A review of Wives and Stunners by Henrietta Garnett

With their sensual style, startling realism and ravishing depictions of feminine beauty, the Pre-Raphaelites -- Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman-Hunt and John Everett Millais -- turned the conservative Victorian art establishment on its head. But it is the women who inspired their paintings who made their work truly 'romantic'. 

From Effie Gray, Lizzy Siddal and Janey Morris to later muses Georgie Burne-Jones and Mary Zambaco, their images were immortalized on canvas, while their extraordinary lives remained largely unexamined. Yet these 'stunners' and their artists wove a surprisingly modern web of friendships, romance, envy and betrayal. Alongside younger artists such as Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, their bohemian existence shocked and thrilled nineteenth-century England in equal measure, and the relationships they formed transformed British art for ever.

In the words of author, Henrietta Garnett, "a 'stunner' is a nineteenth-century slang coined by Gabriel Rossetti (DGR), generally referring to a woman of exceptional beauty, glamour, and charisma."

'Wives and Stunners' is a group biography concentrating on Effie Gray and her marriage to Ruskin and then Millais, Rossetti and Siddal and his affair with Jane Morris, the marriage of William and Jane Morris, Mr. and Mrs. Burne-Jones, as well as Pre-Raphaelite model Annie Miller's affair with painter, William Holman-Hunt.

Let's begin with John Ruskin and Effie Gray. The usual story of how Effie and Ruskin met is told here with some added dimension of both their childhoods. For instance, not knowing much about John Ruskin, it was fascinating to learn that he was an only child whose father, John James Ruskin, suffered from manic depression. I wonder if this trait was passed down to his son, John? The author, Henrietta Garnett, also says that Ruskin's parents were first cousins (its making sense now). Ruskin's mother, Margaret Cox Ruskin, was deeply religious teaching him the Bible through daily readings and memorization exercises young John would be made to take. He loved it and religion became a daily study and lifelong passion. However, Effie Gray's childhood was idyllic compared to young John's. She grew up in the Scottish Highlands with many siblings and for the most part had a stable upbringing with loving and supportive parents.

Of course, the author details the ups and downs of the troubled Ruskin marriage with no discrepancies that I came across. All the usual details about the terrible wedding night that was anything but sexual or romantic. Garnett gives the usual reasons for Ruskin not making love to his new bride on their wedding night i.e. her pubic hair, possible odor and even menstruating swollen body could have completely turned him off! It seems Ruskin had not exactly an idealized view of the female nude but he did expect a painted nude body type personified! Poor Effie. The divorce story is here as well, detailed again with precision although how factual is up to someone much more studied on the subject. Garnett does attribute Effie's wanting a divorce down to her meeting and falling in love with John Everett Millais and her keen intelligence on divorce proceedings!

Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Henrietta Garnett approaches the subject of Lizzie Siddal without going into any acknowledgment of her childhood or family life. Instead, she focuses her chapters on her marriage to Dante Gabriel Rossetti who she refers to as Gabriel in the book. Of course, no mention of The Rossetti's would be worth reading without including the 'Ophelia' story which is here in glorious detail! Nothing new here really except for the obvious dislike for Lizzie Siddal. The author comes straight out with it, referring to Lizzie as a laudanum 'addict'!  A very ill woman which she believes begins with her catching cold in that bathtub while posing for Ophelia but we shall never know really!  This poor woman's short and sad life seems to capture so many people wanting to know more about her. I understand this, of course, but reading 'Wives and Stunners' I couldn't help but feel sorry for the woman that Garnett depicted.

When it came to tell the story of how Lizzie Siddal died, it's all here again in glorious detail. One thing fascinated me that I didn't remember reading in other biographies. For instance, Garnett mentions in a footnote how when Rossetti returns home from his night out supposedly at a men's club or with his lover, Fanny Cornforth, he finds a dead Lizzie in a sleeping position with a note pinned to her dress reading, 'look after Harry.' Harry Siddal was Lizzie's younger, disabled brother and when Rossetti died it was his brother William who continued to pay for Harry Siddal's regular allowance. Whether this allowance was to help with his upkeep given his disability, whether Harry was living with his parents or put in an asylum or 'home', the custom of the day, it is not known or explained any further. I would love to know, though!  

Garnett also describes Lizzie Siddal as being very jealous of any woman Rossetti would speak to, especially Annie Miller at the time. She and Rossetti were not yet married and she presents the case that Siddal believed marriage to Rossetti would keep her emotionally stable and somehow he would not look elsewhere for 'company!'  Poor Lizzie!!  Fascinating reading, though again how factual I don't know. It seems to me that Garnett connected Lizzie's problems to her taking of laudanum and her insecurities. It is good to read a more complete description of a young woman while not idealizing her so unnaturally that she becomes perfection. I still come back to the realization that nobody will ever know one person completely. We simply must do our own research and believe what we choose to about those figures that we find so intriguing!
My favorite chapters concerned Mr. and Mrs. Burne-Jones and William and Jane Morris. The stories of visits to The Morris's while living first at Red House then later Kelmscott Manor always make these amazing figures come so effervescently to life. I can see them walking around the house, the women Janey and Georgie cooking, talking, laughing, the kids running around the house their giggles echoing off the walls. What a scene it must have been! The men talking behind closed doors, inside jokes, winks, shoulder nudges. 

I never realized that Jane Morris's second daughter, Mary (known as May) Morris was born a few weeks after Lizzie Siddal died. May Morris came into the world on 25 March, 1862, at the beautiful Red House. Another adorable anecdote Garnett tells is how William Morris used to call his daughters, 'The Littles' because well they were!  

By the time The Morris's moved into Kelmscott Manor with 'The Littles', Jane Morris became quite the homemaker or so her husband thought. William Morris describes how Janey would lay out apples from the orchards on wooden trays and how lavender that she harvested hung on hooks from the whitewashed ceilings making the high rooms smell sweet.

One interesting anecdote, according to the author, was how the eldest daughter of William and Jane Morris, Jenny Morris, inherited epilepsy from her father who described him as having sudden and unpredictable mood swings which amused his friends. Jenny Morris was doing very well at school at the time; she was proficient in Latin and English literature and was expected to attend Girton, a new college for female students at Cambridge when diagnosed with epilepsy in 1876 at the age of fifteen years old. Who knows what she could have gone on to accomplish but not much is documented about her life. We have Jane Morris's letters briefly mentioning Jenny's illness and how it affected her family. 

It was good to read about the children of these famous 'Wives and Stunners' as well as getting the female perspective of author, Henrietta Garnett even if I didn't always agree with her conclusions. I did learn more about these fascinating figures of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and you can't expect more than that!  


Hermes said…
Good review but not a good book imho. Bit of a pot boiler really. Gay Daly is far better as is Effie on the Ruskin marriage. A fascinating story though. Nice to see a picture of Jenny.
Kevin Marsh said…
What a fascinating insight into these peoples lives, (often tragic). It must have been interesting researching them and making connections, filling in the gaps as you go.
Again some lovely pictures/photo's.
Thank you for this.

Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Hermes,
It is interesting Gay Daly's treatment of the Ruskin marriage as opposed to what Garnett did with it. I found them both interesting in various ways. Thanks so much for commenting.

Hi Kevin,
I thought they were fascinating, as well. I always love reading about various nineteenth-century figures and when you make those connections its always exciting, as you know! So glad you stopped by and thanks for commenting!

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