Desperate Romantics, By Franny Moyle

Passion and paranoia with the Pre-Raphaelites

The Pre-Raphaelite story has much of the soap opera about it. A cast of central characters, with bit players, interact in dramatic episodes that can be endlessly retold. Historical figures who verge on the fictional arouse partisan likings and loathings on behalf of Rossetti and Lizzie, Ruskin and Effie, Holman Hunt and Annie Miller. Triangular relationships have an archetypal resonance, as handsome John Millais rescues Effie Ruskin from a loveless, sexless marriage, William Morris loses Janey to Rossetti, wife Georgie and lover Maria fight over Burne-Jones.

Nor is it simple drama, partly because played out at a time when social assumptions were altering – up to a point. Hunt "saved" Annie from the fate-worse-than-death, for which scenario she modelled in "The Awakening Conscience", having her educated as a suitable wife before deciding she was not. Golden-haired Fanny Cornforth, whose advent coincided with the aesthetic shift from realism to glamour, could not be introduced to the artists' sisters or wives. Effie was able to marry Millais but, despite his honours and titles, could never enter high society. Court rules forbade a woman with two husbands any potential contact with the royal presence.

There was no happy outcome when Lizzie Siddal finally married Rossetti, but a tragic sequel of stillbirth, mental disturbance and suicidal overdose. Then came the burial of his poems in her grave, and their exhumation, to be published with half-concealed declarations of love for Janey Morris. Many Victorians found ways round the prohibition on divorce, but for Rossetti the irreconcilable struggle between romance and shame precipitated paranoia and premature death. So many times real life nudged the "sensation novel" of the day; the key portrait of Lady Audley's Secret was painted by "no one but a Pre-Raphaelite".

As if all these personal events were not enough, there is the art, against and within which the lives are re-interpreted. From a nadir in the 1940s, when there was almost no support for an exhibition marking the Brotherhood's centenary, Pre-Raphaelite painting, drawing and photography has risen and risen in public and academic esteem. Millais's "Ophelia", for which Lizzie famously posed in a rapidly-cooling bath, is Tate Britain's most popular picture. Solo exhibitions devoted to Rossetti, Millais, Hunt, Ruskin, Morris and Burne-Jones have all been held in the past decade. A Pre-Raphaelite show opens in Stockholm next month, and Tate Britain is planning a blockbuster for 2012.

Published to accompany a forthcoming TV drama series (or soap), Franny Moyle's re-telling adds little to the stories we know, and even ignores the substantial research into the lives of Fanny and her first husband Timothy Hughes aka Cornforth, published in the British Art Journal in 2001. There are careless details and solecisms, but the book is highly readable and admirably free of bias and prurience.

Opening with the last-gasp Chartist demonstration in 1848, it weaves together the tales of Ruskin and the chief Pre-Raphaelites through three decades, to the death of Rose La Touche, the enigmatic child whom Ruskin loved (and destroyed, or who drove him to the dementia of his last years?) and of Rossetti in 1882. The large cast-list is neatly handled, so that the stories move swiftly forward.

Some episodes are highlighted, such as Lizzie's alleged sickness in 1854, which Moyle suggests disguised an abortion. Others that intrigue many fans, such as the nature of Janey's affair with Rossetti at Kelmscott, are not delved, probably because now sex is assumed unless – as with the Ruskins – it can be proved absent.

Reading the opening tribute to my own work, I had some doubts as to the propriety of this review, but the Pre-Raphaelites' appeal is perennial. Moreover, despite the abundance of material, much remains obscure, open to conjecture, argument and revision. Long may the story-telling continue.

Jan Marsh's biography of DG Rossetti is published by Phoenix