Violet Hunt’s “Wife of Rossetti”

The Wife of Rossetti, written by Violet Hunt, is the first published biography of Elizabeth Siddal.  Written with a decidedly prejudiced tone against Dante Gabriel Rossetti,  Hunt has a tendency to go on wild tangents not even remotely related to Siddal, especially in the early chapters of the book.  Violet Hunt’s account relies heavily on what she heard discussed when she was growing up and  anecdotes are presented in the same manner one would expect an eavesdropper to share. I would never suggest this book to someone without also suggesting that they balance it by reading Jan Marsh’s books The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal and Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood and Lucinda Hawksley’s Lizzie Siddal:  Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel.

It is quite a coincidence that while I was reading the book, a visitor to lizziesiddal.com posted this comment:

“I can’t see here the first book I read about Lizzie, when I was 14 or so. It was a florid, excitable and fascinating biography by Violet Hunt, published I think, in the 1930s Or 1940s? But the title escapes me now. There was a highly romantic sub-title to it. It had of course the cachet of being written by a Hunt, a close family member / descendant of Holman Hunt, so although there seemed to be flights of fancy, if I recall aright, there was insider tittle-tattle aplenty. Including the proposition that Lizzie on her last night had pinned her suicide note to her nightdress. I always remember that. According to Violet Hunt it was swiftly removed by Rossetti or Howell – a verdict of suicide would have consequences terrifying to the Victorian mind – and read something like, My life is so weary, I want no more of it.

Wife of Rossetti? Was that the title?
There was a wealth of information in that book – but I suppose the modern biographers have discovered so much more.

Poor addicted Lizzie. Poor guilt-ridden Rossetti.
He kept her hair as a bell-rope. In Cheyne Walk. When small birds flew indoors he held them to be Lizzie, in visitation.
Too much chloral.

And the Beata Beatrix’s hands remain always open to receive the opium poppy.”

From Wikipedia:

Isobel Violet Hunt (September 28, 1862January 16, 1942) was a British writer, now best known for her supernatural fiction. Her father was the artist Alfred William Hunt. Her younger sister Venetia married the designer William Arthur Smith Benson (1854-1924).

She was born in Durham; the family moved to London in 1865. She was brought up in the Pre-Raphaelite group, knowing John Ruskin and William Morris. There is a story that Oscar Wilde, a friend and correspondent, proposed to her in Dublin in 1879; its significance requires naturally her age at the time, and the correct birth date 1862 (not 1866 as often given).

She wrote many novels. Her biography of Elizabeth Siddall is considered unreliable, with animus against Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

She lived with the married Ford Madox Hueffer from about 1910 to 1918 as his mistress, at South Lodge on Campden Hill (a period including his brief 1911 imprisonment). Other relationships were with H. G. Wells and Somerset Maugham; Maugham portrayed her as Nora Nesbit in Of Human Bondage.

 

I thought you might like to see images from the book. I enjoyed them very much. Click the thumbnails to see full size.

Lizzie Siddal Photo Elizabeth Siddal Rossetti

chatham placeChatham Place (where Lizzie & Rossetti lived)

chatham-place-2.jpgAnother view of Chatham place

anniemiller.jpgAnnie Miller

charles-siddall.jpgCharles Siddall (Lizzie’s father)

christinarossetti.jpg Christina Rossetti

deverell.jpgWalter Howell Deverell

effie-ruskin-milais.jpg Effie Ruskin Millais

fanny-cornforth.jpgFanny Cornforth

ford-madox-brown.jpgFord Madox Brown

gpboyce.jpg G.P. Boyce

janeburden.jpgJane Burden, before her marriage

janeburdenmorris.jpg Jane Morris (after marriage)

mrs-burne-jones-and-pip.jpg Georgiana Burne-Jones and baby

ruskin.jpg John Ruskin

william-bell-scott.jpgWilliam Bell Scott

william-allingham.jpg William Allingham

william-holman-hunt.jpg William Holman Hunt

william-michael-rossetti.jpgWilliam Michael Rossetti

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10 thoughts on “Violet Hunt’s “Wife of Rossetti”

  1. Gareth

    Dear Stephanie, many thanks for the Chatham Place photos. I had never seen them. I had always wanted to. I had based my July 30 letter on my memories of buildings in the vicinity plus hints in the drawings plus plenty of imagination as cement, so to speak. I still think I got it about right though the balcony was a floor higher than I imagined it. Very high, actually. It is eerie, dont you feel, to look down at the pavement [not cobbled, sorry] that Lizzie and DGR walked along day after day for so many years . You are putting together quite an historical record here. Keep going. Best wishes. G.

  2. Wendy Roche

    Dear Stephanie – I am so pleased you have found the book by Violet Hunt, and also posted the illustration photographs. When I read it as a young teenager, all rapt in the lives of Rossetti and Lizzie, I was very impressed by all those photographs – especially Lizzie’s carte de visite and the pre-demolition Chatham Place – for they were then to be found nowhere else. I had assumed such photographs must have since been sourced in the modern biographies – but wouldn’t be surprised if the photo of Lizzie herself is now still proving elusive after all this time. How vivid an impression that book made on me, when I was young… and learning about the art of the Pre-Raphaelites, knocked out by Rossetti, and all keen to discover Guggums. After all these years and having never seen or re-read the book since (it seems it is much-despised) I can still recall Violet Hunt and her possession of a scrap of the striped silk from Lizzie’s very own dress and the one in which she sat for her portrait photograph. Still remember seeing the poor-quality photograph with a shock of excitement – here was Lizzie’s real face! rather than Rossetti’s oneiric schematizations… (For however accomplished and beautiful they may be there remains the very human desire to see Lizzie dans le vrai.) Oh how that photograph disappointed me; I found Lizzie to appear so strained, so aged, so un-Rossetti-ish. Looking at it again today I appreciate we should rather trust to Dante Gabriel, to Lizzie, to their own depictions of her face. Photography was a hazardous faulty process in 1860 and Lizzie’s skin-tone obviously defeated the lens; see how the photographer has to ink over her lip and jaw-lines, similarly help her lashes for definition and even the hair one suspects to be ink-darkened in tone. I wonder if that photograph with the too-hard mouth so unsatisfactorily Lizzie’s, isn’t quite awry and misleading. With regard to Chatham Place, as a Londoner I know it’s difficult to find such photographs which show the block in the Rossettis’ time. Well… I’ve travelled some way since reading that book by Violet Hunt. I did later refresh acquaintance with the Pre-Raphaelite ‘muses’ when writing some articles but I’m now woefully out of touch with the modern biographical discoveries; I hope they’re good. To be frank I’ve long outgrown the ‘gynocentric’ style of critique and all the circus of politicizing verbiage which does more to hide than reveal women like Lizzie Siddall and Janie Morris. I used to find them both to be more than adequately strong people in their own right and doubtless would again today. Lizzie’s bitter-sweet personality in particular is captivatingly tangible. How interesting to find her modern biographer conclude that Lizzie herself was down-grading her social origins for romance… Stephanie, I do so hope you will indeed review of the Violet Hunt book because I have a dusty memory of it suggesting rather the contrary, that the Siddalls romanced their family-origins like crazy, and upwards. Thank-you for such an interesting site. It’s strange to return to Lizzie now I’ve shared some of her experiences as an adult woman. She overdosed just nine months after birthing that dead child. Nine months might seem like no time at all under the impact of such an event, and when dissolved in a time-cheating drug.

  3. John

    Put these modern day women in order of popular interest in their lives and attention that they are given by the media…..Indira Gandhi, Britney Spears, Hillary Clinton, Paris Hilton, Pamela Anderson, Oprah Winfrey. What is driving your perceptions of how you and society in general view them? So, which ones are deserving of respect for fighting to achieve something for themselves rather than getting benefit just from their own notoriety?

    I think that it is by showing what the Pre-Raphaelite women achieved and how they lived within the socio-economic circumstances extant in 18th Century England that we can better understand their lives. Why do we want to do that? Because some of us see parallels between the class, adherence to social norms and gender issues that Lizzie, Janey, et al were up against. Nothing much has changed in 150 years…we are still interested in how people live their lives, we still judge people by commonly accepted standards with smug self righteousness; what we don’t do too often is praise people for achievement, respect them for individuality and choose role models for the right reasons.

    History is full of women who have achieved notoriety, which is probably why we know of them today. By championing the ‘Sisterhood’ we are identifying a group of women worthy of being remembered for who they were and what they did in the context of their own time and society, rather than because they were ‘muses’ and their images representative of the ‘stunners’ of the time.

    Whilst outgrowing ‘the ‘gynocentric’ style of critique and all the circus of politicizing verbiage’, aren’t we doing them an injustice if we don’t recognize the prevailing values of the society in which they lived? They have showed that they made deliberate choices of lifestyle and took decisions that suited them and were progressive in many aspects of their lives, not just their participation in an art movement that challenged mainstream dogmas.

    Sorry to go on a bit, but it’s all too easy to see them as pretty young girls in some old pictures rather than principals in the then new direction in art, just as Marie Curie was a leader in the sciences, Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale, and others notable in their own fields.

  4. Wendy Roche

    Dear Stephanie -

    Well! I obtained a copy of Violet Hunt’s Wife of Rossetti’ and read once again this strange, lush and over-wrought text… (My first reading of it was at a very tender age.) It really is a flummoxing affair, is it not. Hunt misses no opportunity to go at Rossetti with all knives drawn; not a page goes by without our being reminded yet again he’s an iniquitous bastard of putrid selfishness, and it’s so dreadfully unbalanced one cannot help but perceive a confusion on Hunt’s part between Dante Gabriel and all the men wot Did Her Wrong in her own life. (For Madox Ford for one led her a merry dance, if memory serves.) Howsomever… the really interesting aspect of the book is it’s being jam-packed with hectic and intimate detail as to Lizzie’s life and then a shameless, heedless disregard for any source or corroboration for this stuff – colourful, assured in tone, but baffling – never so much as a footnote. (Well it is larded with ‘P.S’-type addenda at the lower edge of pages, but all chattery and quite superfluous gabbling.) One strongly suspects Hunt simply gave herself carte blanche to embroider and fictionalise away in the happy conviction that such ‘information’ vouchsafed (allegedly) by family confidences and connections could never be challenged, proved, or disproved.

    Stephanie, since you’ve likewise been reading this book with all its curious claims to knowledge of Lizzie’s life – much of it so puzzlingly close-hand, bafflingly particularised – I wonder if you’d be interested in a little discussion of some of the issues it raises?

    All best wishes from London,

    Wendy

  5. Wendy Roche

    Afterthought – Was just reading comments on the ‘protective’ tendency – Operating in regard to our heroines, our dead idols… But a cardinal sin in any biographer. Violent Hunt though, with her many a tart remark and cat-scratch delineation of Lizzie’s character, motives and foibles, certainly cannot be accused of this ‘protective’ impulse. It is well, I should say, for a biographer to suffer an entranced state of fascination – and even to be ‘in love’, with all the ambiguities this paradoxical state entails, just so long as there is professional objectivity to save the day. Violet Hunt, though, arguably sees in Siddall an endlessly serviceable marionette with which to trash Rossetti – who is quite the bete noir. (A foreword by Hunt’s psychoanalyst might have helped us here.) She poses Siddall this way and that to prove Rossetti’s hatefulness and evinces little interest in her nominal subject, the personality or the artist. Perhaps another problem is that behind the flourish of anecdotes and ‘hearsay’, Hunt really didn’t have a lot to go on. Didn’t find out very much; certainly she attempted no research, that’s only too apparent. As a small child she once glimpsed Rossetti one rainy day (the poor chap is made to resemble Mephistopholes) and that’s the kind of thing she’s impressed by, her own experience… Rather than the focus on Lizzie.

  6. Stephanie Pina Post author

    I agree, Hunt’s work reeks of gossip and exaggeration. It is very hard to take the book seriously because it seems as if she did no real research at all. No effort was made to present facts in an unbiased manner. Instead she just recants tales and hearsay. Snippets of conversation she heard as a child have been pieced together to form an ugly image of Rossetti, whom she seems to hate.
    You’re right, she focused on her own impressions.
    I hated the ‘footnote’ where she claims that after Lizzie’s death, Rossetti took no interest in her sister Lydia’s children because they didn’t have golden hair. It’s bizarre.
    But one thing I would like to know is how well Hunt’s book was received when it was first published.

  7. ArtLover

    The term ‘histrionic’ comes to mind.

    I’d have to skim through it again to make a relevant comment, it’s been so long since I read it. But the author tends to be overly dramatic. Gabriel is portrayed as evil incarnate.

    I think something was said at the end about someone putting a dead dove in Lizzie’s casket?

  8. Wendy Roche

    Being busy I’m afraid I skip-read on receipt of the copy (an eminently reasonable £7.00 courtesy of Amazon UK Marketplace – and lovely clean condition, too, all the plates present and daisy-fresh) but fully intend to address it properly with time and consideration. (Probably more than anyone needs to know but at 14, I remember, I tore through it avidly with a towering plate of jam-sandwiches alongside for full perfect enjoyment.) Just for the nonce, though, before drawing up a list of its peculiarities, and specific issues I find perplexing, a couple of wittering points: -

    Take the way we ‘visit’ the Siddall family home in Southwark… I can’t for the life of me imagine just how Ms Hunt was able to draw up an inventory of its furniture and fittings. The description of each piece of furniture reads like a Sears and Roebuck catalogue. Don’t have the book with me at time and place of typing but I’d swear Ms Hunt does not acknowledge even members of the extended Siddall family for a source interview on this or any other of the phantasmagoria of detail…

    So here we have an artist and poet born into a poor little Southwark dwelling, ‘prenticed to a milliners for back-breaking hours of toil, sight-snuffing hours of needlework… Yet possessed of the self-will to educate herself so wide-ragingly she’s influenced by the medieval poetess Christine de Pisan. And Violet Hunt rattles on about crinolines. And her account of Lizzie’s family-home seems, like so much else, to be Invention. Filler. Padding to very little purpose. How, for example, could she know that sister Lydia wore so much make-up she appeared fully enamelled? In England, in the 1850s and 1860s, and unlike France, make-up was not only prohibited but unobtainable – for any social class. (Even street-walkers could buy no more than the crudest rouge).

    As for more crucial issues – what a lost opportunity. Lydia would have been an invaluable key-witness to the nature of her sister’s relationship with Rossetti, and most significantly, Lizzie’s attitude to her own work. Presumably Lydia was no longer alive in 1932? But she had progeny. And indeed, in 1932, there certainly existed other immediate Siddall family-descendants. Who would have inherited letters from Lizzie. Hunt was fortunate and could have profited by her chrono-proximity. Given her mania for irrelevant footnotes if she *had* taken the trouble to interview family-members, for one, she’d doubtless advertise the fact to the reader and for another, Siddall’s family, in the book, might not seem such confected personalities, Dickensian stryle.

    But research there is none. ‘Wife of Rossetti’ is written at slapdash breakneck speed (so much so that inattentive syntax makes for many an incoherent sentence). This is a pity. Hunt is a good writer, sensitive to atmosphere, she made her mark with stories of the supernatural. She was the confidante of Henry James – who seems to have respected her on the literary plane, it’s worth noting – likewise of Thomas Hardy, and of course there is the romantic intimacy with Ford Madox Ford with whom she co-authored a work, just as Ford co-authored with Conrad. But as regards her Siddall ‘biography’ the big shame, again, is that in 1932 she could very well have weeviled her way into Lizzie’s still-extant family-circle.

    She did source Lizzie’s carte de visite; and it gets a credit. Me, today, I’d be searching like crazy for the descendants of that named individual to see if it still exists somewheres and try to get my mits on it… Correct me if I’m wrong but has it not been traced?

    I think the dove story goes something like this: Lizzie was feeding a dove which would come visiting on the Chatham Place balcony. As Lizzie was enduring her death-throes someone found it dead out there, this bird of ill omen. They chose not to tell her but placed the dove in the corner of the coffin, at her feet. Then Rossetti slipped in and did his Grand Gesture.

    I’ll have a good study of the book (also its critical reception, at the time) and would love to have a bit of a chat about of some of its more inexplicable vagaries. I’d hazard Hunt’s imagination led her wittingly astray but then, sadly, I’m not at all up on the latest Siddall research. (A considerable amount of energies having been expended on a biography/monograph of a more recent woman artist.) One of Hunt’s signal omissions, perhaps, is a simple enough matter – unforgiveably obvious really. Rossetti and Siddall loved one another. Call it amour fou, folie a deux, what you will – but love it was. And Hunt was all of 70 when she produced this book. Embittered, a little? So one line of hers made me smile… ‘Lizzie was now 29…. Old, by Woman’s calendar.’

    No, it’s ill health which does the tally. And do you know? I may be wrong but I really don’t believe Lizzie to have been in the least bit vain.

    Here’s a little something which tells us a little something about Violet Hunt: -
    ‘She lived with the married Ford Madox Ford from about 1910 to 1918 as his mistress, and in 1925 she was legally restrained from describing herself as Ford’s wife.’
    Woo. ‘Restrained’, eh?

    ‘Wife of Rossetti’ spends a very great deal of typeface on the heartache caused Lizzie by her failure to become …. the Wife of Rossetti. Again, call me odd, but I’m not so sure Lizzie was so dependent on the necessity for Wifedom. however much we quote chapter and verse on ’societally-enforced Victorian mores’.

  9. Linda

    Just went to The Wife of Rossetti to check on something– gloriosky(!!!), I had forgotten all the exclamation marks Hunt used in her book. That in itself is irritating! I need to read the book again, in the light of previous posts about Hunt’s vendetta against Rossetti and men in general.

    And I am totally on board with the idea that “Lizzie was not so dependent on the necessity for Wifedom.” In my opinion, from all that I’ve read, the only importance she attached to that ideal was borne of convention. Her habits indicated another mindset entirely.

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