William and Lucy: the other Rossettis by Angela Thirlwell

Victorians with a modern dimension

Frances Spalding
Friday 07 November 2003 01:00

The romantic saga attached to the Rossetti family continues to expand. It begins with Gabriele Rossetti, a political activist and refugee who settled in Bloomsbury with his wife Frances, who was half-Italian. They had four children. One was the reclusive poet Christina Rossetti, another, Maria, published a study of Dante. A third was the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who drew his younger brother, William Michael, into the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

William readily adopted soulful poses for his painter friends and himself wanted to write. But shortage of funds obliged William to become the chief breadwinner within this talented but impecunious family. He spent most of life working for the Board of Inland Revenue, earning from Max Beerbohm the observation that he was "the one (superficially) dull man in a bevy of brilliant ones".

Angela Thirwell, in this original and engaging study, uncovers William's story. Unlike his restless brother, with his chloral addiction, his ill-fated passion for Lizzie Siddal and his colourful entourage, William was a man of calm and certainty. He accepted his fate and turned his circumstances to advantage: in his spare time he became an art critic and literary biographer. He also acted as secretary to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, logging informal meetings and day-to-day doings for four years.

Because he outlived his siblings, he was able to lay down the Rossetti family myth and much of the history of Pre-Raphaelitism, in the memoirs he wrote and the collections of letters and personal papers he published. This was his most significant achievement. And it was helped by his marriage. With Lucy, the daughter of Ford Madox Brown, as his wife, he secured the union of two leading Pre-Raphaelite families.

"Victorians with a modern dimension," Thirwell describes them. Her portrait of Lucy is as intense and delicately inflected as a Pre-Raphaelite painting.

Her children were, not surprisingly, precocious. She herself painted, having studied under her adored father. But a litany of debilitating illnesses undermined her career and tuberculosis caused early death.

Thirwell presents these lives in an unusual way. She focuses on "spots of experience", on particular relationships or areas of activity. William and Lucy are at times shown separately, at others together. Though a sense of chronology inevitably underpins the narrative, it does not order it. Instead of a blow-by-blow account of what in places has become a too familiar story, we are given a series of vignettes, in the course of which two characters unfold.

Thirlwell's book, though not entirely free of these faults, is a remarkable achievement, impeccably researched. What makes it additionally attractive are the illustrations which infiltrate the text. These include Lucy's little-known work and many hitherto unpublished drawings and photographs.

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