Four Fascinating Women of the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood

Good Reading Magazine - June 2017 
Written by Kate Forsyth

My new novel ‘Beauty in Thorns’ is a novel about love, art and awakenings of all kinds.

It is inspired by the true-life story of the Pre-Raphaelites, a circle of poets and artists in the mid-19th century who sought to unshackle themselves from the constraints of Victorian art & society.

My novel is told in the voices of four women intimately involved with the Pre-Raphaelites – their muses and mistresses, wives and daughters.

Lizzie Siddal was discovered working in a milliner’s shop, and became one of the most famous faces of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. She fell dangerously ill after lying for hours in a bathtub of freezing water while posing as Ophelia for John Everett Millais. Prescribed laudanum, she soon became helplessly addicted. Lizzie and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were lovers, but their relationship was rocked by his infidelities and her eating disorders. As she lay dying, Rossetti promised to wed her if she would only recover. They were married ten years after meeting, but the birth of a dead child sent Lizzie spiralling into despair.  She died of a laudanum overdose in 1862. Rossetti buried the only copy of his poetry with her but seven years later had her coffin exhumed to retrieve the manuscript. Her ghost haunted him for years.

Raised in an Oxford slum, the daughter of a stableman and an illiterate laundry-maid, Janey Burden was just seventeen-years-old when she was spotted in the audience of a travelling theatre group by Rossetti and his young follower, Edward Burne-Jones. Janey and Rossetti had a brief fling, but after he returned to Lizzie, Janey married Burne-Jones’s best friend, William Morris. They had two daughters, called Jenny & May. After Lizzie’s death, Janey and Rossetti began a passionate affair. Morris not only countenanced the affair, but arranged matters so Janey and Rossetti could share their summers together while he travelled to Iceland. Rossetti wrote some of his most exquisite love poetry for Janey, and painted her so many times her face became famous.

The daughter of a Methodist preacher, Georgie Macdonald became engaged to Burne-Jones when she was just fifteen. They were married four years later, within weeks of Lizzie and Rossetti. The three couples spent many happy weekends together at Morris’s country house, painting, playing games and exploring the countryside. However, in 1864 Georgie contracted scarlet fever which brought on the premature birth of her second child. The baby died and, grief-stricken, Georgie turned away from her husband. Her third child – a daughter named Margaret – was born in 1866, the same year as Burne-Jones began an ardent liaison with his favourite model, the Greek sculptor Maria Zambaco. When Burne-Jones refused to leave his wife and children, Maria begged him to commit suicide with her by swallowing laudanum, then – when he refused – tried to drown herself in Regent’s Canal.

The affair caused a scandal, and Burne-Jones did not exhibit for many years. He began to paint his adolescent daughter as obsessively as he had once painted his mistress. Margaret was his model for his monumental painting of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, which occupied him for close on a decade. Margaret fell in love with the Scottish writer, John William Mackail, but her father could not bear to think of losing his muse. Margaret had to find the strength to defy her father and marry the man she loved.

Burne-Jones’s four ‘Sleeping Beauty’ paintings were shown to the public in 1890, and were greeted by the public with ‘enthusiasm amounting to ecstasy’, as the newspapers of the time reported. The quartet were sold for 15,000 guineas, the largest amount ever paid for an artwork in Britain, and Burne-Jones was consequently knighted.

‘Beauty in Thorns’ brings to life these four fascinating women, who – together with the men who loved them - continue to enthrall and inspire us today.

Kate Forsyth
Written by

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