Picks and Pans Review: Pre-Raphaelites in Love

updated 05/15/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/15/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Gay Daly

As a little girl, Daly says in her preface, she was always drawn to the paintings of "big dreaming ladies" with "masses of rippling, shimmering hair" she saw in museums and libraries. As a grown woman, she set herself the task of tracking down the real stories of these 19th-century models. The result is an irresistible chronicle of convoluted passions, precarious liaisons and twisted fates.

The painters in question—John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were among the most renowned—banded together in London in 1848. Young and lusting for artistic revolution, they dubbed themselves (more than a little self-seriously) the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In place of murky backgrounds and formulaic compositions, they pledged to pursue light, nature and the heroic subjects that had been favored by the Italian painters who predated Raphael.

As sexually repressed as the next Victorian, the Pre-Raphaelites nonetheless sought inspiration in women of all classes, and soon they had created a bohemian subculture in which desire ruled all. Hunt fell in love with the voluptuous barmaid Annie Miller, paid for her education, used her as a model—only to have her stolen (in both the private and professional meanings) by Rossetti, who perceived her as Helen of Troy. Rossetti, meanwhile, was tantalizing his "higher" love, Lizzie Siddall—a frail milliner's assistant whom he immortalized as Dante's Beatrice—with possibilities of marriage that took a decade to become reality. The most wanton of the Brothers, Rossetti also betrayed Lizzie with Fanny Cornforth, the prostitute who became his Fair Rosamund; he would also, years after Lizzie's suicide, steal his friend William Morris's most unhappy wife, Jane.

Indeed, the bed-hopping that went on among these couples seems only to have been surpassed by the abject terror they experienced when contemplating sex. Adept at painting their ideal women, the artists found such creatures all too difficult to find in life. As for the ladies—at a time when marriage was essential for female social survival—they proved remarkably courageous in their choices. Effie Gray, for example, suffered a six-year marriage to the critic John Ruskin in which he blamed his impotence on her "mental illness." When she filed for annulment (in order to marry Millais), she was upbraided in newspapers and shunned by the Queen.

Daly, who holds a Ph.D. in English literature from Yale, masterfully weaves social and art history into these romances, and writes, "It cannot have been an accident, that every husband stopped painting his wife within a few years of the wedding." And yet, throughout these tangled lives, there is among these people a paradoxically profound commitment to marriage, to family, to the notion of a permanent, romantic bond.

Daly starts out with the thesis that we may have far more in common with the Victorians than we would probably care to admit. It is a tribute to the compelling portraits she offers that, by the end of her book, such comparisons seem neither gratuitous nor insulting. In Daly's hands, this particular crew of Victorians becomes very, very good company. (Ticknor & Fields, $24.95)

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