Pulled straight from the canvasses of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Hickey’s The Wayward Muse paints a vivid portrait of the mysterious and beautiful Jane Burden, the Pre-Raphaelite icon. A stableman’s daughter raised in the slums of Oxford, England, seventeen-year-old Jane is convinced of her own homeliness. But her fortunes forever change when she is discovered by the charismatic and irreverent painter, Rossetti. Jane is swept into the artist's world as model and muse and falls madly in love with him. When Rossetti abruptly leaves her, Jane reluctantly agrees to marry his protégé, a shy craftsman named William Morris. But her passion for Rossetti never dies, and years later all three become entangled in a love triangle from which they will never escape.
I've been a huge fan of the Pre-Raphaelite painters since the moment I first saw their paintings in the Tate Museum in London. I've written about Lizzie Siddal's tortured relationship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti back in May here, and as soon as I found out that a novel had been written about Jane Burden and William Morris, I snapped it right up. The painting on the upper left is actually Rosetti's portrait of Jane as Prosperine.
Hickey's novel is a wonderfully evocative portrait of Mid-Victorian England. Jane lives one step up from dire poverty in a house where the basement constantly overflows from the privy in the street. She's been educated to read and write, as well as domestic skills. She has very few choices in life, marry a local boy and live the same life as her mother, or work as a domestic or in a factory somewhere. A chance meeting with Rossetti and Edward Bourne Jones at the theater in Oxford changes her life. She's invited to model for them for the murals they are painting of Arthurian legends for the Oxford Union . Her mother is immediately suspicious of Rossetti (he's Italian) and worries that Jane is being invited to prostitute herself but is assured by Burne Jones.
Jane can hardly believe that these two men consider her to be beautiful after she's been told all her life by her mother and sister that she's ugly. But these two artists see in her a singular beauty that harkens back to the Medieval painters that they strive to emulate. Jane immediately falls for Rossetti who flatters her and pursues her ardently. She takes little notice of Morris at first, until Rossetti is called away and the other painters leave. Morris falls in love with her, and she agrees to marry him after she finds out from one of the other models, that Rossetti is engaged to Lizzie Siddal.
But Jane doesn't love Morris although he treats her better than Rossetti ever did. Before their marriage, she's set to a finishing school to polish her manners. When she arrives in London, she initially feels insecure about her lack of education compared to the others in Morris's circle. Morris also soon becomes consumed by work and has little time for her. She becomes friends with Georgiana McDonald, who later marries Burne-Jones, and Lizzie Siddal. Despite the birth of two daughters, Jane cannot forget Rossetti. After Lizzie's tragic death, Rossetti asks her to sit for him and they are plunged into a passionate affair. Morris surprisingly turns a blind eye to the relationship and offers to allow them to spend time together in the country at Kelmscott manor. The lovers are initially happy but Rossetti has demons that threaten to overtake his life. He had become addicted to alcohol and chloral hydrate after Lizzie's death and starts to suffer delusions.
I couldn't put this book down. I felt for Jane who only married Morris because her options were so limited. She tries to be a good wife but the passion that she feels for Rossetti can't be denied. It's almost a Cinderella story except in this version, she doesn't marry the handsome prince but his best friend. Jane is swept up into a world that she never dreamed of occupying, becoming the muse to two different men in different ways. I also felt for Morris, married to a woman that he loves but who he has little in common with. Both Jane and Morris were incredibly shy and awkward when it come to relations with the opposite sex. Meanwhile Rossetti flatters Jane, he doesn't make her feel inadequate the way that Morris does.
Rossetti is a hard man to like. A brilliant painter and poet, let's face it, he's a complete sh*t, no matter how you slice it. In Hickey's novel, he leads Jane on then leaves her without warning, never letting her know that he has other commitments. Even after Lizzie dies, he commits the ultimate sin of digging up her grave to retrieve the poems he buried with her. I found it hard to sympathize with him. There were times reading the book when I didn't know who to slap upside the head first, Jane for spending so much time mooning over Rossetti, Morris for being self-sacrificing to the point of masochism, or Rossetti for being such a selfish bastard. However it's hard not to feel for Jane, both men in her life can't seem to get past her beauty, it's almost as if she's an object, not a person. Neither man seems to have the first clue as to who she is inside.
The author does take some liberties with history. There is no evidence that Rossetti and Jane had an attachment before he left Oxford. Gay Daly in her wonderful book Pre-Raphaelites in Love believes that Lizzie Siddal and Jane would never have become friends if they had had a love affair while he was still with Lizzie. There were no secrets among the brotherhood, and Lizzie probably would have found out, she knew about Rossetti's affairs with Fanny Cornforth and Annie Miller.
Because the book is told from Jane's point of view, and it focuses soley on Jane's relationships with Morris and Rossetti, the reader never learns that Rossetti was continuing to see the model Fanny Conforth who eventually went to work for him as a housekeeper. Nor are we privy to the information that Morris and Georgie Burne-Jones had an intimate friendship. In fact, Morris had several platonic female friends that he turned to for the companionship that he couldn't get from Jane.
The author's afterword doesn't really tell you much about Jane's life after Rossetti died. She omits Jane's ten year affair with the poet, womanizer, and diplomat Wilfred Scawen Blunt. Blunt sought out an introduction to Jane precisely because of her relationship with Rossetti, whom he admired. Soon after they met, they became lovers. Jane was 44 at the time, (Blunt was 43) and twenty years older than most of the women that he seduced. He'd had a long affair with the courtesan Catherine 'Skittles" Walters in the 1860's, and he was unhappily married to Anne, the granddaughter of Lord Byron, another one of his heroes. Like Morris and Rossetti, Blunt was drawn to Jane's beauty, as well as her relationships to Rossetti and Morris. Once again, Willian Morris was forced into the position of cuckhold.
Blunt encouraged Jane to talk about her relationship with Rossetti, which she was more than willing to do. Finallly she had someone to share with! It is from Blunt and his diaries that historians have been able to glean information about Jane's relationship with Rossetti. The relationship finally petered out as Jane couldn't compete with the younger, prettier women that Blunt was chasing.
If you are interested in the Pre-Raphaelites, or artists in general or just love reading about Victorian England, than I urge you to pick up a copy of Elizabeth Hickey's book. Or you can just enter the giveaway. I will be giving away 1 copy of the book, deadline for entries is next Thursday October 29. You can also find out more about Hickey and her books at her web-site.
1) If you want to enter, leave a comment on this post with your email address.
2) If you are not a follower of the blog, but become one, you get an extra entry
3) If you are on twitter and you tweet about the giveaway, you get an extra entry.
4) If you do both 2 and 3, then you get two extra entries.