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LIZZIE SIDDAL: Her Life & legacy

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Lizzie Siddal Rossetti (b. 1829 – d. 1862) 

is one of the key characters in my novel 

Beauty in Thorns

which reimagines the Sleeping Beauty fairy-tale 

set amongst the passions, tragedies and scandals of the Pre-Raphaelite circle 

of poets and artists in Victorian Britain

'Paolo and Francesca da Rimini', Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1855 

Known best for her work as a model for Pre-Raphaelite artists such as William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lizzie Siddal  was an artist in her own right, writing delicate melancholy poetry and painting small jewel-like oils. She was the only woman to have her work included in the first-ever exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art in 1857. 

'Clerk Saunders', Lizzie Siddal (1857)

One of the difficulties of writing biographical fiction is that the author cannot sit on the sidelines, and say, ‘it is believed that …’ or ‘it is possible …’ A novelist needs to try and find the explanation that seems most likely, and then bring it to life on the page. This was most difficult in the case of Lizzie Siddal, someone whose real life is much obscured by myth and rumour.

The story persists that Lizzie was discovered by Walter Deverell, an artist friend of the Pre-Raphaelites, while working in a milliner’s shop. However, as the renowned Pre-Raphaelite scholar Jan Marsh has found, Lizzie did not passively wait to be discovered but rather went out to meet her future by taking her drawings to Mrs Deverell, the wife of the secretary of the London School of Design, in the hope of pursuing her dreams of becoming an artist. Mrs Deverell’s son Walter then went to visit Lizzie at her workplace and, after seeing her, asked her to model for him. 

That, at least, is the story that Lizzie herself told. It may not be true, but it seems more likely than a busy young man accompanying his mother to her milliner’s. There is as much evidence for one as for the other, (i.e. none), and this novel was inspired by the desire to give the women of the Pre-Raphaelite circle a chance to tell their own stories, in their own voices. So it is Lizzie’s version of events I have drawn upon in Beauty in Thorns.

'Twelfth Night', Walter Deverell (1850)

Walter Deverell wanted a girl who looked like a boy, to pose as Viola in Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night'. Lizzie sits on the left, her slim legs exposed as she pretends to be a pageboy. The jester was modelled by Walter Deverell's friend, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who would soon become Lizzie's mentor and - most probably - her lover. 

Rossetti (called Gabriel by his friends) drew Lizzie obsessively.


Drawings of Lizzie Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1850-1852) 

In 1852, Lizzie modelled as 'Ophelia' for John Everett Millais. It was January 1852, and bitterly cold. Wearing an antique silver-embroidered wedding dress, she lay in a bathtub filled with water drawn from the filthy River Thames.  Millais had put candles and lamps underneath to try and keep the water warm, but one by one they blew out. Lizzie lay in the bath for five hours. In that one afternoon she would earn more for modelling than she did in a whole year as a milliner's apprentice. He brother had just died of tuberculosis, and her family were poor. She could not afford to lose her modelling job.

'Ophelia', John Everett Millais (1852) - Lizzie Siddal was the model

At last Millais saw that she was shivering with cold and fever, and helped her out of the bath. The damage was done, however. Lizzie was ill, most probably with pneumonia. Her family called for a doctor (a most unusual act by such a poor family). It is most likely that he prescribed her laudanum, a tincture of opium in alcohol. Lizzie became dependant on the drug, and began a slow slide down into addiction and physical and mental ill-health. 

Lizzie Siddal has not been treated well by the key biographers of the Pre-Raphaelites. She has been called 'sickly', 'wan', 'morbid', 'passive', 'obstinate', 'primitive', 'stupid', 'prim', 'neurotic', 'hysterical', 'feeble', and 'frigid', along with many other similar emotionally loaded words. Many of these biographers were apologists for Rossetti (including his brother and his niece), and so were not unbiased.  

Her addiction to laudanum is widely known. What is not so well-known is that Lizzie may have suffered from an eating disorder. Nowadays, when we see a young woman wasting away to a virtual skeleton, refusing food, or vomiting after meals, we would suspect anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. However, in the mid-19th century such pronounced emaciation was normally attributed to tuberculosis, commonly called ‘consumption’ because it seemed to consume the sufferer.  

The first medical identification of eating disorders was made in 1868 (six years after Lizzie’s death), when Sir William Gull, the Queen’s physician, delivered a paper describing a digestive disorder with no known cause, which he called ‘hysteric apepsia’ (apepsia means ‘without digestion’). In 1873 (eleven years after Lizzie’s death), Ernest-Charles Lasègue, a French physician, published a paper entitled 'De l’Anorexie Histerique' which was the first real examination of the idea that the wasting away of these young women could be caused by self-starvation. It was not understood as a mental illness, however, but as a ‘maladie imaginaire’. Sir William Gull consequently undertook further investigation and coined the term ‘anorexia nervosa’.

Dr Gull's illustrations of anorexia in the 1870s

If Lizzie was an anorectic, she and her family and friends would have had absolutely no idea what was wrong with her. Any ‘curious perversions of appetite’, as Lasègue named them, such as binge eating, secret eating, hoarding of food, purging, refusal of food, or food-related rituals, would have seemed, at best, a hysterical demand for attention. 

The possibility that Lizzie might have had an eating disorder was first suggested by Elaine Shafer in a 1985 essay, ‘Deverell, Rossetti, Siddal and "The Bird in the Cage".'  

However, it has never been closely examined as a probable cause for her troubling illnesses. Even the most recent biography, by Lucinda Hawksley in 2004, says: ‘Much of Lizzie’s ill health originated in her mind, stemming from her desire to receive attention and love.’ Lucinda Hawksley does acknowledge that Lizzie may have had some kind of eating disorder, but then says that ‘it became common for her to emotionally blackmail (Gabriel) by refusing to eat.’

Anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders are mental illnesses with devastating physical consequences, having the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. They cannot, and must not, be dismissed as a form of emotional blackmail (even though they are commonly misunderstood in such a way).

The more I researched Lizzie’s life, the more convinced I became that she did have an eating disorder. Descriptions of her thinness and her inability to eat are constant in the letters and diaries of the Pre-Raphaelites. A few examples:

In 1854, Ford Madox Brown writes in his diary that Lizzie was ‘thinner and more deathlike and more beautiful and more ragged than ever’.
In 1857, Gabriel wrote that she is ‘not better in health or eating anything to speak of’; This was the same year in which Lizzie refused to touch food for two weeks, resulting in her admission to the health spa in Matlock. 

In 1861, he refers to her ‘unfortunate lack of appetite which keeps her mostly fasting and prevents her from gaining much strength.’ 

Then, at the inquest into her death in 1862, he told the court ‘she could not sleep at times nor take food’ (insomnia is a common side effect of anorexia).

Most striking is the visual evidence of Gabriel’s drawings and paintings which show her physically dwindling away. 


                  Drawings of Lizzie Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (late 1850s)

Lizzie’s death is another matter which needed to be investigated carefully. It is widely believed that Lizzie committed suicide, even though the inquest into her death found that she died ‘accidentally and casually and by misfortune’ of an overdose of laudanum.

Laudanum was widely available in the 19th century, and was even given to newborn babies to help them sleep, sometimes resulting in the child dying of starvation. Laudanum acts to suppress appetite, among other effects. It is common for people with an eating disorder to also suffer from substance abuse problems, and certainly the opium would have been the cause of, or exacerbated, many of Lizzie’s problems.

But did Lizzie take an overdose of laudanum by accident, or on purpose?

The possibility of suicide was first given life by Sir Thomas Hall Caine, who had worked as Rossetti’s secretary during the last year of his life. In 1928, he published a new edition of his book Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in which he claimed Rossetti had told him of finding ‘a letter or message addressed to him lying on the table by her side.’ 

The rumour was fanned by Violet Hunt in her 1932 biography, Rossetti’s Wife, in which she declares that Lizzie left a note saying ‘My life is so miserable I wish for no more of it.’ Violet Hunt was born the same year that Lizzie died, and is no relation to William Holman Hunt, though her father Alfred Hunt was a landscape painter who knew the Pre-Raphaelites. She had a long affair with Ford Madox Brown’s grandson, Ford Madox Ford, and claims to have heard all the inside gossip from him. Her biography is considered unreliable, at the very best. At its worse, it is malicious and deliberately misleading.

William Rossetti’s daughter, Helen Rossetti Angeli, published an article in rebuttal of Violet Hunt’s book, which said ‘Lizzie’s last message, as reported, is touching and romantic, but she did not write it.’ 

Seventeen years later she published her own biography of her uncle, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Friend and Enemies, in which she said that Lizzie was found with a note pinned to her nightgown, saying ‘Take care of Harry’, who was Lizzie's feeble-minded brother. 

The note did not survive, and so it is impossible to know if Helen Rossetti Angeli’s account is any truer than Violet Hunt’s. It has been argued that Angeli may have been trying to refute a consistent rumour that Gabriel had murdered Lizzie; or, at the very least, driven her to suicide by his cruel behaviour (Oscar Wilde told everyone that Gabriel had pushed the bottle into her hands and told her to ‘drink the lot’ before storming out of the house).

Then we have Lizzie’s last poem, ‘O Lord, May I Come?’, written in ‘a shaky and straggling hand’ which William Rossetti thought must have been ‘written under the influence of laudanum.’ It is possible that Gabriel was referring to this poem when he told Hall Caine of a message to him left by Lizzie’s bed.

Life and night are falling from me,
Death and day are opening on me,
Wherever my footsteps come and go,
Life is a stony way of woe.
Lord, have I long to go?

Hallow hearts are ever near me,
Soulless eyes have ceased to cheer me:
Lord, may I come to thee?

Life and youth and summer weather
To my heart no joy can gather.
Lord, lift me from life's stony way!
Loved eyes long closed in death watch for me:
Holy death is waiting for me -- 
Lord, may I come to-day?

My outward life feels sad and still
Like lilies in a frozen rill;
I am gazing upwards to the sun,
Lord, Lord, remembering my lost one.
O Lord, remember me!

How is it in the unknown land?
Do the dead wander hand in hand?
God, give me trust in thee.

Do we clasp dead hands and quiver
With an endless joy for ever?
Do tall white angels gaze and wend
Along the banks where lilies bend?
Lord, we know not how this may be:
Good Lord we put our faith in thee -- 
O God, remember me.

When I began writing Beauty in Thorns, I believed that Lizzie had committed suicide. As I researched more deeply, I changed my mind. The day before her death, Lizzie had told her friend, the poet Bessie Rayner Parkes, that she was pregnant. Lizzie had been devastated by the stillbirth of her daughter a year earlier, and it is known she and Gabriel were trying for another baby. I do not think she would have willingly killed her unborn child. Bessie Rayner Parkes was always adamant that Lizzie’s death was an accident, for that very reason, and I came to agree with her. 

'Beata Beatrix', the portrait of Lizzie that Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted after her death

In regards to Gabriel, it has been alleged that he was a compulsive womaniser and sexually betrayed Lizzie on many occasions. Yet his foremost biographer, Jan Marsh, does not believe this to be true. The evidence seems to show he was not unfaithful to her until after their relationship breakdown in 1856-57, which occurred around the time of his meetings with Fanny Cox (later called Fanny Cornforth) and Jane Morris. 

Famously, Gabriel buried his only manuscript of poems with Lizzie in her coffin. Seven years later, he had her body secretly exhumed so he could retrieve the notebook. He transcribed the stinking, tattered manuscript - that had worm holes through some of his best lines - but never fully recovered from his sense of guilt and shame.

One of the pages from the buried manuscript, showing the damage to the paper 

If you would like to read more about Lizzie, the best books are 

Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel by Lucinda Hawksley (2004)
The Legend of Lizzie Siddal by Jan Marsh (1989) 
Elizabeth Siddal: Pre-Raphaelite Artist by Jan Marsh (1991), which is wonderful if you want to see Lizzie’s paintings and read her poems. Jan Marsh has also written a magisterial biography, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Poet and Painter (1999). The biography of Gabriel that I read when I was a university student was: 
Dante Gabriel Rossetti: An Alien Victorian by Brian and Judy Dobbs (1977). 

The key texts for my research into eating disorders included 
Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa by Joan Jacobs Brumberg. 

I also read many memoirs of anorectics, including:

Small Acts of Disappearance by Fiona Wright 
Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by Marya Hornbacher 
Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain by Portia Rossi
 Elena Vanishing: A Memoir by Elena Dunkle.

Want to read more about Lizzie? Check out a much earlier blog, written when I was speculating about what may have been the cause of Lizzie's mysterious illness

Or read more about the Pre-Raphaelites & Beauty in Thorns here!

BEAUTY IN THORNS: Love Triangles of the Pre-Raphaelites

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a secret society of young and idealistic artists and writers which formed in 1848, in the hope of revitalising British art. It was a time of great social unrest, with bloody revolutions sweeping across Europe and uprisings protesting the impact of the Industrial evolution on the lives of ordinary people.

Self-portrait, drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 

At the heart of the Brotherhood were three artists who were all students at the Royal Academy of Art. Named John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, they wished to discard the heavy brown tones and rough brushwork of most Victorian paintings and return to the luminous colour palette and lapidary detail of late medieval and early Renaissance art.

Lizzie Siddal painted as Ophelia by John Everett Millais

Millais, Hunt and Rossetti were inspired by myths, legends, fairy-tales, history and poetry, and – in the beginning, at least – had high moral ambitions, striving to paint with seriousness, sincerity and truth to nature.

The other members of the brotherhood were Rossetti’s younger brother William, who kept a diary of their meetings; the painter and art critic Frederic George Stephens; the sculptor Thomas Woolner; and the painter James Collinson, who resigned after breaking off his engagement to Rossetti’s sister, Christina. 

Although the Brotherhood dissolved in the early 1850s, it was to prove highly influential on a younger generation of artists, including Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris — two divinity students at Exeter College, Oxford— who gave up their studies to pursue careers in art. They hero-worshipped Dante Gabriel Rossetti and forged a close friendship with him that led to a new flowering of creativity.

An angel painted by Edward Burne-Jones

They painted, wrote poetry, and designed wallpaper, soft furnishings and stained-glass windows and furniture for the company they set up together, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (which was later called Morris & Co.). 

These three men of the later Pre-Raphaelite circle were also joined together in complex romantic triangles. After Rossetti’s first wife Lizzie died, he embarked on a passionate affair with Morris’s wife Janey. Morris turned to Burne-Jones’s wife Georgie for comfort. Burne-Jones, meanwhile, dallied with one of his favourite models, the sculptor Maria Zambaco. Their liaisons scandalised Victorian society as much as their radically different art.

Jane Morris painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti  

My novel Beauty in Thorns tells the fascinating story of these three couples – Gabriel and Lizzie Rossetti, William and Janey Morris, and Edward and Georgie Burne-Jones – who lived and loved freely and ardently whilst creating some of the most sublime art the world has ever seen. 

Want to see more of Pre-Raphaelite art? Check out my Beauty in Thorns Pinterest page!

BEAUTY IN THORNS: Christina Rossetti's Sleeping Beauty poem

Thursday, June 08, 2017

My novel 'Beauty in Thorns' tells the extraordinary love story behind the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones's famous painting of 'Sleeping Beauty', which he returned to half-a-dozen times over the forty-odd years of his career.

The Pre-Raphaelites were inspired by myth and poetry and fairy tales. Edward Burne-Jones also painted 'Cinderella' (his model was his wife Georgie) while his best friend William Morris wrote the first ever creative response to 'Rapunzel' (I wrote a chapter on his poem in my doctoral exegesis, published as The Rebirth of Rapunzel.)

I very much wanted to write part of my novel from the point-of-view of the brilliant poet Christina Rossetti, who was the younger sister of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I have always loved her poetry and she is such a fascinating woman, all the thwarted desire of her sensuous and passionate nature being poured out in astonishing verse. However, I had to make the terrible decision to cut her out of the book as my story was simply growing too big and unwieldy, and Christina's story deserved to be given more space and time.

One day I would like to write a book about her - I hope that the chance will come.

Christina Rossetti was painted as the young Virgin Mary by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti when she was aged 20 & he was 22  

in the meantime, I thought I would share with you Christina Rossetti's powerful and disturbing poem, 'The Fairy Prince Who Arrived Too Late'. A dark inversion of the 'Sleeping Beauty' fairy tale, it was first published in Macmillan's Magazine in May 1863, when Christina was not yet 33 years old. Christina would later expand it into a long quest narrative, 'The Prince's Progress', which follows the prince on his journey to reach the waiting princess. These stanzas were then included as the poem's tragic denouement. I love this poem just as it is, though. I hope you love it too.   


The Fairy Prince Who Came Too Late

Too late for love, too late for joy,
Too late, too late!
You loitered on the road too long,
You trifled at the gate:
The enchanted dove upon her branch
Died without a mate;
The enchanted princess in her tower
Slept, died, behind the grate;
Her heart was starving all this while
You made it wait.

Ten years ago, five years ago,
One year ago,
Even then you had arrived in time,
Though somewhat slow;
Then you had known her living face
Which now you cannot know:
The frozen fountain would have leaped,
The buds gone on to blow,
The warm south wind would have awaked
To melt the snow.
Is she fair now as she lies?
Once she was fair;
Meet queen for any kingly king,
With gold-dust on her hair,
Now these are poppies in her locks,
White poppies she must wear;
Must wear a veil to shroud her face
And the want graven there:
Or is the hunger fed at length,
Cast off the care?
We never saw her with a smile
Or with a frown;
Her bed seemed never soft to her,
Though tossed of down;
She little heeded what she wore,
Kirtle, or wreath, or gown;
We think her white brows often ached
Beneath her crown,
Till silvery hairs showed in her locks
That used to be so brown.
We never heard her speak in haste;
Her tones were sweet,
And modulated just so much
As it was meet:
Her heart sat silent through the noise
And concourse of the street.
There was no hurry in her hands,
No hurry in her feet;
There was no bliss drew nigh to her,
That she might run to greet.
You should have wept her yesterday,
Wasting upon her bed:
But wherefore should you weep today
That she is dead?
Lo we who love weep not today,
But crown her royal head.
Let be these poppies that we strew,
Your roses are too red:
Let be these poppies, not for you
Cut down and spread.

Christina Rossetti

The poem was published fifteen months after her sister-in-law Lizzie Siddal Rossetti died of a laudanum overdose. Dante Gabriel Rossetti often called his wife 'a dove', and they had had a very long and difficult relationship, with Rossetti often promising and then failing to marry her.  

It is probable that Lizzie suffered from an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa, and so the lines:

"The enchanted princess in her tower
Slept, died, behind the grate;
Her heart was starving all this while
You made it wait ..."

may well refer to the tragedy of Lizzie's death. 

I was unable to include Christina Rossetti as a character in 'Beauty in Thorns', but I did use her poems as epigraphs throughout the novel.

And one day I hope that I will be able to write more about her ....


BOOK REVIEW: Ghost Empire by Richard Fidler

Sunday, June 04, 2017


In 2014, Richard Fidler and his son Joe made a journey to Istanbul. Fired by Richard's passion for the rich history of the dazzling Byzantine Empire - centred around the legendary Constantinople - we are swept into some of the most extraordinary tales in history. The clash of civilizations, the fall of empires, the rise of Christianity, revenge, lust, murder. Turbulent stories from the past are brought vividly to life at the same time as a father navigates the unfolding changes in his relationship with his son.

GHOST EMPIRE is a revelation: a beautifully written ode to a lost civilization, and a warmly observed father-son adventure far from home.


I love listening to Richard Fidler on the radio. He is always so warm and funny and curious about people, and he has a knack for drawing out the personal and the unique in every story. I have also been increasingly interested in Constantinople (now known as Istanbul), having read several novels set there in recent years. After hearing Richard speak about his book at the Brisbane Writers Festival last year, I bought a copy and finally read it last month. Normally I read non-fiction slowly over a few weeks, reading several novels in between chapters. But Ghost Empire was so engaging and readable, I whizzed through it in just a few nights.

The book combines the personal memoir of a journey Richard and his son Joe made to Istanbul in 2014, with stories from the city’s long and bloody history. Constantinople was built on the foundations of Byzantium in the early 4th century and became the new capital of the Roman empire in 330 AD. From the mid-5th to the mid-13th century, it was the largest, richest and most powerful city in the world, and the guardian of the most sacred relics of Christianity, the Crown of Thorns and the True Cross. 

For almost a thousand years the city was the centre of extraordinary true tales of greed, murder, violence and betrayals, and Richard entwines these stories with anecdotes from his own life and his life-changing journey with his son. The result is utterly fascinating. 

SPOTLIGHT: The 50 Authors Who Shaped Me

Saturday, June 03, 2017


Today is my birthday! To celebrate, I thought I would share with you once again the 50 authors who have been most important to me in my life.

It took me a long while to compile this list  – it was so difficult to choose only fifty from the thousands of authors whose work meant so much to me. 

When I began, I realised that many of the books that I had originally chosen were my favourite childhood books. Of course this makes sense, as the books we read when we are children make such a deep impression upon our psyche. However, I wanted to see how favourite books in each decade of my life worked to change and direct me. 

In the end, I made strict rules. I could only choose fiction; and I had to name the ten authors in each decade of my life whose work had transformed my life in some way. I have also chosen only one book from each author to highlight, though most of these authors have written many, many books which I love. 

I call the novels on this list my “touchstone’ books.  

It is part of my 50/50 Project to re-read all of these books again - and slowly, one by one, I am doing so. Any book which I have re-read has a link to my review on it - and if I have reviewed other books by that author, then the authors' name carries the link. 

Over time, it is my hope to have re-read and reviewed every book on this list.  

0-10 (1966-1976)

1. C.S. Lewis – The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe
2. Enid Blyton – Five Go to Treasure Island
3. Eleanor Farjeon – The Glass Slipper
4. Elizabeth Goudge – The Little White Horse
5. Nicholas Stuart Grey – The Stone Cage
6. Joan Aiken – The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
7. J.R.R Tolkien – The Hobbit
8. Frances Hodgson Barnett –The Secret Garden
9. Susan Cooper – The Dark Is Rising
10. Geoffrey Trease – Cue for Treason

11-20 (1977-1986)

1.     Ursula le Guin – A Wizard Of Earthsea
2. L.M. Montgomery – Emily of New Moon
3. E. J. Oxenham – New Abbey Girls 
4. Anne Frank – Diary of a Young Girl 
5. Dodie SmithI Capture The Castle
6. Georgette Heyer – These Old Shades
7. Mary Stewart – The Moon-Spinners 
8.     Mary Webb – Precious Bane
9. Jane Austen – Persuasion
10. Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre

21-30 (1987-1996)

1.     Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights
2.     Daphne du Maurier - Rebecca 
3.     Harper Lee – To Kill A Mockingbird
4. Jane Yolen – Briar Rose 
5. Marion Zimmer Bradley – The Mists of Avalon
6. Robin McKinley – Beauty
7. Isabel Allende – The House of Spirits
8. Alice Walker – The Color Purple
9. E.M. Forster – A Room With A View
10. Tad Williams – The Dragonbone Chair

31-40 (1997-2006)

1. Jeannette Winterson – The Passion 
2. Barbara Kingsolver – The Poisonwood Bible 
3. Susan VreelandGirl in Hyacinth Blue
4. Juliet Marillier – Daughter of the Forest
5. Kim Wilkins – Angel of Ruin
6. Tracy ChevalierFalling Angels
7. Joanne Harris – Five Quarters Of The Orange
8.     Sarah Dunant – The Birth of Venus
9. Geraldine Brooks – The Year of Wonders
10. Carlos Ruiz Zafon – The Shadow of the Wind

41-50 (2007-2016)

1. Marcus Zusak – The Book Thief
2. Phillipa Gregory – The Queen's Fool
3. C. J. Sansom – Dissolution

4. Mary Ann Schaffer – The Guernsey Literary & Potato
              Peel Pie Society
5. Kate MortonThe Forgotten Garden 
6. Ken Follett – The Pillars of the Earth
7. Karen Maitland - Company of Liars
8. Eowyn Ivey – The Snow Child 
9. Sarah WatersAffinity
10. A.S. Byatt – Possession 

Are any of the books on this list touchstone books for you too?

What books should I read to to shape the next decade of my life?


SPOTLIGHT: Interview with Kate Forsyth about writing THE WITCHES OF EILEANAN

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Twenty years ago, my first book DRAGONCLAW (called THE WITCHES OF EILEANAN in the US) was published!

To celebrate, I'm running a couple of vintage posts about the writing of The Witches of Eileanan series.

Today I thought I'd run an interview I gave to SFFWorld in 2000 (yes, all the years ago). 

Q: Your books seem extremely well researched. Not only in the history of the culture, but in the magical elements and practices as well. Could you explain to us the importance of this research, or how you went about it?

I do a great deal of research into every aspect of the books. I like to make sure everything is right and besides, I find the research itself often sparks off ideas which I would not have had otherwise. It helps make the world seem real and alive, and gives an extra punch to the writing. Generally, I borrow piles of books from the library and read through them, making notes on all that interest me. I often find the junior section of the library the most helpful because the books there have illustrations and diagrams, and describe things simply and concisely. For example, if I'm writing a battle scene I want to know everything about armour, weapons, siege machines, tactics, logistics - a book on mediaeval warfare from the adult section would be too long and heavy, but a selection of books from the junior library give me just about everything I need to know. As well as that, I browse a lot through second-hand bookshops and so have picked up heaps of books on all sorts of different subjects, all of which give me ideas and allow me to check facts when I need to. I have everything from a 16th century herbal to a dictionary of angels, all of which I've referred to at some point in time. 

Q: Have you noticed, or have readers commented, that your story, while not a sad story and definitely containing the "good" vs. "bad" elements in it, leaves one feeling unsure whether to laugh or to cry?

I really like this question and am glad to know this is how the books make you feel. I certainly wanted to make my readers laugh and cry and gasp and sigh at different points in the story, and I also wanted to express something about the complexity of good and evil and how sometimes there is a very high price to pay. None of my characters or creatures are entirely good or entirely evil - sometimes evil is done by those who are really struggling to do what is right. I get a lot of e-mail from readers and this is one of the things people comment on the most - a particular scene makes them want to get up and shout a warning, or makes them cry, or makes them very frustrated with the characters in question - all of which makes me a very happy writer!

Q: Do you have a favorite character in the books?

Many. I love them all. Isabeau is of course my protagonist and I love her dearly, though sometimes I wish she would think before she acted, particularly in the early books. I find Iseult rather a puzzle sometimes, and am rather glad Lachlan is beginning to grow into his manhood, for he exasperated me greatly at times with his bad moods and his self-focus. I love Meghan, of course, and have very tender regard for Lilanthe and Dide and Finn. In fact, I don't think there is really a character I don't have a soft spot for, unless it's Margrit who gives me the shivers and Renshaw, of course, who was very nasty.  

Q: How long do you see this story continuing? Is it only to be a three part series, or will you go on with it?

Oh dear. It was MEANT to be a trilogy but the epic scale of my imagination surprised even me! I have great pleasure in informing you that 'The Witches of Eileanan' is now a sextet, with six big fat books all brimming over with action, romance, intrigue, magic and mayhem! I am very lucky that my publishers like me because otherwise I could've been in trouble. 

Do the religious and political ideas embedded within your story have any specific relevance to your views, or to current events in our world today? If so, could you explain those elements as you see them?

This is a difficult question to answer in many ways. Yes, of course they have relevance to our world and express many of my deeply felt beliefs and philosophies. I have a great deal of sympathy for the pagan pantheistic religion of my witches. I am troubled by the effect of strict fundamentalist religions, in whatever form they take, and I am troubled by the effects of colonism and the long-reaching shadows it has cast. I think religion and patriotism have caused a great deal of evil in this world, even though I understand the deep, instinctive desires that such beliefs satisfy. I also understand there are no easy answers and that history has a way of repeating itself. I hope all these ideas are implicit in the books but I do not want to pontificate too much upon them, for the books should stand alone, speaking for themselves. They are not allegories or even vehicles for my concerns, and should not be read as such. 

Q: Can you give us a mouthwatering hint for the Americans as yet unable to read the fourth book?
Gladly! Of all the books so far, 'The Forbidden Land' is the simplest and most complete in itself. It moves very quickly and has less introspection than the others. The primary focus in this book has moved to Finn the Cat, the cat-thief who discovered she was a banprionnsa and heir to the throne of Rurach. She feels stifled and unhappy at Castle Rurach and when Lachlan the Winged, Righ of Eileanan, calls upon her own peculiar talents, she gladly sets off on an adventure that takes her beyond the Great Divide and into the heart of the Forbidden Land itself ... 

Q: What has the Internet meant for you as an author?

Lots and lots and lots of e-mails from all over the world. I am constantly being amazed at how far my books have travelled. I have had reader responses from South Korea, Chile, Germany, and Saudi Arabia, as well as from all the more usual places. I reply to every e-mail personally - even though, since I had my little boy two years ago (he is now 17 and in his final year of school!), my writing time is more precious than ever. I'm really glad to have this contact with my readers. Being a writer is a solitary sort of life and once the book is published, it disappears into a black hole so that you have no idea whether anyone has understood what you are trying to do or been moved by it. I always want to know if anyone has picked up on any of the little details or jokes or poignant moments, or been made to feel or think the way I want them too. My e-mails let me know they have!

The cover of the first Australian edition: 

SPOTLIGHT: The story behind how I first got published

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Today (1 June 2017) marks twenty  years since my first novel was published!

The book was called DRAGONCLAW, and it was the first in the series of heroic fantasy novels called THE WITCHES OF EILEANAN.  


Here is the story of how THE WITCHES OF EILEANAN came to be published:

I’ve always wanted to be a writer – it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to be.

A novel I wrote when I was 15

All through my childhood I wrote many poems and novels, and sent out my first manuscript when I was sixteen – it was handwritten, in my very childish handwriting, on loose foolscap pages. I didn’t know any better! Well, I didn’t have a typewriter and computers were barely invented. It was rejected, of course, but came back with a lovely letter saying that I clearly had talent and must keep writing.

So I did. I laboured over a magic realism novel all though my early 20s, while working as a journalist, and began to have poems and stories published. I sent out my novel a few times, and it was almost published three times, but fell through every time, much to my despair.

Me in my 20s

At the age of 25 I had a quarter-life crisis. I decided to give myself five years, to pour all my energy into getting a book published, but that I’d have to reassess my life if I couldn’t get published by the age of 30.

I quit my job as a journalist and began freelancing to support myself, and I applied to do my Masters of Arts in Writing, using the magic realism novel I had been working on as my thesis.

I began writing the first draft of Dragonclaw while I was studying for my first year exams, probably in reaction to the “fictive discourses” we were told to construct in our writing classes. About 50,000 words into the first draft, I sent off a few sample chapters to Gaby Naher at Hickson Associates.

She came back the next day, saying she loved it, and when could I get her a complete manuscript? I wrote madly for the next few months (practically ignoring my studies and work commitments).

I finished the first draft, she put it up for auction, and I signed with Random House by the end of the month. This made me particularly happy, since it was two days before my 30th birthday.  

I made my deadline by a whisker!

Dragonclaw has gone on to be sold in the US, Germany, Russia, and Japan, and I have been a full-time writer ever since.


 Dragonclaw changed my life forever!

SPOTLIGHT: The World of Eileanan

Thursday, June 01, 2017



The land was settled by thirteen witches who fled persecution in their own land, invoking an ancient spell that folded the fabric of the universe and brought them and all their followers to Eileanan in a journey called the Great Crossing. 

The eleven great clans of Eileanan are all descended from the First Coven, with the MacCuinn clan being the greatest of the eleven. The thirteen witches were Cuinn Lionheart, his son Owein of the Longbow, Ahearn Horse-laird, Aislinna the Dreamer, Berhtilde the Bright Warrior-Maid, Fóghnan the Thistle, Rùraich the Searcher, Seinneadair the Singer, Sian the Storm-Rider, Tuathanach the Farmer, Brann the Raven, Faodhagan the Red and his twin sister Sorcha the Bright (now called the Murderess).

When the First Coven had arrived in Eileanan from their home on the other side of the universe, they had built the Tower of First Landing on a rocky crag near the ruin of their ship. Often called Cuinn's Tower, the ancient stone citadel was built around the body of the greatest sorcerer of them all, Cuinn Lionheart, who died in the Crossing. On the barren flats around Cuinn's Tower a rough settlement was built as the four hundred or so migrants struggled to survive.

Unfortunately, the settlers did not understand the wide seasonal swings of the tide, affected by the contrary pull of two moons. Their first winter saw the settlement drowned in the rush of the high tide, many lives lost with it. Only the Tower, built on what became an island, survived. Owein MacCuinn crammed the survivors into the Tower and sat out the bitter cold and isolation, sharing out the meagre rations and guarding against disease so that surprisingly many of the people managed to live through that first great test. When spring at last came and the sea began to flow back, expedition parties were sent into the hinterland, following the shining curves of the Rhyllster high into what would become Rionnagan.

In Rionnagan they found what they were searching for - fertile lands, a plentiful supply of fresh water, and a building site that could easily be protected. For the new settlers discovered that seasonal tides, unfamiliar food and homesickness were the least of their problems. The native inhabitants of Eileanan were not all pleased at the invasion of humans from another planet, particularly the Fairgean, who arrived at their spring pastures to find them occupied. A brutal, warlike race of sea-dwelling nomads, the Fairgean did not give up their hold on the coast of Eileanan easily, and for the next two hundred years the First Fairgean Wars raged. Lucescere was built on a great pinnacle of rock thrusting between two waterfalls that plummeted into the Rhyllster below. The city was never broken, holding off the Fairgean and their allies for over a thousand years.



‘Touch not the thistle’ – MacFóghnan motto 

Brooch – a silver thistle

Plaid: Heather & purple

The Tower of Mists

- ruled by Iain MacFóghnan (m. Elfrida NicHilde of Tirsoilleir, father of Neil)

- descended from Fóghnan of the First Coven. 

- Fóghnan was depicted with a falling star above her head, symbolising her great prophecy which had led them to this world. Another showed her leaving the wrecked ship upon arrival, her face stern and proud, while Owein MacCuinn wept like a child over the dead body of his father and shook his fist after her as she refused to bend to his authority. In the background a tidal wave was beginning to gather, looming over the crowd of frightened migrants - the great tide that would kill so many of those that had braved the Crossing. All of those who went with Fóghnan survived, and thereafter no-one dared doubt the truth of her prophecies.

- Other tapestries showed the magical summoning of Tur de Ceò on an island in Murkmyre, deep within the shifting maze of the fenlands, and Fóghnan’s death at the hands of Owein MacCuinn's youngest son, Balfour. 

- The blood ran bitter between MacFóghnan and MacCuinn, who had learnt one did not touch the thistle without pain. Balfour too had died soon after, of a mysterious ailment that saw him frothing at the mouth, his body arching backwards in agony, his drumming heels tearing the earth up in great clods. Fóghnan’s twelve-year-old daughter, named Margrit as many NicFóghnans would be, had taken up her mother's staff and knife and assumed the duties of the Tower.

- Many years later, when Aedan MacCuinn had united the warring lands and peoples of Eileanan under the rule of the Lodestar, only Arran, Tìrsoillier and the Fairgean had refused to accept his authority. Years of war had followed, but not even the Lodestar could pierce the mysteries of Murkmyre and the ever-hungry marshes had swallowed up the armies sent against her. The Clan of MacFóghnan had survived, as it always would.

- the delicate spires of Tur de Ceò - the Tower of Mists - its sharp-pointed, scrolled towers rose out of the bank of mist like a palace out of a faery tale

ASLINN - deeply forested land ruled by the MacAislin clan. 

Motto: Grow and flourish.

Badge: the Summer Tree. 

Plaid: Dark green crossed with pale green.

The Tower of Dreamers

- ruled by Madelon NicAislin 

- The wild and bonny forests, where dreamers wander.

- fur-trappers, charcoal-burners, foresters and miners - base metals to make ploughshares and charcoal for whisky vats and timber for the building of new crofts and ships

- Great mountain ash trees towered above the floor of the valleys, with crystal waterfalls splashing down from the mountains to form meandering streams and pools below. Song birds darted through the clear air, trilling madly, and once Lilanthe saw a bhanais bird flying through the canopy, trailing its crimson and gold tail which was more than three feet long. She travelled more slowly, but could not find her perfect clearing. Small lochan abounded, and on a clear day the backdrop of snow-tipped mountains and green hills was as beautiful as any daydream.

- the Tower of Dreamers was made of white stone. Once it would have been topped with delicate spires and a crystal dome. Now only two spires remained, and the entire west wall was tumbled down, littering the hill with blocks of marble. Enough of the original grandeur remained to move her - delicate columns holding up arched ceilings, walls carved in intricate patterns, with here and there the design of a flowering tree. The staircase was wide enough for seven men to walk up it abreast.

- a stone shield emblazoned with stars and faint runes of writing, and below it a device of two masks, one weeping, one laughing. 

BLÈSSEM – The Blessed Fields. Rich farmland ruled by the MacThanach clan

Carry the Yoke – MacThanach slogan

Badge: scythe and wheat sheaves.

Plaid: green and yellow. 

The Tower of Blessed Fields

- ruled by Melisse NicThanach (has four daughters and a son, Fymbar)

- She knew the laird of the MacThanach clan was concerned about how he was to sell the yields of his rich fields after he harvested in late autumn. Traditionally, the land of Blèssem shipped its grains and fruits round Eileanan's coastline to the other countries and across the eastern seas to their neighbouring islands. Eileanan had a monopoly on grains such as wheat, corn and barley because, according to the old stories, the seeds for such crops had been brought to this planet by the First Coven, and were not native to the islands.

The Tower of Blessed Fields was more of an agricultural college than an initiator into arcane mysteries

CARRAIG – Land of the Sea-Witches, ruled by MacSeinn clan

I die singing – MacSeinn slogan

Badge: crowned Harp.

Plaid: dark blue crossed with pale blue. 

The Tower of Sea-Singers

- ruled by Douglas MacSeinn (daughter Nathalie NicSeinn)

- The Yedda of Carraig had been for centuries the only weapon the islanders had against the Fairgean, having the power to mesmerise the sea people with song. However, the destruction of the Tower of Sea-Singers in Carraig had meant there were no Yedda left to sing the trading ships to safety.

CLACHAN AND RIONNAGAN – ruled by The MacCuinn Clan 

Wisely and boldly – MacCuinn slogan (Sapienter et Audacter)

Brooch - a leaping stag carrying a crown in its antlers (stag rampant)

Tartan - blues and greens, red running through like a line of fire.

The Tower of Two Moons

The Tower of First Landing 

- the most powerful family of witches in the land.

- live at Lucescere Palace

- descended from Cuinn the Wise, who died in the first crossing

- succeeded by Owein MacCuinn, he o' the Longbow. He was the first Keybearer. He wrought the Key in the sacred symbol of the Coven - a star contained within a circle.

- The Key: worn by the Keybearer, meant to be the strongest and bravest and most compassionate of all the Coven. Its history is no' all kind or true, however. No' all the Keybearers were the witch they should have been. Like many in a position o' power, some abused their trust, and battles were occasionally fought over the right to wear it. Nonetheless, the Key is an artefact o' great power, having been wrought by Owein MacCuinn and always worn by those with exceptional Talent.'

 - Owein’s youngest son Balfour murdered Fóghnan of Arran 

- Aedan MacCuinn, called Whitelock, united all of Eileanan under his rule – he forged the Lodestar at the time of the two moons crossing.

- Lodestar: whoever holds the Lodestar shall hold the land …’

The heritage of all the MacCuinns, the Inheritance of Aedan. When they are born their hands are placed upon it and a connection made. Whoever the stone recognises is the Rìgh or Banrìgh of Eileanan. A glowing white stone, about the size of an apple, only perfectly round, that responds with the sound of music when touched. 

- the heir has always needed to be favoured by the Lodestar, which responds to the inner character o’ he who holds it. Civil war once when the youngest son was named as heir by the Lodestar and the eldest son challenged him for the throne. He was a cold, ambitious man, no’ concerned with the welfare o’ the people the way the Rìgh or Banrìgh should be 

- The Tower of First Landing on a rocky crag near the ruin of their ship. Often called Cuinn's Tower, the ancient stone citadel was built around the body of the greatest sorcerer of them all, Cuinn Lionheart, who died in the Crossing. On the barren flats around Cuinn's Tower

- The Tower of Two Moons - Only at Two Moons was there training in all different facets of witchcraft, and research into magic's many manifestations. Even those with minor abilities found themselves a place at Two Moons, and there an increasing diversity of Talents was explored and celebrated.

- salt was one of Clachan’s principal exports, used to cure fish and pickle vegetables, preserve hides, and make glass and enamelled jewellery. It had even become fashionable for fine ladies to add seasalt to their baths in imitation of Maya, and so had been sold at the markets in little canvas bags, with rose petals or sweet herbs mixed through.

RAVENSHAW: deeply forested land, ruled by the MacBrann clan, descendants of Brann the Raven. 

Motto: Sans peur (without fear).

Badge: the Raven

Plaid: black and green

- ruled by Dughall MacBrann, with an adopted heir Owen

- live at Ravenscraig

RURACH: wild mountainous land, lying between Tìreich and Siantan. Ruled by MacRuraich clan, descendants of Rùraich, one of the First Coven of Witches. 

Motto: I find and I hold. 

Tartan: black crossed with green and gold. 

Shield: black wolf guardant. 

Tower of Searchers

- ruled by Anghus MacRuraich of Rurach (m. Gwyneth NicSian, have 3 children: Fionnghal, Aindrew and Barney)

- Tabithas the Wolf-Runner had a wolf as her familiar, a great grey beast that, like his mistress, had been more comfortable in the forests and mountains of Rurach

‘The MacRuraich clan find anything they search for. That is their Talent.'

SIANTAN: north-west land of Eileanan, between Rurach and Carraig. Famous for its weather-witches. Ruled by MacSian clan, descendants of Sian the Storm-rider. 

Plaid: Blue and grey crossed with white. 

Badge: a tower struck by lightning. 

Tower of Storm

- ruled by Brangaine NicSian 

- Sian the Storm-rider: one of the First Coven of Witches. A famous weather witch, renowned for whistling up hurricanes.

- from Siantan, a wagonload of rare timbers, sacks of charcoal, and luxuriant snow-lion furs

TÌREICH: land of the horse-lairds. Most westerly country of Eileanan, ruled by the MacAhern clan. 

Motto: Nunquam obliviscar (I shall never forget).

Plaid: brown, red and yellow. 

Badge: a rearing horse. 


- ruled by Kenneth MacAhern 

- the famous flying horses. It was a deep-chested, honey-coloured animal, with rainbow-tinted wings and a pair of spreading antlers. The MacAhern rode without saddle or bridle, as all thigearns did.  One did not tame a flying horse with such constraints.

TÌRLETHAN: Land of the Twins; once ruled by Faodhagan and Sorcha, twin sorcerers. Called the Spine of the World by Khan’cohbans. 

Motto: Those who would gather roses must brave the thorns.

Plaid: white crossed with red and blue. 

Badge: the dragon rampant, surrounded by roses and thorns. 

The Towers of Roses and Thorns

- ruled by Khan’gharad Dragonrider (m. Ishbel) two children Heloise and Alasdair (19)

- Lachlan, had arranged for five hundred refugees to accompany Khan’gharad and Ishbel back to the Towers of Roses and Thorns. These included stonemasons and carpenters to help rebuild the ruined towers; gardeners and farmers to plant the land about with grains and vegetables; weavers, seamstresses, cooks and house servants to help in the running of the castle; scribes and apprentice-witches to study in the library; and miners to look for lodes of precious metals in the mountains. There was also a retinue of the younger sons of the nobility eager to carve out a life for themselves in service to the newest of the prionnsachan.

TÌRSOILLIER – ruled by the MacHilde Clan

The Bright Land or the Forbidden Land. Northeast land of Eileanan, once ruled by the MacHilde clan, descended from Berhtilde, one of the First Coven of Witches. However, the Tìrsoilleirean rejected witchcraft and the ruling family in favour of militant religion. 

Motto: Bo Neart Gu Neart (From Strength to Strength)

Plaid:  Red crossed with yellow and black; 

Badge: hand holding a sword; 

The Tower of Warriors

- ruled by Elfrida NicHilde (m. Iain of Arran, one son Neil)

- the Tìrsoillierean had rejected the philosophies of the witches, believing in a stern sun-god that punished them mightily for any digression. Unlike the witches, who thought that all gods and goddesses were different names and faces for the one life-spirit, the Tìrsoillierean believed in one god with one name. They thought their beliefs were the only true faith, and that other people must be forced to worship as they did. Many times they had tried to convert their neighbours. When missionaries and travelling preachers failed to win the people to their religion, they tried force. 

- no-one from the western lands had been near the Tower of Warriors since the warrior-maids had closed their borders four hundred years earlier. Tìrsoilleir had been a land of mystery ever since.

- the Fealde and the General Assembly 

the Fealde and the Kirk

Deus Vult: war cry of the Bright Soldiers, meaning ‘God wills’.

BOOK REVIEW: Molly & Pim & the Millions of Stars by Martine Murray

Wednesday, May 31, 2017


All Molly wants is to be normal like her friend Ellen Palmer. Ellen, with her neat braids and a tidy house and a mother and father who are home for dinner every night. But Molly's mom spends her mornings tramping through the woods, looking for ingredients for her potions. 

Their house is not neat, and their rooster, the Gentleman, runs wild in their yard. And it is the Gentleman that angers their grumpy neighbors, the Grimshaws. So Molly's mom makes a potion that will grow a tree between their houses. 

When Molly's mom accidentally drinks the potion and turns into the tree, Molly is determined to get her back. But with the Grimshaws planning to cut down the tree branches that reach onto their property, time is of the essence. With the help of her mysterious classmate Pim Wilder, Molly sets out to save her mother and discovers the wonder that lies in the ordinary. 


This is a small but enchanting book about a girl named Molly whose mother accidentally changes herself into a tree. Molly is left alone to fend for herself, but discovers that she has more friends than she realised. 

I loved the character of Molly, who thought she just wanted to be ordinary but discovers that being herself is better. I also loved her fey and eccentric mother, who wanders the garden and woods looking for ingredients for magical potions, and Molly’s two friends, Ellen (whose normal life with a normal family is envied by Molly) and Pim (who is anything but normal). Each character is deftly and vividly drawn, and there is a charming mix of humour, whimsy and poignancy. Glorious.

SPOTLIGHT: William Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

William Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites 

William Blake was born today, two hundred and sixty years ago. He was a poet, painter and visionary who was virtually unknown in his lifetime. 
Nowadays he is widely celebrated, even being named No 38 in the BBC’s 2002 poll of 100 Greatest Britons. 

Yet few know that it was another young British painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was instrumental in saving him from obscurity. 


     William Blake, painted by Thomas Phillips (1807)  


      A self-portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, drawn in 1847 

Rossetti first became interested in Blake after reading about him in Allan Cunningham’s The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, published in 1830. He was intrigued by this man who saw angels and devils, and who implored humanity to cast off their ‘mind-forg’d manacles.’ Like Rossetti, Blake was educated at home by his mother, showed extraordinary early promise as an artist, wrote poetry as well as painted, and was interested in the work of such unfashionable artists as Raphael, Michelangelo and Durer. 

One day Rossetti heard that an attendant at the British Museum had a battered old notebook in which Blake had drafted poems and scribbled sketches, mostly in pencil. On 30 April 1847, when he was just nineteen years old, Rossetti purchased the manuscript from the attendant, William Palmer, whose artist-brother Samuel had been a pupil of Blake’s in his final years. Rossetti paid ten shillings for it, which he borrowed from his long-suffering younger brother William Michael Rossetti. 


Blake had begun writing and drawing in the notebook in February 1787, and continued to work in it for the next thirty years. When he reached the end of the notebook, probably around 1793, he turned it upside down and began working from the end on the back of each leaf, over-writing earlier drafts and illustrations. 

The closely-filled pages give a fascinating insight into Blake's creative process, allowing readers to follow the composition of some of his best-known work, including one of my own personal favourites, 'The Tyger'.


The notebook was to have a profound effect on Rossetti’s work and life, and rippled out to influence the art and poetry of his friends and family, including Christina Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne. 

Rossetti was intrigued with Blake’s rebellious reputation and with his rejection of conventional morality. The notebook is full of poems that promote free love and radical politics, including the humorous epigram ‘When a man has married a wife, he finds out whether/her knees and elbows are only glued together’, which accompanied a sketch of a man and a woman rising from a rumpled bed. 


The book also contained attacks on such well-known artists such as Sir 
Joshua Reynolds which chimed with Rossetti’s own rebellion against the establishment (Rossetti famously nicknamed the Academy’s first president Sir Sloshua). It was after reading Blake’s manuscript that Rossetti and his friends William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais decided to form the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood in 1848.

Rossetti showed the notebook to Alexander Gilchrist in the 1850s, which helped inspire him to write what would become the first major biography of the poet and visionary. And after Gilchrist died from scarlet fever, Rossetti helped his widow Anne Gilchrist to finish the magnus opus. 

Rossetti also edited Blake’s poems for publication. He has since been criticised for making changes to make the poems more palatable for a Victorian readership, but the fact remains the poems may have been lost if he had not done so.

Blake’s interest in the occult, in the Gothic and in the spiritual can all be seen to chime with the Pre-Raphaelites’ work, and his clearly delineated outlines and rich prismatic colouring can also be seen as influences. 


William Blake "Glad Day", c. 1794 


Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Damsel of the Sanct Grael' c.1857  

The literary critic Arthur Symons has written: ‘it is to D.G. Rossetti that we owe the recovery, if not also the discovery, of Blake.’ 

I went to see the notebook (often called The Rossetti Manuscript) at the British Library when I was in London last June. They have very kindly microfiched each page so you can scroll back and forth as you please.

I really loved looking through the pages, seeing William Blake’s swift deft sketches and scribbled poems, and seeing Rossetti’s handwritten note on the inner cover, describing how he bought it. And, yes, of course, I had to put  reference to it in my novel about the Pre-Raphaelites, Beauty in Thorns, to be published July 2017. 

You can see the whole book at the British Library’s website

Here is the final manuscript version of 'Tyger, Tiger, Burning Bright', with the words below for ease of reading. 

Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 
In the forests of the night; 
What immortal hand or eye, 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 

In what distant deeps or skies. 
Burnt the fire of thine eyes? 
On what wings dare he aspire? 
What the hand, dare seize the fire? 

And what shoulder, & what art, 
Could twist the sinews of thy heart? 
And when thy heart began to beat, 
What dread hand? & what dread feet? 

What the hammer? what the chain, 
In what furnace was thy brain? 
What the anvil? what dread grasp, 
Dare its deadly terrors clasp! 

When the stars threw down their spears 
And water'd heaven with their tears: 
Did he smile his work to see? 
Did he who made the Lamb make thee? 

Tyger Tyger burning bright, 
In the forests of the night: 
What immortal hand or eye, 
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake

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