Jan Marsh, Dante Gabriel Rossetti Painter and Poet (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1999)
Until recently, Jan Marsh has been considered the main biographer to capture the detail of main Pre-Raphaelite figures such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It would be fair to say Marsh has shaped, informed and enlightened our understanding of the Pre-Raphaelites. Marsh certainly exhausts all avenues in amongst correspondence, books, and paintings in her pursuit of pinning down the often subtle differences between Rossettian anecdotes, facts, and fictions. Her firm place rests as Pre-Raphaelite keynote researcher and whilst this title is well deserved, I would also encourage people to read the work of art historians such as Professor Elizabeth Prettejohn and Reader Colin Cruise.
Marsh’s work was first published in 1999 at a time when much excellent research was being done on Rossetti (e.g. his relationship with religion by Dr. Joanna Meacock), and a big exhibition was about to be launched the following year (Art at the Crossroads was unveiled in 2000 at the R.A., London). Marsh’s work seemed to catch the wave of interest in the Pre-Raphaelites which continues to grow both in popular terms, and academic circles.
Marsh’s attention to detail is exemplar, possibly only matched by the more recent work on Edward Burne-Jones written by Fiona MacCarthy’s The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination (2012).
Marsh starts her book as one should, at the beginning. She finishes it at the end of Rossetti’s life. In that sense, Marsh is a fairly conventional writer, one seeks not to make judgement but to present a chronological exposé of Rossetti’s life, career, loves, ups and downs etc. Marsh does not shy away from any area of Rossetti’s life, although one should remark upon her obvious personal engagement with Rossetti. A biographer should remain objective, and for the most part Marsh does, however, one can’t help but get a sense of her growing attachment to Rossetti as the 500 + pages of the book are raced through. This is perhaps an inherent risk with biographical writing more than a downfall of Marsh’s style. Her sympathetic tone is not so blinding as to infuriate or depart from the facts and where necessary she makes no excuses for Rossetti.
For example, Marsh’s writing for the TLS commenced with such inane questions as ‘Did Rossetti really need to exhume his wife’, in this book Marsh actually treats this somewhat excitable and taboo subject with care. Although she doesn’t particularly explore the consequences with Rossetti’s family or their awareness of the situation (other than with William Michael) her book is not concentrated upon those figures. Marsh does spend time considering the impact upon Rossetti and does also take somewhat pragmatic view of Rossetti’s decision, and, as a reader, one is able to make one’s own judgement (indeed the whole scenario leaves one rather disenchanted with Rossetti and reveals much about his own cowardly behaviour, and much about the somewhat shady figure of Charles Howell). In this respect, Marsh’s writing is adept, well considered and consummate. She has such a thorough grasp on those figures involved, that after having read this book, one is much more easily disappointed at her more catchy, yet banal, TLS style writing.
What one can say about Marsh’s writing is that she excels when given ample space, and room to manoeuvre. That being said, there are issues within her writing style which make one wince and of which, any reader should take note.
Firstly, there is the relationship between Rossetti and Siddal. The treatment of this is often based on assumption and deviates wildly from fact. The main issue seems to be frequent assumptions (and this is not something one should ever encounter in a biography, at least not without explicit qualification). Rossetti and Siddal may or may not have had sex in their early stages, but for Marsh to conclude they definitely did not (because of Siddal’s angry disappointment with Rossetti’s non-committal behaviour) is not a sufficiently secure explanation. In my humble opinion it is likely to be the other way around for one! However, there is no way we can ever know for certain. The whole notion of Rossetti’s sexuality takes up a large portion of the early stages of the book in a way that leaves a modern day reader a little unexcited, and also, leaves any academic reader a little unconvinced. There is only summation to be had, facts evade us. Unless of course, we have concrete archives to rely upon.
The other knotty issue Marsh tackles is the ‘breakdown’ of Rossetti. His mental health seems a little over ‘celebrated’ by many bloggers, fans etc. but the facts are surprisingly sparse and not altogether satisfying. It is quite clear Rossetti had a breakdown, and was plagued by a highly animated depressive incident which involved hearing voices, paranoia, insomnia and other typical examples. What is not clear, and is not sufficiently explained is the assumption that his mental health was a continual decline. Perhaps the evidence is assumed through his increasing relationship with chloral, alcohol (never touched when a young man) and his hermit like behaviour. The suggestion is not convincing though, and I wonder if this is still a little indulgent, indicative of our continued desire to cast Rossetti (and many other artists, e.g. van Gogh) as the romantic painter figure. For someone who had real mental illness, Rossetti seems to switch quite easily between functioning when he so chose. If anything, I think Christina Rossetti probably had the most accurate view of Rossetti when she acknowledged this tendency in Rossetti. Rossetti did not live a ‘functioning’ life as we would define it today, but he continued painting, producing, writing and certainly remained compos mentis at a time he was said to be in peril. Marsh does what she can to resolve these issues but there is something which does not quite add up when one considers Marsh’s sympathetic writing about Rossetti’s health. Perhaps what this suggests, is not so much a failing on Marsh’s overly sympathetic relationship with her subject, but more a reluctance on the archives to record the detail of something which the nineteenth century was reluctant to discuss or acknowledge. Although we are now fully aware that 1 in 4 people will suffer with mental health issues at some point in their life, the nineteenth century was very hostile and aggressive with its labelling, treatment and care of those they perceived as mentally deficient. Rossetti did well to stay out of an asylum considering this, particularly when we know mental health issues plagued his family, his wife, and his friends (e.g. Swinburne). Marsh remains a sympathetic writer though, and does well to reconstruct scenarios which William Michael stoutly refused to discuss years later (every historian will wince as they read this!)
The final issue worth acknowledging in this book is Marsh’s reluctance to tackle the role of religion in any meaningful way. She makes occasional references which mostly discount his engagement with Christianity and considers his relationship with organised religion as one which is perhaps, as William Michael says, more about ‘conduct’ than about faith. This seems a viable presentation in one manner, and yet ignores evidence Marsh herself presents. Rossetti claimed his works were ‘testament’ to his Christianity, and spends much time considering sacred images and commissions. Rather tellingly, Rossetti returns to more sacred themes after his breakdown. Happily for us newer scholars, this gap is one we can continue to draw upon.
However, we are sensible enough to know that we would have a huge mountain to climb if it were not for the remarkable talents of Marsh, whose continued output and professional, intensely accurate and thorough research, gives every biographer something to aim for, and every Pre-Raphaelite devotee something to refer to. Often.
Marsh’s profile is below, and she frequently gives talks at the National Gallery. If you get the chance to attend one of her talks, then I advise you do. Her presentation manner is very accessible, and entirely reliable.