The Pre-Raphaelites

By Boos, Florence S. | Victorian Poetry, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Pre-Raphaelites


Boos, Florence S., Victorian Poetry


The sixth volume of D. G. Rossetti's letters, The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The Last Decade, 1873-1882 (D. S. Brewer, Cambridge and the Modern Humanities Association), offers six hundred fifty-eight annotated letters from 1873 and 1874, as well as a number of useful appendices, such as "Rossetti's Relations with the Morrises," in which Robert C. Lewis reviews what is known about this charged topic, and "The Oil Versions of Rossetti's Proserpine," in which Allan Life considers the eight known versions of Rossetti's well-known portrait of Jane Morris as Proserpine holding a pomegranate. A separate section entitled "Completing Editors and Their Contributions" also offers helpful clarification of editorial responsibilities for the edition in the years following William E. Fredeman's death.

In "Monna Innominata: Alexa Wilding," finally, Allan and Page Life tell us something of the life and character of the woman who became Rossetti's chief paid model, and whose face appears frequently in Rossetti's later canvasses. Rossetti gave Wilding a salary to prevent her from taking other employment, and she was often present at Kelmscott Manor, though Rossetti timed her visits carefully to avoid her co-residence with Jane Morris.

The Lifes characterize Wilding's relations with Rossetti as strictly professional and offer evidence that her two later children, born in 1876 and 1877, were fathered in fact by George Ernest Shelley, a marksman, ornithologist, and nephew of the poet. Alexa Wilding died young, at thirty-seven in 1884, and her son Charles gave several pictures of her to Oswald Doughty in 1948 as Doughty prepared his biography of Rossetti.

As the letters make clear, Rossetti lived at Kelmscott Manor in 1873 and the first half of 1874, and may have considered permanent residence there, with or without consultation with his co-lessor William Morris, for he investigated the possibility of assuming their joint lease in April 1874. He designed elaborate stationery for Jane Morris to use in her new town home in Turnham Green and sought a large secluded house in the London area at one point, but was unable to find what he wanted.

Somewhat surprisingly in the light of these plans, Rossetti abruptly decided to leave Kelmscott for good in July 1874. William Michael Rossetti attributed this to an incident which signaled the onset of another breakdown, in which Dante became fearful and enraged at the presence of fishermen he imagined had insulted him while he and George Hake walked along the Thames. Roger C. Lewis suggests that he may also have wearied of practical problems with carriage, loss, and breakage of his paints and canvasses, as well as rural Kelmscott's difficulties of access for his models and friends.

He did in fact pen many insistent appeals to Dunn, Howell, his brother and others for materials, and expressions of frustration when an order was not fulfilled or the exact objects he wanted could not be located at Cheyne Walk. Whatever the reasons for his ultimate decision, it is hard not to surmise that his intermittent affair with Jane Morris might have begun to dwindle into a kind of accessory to his principal preoccupations, the progress of his art and his public image.

In early 1874, moreover, Morris had begun to plan a reorganization of the Firm which he eventually carried out later in the year, and he wrote Rossetti to ask him to assume the cost of full-time occupation of the Manor. Jane Morris may have had reasons of her own for her reluctance to rejoin Rossetti in Kelmscott, for May and Jenny Morris were twelve and thirteen in 1874, and Jenny had begun to suffer the seizures which eventually blighted her life. Perhaps Jane simply decided to draw back from a relationship which had begun to puzzle or distress her adolescent children.

In any event, many of the preoccupations expressed in Rossetti's voluminous correspondence of the period were commercial as well as artistic. …

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