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SPOTLIGHT: The PreRaphaelite Sisterhood

Thursday, August 31, 2017

As many of you will know, I have spent the past few years researching and writing about the fascinating lives of some of the women in the Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood for my novel Beauty in Thorns




BEAUTY IN THORNS is an historical novel for adults which tells the story of the tangled desires behind the famous painting ‘The Legend of Briar Rose’ by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. 

Four very different women tell the story: the wives, mistresses, and muses of the Pre-Raphaelites, Georgie Macdonald, Lizzie Siddal, Jane Burden, and Margaret Burne-Jones, the artist’s beloved daughter. 

The Pre-Raphaelites were a collection of daring young artists who outraged Victorian society with their avant-garde paintings, their passionate affairs, and their scandalous behaviour. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848.  His work and ideals inspired Edward Burne-Jones and his friend William Morris to create their own art, and with it, to try to change the world. 

The ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fairy tale haunted Burne-Jones’s imagination, and he painted it many times over the course of thirty years, culminating in an extraordinary quartet of paintings that were greeted by the public with ‘enthusiasm amounting to ecstasy’ in 1890. It was bought for 15,000 guineas, the largest amount ever paid for an artwork in Britain, and Burne-Jones was consequently knighted in 1893.



Burne-Jones and his friends drew together an extraordinary group of young women who all struggled in their different ways to live and love and create as freely. 

In chronological order of birth:




Lizzie Siddal (b. 1829)
Discovered working in a milliner’s shop, Lizzie became one of the most famous faces of the early Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, modelling for paintings by Rossetti and Millais (she is his famous Ophelia). She and Rossetti began a passionate and turbulent affair. Heart-broken by his infidelities, Lizzie took refuge in laudanum. As she lay dying, Rossetti promised to marry her if she would only recover. They were married in 1860, but the birth of a dead child caused Lizzie to sink further into depression and addiction.  She died of an overdose in 1862. Rossetti famously buried his poems with her but later had her exhumed to retrieve the manuscript.






Jane Burden (b. 1839)
Jane was discovered by Rossetti and Burne-Jones in Oxford, and became one of their most striking and famous models. She married William Morris, but began a scandalous affair with Rossetti after the death of Lizzie Siddal. She had two daughters, Jenny and May. Her eldest suffered from epilepsy, then thought a most shameful disease.
                                                



Georgie Macdonald (b. 1840)
The daughter of a God-fearing Methodist minister, Georgie met Ned Burne-Jones when she was ten. He awoke her to a new world of art and poetry and beauty, and she shared with him her favourite fairy tale “Briar Rose”, which inspire him to create some of his most beautiful paintings. Georgie married Burne-Jones at the age of nineteen, after a four-year engagement. 

The early years of their marriage was idyllic, but in 1864 Georgie contracted scarlet fever, which brought on the premature birth of her second child, who consequently died. Her third child – a daughter named Margaret – was born in 1866, the same year as Burne-Jones began a passionate and ultimately calamitous affair with his model, the beautiful and fiery Maria Zambaco.





Margaret Burne-Jones (b. 1866)

The third child born to Edward and Georgie Burne-Jones, after the tragic death of their second son. She was a shy and reserved child remarkable for her beauty. As she grew, she found herself in demand as a model for the Pre-Raphaelites, but struggled with the unwanted attention. In 1888, she fell in love with the Scottish writer, John William Mackail, but her father refused to countenance their marriage. He was obsessively working on his painting of her as the sleeping princess in "The Legend of Briar Rose" series, and was afraid of losing his muse. Margaret had to find the strength to defy her father and marry the man she loved. 

The Pre-Raphaelite circle also included Effie Millais, Fanny Cornforth, Christina Rossetti, May Morris, Mary de Morgan, and many others who I wish I could have included in my novel. maybe one day I'll write something about them too ....  

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

GEORGIE BURNE-JONES: Her Life & Writing

Sunday, August 13, 2017


Georgiana Macdonald Burne-Jones (b. 1840 – d. 1920) is the main character in my novel Beauty in Thorns, a reimagining of 'Sleeping Beauty' set amongst the passions, scandals and tragedies of the Pre-Raphaelite circle of artists and poets in mid-Victorian London. 

Georgie has never attracted as much attention as Lizzie Siddal or Jane Burden, yet her story is just as fascinating. 



Born into the large family of a devout Methodist minister and his wife, she married Ned when he was a desperately poor young artist who had never had a proper drawing lesson in his life. She supported him steadfastly through every crisis of faith, ill health, and infidelity, managed his business affairs, and put aside her own dreams of art and creativity to support her husband’s. 

The scandal of Ned’s affair with the tempestuous and unbalanced Maria Zambaco tested her courage and faithfulness to the utmost. Her friend Rosalind Howard wrote in her diary: ‘her love is the deepest I ever met with. She is centred in her husband, the whole romance of her life is bound up with him from when she was eleven years old – more than romance, every feeling she has. She longs for him. He cannot know what she has endured.’ 



Yet Georgie was by no means the passive, long-suffering wife that she is sometimes painted to be. She pursued her own interests, and had many strong friendships with intelligent and forward-thinking women such as Rosalind Howard and Marian Evans (better known as George Eliot). She became a Socialist, against her husband’s inclinations, and was voted in as a parish councillor in Rottingdean at a time when women still did not have any voice or votes in politics. 



Most interestingly, the Memorials she wrote of Ned’s life are, I think, the most readable and engaging biography of Victorian times. Wherever possible, in Beauty in Thorns, I have tried to let Georgie speak in her own voice. For example, when Georgie speaks of ‘the cloven hoof of fashion’, that is a direct quote from her book. Elsewhere she describes the ‘brown sugar’ of a beach, or Ned’s ‘cloud-scattering laugh’. Her nephew Rudyard Kipling once said that ink ran in the veins of the Macdonalds. I think that he was right, and that it is a shame that Georgie never wrote that novel she dreamed of creating. 


The best books on the life of Ned and Georgie are A Circle of Sisters: Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Agnes Poynter and Louisa Baldwin by Judith Flanders (2001), The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones & the Victorian Imagination (2011) by Fiona MacCarthy, and the two volumes of Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones by Lady Georgiana Burne-Jones (1904).  I also really enjoyed A Profound Secret by Josceline Dimbleby, about the intense late friendship between her great-grandmother May Gaskell and Edward Burne-Jones.

You may also enjoy my blog posts on Lizzie Siddal and Jane Morris.

BEAUTY IN THORNS: celebrating the Pre-Raphaelites!

Sunday, August 06, 2017


Today I'm giving a lecture on the Pre-Raphaelites at the Art Gallery of NSW - I thought I'd re-run a vintage post for those of you who cannot make the event.

‘We cannot censure at present as amply or as strongly as we desire to do, that strange disorder of the mind or the eyes, which continues to rage with unabated absurdity among a class of juvenile artists who style themselves PRB.’ 
The Times, 1851

What were the Pre-Raphaelites?
In 1848 in England, a group of young painters rebelled against the Royal Academy, which rigidly adhered to rules laid down by the eighteenth century painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds. They wanted to paint in a more natural style, drawing from myth and fairytales and poetry, and trying to make their paintings more true to nature. In a spirit of fun and defiance, they formed a secret society called The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB).

Who were these young daring painters?
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (age 20) founded the group along with Sir John Everett Millais (19), and William Holman Hunt (21).  Later, many artists followed the style set by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, Ford Madox Brown, and John William Waterhouse.  Although the Brotherhood was meant to be a secret, four others were later invited to join.  


Self-portrait by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

What were they trying to do?
The Pre-Raphaelites felt stifled by the rigidity of the Royal Academy's idea of what art should be. The PRB believed the only true great art came from before the 16th century Italian painter, Raphael (hence the society's name). The PRB wanted to produce works based on real landscapes and real models, and paid intense attention to accuracy of detail and colour.

What is so special about their art?
Instead of painting the typical landscapes and seascapes, the PRB drew their subject matters from medieval tales, fairy stories, and classical mythology.


'Ophelia' by John Everett Millais, modelled by Lizzie Siddal


Scandals of the Pre-Raphaelites

John Ruskin, one of the major critical supporters of the Pre-Raphaelites, never consummated his marriage to Effie Gray, with many believing he was shocked by the sight of her pubic hair. She annulled the marriage amidst a storm of scandal, and married his protégés, John Everett Millais. 

After Millais painted Lizzie Siddal as Ophelia, she caught pneumonia after being made to lie in freezing water for hours and almost died. 

Lizzie Siddall then became the muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and eventually – after many affairs and problems including her addiction to laudanum – they married. She only lived two more years, however, and some believed she committed suicide. Rossetti buried his poems in her grave, but seven years later had her exhumed so he could retrieve the manuscript. 

William Morris fell in love with Rossetti’s favourite model, Jane Burden, and married her. But Jane and Rossetti began a passionate affair after the death of Lizzie Siddall, and eventually the three managed a strange and painful ménage-a-trois.  


Jane Morris, painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with Kelmscott Manor (the house Rossetti shared with the Morrises) in the background 


William Holman Hunt fell in love with his wife’s sister. After his wife died, he fled England with his sister-in-law so they could marry.

Edward Burne-Jones had an affair with his model, Mary Zambaco, who was a talented sculptor in her own right. When he refused to leave his wife and children, she tried to drown herself in Regent’s Canal. 

He painted his mistress over & over again, including this provocative image of her as Summer. He then painted his wife as Winter.

 

The love triangle between Edward Burne-Jones, his wife Georgie & his mistress Maria Zambaco, echoing that of his best friend William Morris with his wife Jane Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, are the subject of my new novel Beauty in Thorns - out now!

JANE MORRIS: her Life & Sorrows

Tuesday, August 01, 2017


Jane Burden Morris (b. 1939 – d. 1914)

Jane Morris is one of the four women who tell their stories in my novel Beauty in Thorns.

Her sorrowful face, her heavy ripples of hair, and sensual mouth were what first drew me to the Pre-Raphaelites. I was fascinated by her story – a girl from the slums who married a rich young man who loved her but could not paint her, and then her secret and ultimately tragic affair with one of his best friends. Reading about Janey led me to read about William Morris, and I discovered his poetry and his philosophies and his designs, all of which I loved.



His words, ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’, is one of my life mantras. 
 
Janey rarely spoke about her childhood. She kept it well-hidden, even famously refusing to allow John Mackail to include a drawing of the house in which she grew up in his biography of her husband. One of the few things she ever admitted is that she used to pick violets on the Iffley Road, outside St Clements. It is most likely she picked these flowers to sell. 



It is believed that Janey was the inspiration for the character of Anne Brown in Vernon Lee’s 1884 novel Miss Brown, which in its turn inspired George Bernard Shaw’s 1914 play Pygmalion, in which the flower seller Eliza Doolittle is plucked from the streets and taught how to speak and act, just as Jane Burden was by William Morris. Interestingly, Shaw was very close to the Morris family, living for some years in a ménage-a-trois with May Morris and her husband. 

It is necessary to understand what life would be like for a child growing up in a 19th century rookery. 

Her mother was illiterate, her father working as an ostler in a stable. Janey lived with her parents and brother and sister in a single room not much larger than a loose-box. Her life would have been hard and brutish and hungry, and she would have seen much that the other women in the book would have been protected from. It is known her father could be violent, as he was charged with assault on a neighbour, that he was unable to pay the parish poor rate, and that her parents separated after Robbie Burden refused to pay for his wife’s debts. 

Janey went to the local parish school till she was twelve, and then would have worked as a laundress, seamstress, or scullery-maid. Yet she was to later teach herself Italian, learnt to play the piano, and read unusually widely. Where and how Janey was taught to be a lady is not known, though there is one reference to friends of William Morris rowing to Godstow to ‘see Topsy’s Stunner’. I invented her teacher, Miss Leigh, and their skivvy, Violet, the only made-up characters in the novel.

To help me imagine Janey’s childhood, I am grateful to Margaret Fleming for her essay, ‘Where Janey Used to Live’ published in The Journal of William Morris Studies, Winter 1981, and for London Labour and the London Poor: A Cyclopædia of the Condition and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Those That Cannot Work, and Those That Will Not Work, by Henry Mayhew (1862). The Old Cotswold Dialect by Charles Gardiner was also helpful to me in imagining how Janey and her family might have spoken. 

It is not known whether Janey and Gabriel had an affair when they first met in Oxford, when she was only seventeen. However, Hall Caine wrote that Gabriel had confessed to him one night that ‘(he was) a man who, after engaging himself to one woman in all good honour and faith, had fallen in love with another, and then gone on to marry the first out of a mistaken sense of loyalty and a fear of giving pain.’ 



A drawing of Janey at the age of 17 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

 
I have written what I believe most likely happened, but of course I cannot be sure. Maybe one day a lost packet of letters will be found that proves me right (or very wrong). 

The other great unknown about Jane Morris was her ill health. Once again she has not been treated with much kindness by her husband’s biographers. It has become fashionable to think of all Victorian-era women as hypochondriacs and hysterics, and Janey has not escaped this slur. E. P. Thompson’s 1955 biography of William Morris says explicitly: ‘Janey seems to have entered a settled melancholia and hypochondria (the symptoms mentioned include lumbago, sciatica, neuralgia, migraine, sore throats, fevers.)’ 



This has been repeated by all following biographers, including Fiona MacCarthy who, in her brilliant 1994 biography of William Morris, writes: ‘There remains the mystery of the ill-health of Mrs Morris, who took to the sofa at the age of twenty-nine, and never really left it.’ Even Jan Marsh, the most sympathetic of all the Pre-Raphaelite historians, entitles her chapter on the subject ‘Jane Discovers the Benefits of Invalidism’ (Jane and May Morris: A Biographical Story 1839-1938, published in 1986).



This is despite the evidence that Janey worked for Morris & Co as an embroiderer, was a notable housekeeper and cook, and went on numerous adventures to Broadway Tower in the Cotswolds, to Kelmscott Manor in the country, and to Italy and Egypt. Her letters are cheerful and full of a self-deprecating humour. 

It seemed poor Janey was only ever sick whilst in London. Quite apart from the smog, and the Great Stink of the sewage in the Thames, recurring outbreaks of cholera, smallpox, scarlet fever and measles, and the lack of antibiotics, no-one has ever investigated the possibility that Jane Morris may have been suffering from chronic arsenic poisoning from living in close quarters with wallpapers and fabrics known to be saturated with the poison. 




Janey’s ill-health began once she moved to Queen Square in London, where the Firm’s workshops were at that time situated. Apart from the fumes from the kilns and the leading of stained glasses, every room in the apartment was furnished with early William Morris wallpapers. Nine of the first eleven wallpapers made by the Firm have since tested positive for arsenic. 

Topsy’s father’s company, Great Devon Consols, was then the largest arsenic producer in the world. In 1862, a medical health officer established that three children in the Limehouse district had died as a result of arsenic poisoning from their wallpaper. Their symptoms were the same as Janey’s: headaches, fatigue, nausea, abdominal cramps, weakness or trembling in the limbs, and chest and upper respiratory tract complaints. Lily Yeats, who learnt embroidery from May Morris, even observed that Janey’s skin had become ‘sallow and coarse’, another known side effect of chronic arsenic poisoning. 

In 1875, the Firm announced it was no longer using arsenic in its wallpaper, and the next year William Morris resigned from the board of Great Devon Consols (and famously sat on his ceremonial top-hat to squash it). However, arsenic was still being found in the Firm’s wallpapers in the mid-1880s – and it was particularly strong in the ‘Trellis’ wallpaper which was used in the master bedroom at Kelmscott House in Hammersmith, where the Morris family lived after 1878. It has been argued that there is no evidence that arsenical wallpapers – produced by William Morris & Co or not – were poisonous, but the World Health Organization has just recently shown the dangers of long exposure to low doses of arsenic. Interestingly, in light of Jenny Morris’s epilepsy diagnosis, seizures are also a side-effect of arsenic poisoning.

The theory that Janey suffered from chronic arsenic poisoning seems to be borne out by the fact that she recovered much of her health whenever she travelled away from Queen Square or Kelmscott House, but relapsed once she returned to London. 

If you’d like to know more about arsenic poisoning, read The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work & Play by James C Warburton or King of Poisons: A History of Arsenic by John Parascandola.



A portrait of Janey by DGR - Kelmscott Manor can be seen in the background

Kelmscott Manor is, of course, the setting for Janey and Gabriel’s blissful summer of love in 1871. For many years, it was not known whether Jane Morris had an affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, or not. Many of their letters had been destroyed after Fanny Cornforth, Rossetti’s mistress and housekeeper, tried to blackmail Rossetti by threatening to sell them. Only a few survived. 

However, it is impossible to read Rossetti’s love poetry – which he wrote out for Janey in a small notebook– without being aware of the deep sensual bond between them. Many of these poems have not been published. I read them in the Special Collections reading room at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It was unspeakably moving, seeing these beautiful poems of passion and yearning written in Gabriel’s bold handwriting and knowing that Janey kept them all of her life, despite the danger. Jan Marsh has edited a small booklet of the poems, called ‘Water-Willow & Well-Away’, if you’d like to read more of them.




After Gabriel’s tragic descent into madness and paranoia, Janey broke off the affair to protect her children. She wrote later: ‘he wanted me to go away with him altogether, to leave my children & everything. But you know I (could) not do that.’  



If you’d like to read more about Janey, the best books are Jane & May Morris: A Biographical Story 1839-1938 by Jan Marsh (1986), William Morris (1994) by Fiona MacCarthy, and Jane Morris: The Burden of History by Wendy Parkins (2013), which dismantles many of the unkinder myths circulated about her. 


Want to know more about the fascinating women of the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood?


I do hope you enjoyed this blog. If so, tell me so! I love to read your comments. 

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 ....


     

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

BEAUTY IN THORNS: Edward Burne-Jones's Sleeping Beauty paintings

Thursday, May 25, 2017



Beauty in Thorns is an historical novel for adults which tells the astonishing true story behind the famous 'Sleeping Beauty' painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. Told in the voices of four very different women, Beauty in Thorns is a story of love, desire, art, and awakenings of all kinds. 

Burne-Jones painted the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale many times over the forty-odd years of his career: 




In May 1856, Burne-Jones drew a pencil sketch of his betrothed, Georgie Macdonald, as the Sleeping Beauty to amuse her little sister Louie on her birthday. He was 23 years old and Georgie was sixteen. I believe this is the sketch, though it has not been officially confirmed. 





In 1862, Burne-Jones designed a series of 'Sleeping Beauty' tiles for a client of the Morris & Co decorating firm, of which he was a partner. The princess looks very much like Lizzie Siddal, who had died a few months earlier of a laudanum overdose, and the prince kneeling to kiss her awake looks very much like her grieving widower Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The peacock (featured on the wall of the boudoir) is a symbol of immortality and rebirth.  This tile is one of nine in a sequence that begins with the baby in her cradle and ends with the marriage of the prince and princess. The tiles can be seen at the V&A Museum in Kensington.




In the 1870s, Burne-Jones had a tempestuous affair with one of his models, the sculptor Maria Zambaco, and he painted a very sensual version of Sleeping Beauty with his mistress modelling as the princess. The affair ended badly, with Maria attempting to drown herself in Regent's Canal.  At one point, Ned planned to run away with Maria but he ended returning to his wife and family so they would not be besmirched by the scandal. 

This painting - now in Puerto Rico - was the final in a sequence of three paintings that showed the prince in the briar wood, the king and his councillors asleep in the council chamber, and the princess asleep with her maids.




This beautiful drawing is a chalk study of his daughter Margaret that Burne-Jones made in 1881, when he was planning another sequence of painting inspired by the fairytale. Margaret was then fifteen, the age of the princess in the story.





And this exquisite painting of his daughter Margaret as Sleeping Beauty was created by Burne-Jones in 1884-1887,  as the final in a sequence of four enormous painting which now hang in Buscot Park, in Oxfordshire. Margaret was aged in her late teens and early twenties, and had fallen in love with a young poet and scholar named John William Mackail, much to her father's distress. 

The four paintings - called 'The Legend of Briar Rose' - caused an absolute sensation when they were first exhibited in 1890, with queues of carriages along Bond Street and crowds of people returning again and again to view them. Burne-Jones sold the quartet of painting for fifteen thousand guineas, the most money a British artist had ever been paid, and he was subsequently knighted by the Queen. 





His final painting is a small circle, entitled 'Wake Dearest' which he painted for his ever-loving and faithful wife Georgie in the final year of his life (1898). I believe she was the model for the princess. This tiny masterpiece - along with 37 other tiny glowing circles - were left to Georgie in his will, and later published as 'The Flower Book'. 

My novel Beauty in Thorns tells the story behind the creation of these exquisite drawings and paintings - a story of love, betrayal, heartbreak, death, and awakening of all kinds.  


It will be released in Australia in July 2017. 

BEAUTY IN THORNS: My publisher thinks I'm a genuis (no, really, she does!)

Monday, October 31, 2016




I delivered the first draft of my new novel, Beauty in Thorns, to my wonderful publisher Meredith last week and received the most beautiful email back from her once she had read the manuscript. 


I don't think she'd mind me sharing just a little of it with you - it's the loveliest email ever!


It was headed: 


Someone should have told me I would cry my way through the last chapters



Dear Kate

 

Beauty in Thorns is wonderful, thank you. Such a beautiful story told with love and respect and intelligence and heart. The layer upon layer of research and appreciation of the art and lives of the Pre-Raphaelites are evident but in no way impede an emotional and heartfelt reading of the novel. You are a genius ... 


(Yes, she really did write that! I love my publisher so much!)


There were times when I couldn’t help but hate our genius artists, or be frustrated by these brave and wondrous women putting up with so much ... I cried tears of joy and relief (for Margot and Georgie) and sadness (for Topsy and Georgie’s grief at the death of Ned). Truly I cried for almost the whole last section ...

 

Thank you.

 

You are a wonder.

 

Meredith

xx



I cried reading her email, as I'm sure you can imagine. I have poured my heart & soul into Beauty in Thorns and have such high hopes for it. Everyone is fascinated by the Pre-Raphaelites, aren't they? Their art is certainly soaring to new highs on the international art market, with one of my favourite Edward Burne-Jones painting's Love in Ruins selling a few years ago for $22 million!


And the good news is that she had very few suggestions for the manuscript - mainly cutting it back, which I knew the book needed badly.  


I worked like a demon all week, and did absolutely everything she suggested (I really trust her instincts), and have sent her back the book already. It must be the fastest turn-around in publishing history. 


Now we are moving straight to copy-editing, which will be my last chance to make any changes before publication.


It's all very exciting!




For those of you who are new to my blog, Beauty in Thorns tells the extraordinary story of love, desire, scandal and tragedy behind Edward Burne-Jones's obsessive painting and re-painting of the Sleeping Beauty fairy-tale over the course of more than forty years. Here's a link to my blog which shows most of his Sleeping beauty paintings.


And here is a short video I made about the writing of the book:





 


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