his memoir, but why bother? Had Fanny really upset him that much? Part of me is really doubtful that Fanny was the intended target as that is a lot of weird effort to go to in order to get even with a working class woman, who by that point had retreated to obscurity. I have a feeling a lot of the appalling things said about Fanny are actually about Rossetti - she becomes collateral damage in people getting even with Rossetti, who alienated a lot of people, if not actually infuriated them. By the 1890s, William Michael had actually done a fairly decent job in creating the myth of 'the great man' Rossetti, backed by various biographers who had piled on after Thomas Hall Caine's unctuous offering, Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1882). I can see people who may have felt aggrieved or felt that they had a different story to tell, getting in on the act.
|Woman with a Fan (1870) Dante Gabriel Rossetti|
So, we end up with nuts. Whether it is about the thrower or the target is unclear but the story only came to define one of the people involved. The fictitious Fanny with her strong teeth may symbolise strength, masculinity, emasculation, luxury, ingenuity or idiocy but that is not the woman who Rossetti approached in a dining alcove at a firework event in 1856 and pulled the pins from her hair. Let's hope we never forget that again.