Fanny Cornforth: a woman loathed, loved, and despised? An enigmatic elephant, a prostitute, a muse?[1] Fanny, the woman we all know and yet know very little about.

Kirsty Stonell Walker’s blurb proclaims Fanny as being a woman variously described as ‘Liar, Thief, Murderess, Whore’. This book is Walker’s attempt to give shape, meaning and provide the much needed biographical fact to a woman who remains somewhat elusive.

At a mere 98 pages, this book is perfect for a quick tea break read. But do not let that fool you into thinking there is no substance behind the text. There is tangible research here. Walker is thorough: she has trotted around London photographing the haunts of Fanny, she has religiously tracked the details of the many images (drawings, paintings etc.) of Fanny and their whereabouts, and she has delved into archives, read many books, and plunged into numerous public records. Walker is clearly an archivist at heart, even if she once wanted to be a novelist.

I like Walker, I like her eyebrows, her smile, and her blog. There is something rather quirky about her. I like her style.

But I do have some criticisms of this text. I am cautious with proceeding here because I need to read the works of people like Walker. In fact, half the reason I am writing this is because I need to practice just to become as adept as Walker.

Firstly there are one or two typos:

Page 44: ‘every’ when it should be ‘ever’.

Page 49: ‘it could be argued that it Rossetti’ should be ‘if’, although that still leaves a somewhat awkward sentence.

Page 68: ‘An elaborate fan’, not ‘and elaborate fan’.

Page 70: Serious ‘mental issues’, not ‘mentally issues’.

There is an odd grammatical error (or maybe it is just awkward wording?) at the top of page 33, where Walker writes ‘He asked that if only she would get better, then he would marry her’.[2]

Page 83: Time not times

Page 91: Raise not raised, or remove ‘would’

https://madeleineemeraldthiele.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/0cbfd-rossetti_dante_gabriel-fanny_cornforth-normal255b1255d.jpg
Rossetti, Study for The Fair Rosamund (1861)

There are also some basic turns of phrase, or confused sense, which make one pause as one reads, e.g. ‘There was a brief pause in her sittings, which was filled by a short career sitting for Edward Burne-Jones’ would have made more sense had it been ‘There was a brief pause in her sittings for Rossetti, which was…’[3]

It may be picky and unnecessary to point out little things like this but unfortunately, they are more noticeable in a book of this size. Sometimes the tone of the authorial voice appears a little staccato and there is an anticipation of an error where there is often none to be found. Is this Walker’s writing style (to which I am unfamiliar), an archaism, or a problem with construction? I assume the former, but am mindful the issue remains regardless of the reason.

Walker’s creative writer sometimes bleeds out. Not often but occasionally there is movement from one idea to another one without historical or referential validation. For example in relation to Lizzie Siddal’s death, Walker makes emotional statements such as when she claims ‘Rossetti wanted to live’ (and therefore needed Fanny).[4] She also makes claims about Rossetti’s emotions which we have no tangible way of verifying. It is supposition to assume Rossetti felt guilt over her death. Even if it appears logical and reasonable to assume he did, it is supposition none-the-less. If anything, I suspect Rossetti felt guilty over his treatment of Siddal during life, not at his inability to prevent her death. His treatment of Siddal certainly never seemed to make him change his treatment of Fanny which was often cold, uncaring, childishly needy, and at worst, sometimes clinically cold.

Rossetti, The Blue Bower (1865, Barber Institute, London)

Likewise, when describing Fanny Cornforth and George P. Boyce (1858, BMAG) Walker uses the oft encountered adjectives of ‘easy’ and ‘jolly’, and she seems over keen to assign these traits when little of Fanny’s character is concrete. However, Walker consciously reminds herself to mediate her obvious desire to wander into the myth of Fanny (or more specifically, the myth of the Pre-Raphaelites), instead reminding herself that she must remain aware of her objective in writing the book: to disentangle the myth from the woman, as far is possible.

This she does. I return again to Walker’s archival insight, and her reliance and utilisation upon diaries, letters, and documents. These sources are what lead us to finely tuned insights such as Fanny taking to her bed with a somewhat ‘theatrical’ illness which Walker reads as a parallel of the time when Rossetti rescued Siddal who was allegedly on her deathbed. Conscious or subconsciously, Fanny probably did wish to know just how much Rossetti was likely to put himself for her. It seems he wasn’t. Perhaps it was even an attempt at manipulating the gentle Boyce who came to see her during her ‘illness’.

Rossetti, Found (begun 1859 but unfinished, Walker Gallery),

Whilst Walker argues that Boyce was an ‘obliging, pleasant client’ she doesn’t give us much to base this argument upon. ‘Client’ is a strong word to use. As someone who equally funds their own research on intuition, I find it hard to be critical of Walker when essentially I agree with her. However, where there is often only piece meal bits of information available, can we really make such assertions as this? What value is there in doing so? I ask myself, as much as anyone, this question. Was Boyce really a ‘client’? Was Rossetti a ‘client’? These boundaries were blurred then, and remain so now. Not just in relation to Fanny Cornforth either. Walker makes several references to Fanny being treated to food by these friends / clients, and whilst I think it is too far a leap to suggest she ate up to avoid leaner times, I think the question of give and take is raised. Does being taken out for dinner (then or now) mean you are a prostitute? It could mean that you enjoy male company, you enjoy the freedom that company provides, it could also mean you just enjoy the male attention. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are opening your legs. It is a little disappointing Walker doesn’t raise these blurred lines a little more throughout although slightly outside of the parameters of her brief. Her conclusion of whether Fanny was a prostitute or not is inconclusive; instead, Walker permits the viewer to make their own decision based upon the perceived likelihood, Fanny’s need and feasibility, and her locality at various times.

At the start of the book Walker cements the reader’s understanding of how women like Fanny, had the capacity, albeit not a guaranteed one, to move beyond the limitations of their frequently part-time career as prostitutes. However, by the time Walker discusses Fanny’s reaction to Rossetti’s marriage, she almost, albeit temporarily, undoes this important groundwork and unsettles her own argument for Fanny’s marriage to Mr. Hughes. This appears not so much because Walker is changing her own approach, but because she has permitted her narrative creative voice to talk more loudly. I don’t object to this per se, Walker’s intention appears to have been in restarting a conversation, and promoting the research value in a woman who helped create some of the most significant art work of the nineteenth century. The book has been written with the express purpose of adding to the sparse information we have on the woman that was Fanny Cornforth.

Walker shows a sympathy for Fanny, and I concur with her in many ways. Fanny was a worldly wise woman, and unlike the more privileged (and I appreciate some people may argue with me over my employment of that term) men she associated with, she had to keep one eye open and take opportunity when it arose. She did this through marriage, through cashing in on Rossetti’s art works (after his death) and to some extent his name (in her relationship with Mr. and Mrs. Bancroft). I enjoyed Walker’s untangling of the way William Michael closed ranks on Fanny, and the way Fanny, perhaps to her own historical detriment, took a token the last time she saw Rossetti. I get the feeling that Fanny was ever more realistic toward the end of Rossetti’s life, aware of quite how vulnerable her situation was. Perhaps she was also smarting under the years of Rossetti’s wavering affections. Who could blame her? Rossetti was outrageously cruel, even if he never meant to be. He treated Fanny like a lap dog, calling her when he wanted her, pushing her away when he felt like it. Fanny must have always known she was never first choice.

Rossetti, Woman with a Fan (1870, BMAG).

Despite this, I, like Walker, assume and believe that Fanny had genuine affection for Rossetti. However, I don’t agree that it was necessarily a whole hearted, sweet filled affection; why should we assume Fanny wasn’t just as capable at compartmentalisation as Rossetti was (Walker rightly points out how adept Rossetti was at segregation when it came to the women within his life). My concern over this assumption is that we are at risk of continuing to view Fanny as a victim, as a product of her murky past / her murky life. This view is at risk of adding to the clichéd view of Fanny as earthy sexual woman. A similar threat rises from Walker’s use of the word murderess on the back of the book, which only appears once inside the book (and that is in relation to the myth of Lilith and not Fanny). The inclusion of this term on the back of the back is misleading: Fanny Cornforth does not have a murderous ending nor did she die in tragic circumstances, unlike Siddal or the infamous Charles Howell (who secured the retrieval of the coffin manuscript) and was found with his throat cut.[5] In fact, there are increasingly scant details of Fanny’s later years, the main suggestion being she suffered from alzheimers before dying  of old age.

Never having been treated particularly well by those within the Pre-Raphaelite circle, Fanny seemed to find some respectability when she married for the last time. Fanny’s third husband, who came with two sons, had a steady eye for business which offered a level of security previously absent in Fanny’s life. Sadly, after the emigration of one of the sons, the death of her husband, then the other son, Fanny was back having to try and support herself again somehow. Forever under Rossetti’s presence, Walker presents a perfectly reasonable series of explanations as to why Fanny made the choices she did, e.g. in selling works by Rossetti which she had in her possession. I had hoped there would be more illumination on why Fanny obtained Regina Cordium in her later life; in chapter nine, Walker does later spend some time discussing why Fanny may have felt entitled to works others felt she was not entitled or learned enough to have. As Walker suggests, it certainly seems plausible that Fanny either saw art as separate from life, or that she held no jealousy over Siddal.

After all Fanny was a survivor and, seemingly, a realist. She had stood more firmly than any of the women who had come and gone in Rossetti’s life despite, as I suspect, paying a high emotional price for the love she had for him.

 

William Downey, Fanny Cornforth in Cheyne Walk (June 1863, Delaware).

Walker’s greatest success with this book is that she puts more flesh on the bones of Fanny, in all her various guises. The minor typos and quibbles are of little consequence and have probably been corrected in later editions. What is far more important is that Walker has added to the cannon of Pre-Raphaelite literature with an astute eye, a sympathetic nature, a thorough archival authenticity, and an openness which inspires myself and others to continue to learn more both abut Fanny, her influence, and her legacy.

[1] In conversation, Professor Elizabeth Prettejohn was adamant Fanny was not a prostitute and referred to a certain Spring Art Journal edition which I forget now. Apologies!

[2] Kirsty Stonell Walker, Stunner The Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth, (Lulu Publishing, 2006) page 33.

[3] Walker, page 35

[4] Walker, page 39.

[5] Howell was a somewhat less than salubrious figure, and his final demise is clouded in mystery. He was found dead outside a tavern, with his throat cut (although there is a suggestion this act was done post mortem).

 

 

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