I tried to explain the Pre-Raphaelites to someone who had never heard of them and found myself at kind of a loss to explain why they were famous. So – they were these guys who wanted to change the way that painting happened and how people perceived beauty. And they signed their paintings PRB because they were the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. But these days they are better known for their Bohemian lifestyles and multiple affairs – series such as BBC’s Desperate Romantics and – well – this book have helped to build the legend that the Pre-Raphaelites snuck in time for painting somewhere in between rolling out of bed with their latest paramour and their late-night drug-taking binges. They come to seem like Victorian rock stars, the Pete Dohertys of their day. The fact that they moved art on from the sentimentality and sameness of the seventeenth century tends to be passed by.
If John Everett Millais is remembered for running off with his erstwhile mentor’s wife and William Holman Hunt is best known for having a long-running relationship with a barmaid who he then foolishly tried to ‘educate’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s notoriety is largely associated with his relationship with Lizzie Siddal. Lizzie Siddal started off modelling for other Pre-Raphaelites, including John Everett Millais for whom she posed as Ophelia, hence this book’s title, lying still in a bath which was supposed to be heated, but Millais became distracted by painting and forgot about her so that Lizzie caught pneumonia and ruined her health. Still, her true ruin came from her association with Rossetti.
The two of them had a long-running affair, she often posed for him, and eventually (after excessive pressure from all sides and more than a few dramatic gestures of despair from Lizzie) Rossetti agreed to marry her. Naturally, the couple’s woes were not over there and Lizzie died of a laudanum overdose at only thirty-two, overcome with grief at Rossetti’s faithlessness and the trauma of her recent stillbirth. Rossetti was so over-come with guilt at how he had treated her that he placed the only copy of his poems in her coffin – which was very inconvenient a few years later when he decided that he needed them back, because he then had to sort out an exhumation order and Lizzie’s decaying corpse had damaged the volume anyway. Charming chap.
The problem with Ophelia’s Muse is that Cameron is never able to offer much more than a longer version of that summary I offered above. It’s a pretty lifeless novel. Lizzie goes from poverty-stricken shop girl to naive model for Walter Deverell to fallen woman, staggering about and being unhealthy before finally succumbing to her misery. Rossetti is the selfish artist and priapic egotist who cares not for her comfort but rather his art. Cameron does nothing to raise them from the two dimensions and they feel flat on the page. She has taken a story which has the potential to have all the emotion of an operatic tragedy and managed to make it feel dull.
While I am a fan of John Everett Millais (Ophelia, Cherry Ripe, The Order of Release …), I never have cared for either of the Rossettis and particularly not the male one. I remember having a lecture on the Pre-Raphaelites while at university and Lizzie Siddal came up and even then they seemed overrated. Quotes on Lizzie described her as stuck-up and arrogant and the idea of lying still in a cold bath to the point of pneumonia seemed moronic to my teenaged self. Still, far worse than that was Rossetti. What kind of person makes a grand gesture like burying his poems with his wife and then has her dug up?
Having read The Model Wife and been an English student/amateur fan of art/history, I spotted a fair few holes in Cameron’s book. She continually refers to Rossetti as Dante even though most people called him Gabriel. She has Christina Rossetti embrace Lizzie as a sister even though most records show that Christina looked down on her as lower class. Even stranger is how Cameron insists on Lizzie’s fantastic beauty even though Walter Deverell originally hired her as model only because he thought she was plain enough to act as Viola – not because he was awestruck by her beauty; she was quirky, not classically attractive. Oddest of all is the way that Cameron emphasises that Lizzie’s suicide comes from her conviction that she will never have a child, after her daughter is stillborn – but Lizzie did have a second pregnancy which is not mentioned. Also, Cameron is an American writer and this does not make her attempts to create a Victorian atmosphere are strained with discordant phrases making it difficult to suspend disbelief.
I think that it might have worked better if there had been more of a contrast between Lizzie and the other women in the book. Her sister Lydia was in love with the grocer’s son from down the street – yet while Lydia was happier in life, Lizzie has immortality through the paintings she featured in. Then there was Annie Miller who may or may not have been Rossetti’s lover – but who may just as easily have remained chaste, even if Cameron does state otherwise. Annie Miller was ‘educated’ by William Holman Hunt who loved her but eventually they parted and she made a highly respectable marriage, had many children and lived into her eighties. How did she achieve this kind of success and happiness but not Lizzie?
I expected to enjoy this book a lot more than I did – I really like John Everett Millais and I feel that his love story with Effie Gray is incredibly lovely. But despite the flaws on the behalf of the author, the true fault is mine as a reader – I had no respect for these characters. Lizzie was a drip with a victim complex, tying her destiny to Rossetti and refusing to take any agency for her own fate. Her extremely timely health crises did seem designed to guilt-trip Rossetti and it was not hard to imagine why he was happier with her elsewhere. And then Rossetti – a drug addicted lay-about with the morals of an alley-cat. I should explain – my grandmother is currently in the very final stages of cancer but I realise that her opinions and values are branded into my being and will never leave me. She taught me that people like Lizzie are to blame for their own situations and so her downfall failed to reach my sympathy. I compare her to Effie Gray who sought her annulment, Annie Miller who got her happy ending and the millions of women who had to fight to overcome hardship – Lizzie Siddal is a pitiful figure, not a heroine.
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Published by Kensington on September 29th 2015
Genres: Fiction, General, Historical, Victorian
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