If you are familiar with the life of Rossetti, then you’ve probably noticed that he was an adept at compartmentalizing his life. Lizzie had her place. So did Annie Miller. Then Fanny Cornforth came along. Finally Jane Morris claimed his heart. Still, each woman he loved in his own way; each woman had her place in his life. Neatly categorized where they fit best,it seems.
And these “categories”, this labeling of lives spills over into those who are Rossetti enthusiasts. There are those of us who are devoted to Siddal, and those of us who are intrigued by the brooding silence of Jane Morris and the enigmatic images that he created of her. But not many of us are in Cornforth’s corner.
Most Rossetti biographers and Pre-Raphaelite scholars have branded Cornforth as a fat prostitute. A crude, lower class, buxom blonde who pursued Rossetti in a predatory way by spitting nutshells at him. Cornforth is a face we know well, a face we tolerate because Rossetti was enamored of her, but we all know that as she grew fatter, the woman Rossetti dubbed Elephant became someone that Rossetti no longer desired and his interest shifted to Jane Morris.
Enter Kirsty Stonell Walker. With her book Stunner The Rise and Fall of Fanny Cornforth, she has turned what is known about Rossetti and his prostitute model on its head. After reading this book, I’m no longer comfortable calling Fanny his model. Surely, along with Siddal and Morris, she should be now known as a muse as well.
In the first biography of Fanny’s life, the author paints a picture of a woman born of a working class family who captured Rossetti’s attention through her beauty. Seen by other biographers as a leech stealing Rossetti’s money and art, Kirsty intoduces us to a friend who was loyal to Rossetti. Franny cared for him as a wife would, nursing him and at times indulging him. But always and forever loyal to him.
This book is a must read for any Rossetti or Pre-Raphaelite enthusiast. I was impressed by Kirsty Stonell Walker’s writing and research, and found the photographs included at the end of the book a welcome personal touch, as if I were sharing in her research in tracing the footsteps of Cornforth’s life. In the reading of this book, I came to see Cornforth as someone Rossetti depended upon, someone he welcomed into his life and did not want to let go of. Yes, she was most likely a prostitute in an age when women had limited career choices. But she was refreshingly honest and loyal to Rossetti. If Stonell Walker’s goal was for us to see Cornforth in a positive light, then she has achieved that. She has given an accurate, unflinching view of Fanny’s life. And in an age where paparazzi feature young “socialites” getting out of cars devoid of knickers, I think we can forgive Fanny for her lack of gentility.
I’m not an easy sell, let me tell you. But Stonell Walker had me hooked in the first chapter. This book has meat. I learned about Cornforth and Rossetti, when I (in my ignorance) thought I had nothing left to learn. I encourage you to read the book, to understand not only Rossetti’s relationship with Fanny, but his relationship with others as well. I am proud to have read Stonell Walker’s first book, because I feel that it will not be her last. I think she has much to offer and her voice will continue to be heard.
This will not be her last book. I have a feeling.