O’Doughty and J.E. Wahl’s Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti Vol II (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965)

In 1866 Dante Gabriel Rossetti declared ‘the epoch of preraphaelitism [sic] was a short one which is quite over & will be never be renewed’. He also prophesied that ‘its products will be exceptionally valuable one day but not yet’. That day is here.

Over the last thirty years Rossetti has become a well-known man, variously portrayed as genius, poet, painter, lover, and agoraphobic.

We know him, he belongs to us somehow; as do the many stories of his paintings, his loves, and his somewhat short life. The man we ‘know’ has become synonymous with the Pre-Raphaelite narrative; the stories we know so well recall Rossetti’s guilt filled admiration for Lizzie Siddal, his passionate adoration for ‘Janey’ Morris, and his loyal yet non-committal relationship with Fanny Cornforth.

Whilst published some fifty years ago, The Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti are a must read for anyone interested in Rossetti: scholar, art or literary critic, student, or casual reader. The four volumes are carefully and decisively edited, with extremely erudite footnotes. The reader of these letters can relax, enjoy, and learn, and, in my opinion, that is the makings of a successful book. In reviewing this book, John Bryson reminds us of Professor Doughty’s claim that ‘Rossetti’s excellence as a letter writer has not yet won the recognition it deserves’.[1]

The letters themselves show the range and depth of Rossetti’s character, doing little to confirm any of the many ill-judged accusations. Whilst the moniker of agoraphobe may be mildly detected in Volume II’s letters via such comments as ‘I still hope to be an outcast from humanity altogether one of these days’, there is nothing particularly surprising, shocking, or indicative of the mental illness which would eventually debilitate Rossetti.

Instead Volume II’s letters frequently show Rossetti to be a well-balanced, considered, and patient man. The quality of the letters is fairly consistent, and shows Rossetti to be a reasonable and surprisingly gentle man. That being said, his business mind-set is surprisingly keen and despite often finding himself having to negotiate commissions because of his slow production, there is a surety that Rossetti did not prostitute himself for the sake of his patrons. A rather admirable quality, and one which Rossetti seems to stick to. He only resorts to abandoning commissions if all reasonable negotiations (e.g. on price or theme) have been exhausted and explored to the benefit of all parties. Rossetti’s calm, reasonable and rational approach frequently surprises the reader and encourages a more clear sighted view of this enigmatic, mythologised man. One cannot deny that the gentle fluctuations of timescales, size, and cost must have been infuriating to the business men Rossetti dealt with.[2]One telling incident in Rossetti’s abilities to be tactful and diplomatic is in his writing to Frederick Sandys. This falling out is superbly managed by Rossetti, who shows no cowardice in standing up for his own aesthetic analysis, and his capacity to be a good and loyal friend when Sandys takes umbrage with Rossetti’s perceived accusation of plagiarism.

If you are looking to find stories of models and studio shenanigans, then you will be disappointed. The letters are rather empty of gossip, although this volume does deal (rather surreptitiously and obliquely) with the infamous removal of the poem manuscript within Lizzie Siddal’s coffin. In fact, the letter he writes to William Michael to unveil and explain his decision is surprisingly unemotional, as are some of the other references to the incident aside. The editors chose to include Swinburne’s gloriously over the top commendation of this action, which is an interesting counterpoint to the quietude Rossetti exhibits. There is a strange suspense created because we know the end of the story, and we seek to find suggestions of Rossetti’s impending breakdown within the letters.

Volume II shows Rossetti in a period where he seemed to care more for his poetry, than his art. Frequently suffering from ill-health of one sort or another, poetry seemed one activity which provided solace and, as an activity, was still possible for him to carry out. There are many letters which illuminate Rossetti’s working practice, his attention to detail and his overseeing the whole process of publication.

It is also enlightening to find his common practice for seeking validation / verification from his brother and particular friends, e.g. Swinburne. Swinburne is one character whom Rossetti seems to hold in high esteem, albeit well aware of Swinburne’s outrageous behaviour and deeply flawed character. Throughout letters to William Michael we find an almost dull line by line breakdown of poetry (obviously a fabulous gift if you are a literary critic or scholar). From Swinburne he sought public validation through reviews, but privately he was keen for Swinburne to offer a fraternal validation, even if he sometimes chose to ignore the advice given (e.g. the series of letters which debate the use of ‘sun and moon’ as a suitable description for a woman’s breasts).

The letters are not all business though. Some are examples of benevolence and encouragement, e.g. those with his friend Thomas Hake whose poem Rossetti encourages almost beyond its merits. Many other letters are teasing and in a relaxed tone. The ones to his mother ‘The Good Antique’ are endearing and surprisingly regressive (a child forever remains a child to his mother). There is a gentle jibing of Ford Madox Brown, and a teasing of / or in relation to Fanny, and Swinburne. What is missing is the handwritten character which could have been resolved if Doughty and Wahl had included some of the sketches or jottings clearly referenced. Only one of the sketches mentioned in Volume II actually appears on the page. These jottings and scrawls are intrinsic to the reader of letters, and should be included. Likewise, plates of the paintings mentioned, perhaps some of Siddal’s for example, would not have gone amiss. Later editions of Rossetti’s correspondence have a different approach e.g. William E. Fredeman’s Haunted Texts: Studies in Pre-Raphaelitism in Honour of William E. Fredeman (Toronto: Toronto Press, 2004) which seeks to make sense of newly revealed letters. Fredeman also corrects certain mistakes or assumptions made by Doughty and Wahl, e.g. ‘Illum. Mag.’ is corrected to Illuminated Magazine and not ‘Illuminato Magna?’ as they proffered. Whilst, on the surface, this seems a rather basic error of research, I don’t agree with Bryson that the notes have a tendency to be unnecessary and are an unnecessary growing fashion / editorial luxury. Yes, I know Whistler was an American painter, but no, I did not know banting was the act of reducing corpulence (it could be argued neither of these footnotes is necessary!) All this proves is that some people know some things, and other people know different things: an editorial nightmare which on the whole, Doughty and Wahl managed well.

My only real criticism is one which Bryson raises:

‘The extensive ground covered is shown in an elaborate table of abbreviations indicating sources…Since this table is printed only in the first volume reference to it is a constant source of irritation to the reader using the other’.[3]

This renders the readers with a decision, to read blind, or to read with two books in hand. A not ideal choice. Whilst the 2,615 letters within the volumes was no mean feat to verify, collate, edit, and footnote, the primary concern after all academic efficacy and quality has been reviewed, has to be the reader’s ability to read the book. Later publications have vastly exceeded this number of letters, e.g. Willliam Fredeman’s The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti is a monumental nine volume work! (What is not so good about Fredeman’s volumes is the outrageously elitist price).

In terms of Rossetti scholarship, Doughty and Wahl’s edition is now often considered to be second rate. It cannot and should not be ignored, and it is feasible that the limitations of these volumes were due not just to scholarly decisions but publication or press ones. Public and scholarly interest in the Pre-Raphaelites was only just on the assent when the edition was first published in 1965; nineteen years before the Tate put on their Pre-Raphaelite exhibition. Only the most fastidious of researchers or scholars will not find pleasure when reading these books.

[1] John Bryson, ‘The Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’, The Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol. 19, No. 74  (May, 1968), pp. 224-226, (p.224)

[2] Francis L. Fennell, editor, The Rossetti-Leyland Letters (Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1978) shows Rossetti’s business acumen in a somewhat less favourable light.

[3] Bryson, p.225