Magazine article The Spectator

William and Lucy

Magazine article The Spectator

William and Lucy

Article excerpt

WILLIAM AND LUCY by Angela Thirlwell Yale, £25, pp. 376, ISBN 0300102003

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Say 'Rossetti' to most people, and you will get back 'Dante Gabriel', or 'Christina', or perhaps a description of paintings of exotically beflowered, heavy-jawed women. It is impossible to imagine that anyone will respond with, 'Of course, William Michael', much less 'Lucy Madox'. Angela Thirlwell, in her passionately argued double biography, wants to bring Dante Gabriel's little brother and his wife out of the wings and into the spotlight.

William Michael Rossetti's main elaim to fame was as aid and support to both his feckless, ultimately chloral-sodden brother and his retiring, home-loving sister. He left school at 1.5 to work for the Board of the Inland Revenue, initially as a correspondence clerk, for the last 25 years of his career as Assistant Secretary in the Excise Section. In the evenings he became 'Gabriel's editor, proof-reader, Italian linguistic adviser, moneylender, protector, supporter, mediator, confidant, memorialiser and general gofer'.

A shy man, William found an entree into the world of art and artists he so admired when his brother, with Holman Hunt and Millais, founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. William was 19, and permitted to join as 'secretary'. He edited their short-lived magazine, The Germ, and kept a journal of their meetings. This introduction led to work as an art critic, first for The Spectator, then for numerous British and American papers, presenting the art of his friends to an American audience, and Oriental and the new French art to the British.

He also edited the first British edition of Whitman's poems, and wrote prolifically on his friend Swinburne, as well as on his passion, the Romantic poets. He helped Trelawney prepare a new edition of his Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron, was one of the earliest contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary, produced over 50 entries for two editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and, most importantly, handed down to posterity endless works by and about Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti.

In essence, he was the perfect Victorian homme des lettres. What lifted him above the mass was his extraordinary family. In addition to his talented siblings William's father Gabriele, a political refugee, was a Dante scholar. …

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