Wives and Stunners: The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Muses, By Henrietta Garnett

Three's a crowd in this group portrait

There can be few racier literary or artistic sets than the Pre-Raphaelites. Perhaps only the Bloomsbury group can rival them for incestuous pairings, which is why Henrietta Garnett, the daughter of David Garnett and Angelica Bell (herself the daughter of Garnett's lover Duncan Grant and Virginia Woolf's sister, Vanessa Bell) is so well placed to understand them. And yet she seems reluctant to trust her own background or instincts here, preferring to rely on secondary sources. This is a pity, as I suspect she would have a great deal of insight, even if it meant more supposition than she was comfortable with.

At first, her focus is on the wives and "stunners", those beautiful girls on whom the Pre-Raphaelite painters and poets alighted: Effie Gray, Lizzie Siddal, Jane Morris. Inevitably, Gray's marriage to the art critic of the day, John Ruskin, dominates the first 130 pages. Ruskin's horror at the revelation of his wife's naked body on their wedding night led to an unconsummated marriage, and then scandal and divorce when a love-starved Effie fell for Ruskin's protégé, John Millais. Garnett tells this unhappy tale from Effie's point of view, but omits what it might tell us about what it means to be a muse.

Siddall's fate was a far worse one. Garnett traces her sad relationship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, her beginnings as his model, her growth into an artist and her final demise as his wife, addicted to drugs. Garnett allows herself a rare moment of speculation about their sexual relationship before they were married, writing that the granddaughter of William Holman Hunt, Diana, confided in Garnett her personal belief that Lizzie had had an abortion before marriage. Garnett finds the truth of this "debatable": "Family anecdotes abound. Just because they are repeated doesn't make them necessarily true," she writes.

Once Lizzie is dispatched, we turn to Janey Morris, the sexually mysterious wife of the arts and crafts movement's William Morris, and the lover of Rossetti. In her role as lover-muse, she had to compete with the ghost of Lizzie, but Garnett will only comment on Janey's "hold" on Rossetti: "she was mysterious, fascinating and alluring. She was indeed, his ultimate muse". Is mystery the key to a muse? It didn't help Effie, and it didn't help Georgie Burne-Jones, wife of Edward.

By now, though, Garnett is losing her focus, and the women are fading against the lives of the artists. Consistency in group biographies is essential but tricky to maintain. Details, which single-study biographies can indulge, struggle for space here. Garnett has some very juicy material at her fingertips, but there is little new for the reader to discover.

'Between the Sheets: Nine 20th-Century Women Writers and their Famous Literary Partnerships' by Lesley McDowell is published by Duckworth