BIOGRAPHERS HAVE BEEN trawling the waters of the Victorian era so exhaustively over the last thirty years – not a parlour-maid’s diary left unexamined – that it is faintly astonishing to discover two splendid specimens, swimming in familiar shoals, whom nobody seems to have netted. Their names are William Michael Rossetti and Lucy Madox Brown.
Angela Thirlwell, a lecturer at Birkbeck College (and the mother of Adam, author of the novel Politics), has made the catch, and her study of these two vivid and engaging people is meticulously researched and recently illustrated. A thriller it isn’t: a certain amount of patience and perseverance is required of the reader, for this is not a tale of emotional melodrama or sexual scandal. But the picture which gradually and unemphatically emerges from its quiet, lucid pages is evocatively detailed and absorbing.
Born in 1829, William Michael Rossetti was the younger brother of the painter Dante Gabriel and an older brother of the poet Christina. Their sternly principled but inspirational mother, Frances, wrote that she wished ‘that there was a little less intellect in the family, so as to allow for a little more common sense’, but this seems unfair on William, who was doggedly practical and extraordinarily industrious, as well as unfailingly honourable and generous-spirited. All his adult life he dutifully toiled for the Inland Revenue, and after retirement he continued to travel the country assessing the taxable value of art collections.
Somehow he also managed a completely separate professional existence as a man of letters, one of admirable breadth and productivity. Chiefly, he was a widely respected art critic – ‘the only one who isn’t a hack’, claimed George du Maurier, ‘and strange to say he appears to me to have wonderfully little party feeling, considering his bringing up and association.’ Nevertheless it was to was to Dante Gabriel’s Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood that his first loyalty lay – he was its ‘gofer’ to the outside world, ‘its advocate, secretary, myth-maker and historian’, discharging a stream of explanatory and appreciative articles, monographs, collections and catalogues; he also posed for Holman Hunt and Millais and executed his own modestly competent sketches in the circle’s approved style.
Other contemporaries, Leighton and Frith for example, may have received shorter shrift from William, but he had that most agreeable of critical tendencies – ‘wherever he could praise artists, he did so’. He certainly had none of the modern critic’s desire to stick his neck out or cause a stink. in the notorious ‘pot of paint’ libel action, he even succeeded in defending Whistler without alienating Ruskin. The other side of this diplomacy was a lack of forceful originality: Thirlwell can quote nothing truly memorable or revolutionary in his writing, and it is his combination of clear sight and calm diligence with a capacity for methodical chronicling that distinguishes him, rather than any broader power or range of vision. In the fields of literature and politics, his heart seemed to beat faster. His sympathies were firmly progressive and freethinking. He composed a sequence of Democratic Sonnets, celebrating the great liberal causes of his time, and he championed writers who were morally engaged with the weighty dynastic union issues of the day. Shelley was his idol: among his most treasured possessions were two hairs supposedly taken from his head and a sofa on which the poet was reputed (by Trelawny, whose Recollections he edited) to have spent the last night of his life. Among the moderns, Whitman stood as his beacon of liberation, ‘one of the greatest sons of Earth, a few steps below Shakespeare on the throne of immortality’.
Alongside all this intensity were the qualities of a devoted paterfamilias, and a loyal friend too. There’s no dirt on him. He didn’t cheat on his wife or ignore his children, and his affectionate loyalty to the troublesome Dante Gabriel throughout his problematic amorous life and chloral addiction was unswerving. For all his principles, he was neither pious nor pompous – he got on with life and its problems without pontificating or complaining. He had a nice sense of the ridiculous, relished the romantic obscurities of Browning, enjoyed the opera and the theatre, kept a menagerie of animals (including a beloved wombat) and collected japonaiserie. He survived until 1919, and could look back over a long, rich, fulfilled and mostly happy existence which seemed to embody the best qualities of his era – its intellectual curiosity and optimism, and its ethical firmness. He was clearly a good man: perhaps he was fortunate to be unendowed with genius.
Lucy Madox Brown makes a more complicated impression. The daughter of the painter Ford Madox Brown, she lost her mother in infancy and was farmed out to an aunt. Her psyche was scarred by the absence of her much-loved father, jealousy of her stepmother and half-sister, and the death of an adored half-brother. Her marriage to Williarn Rossetti (whom she teasingly called Fofus – ‘fussy old fogey’) bound together two artistic dynasties in a manner that seems almost cynical. William was fourteen years Lucy’s senior. and had known her since she was six. But in the event there was nothing creepily incestuous about their union – it was a busy and successful one and produced five vivacious children, who all ‘turned out well’, largely thanks to a stimulating upbringing which allowed them plenty of fun and freedom.
Like her husband, Lucy had enormous energy. She painted strongly, in a style derivative of her father’s, and exhibited her work. An ardent feminist and suffragette, also wrote a biography of Mary Shelley. Thirlwell’s suggestion that she exemplifies the fast and fashionable ‘It’ Girl, excoriated in a sensational article in the Saturday Review in 1868, seems wide of the mark – she was too serious and ambitious for that, even if her impossibly high-minded sister-in-law Christina found her too worldly by half.
What makes her difficult to judge is her long struggle with a tubercular condition. She was never a chaise longue Victorian invalid, and her struggle through agonising fits of coughing and periods of intense debility was breathtakingly courageous. But to what degree her increasing fractiousness was the effect of her illness, and to what degree it was evidence of a frustration deeper in her personality it is impossible to tell. She died in San Remo in 1884, and is buried in the cemetery there, a few yards from Edward Lear.
Neither William nor Lucy played a central creative role in their culture, but they were caught up in many of its major currents, in a way that makes them both sharply illuminating alternative spirits of their age. They may not rank as eminent Victorians, but, as Thirlwell’s excellent book makes clear, they are certainly significant ones.