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.
6 thoughts on “Book Review: Stunner, The Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth”
I’m curious about this book, so I just ordered it from Amazon. I have read very little about this circle of people, and I appreciate your book reviews since they are helping me to know how to begin to research this era. I ordered “The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood” too. And I’m reading with great interest a book I got from the library on Lizzie Siddall by Lucinda Hawksley (“Lizzie Siddal: Face of the Pre-Raphaelites”). I’m curious what you think about the Hawksley book. Do you think it is accurate?
One thing I read in that book was speculation that Lizzie did NOT have scoliosis of the spine due to her reputation of having excellent posture. I just wanted to point out that although scoliosis of the spine was unlikely to have caused her to feel ill all the time, you can most certainly have it without any apparent physical abnormalities. I know this to be a fact because I was diagnosed with a very slight scoliosis myself as a child, and nobody would be able to discern this from looking at me. So even if Lizzie appeared to have perfect posture, she still may have received an accurate diagnosis, especially if she was experiencing back pain, which I believe can occur in people with scoliosis (although I myself have not experienced that). Of course, as the Hawksley book mentioned, any back pain could also be attributed to sitting at her easle or modeling for long hours.
I have another random question that I’ll post here, for lack of not having anywhere else to post it. Did DGR dislike painting? I read that somewhere, that he preferred to sketch, and might have actually preferred writing poetry most of all. I’m just curious if perhaps when he painted such vivid, rich and beautiful colorful images, he actually was not working in his passion, when he would have preferred to sketch in black and white. One wonders what he might have been able to create if he HAD been working in his passion while painting since I can’t keep my eyes off the vivid and beautiful images he produced with what may have only been only an inkling of his true abilities.
Perhaps my comment could be claimed to be biased since Iam a relative (distant) of Fanny’s. Over the past few years my Wife and I have researched the COX family tree. We have gone back to 1750 with a high degree of accuracy. Having just read STUNNER I can say with all honesty that the contents are remarkably accurate. Two things. First congratulations for a very well written and entertaining book. The only addition that I can offer is where Fanny got her “Cornforth” from. Fanny’s first husband, HUGHES, had a stepfather called Cornforth. And so it was her Sister’s christian name, Fanny, and the aforementioned Cornforth that she chose to replace Sarah COX.
It might be worth mentioning that I too found the other Sarah Cox of Steyning very distracting until all the evidence pointed to the real Sarah. Her final resting place has been researched to no avail. I prefer to believe that she was given a quiet funeral because at the time of her death she was running out of friends as well as money. I would like to contact Kirsty sometime if only to update her and perhaps amaze her concerning the size of the COX family and the directions they went off into. F.A.COX. c/o email@example.com
Stephanie, your review of Kirsty Stonell Walker’s book brought tears to my eyes. I just KNEW Fanny was a good soul, I just knew it, and that they loved and cared for each other. I will be purchasing this within the next day or so. Thank you for the heads-up.
Diagnosed a month ago with mild (about 1″ out of line) scoliosis, and told that I’ve probably had it for a long time, I remembered Hope’s comment (above) regarding the unobtrusive degree of her own scoliosis. My posture is so straightbacked that I have been asked if I was ever a model – even though at the age of 18 I realized my left leg was a tad longer than my right (which I now understand is a symptom of the condition). So I would think that Hope is right, Lizzie could very well have had scoliosis regardless of her upright posture.
Now that I’ve read your review of Stunner, I shall certainly seek it out. I had been fascinated by her when I did a little research while working on a poem , in which I have lent her a voice:
I tell you, Gabriel and I were joined at the heart.
He turned to me for the comforts I was happy
to provide him. Jane and Lizzie both belonged
to his golden years when he could preach
that painting (his painting) was the new poetry.
They bathed in the golden haze of
his antique imagination.
Those two shared his intelligence, their poses
created the parts of those dreamy wraiths
that haunted Gabriel’s art.
Christina and the rest would never have forgiven
him if he had married a coarse, uneducated woman like me
so I became his housekeeper, his bed-warmer, his
After Lizzie died, Gabriel’s heart was damaged
beyond repair. Remorse poisoned his dreams.
Lizzie was broken before she died. She was too
weary to carry on. He survived, but the draughts he
used to numb his pain corroded him completely.
But Lizzie could never have given him
what he found in me. She just wasn’t blessed
with the ample flesh that could cushion
all his miseries.
He painted me too, as he wanted me to be,
with the title The Mouth That’s Been Kissed
an imagined portrait, so he said,
of the voluptuous mistress of an ancient poet,
long dead. I do not think that London was deceived.
At last came the bitter end.
Jane wasn’t there to see him off,
Lizzie had been gone for years.
I was the only one to say
goodbye to him. I have to tell you
that it broke my heart. Poor
old Rhino dead and gone,
all his beauties orphaned
on mansion walls.
Alec Bell, January 2010