With her deep knowledge of the Pre-Raphaelites in general and the Rossetti family in particular Jan Marsh has produced what must remain for many years the definitive source book on Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his work. As her notes – more useful than in many books – and lengthy bibliography show, she has researched her subject thoroughly. However, this is not a typical academic’s book, regurgitating undigested research material. She writes fluently and readably at great length – the book is 534 pages long – and if one has a criticism it is that she has over-egged the omelette a little. That said, it is difficult to know what could be cut without loss. Some condensing here and there would have made the book less unwieldy and lighter to hold. It follows interestingly on her 1994 biography of Gabriel’s sister Christina. Some of the matter, particularly concerning the Rossetti family, inevitably repeats what appeared in the earlier book though from a different angle.
Jan Marsh places Rossetti clearly in the history of his times and his art. Her account of the setting up of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is as entertaining as it is informative, picturing vividly not only her subject but those who surrounded him, not least his family headed by his Italian immigrant father, Professor Gabriele Rossetti. Of his early days as a painter she says, ‘Gabriel Rossetti appeared to exist on virtually nothing, and credit. His material needs were few, since he bought no clothes, borrowing William’s [his brother’s] best garments when necessary, and ate often at home, or from street stalls.’ Even so he got into deep financial trouble and had to take odd artistic jobs while attempting to produce more saleable works.
His progression to fame is covered in detail. So are his women, his marriage to the sad figure of Elizabeth Siddall and her death from a drug overdose, when he quixotically buried his only manuscript of his poems in her coffin only to have them dug up seven years later. His friendships with William Morris, Millais, Burne-Jones, Holman Hunt, William Bell Scott, F. R. Leyland and other leading Victorians, as well as his decline into ill-health and addiction leading to his death just short of his fifty-fourth birthday, make fascinating reading. Jan Marsh has drawn on Rossetti’s vast correspondence to good effect. Her canvas is as big and as detailed as many Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Charismatic, generous, loyal, contradictory, Rossetti could be loveable and maddening at almost the same time. His life spanned a period which saw the development of art and literature in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the arrival of the Romantics, against a backdrop of an explosion of invention and discovery. This account of a leading Victorian, his life and times, is of absorbing interest. Highly commended.
Reviewed by Vivien Allen